How the Medici Family Harnessed the Political Power of Portraiture—and Brought Renaissance Art to New Heights

The history of society’s elite using art to solidify their power isn’t short, but it’s possible that members of the Medici family are among the most innovative figures in that lineage. In 15th- and 16th-century Italy, during the height of the Renaissance, the Medici established themselves as the greatest art patrons of their day, setting a course for mega-collectors active now (think François Pinault or Mitchell and Emily Rales). Members of the Medici family forged close relationships with artists like Michelangelo and Jacopo da Pontormo, and used their deep connections to commission major works that would signify their vast influence.

In bringing on top artists to make paintings, sculptures, chapels, and more for them, the Medici weren’t just flaunting their worldliness and their wealth. Anyone with even a vague knowledge of politics at the time would know that the Medici, who came to power because of a fortune accrued through the family’s banking empire established at the end of the 14th century, had the means. The work they had artists produce also had a political purpose—acting as potent symbols of the family’s dominion in virtually all aspects of society in Florence and effectively boosting the city as an art center in the process.

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A new show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York proposes that one kind of art-making was particularly important in that regard: portraiture. Curated by Keith Christiansen and Carlo Falciani, “The Medici: Portraits and Politics 1512–1570” focuses on the images of the family and its circle created by artists like Raphael, Bronzino, Benvenuto Cellini, and Francesco Salviati. With that show set to open on June 26, below is a look at the hidden politics of four portraits of the Medici.

A man wearing puffy red and yellow garments with furs attached. He stands before a green background.

Raphael, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, 1518.

Depicting Political Ambitions

For the Medici, rarely was a portrait ever just a picture of an individual—it was an image also laced with political ambitions that could aid in one’s diplomatic quests. That was certainly the case with Raphael’s 1518 painting of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who, in 1518, married Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, a member of the French king Francis I’s family.

Upon the marriage, Lorenzo sent a vast array of gifts to France’s royalty, including three other Raphael paintings, among them a famed portrait of Pope Leo X—himself a member of the family—that now resides at the Uffizi. Though this painting of Lorenzo wasn’t a part of that cache, it was of a piece with it, since it was also intended to firm up relations with France. Fittingly, Lorenzo is shown wearing styles that were popular in France at the time. Raphael has paid careful attention to the puffy red linens of his sleeves, even allowing tufts of fur peeking out, indicating Paris’s slightly colder climates. Unlike later, more expressive portraits of the Medici, this one is fairly straightforward, emphasizing Lorenzo’s hauteur.

A man in dark robes is shown drawing in a dimly lit room.

Jacopo da Pontormo, Alessandro de’ Medici, 1534–35.

Rehabilitating Perception

The sedate, austere atmosphere of this portrait was intended to strengthen the perception of Alessandro de’ Medici as a solid leader. He had good reason for trying to rehab his image: Alessandro was hated by Florentines. Jacopo da Pontormo, an artist with whom Alessandro was close, dignified him in this painting, in which Alessandro appears to be at work in a barely lit room. Everything about the painting is dark; he is shown wearing mourning attire. (Alessandro’s skin is also dark because, according to popular lore, he was the son of a formerly enslaved woman in the Medici household. PBS has labeled him the “first black head of state in modern Europe.”)

On a barely visible table, Alessandro is shown to be sketching what appears to be a human form using a stylus. This is not just any drawing, however. The practice of drawing—or disegno, as it was known in the Renaissance—was seen at the time as a way of elevating craft and bringing artists closer to a superior intellectual state. Additionally, diplomat and author Baldassarre Castiglione theorized that, in order to obtain a princely mentality, rulers ought to draw. It’s unclear what, exactly, Alessandro is scrawling, though Giorgio Vasari, who has been considered the first modern art historian, once wrote that the ruler is drawing a woman. 

A nude man with a red robe sits with his back to the viewer. He turns around and holds a musical instrument before a multiheaded dog.

Bronzino, Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus, 1537–39.

Mythological Connections

When we think of Renaissance portraits of the day’s elite, we tend to imagine their subjects as they appeared at the time, in stately garb and contemporary settings. Periodically, however, artists resorted to more creative means to stake a claim for the power of the Medicis. In this portrait, Cosimo I is portrayed as Orpheus, a figure from Greek mythology who used his music to quell all living things. In Bronzino’s hands, Cosimo is plunked right into this ancient tale—he’s pictured holding an instrument before a snarling multiheaded dog named Cerberus, who guards the gates of Hades. In the upper righthand corner, a fiery pit symbolizes the underworld where Orpheus’s wife, Eurydice, resides.

Bronzino’s use of the Orpheus myth was meant to resonate with the current moment in Florence, even if ancient Greece and 16th-century Italy were millennia apart. In Orpheus, Bronzino saw parallels with Cosimo: like the ancient Greek character, Cosimo had to be good at carefully dodging a crisis by pacifying people. He had come to power as Duke of Florence at 17 in 1537, after a tumultuous period that saw political discontent of all kinds reach a head with the assassination of his cousin Alessandro. In the hope of promoting a return to stability, he needed images such as this one to prove he was fit for the job. It was hardly the last time Bronzino would depict a Medici through the lens of ancient tale—a chapel commissioned by Eleonora di Toledo, Cosimo’s wife, includes a painting in which Moses acts as a stand-in for her husband, and in another work by the artist that’s also in the Met show, Giovanni is recast as Saint John the Baptist.

Cosimo de’ Medici as Orpheus, which now resides at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was the first portrait Bronzino, who had been a student of Pontormo, produced for Cosimo. It ended up being the start of a relationship that would make Bronzino the duke’s preferred portraitist. Art historian Sefy Hendler calls the work “one of Bronzino’s most ambitious portraits” in the Met show’s catalogue.

A woman in dark robes holds her hand to her stomach. Beside her is a child with his hand reached out toward her. Emerald-colored fabric is draped behind them.

Bronzino, Eleonora di Toledo and Francesco de’ Medici, ca. 1550.

Painting the Future

In this richly detailed portrait, Eleonora appears alongside her son Francesco. The composition stresses the intensity of Bronzino’s painterly skill—Eleonora’s blood-red dress elegantly contrasts the emerald-colored backdrop, making the painting both alluring and jarring in equal measure, and her garments are rendered in exacting detail. (Her brilliant petticoat, known as a sottana, is included in the Met show.)

As with the portraits of male members of the Medici family, this painting contained its own political multitudes. It notably stresses Eleonora’s fertility, drawing the eye from her toward her son, in a composition that alludes to a continuation of the Medici line. Her other hand is placed near her stomach, perhaps hinting at another child soon to be born. A similar 1545 portrait by Bronzino to this one may be the better-known image of Eleonora and Francesco, and though its color palette may differ vastly, the two pictures remain largely the same—an attempt, art historian Elizabeth Pilliod argues, to construct a “‘brand’ image” for Eleonora.

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