The Medici’s: Art Canaries

The BBC video “The Medici: Makers of Modern Art” offers a glimpse at the lives, motivations, and artistic developments of some of the key members of the Medici family over a number of generations. While not necessarily the most historically rigorous documentary, “The Medici: Makers of Modern Art” uses the members of the Medici family as vehicles to portray, in a very personal and specific way, shifts in the value and purpose of art from its early Medieval role (especially as scene in Gothic art) to that of the Renaissance.

To start, the documentary focuses on Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici. Giovanni, a banker, feared that he might be condemned as a usurer for his lending money at interest, according to the video. To avoid such a fate, instead of finding another occupation, he helps to commission a doorway to the Florence baptistery. Theologically this is a big step for the role of art in the Christian life. The Gothic cathedrals work to aid the soul’s journey to God. They are another medium. Here, art seems to be developing a redemptive property of its own. Sculptures inviting meditation are far different than those promising protection from damnation.

The next Medici discussed in the video is Cosimo di Medici. According to the video he was promised redemption if he funded the monastery of San Marco. And he did. He even kept his own cell at the monastery, though it had an extra room expanding it beyond the size of the other cells and featured an additional fresco. However, the video depicts Cosimo’s life as less than monastic: he has a luxurious private chapel at his own residence with a fantastic fresco showing the journey of the (rich) magi, commissioned Donatello to make his famous free-standing nude of David for the Medici palace, a Tuscan country house, and luxurious meals.

The movie then moves to Lorenzo de’ Medici. While Cosimo had a taste for what the video calls the “joy of art” (by “joy” I think they’re getting at the pleasure art in and of itself brings to the senses – the movie is a bit biased), Lorenzo embraced the pleasures of art and abandoned the previous religious pretenses. This focus of art for the individual’s enjoyment comes to a personified pinnacle in Francesco de’ Medici. Francesco collected exotic and unusual items for himself. His private museum, the Studiolo. Walled in paintings and sculptures, housing items he had collected, this was a place for him alone to enjoy his art for his enjoyment.

How far this seems to be from the Gothic cathedrals! How far even from Giovanni. The idea of art owned, art to serve the individual possessor is a radical shift. It seems to me to be the same difference in the views of the people of Morbihan and those of Lattes. The megaliths of Morbihan are made for a purpose beyond the present time and place. The decorative artifacts at Lattes are for the enjoyment of those who have bought them.

To be clear, I’m not decrying the second view as entirely wrong or evil, nor the first as flawless. I’m no Savonarola. But it is an intriguing shift. A shift that not only effects the way art is conceived, but changes how it is made. How we think about art changes what we expect it to look like.


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