Last week I had what started out as a typical tourist-teacher outing and turned into an extraordinary experience I will remember fondly for the rest of my life. Indeed, it was not unlike my initial experience with Pontormo's Deposition, which I wrote about in my first post of this "series," in May 2014.
The morning of Tuesday, June 9 two UNCG students and I went to the Palazzo Vecchio. This has been one of my favorite sites in Florence from the beginning. It's intimately connected with the ducal and grand ducal Medici and it still bears their direct stamp, unlike the Palazzo Pitti, which was significantly renovated by its later royal tenants. Both students are art history majors, one is currently working on fountains commissioned by the Medici and the other is preparing to write about the Sala Grande, located inside this building. Given those circumstances, we started in that impressive space, which you see below.
The room was re-decorated under Cosimo I in the 1560s and represents in many ways the most complete statement of his political ambitions and claims as a grand ducal hopeful. Standing here, it's hard not to feel impressed by the sheer size of the room, its decoration and the pomposity of the whole space, feeling much as I imagine many a visiting foreign dignitary felt as they greeted the Duke, enthroned at the room's far end. Like him or not, Cosimo I was a genius of political propaganda and skillfully employed art to that end. The room IS him. And I hasten to add, "works" because all the pieces are still in situ.
After spending about 45 minutes talking in the space and walking around its perimeter, looking at the ceiling and walls, we entered a markedly different room--the tiny, jewel-like Studiolo of Cosimo's son and heir, Grand Duke Francesco I de' Medici.
This human-scaled space is the opposite of the public, politically charged, ambitious Sala Grande of his father, and as many art historians have noted the two rooms reflect the particular personalities of father and son. While the Sala Grande is large and bombastic, the Studiolo is small, intimate, jewel-like and private--a visual treasure to be savored by an audience of one. And indeed, today it feels like that audience is US, because for the first time in the nearly 20 years I've been traveling to Italy we got to stand inside the space as Francesco did, rather than craning our necks from a rope line at the room's door. What a difference a few feet makes!
Essentially the Studiolo functioned as a cupboard for Francesco's private collection of small and unusual objects. Each themed painting is mounted on a hinged door that hides a shelved cabinet, which originally housed his precious collection of items deriving from the Earth, Air, Fire or Water, such as exotic items made from coral or pearls, bottles of efficacious spa waters, items made of gold, and particularly remarkable gemstones, etc., etc.
The space is another excellent (and exciting) example of the powerful experience gained by viewing works in situ since each painting is part of an interlocking visual program that also contains a frescoed ceiling and eight bronze sculpture located in niches at the room's upper corners (see the third image above). Below is Gianbologna's beautiful bronze Apollo.
It's hard to explain how exciting it was to stand there inside the room and allow the space to interact with us the way it was intended to, like a luxurious, jewel-toned box turned right side in. Documents suggest in condemning tones that Francesco wiled away many solitary hours in this space, but I must admit that last Tuesday as I excitedly stood there, giddily trying to take it all in, I found it very hard to blame him. It could easily take a lifetime to fully appreciate all of the 26 paintings, 8 bronze sculpture, ceiling fresco, marble paneling and hand-carved, gilded wooden frames. To say nothing of the fascinating objects the cabinets held! Goodness! Suddenly Francesco seems less like an anti-social, morose introvert and more like a man who just wanted to quietly enjoy a whole lot of beauty...