A young man poses for the great Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano) (Italian, 1503–1572), exerting little effort to meet our gaze. From his rather arrogant stance—one hand on his hip, the other resting on a probable book of poetry—we can surmise a proud intellectual who likely belonged to the Florentine artist’s literary circle. (Bronzino was as much a poet as he was a painter.)
Although the subject of Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man (1530s) is anonymous, his status, disposition, and pursuits are carefully implied in his clothing, his posture, and the decorative motifs so deliberately depicted in his picture. For example, the grotesque faces carved into the furniture amplify his fresh-faced handsomeness, while the subtle mask suggested in the folds of his trousers hints at some moralistic, perhaps poetic commentary on identity and disguise. Portraiture has long served as a social and political tool, effective in manipulating a person’s image and subsequent legacy. After all, portraiture affords perpetuity and perpetuity affords power. Art and power were kindred forces in 16th-century Florence.
Portrait of a Young Man, which resides in The Met collection, is featured alongside over 90 other portraits by Italian Renaissance luminaries in The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570. The exhibition unites portraits from museums around the world and in a breadth of mediums, including paintings, drawings, sculptural busts, manuscripts, carved gemstones, and armor. But at its nucleus is the legendary Medici family, who commissioned some of the most spectacular artworks in the Western canon.
The Medici ruled from 1434 to 1494, and reprised their dynasty in 1512. It was during the latter Medici reign that Florence transitioned from a republic into an oligarchy with Alessandro de’ Medici installed as Duke. When Alessandro was assassinated (by a fellow Medici!) in 1537, a 17 year-old Cosimo I de’ Medici assumed his ill-fated relative’s coveted title. Cosimo wielded the arts as he would an arsenal and transformed Florence into a cultural epicenter of epic proportions.
Cosimo recruited esteemed figures such as Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio or Santi) (Italian, 1483–1520) and Benvenuto Cellini (Italian, 1500–1571) for monumental projects across art, architecture, and engineering. The ambition and prestige of his commissions echoed far and wide, facilitated by Giorgio Vasari’s (Italian, 1511–1574) seminal book of artist biographies entitled Lives of the Artists (1550). For centuries, Vasari’s influential tome—which was dedicated to Cosimo—would impose a biased, Florence-centric record of Renaissance history. The Met houses several editioned volumes of Vasari’s magnum opus.
Of course, Cosimo himself was memorialized many times over, portrayed as a valiant and omnipotent leader. It’s Cellini’s Herculean bust of Cosimo, forged between 1546 and 1547 and on loan from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, that welcomes visitors into the exhibition.
The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570 investigates the power and persuasion of the almighty portrait, and celebrates the virtuosi whose art immortalized an empire. An accompanying catalogue available from The Met Store delves into the exquisite details of the portraits in the exhibition, with text by leading international authors and historians who illuminate this vital period in Italian art.
The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570 opens June 26 and will remain on view through October 11, 2021.