The Medicis and the Boxers


In the home city of the de’ Medicis – that banking and political family dynasty that ruled Tuscany from the late-14th to the mid-16th centuries – the Renaissance is a thing of the past.

The canvasses of the now redeemed Medici court poet and artist Bronzino, are exhibited his large collection for the first time outside of the Uffizi at Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi. While Holbein was in comparison painting cartoons of the Tudors, men like Bronzino and Pontormo and Allori were creating a sort of Renaissance HD photo-realism, painted on what appears in some works to be thick wooden doors. 70 pieces show explicit religious allegories and the Medici hierarchy, their children and the city nobles who sat for the court portraitist in the mid-1500s. The long-bearded humanist and politician Bartolomeo Panciatichi looks in his 1540 portrait like a brooding Dumbledore. They were educated, rich and powerful and yet on canvass become unblemished and soft while revealing a latent ruthlessness.

Just as one’s CV tells others what we represent as well as our physical features, the Medici were often painted with the items of their status or piety: A Spaniel perhaps (the sign of loyalty); a book of psalms (literacy and intellect); a suit of armour complete with oversized codpieces or a musical instrument, such as a lute (meaning creativity).

But in the most notorious poster portrait promoting Bronzino’s first real appearance outside the Uffizi, are the faces of Eleanor of Toledo with her Son Giovanni (1545). Eleonora was the wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici, known thereafter as first modern consort and her portrait is the first state portrait to depict a ruler’s wife with his heir. The picture reminds of the Mona Lisa with a left-handed half-smile and a popular metaphor of the day, a watery landscape on the left – a ‘lake of the heart’.

Downstairs were Annie Leibovitz’s portraits of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’s Queen Elizabeth II. Apart from 500 years, no real differences separate QEII and Eleanor. The same ostentatious couture and haughtiness captured in their own palazzos by pandering artisans though I wonder if Bronzino ever asked the severe Laura Battiferri Ammannati to remove her pearls because they’re “too .. dressy?”

Within the Uffizi galleries the Renaissance era seems a sugary coating in the city’s heritage when outside, amid the bitterness of an Italian street, we see what a dystopia modern Florence really is.

Where any souvenir kiosk graces a street corner, the most featured genitalia in history – more than the brothels of Pompei – the modest uncircumcised genitalia from David’s 17 feet tall marble statue shaped between 1501 and 1504 by Michelangelo is now printed on to boxer shorts exactly where the opening slot conveniently lets a bloke wee away his Peroni in the via Corti.

On adjacent walls, the scrawls and scratches of young Italians are left across medieval plaster. Messages of love (“tiamo Paolo! and “I love weed“”) and political dissatisfaction left intact by the authorities although they have scraped their names and dates of their day trip too on the ledges of Giotto’s 1359 bell tower. Not so tolerated are the hooked padlocks on the Ponte Vecchio railings. For that a €160 fine is happily slapped.

The dark-uniformed Carabinieri patrol the piazzas, illegal hawkers nervously eyeing up the tall officers’ next circuit then rapidly gathering their posters of copyrighted prints of artworks, mini tripods and for some reason wooden Pinocchio’s in seconds, previously spread across the pavements.

Everyone with an easel in Florence thinks they’re artists. Young exchange Americans sit on the steps of Piazza della Santissima Annunziata holding pencils up to their eye to sketch the Spedale degli Innocenti, while able to write a postcard home relishing the dateline ‘Florence, Italy, Europe’. Or, more authentically like Leo Mancini-Hresko who was last week daubing on Ponte Santa Trinita. He teaches from a studio on Piazzale Donatello and for The Florence Academy of Art.

The face of a young Francesco I de’ Medici adorns a construction screen, sporting a single marker penned tear while blue cable piping sprouts like an industrial Triffid from the underground concrete society. It is as if the spirits of the dynasty are posthumously mourning the slow death of their great city that once led every aspect of European thinking.

By the death of Cosimo III in 1723, Tuscany was arguably both morally and fiscally bankrupt and today, without tour group gratuities, hotel surcharges and the covert ristorante coperto, Florence would decline all over again.

Everyone visiting Florence chasing the Renaissance dream are probably sorely disappointed that the frontages of many inner-city palazzos and churches like Santa Croce are in fact 19th century facades – Victorian-era fakes. Asian tour groups have come all this way in the belief that everything before them is real but whatever their ear-piece commentaries inform them, they actually satisfied with seeing David’s replica sagging scrotum in Piazza della Signoria rather than queue 75 minutes to see the genuine article in the Uffizi.

Better still, just buy the Boxers.


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