The Medici and the Art of Power
Alexander Lee admires an article by Frederick Godfrey from 1952, reflecting new attitudes towards the Renaissance.
When Frederick Godfrey’s piece on the iconology of the Medici was published in 1952 the study of Renaissance art was enjoying a rebirth of its own. Although the foundations of the subject had been laid by Jacob Burckhardt nearly a century earlier, scholarly perceptions of the Renaissance were undergoing a tremendous change. Shaking off the Romanticism that had shaped earlier interpretations, scholars such as Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Gombrich and Rudolf Wittkower had begun to recognise that Renaissance art could only be understood when it was placed in the context of the society from which it had sprung and that social attitudes could be recovered from the study of art.
As Godfrey suggests, the question of iconology was crucial. The manner in which a scene or subject was represented reflected not only the values of the artist himself, but also of the attitudes that he shared with those who viewed his work. By analysing these features of Renaissance art it became possible to comprehend the relationship between artistic change and broader socio-cultural transformations. In this way, Panofsky brought to light the ties between humanism and the arts and, in the year before Godfrey’s article appeared, Millard Meiss revealed the extent to which 14th-century painting reflected the social and religious traumas induced by the Black Death.
As Godfrey’s survey of pictorial representations of the Medici shows, however, it was patronage that came to be recognised as constituting one of the most important sites of interaction between art and society in Renaissance Italy. Although their status had improved dramatically since the mid-13th century, artists were still not entirely ‘free agents’ and, as surviving contracts demonstrate, were closely tied to the will of their patrons. This being so, Godfrey’s generation correctly saw that iconology showed how the Medici used art to communicate their own self-perceptions and provided a commentary on the world of the rich and powerful.
Godfrey’s article shows just how rewarding the study of iconography and patronage could be and points the way towards more recent research. Anticipating later studies of the ‘theory of magnificence’, he shows how the ‘massed portraiture of Medicean pomp and circumstance’ in Benozzo Gozzoli’s Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem (1459-51) demonstrates not only the quasi-regal aspirations of Florence’s most prominent family, but also the extent to which ostentatious display was a necessary component of the Medici’s dominance of Florentine business and politics. So, too, in showing that lesser patrons echoed the self-perceptions of the Medici in works such as Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (1475), he provides a foretaste of the importance that scholars working on networks of power have subsequently accorded to patronage.
Yet, despite this, Godfrey’s article reveals that Renaissance scholarship had still not entirely freed itself from the shackles of earlier Romanticism. For all his emphasis on context, Godfrey persists in viewing the family’s use of patronage through Burckhardtian rose-tinted spectacles and fails to see that pictorial representations of the Medici testify not to their having been high-minded idealists, but to their willingness to use art to cover up their misdeeds. Blinded by their beauty, he is unable to recognise that Gozzoli’s frescoes were intended not only to legitimate Cosimo de’ Medici’s ruthless seizure of power in Florence from 1469, but also to create an impression that Cosimo and his children were backed up by a network of supporters ranging from cardinals to signori and from bankers to psychopathic mercenary generals. So, too, having been seduced by the grace of Botticelli’s work, he fails to see that the patron – Guasparo del Lama – was actually an over-ambitious nobody, who had himself portrayed alongside the Medici to elbow his way into a tightly-knit group that exercised near total control over a superficially ‘republican’ state.
As such, Godfrey provides a timely reminder of the tremendous strides which have been taken in Renaissance scholarship over the past 60 years and, more importantly, shows that, to understand the meaning and function of the art of the period, it is vitally important to appreciate just how ghastly patrons could be. Indeed, neither iconology nor patronage can be approached except with an appreciation of the ugliness of the Renaissance.
Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His book, The Ugly Renaissance, is published in September by Hutchinson.
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