To talk about all the ways the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition The Medici: Portraits and Politics 1512–1570 frustrates me, I need to go a bit meta. I need to talk about the tutoring of the visitor’s gaze in the way that Tony Bennett, a British museum scholar who has written influential texts on how modern museums function, described in his book The Birth of the Museum. For Bennett, the middle-class museum visitor regards their way of looking at museum objects as subordinate to the curator’s expert gaze. We do so (I count myself here) in order to learn how to extract the correct meanings from displayed objects. It is only through a (typically tacit) process of acquiescing to having our gaze trained by the curator by way of wall texts, captions, audio guides, and the like that we find the “real” meanings embedded in the work. What’s ironic is that I’ve long found this argument to be faulty, and in my own book even used it as an example of conceptions of the visit that insufficiently explain how current visitor and art institutions behave. But then I saw this Medici show.
Before I even step onto the Met’s grand staircase in its mini-palazzo, the online exhibition text tells me: “Some of the greatest portraits of Western art were painted in Florence during the tumultuous years from 1512 to 1570, when the city was transformed from a republic with elected officials into a duchy ruled by the Medici family.” So, I know that though I’ll be looking at portraiture, a genre of painting I’m very familiar with, I’ll also be far out of my depth in terms of understanding the signs and symbols rooted in a 16th-century city-state with its own geographic, historical, political, aesthetic, and cultural particularities. More, a breathless, bosom-heaving plug from Forbes magazine featured on the exhibition’s landing page declares: “The Medici offers a stimulating balance of spectacular art and behind-the-scenes machination that played equal parts in defining one of the most famous periods in history.” However, the “behind-the-scenes machination” is all either implied in the show or given through didactic text. This is to say that while the drama is the demolition of republican rule to convert a famously mercantile city into the capital of a dynastic state, with a teenager becoming its political head after the assassination of his elder relative, the Duke of Florence, almost none of this larger-than-life drama actually appears in the portraits.
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Instead, what I see initially with my ignorant gaze is mostly hagiographic, overly stylized views of the characters involved in this history. For example, the duke in Raphael’s portrait “Lorenzo de’Medici, Duke of Urbino” (1518) peers at the viewer with that slightly unbothered look of those who have no pressing needs and few lacks. I find out from the caption that after the death of his uncle Giuliano, he was considered the last legitimate Medici heir. I also read that he was a Francophile dressed in the latest French fashion of the time. What I see is a bearded European man with a wry semi-smile, bedecked by a cascade of fur-lined, ostentatiously sewn textile finery. This clothing does provide a way into the work. In Pier Francesco Foschi’s “Portrait of a Lady” (1530–35) there are particular fashion elements that interest me: the sleeve cuffs that seem to be made of leather and fur, the white gloves with some unidentified black objects on them, the knotted belt that trails from her waist.
I want to know what these things signify in terms of social status, profession, regional identity, idiosyncratic personality, but these details are left unexplained. The poses are mostly the same. The compositions certainly are: a view from the waist up, with the figure facing the viewer, the majority in three-quarter turn, a few almost directly facing the viewer, taking up most of the canvas, mostly men standing, sometimes a seated woman, with fine fabrics or armor and jewelry and stylistic accoutrements clearly displayed. Though the curators added to the exhibition physical elements such as the dresses that are representative of the period, and examples of weaponry of the time, I get no joy from this. It’s not until I reach the last gallery where it’s mostly Giorgio Vasari and Bronzino creating allegorical images with an almost Mannerist gloss that I more fully engage. Vasari’s “Six Tuscan Poets” (1544) has far more compositional innovation than the majority of portraits in the show. Here, the fingers of the characters point to books that seem to be of importance (though their significance isn’t explained) and their physical proximity suggest that together they constitute a coherent group or movement. And Bronzino’s “Cosimo I de’Medici as Orpheus” (1537–39) gives me the figure nude with potent musculature, looking back over his left shoulder, while a dog (Cerberus) glares at him red-eyed and fearsome. Here, some drama actually appears in the image itself.
But doing some research outside the show, I come to realize that this compositional style evolved from an earlier approach to portraiture that mostly showed the figure in profile, as the wealthy and powerful were depicted on the region’s currency. According to Laura Llewellyn, an associate curator at the National Gallery in London, “From about the 1450s, portraits of men increasingly showed the sitter turned towards the viewer.” This innovation began to move from mere observance of an idealized figure to direct engagement with the individual possessing a unique character. The exhibition catalogue is also helpful. Carlo Falciani, in his essay “Power and Identity in Sixteenth-Century Florentine Portraiture” explains that these works existed in a dialogue between imitation and portrayal: “Implicit in this dialogue between imitare and ritrarre was an evolution from naturalism to allegory that was not solely stylistic, and the central moment in Florence occurred under Cosimo I.” So the paintings here do represent an inflection point in formal technique which would affect how I think of portraits now.
Yes, there are cognates to the portraits in our current celebrity culture. I can see the same three-quarter turn, and self-assured regard in the image of “Portrait of a Woman with a Lapdog” (1532–33) by Bronzino as I’ve seen in images of Michelle Obama’s official White House portrait as painted by Amy Sherald. There is the similar carefully coiffed hair, emphatically colorful and elegant dress that takes up a good deal of space in the picture frame. And with Barack Obama’s portrait by Kehinde Wiley, there is the subtle confrontation of Obama’s direct gaze. He certainly lets us gaze on him, but he is an active participant in a dialogic seeing — though he gazes from the idealized place which is Wiley’s version of the Elysian Fields. These portraits of the former president and first lady do make determined distinctions between the themselves and the hoi polloi who worship them and itch to be like them.
But these images of the Medici fade into vapid seriality quite quickly for me. I don’t get any information about the historical processes that are taking place at the time from the images. Well, I get a little. There are signs. But the majority of people I am seeing this show with seem to take them for wonders.
Certainly, one can connect this show to the current crop of fictionalized television and film accounts of wealth’s intertwinement with power to talk about how ruling families and empires do what they do to the endless fascination of most of the rest of humanity. Think of Succession, The Crown, Downton Abbey — all shows that I’ve not watched but which I’m told hold the culture’s attention with their character development, plot twists, interpersonal conflict, and dramatization of the deleterious effect their power is shown to have on people both within and outside their small social circle. But I get none of this from these portraits — all this enticing information doesn’t actually appear in the majority of these images.
Yet, when I arrived at the museum on an overcast Thursday morning, a few minutes before its 10 o’clock opening time, there were people already lined up to get inside. Many of them were in the Medici gallery by the time I made my way there. For the most part, they seemed excited: I witnessed a good deal of pointing and lengthy discussion between friends and partners. I can only conclude that what fascinates is a curiosity about how the 1% live. My sense is that people come to this museum and this show ostensibly wanting to learn other histories by having their way of looking tutored and trained. Perhaps they imagine that if they learn from curators how to see, how to interpret particular signs, how to read the history of a time and place in the portrait of a Medici prince, perhaps they too may one day have a portion of that wealth and power.
The Medici: Portraits and Politics 1512–1570 continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 11. It was curated by Keith Christiansen and Carlo Falciani.