Il Gazzettino - December 2009

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Notes from the Research Director - December 2009

A Gallery of Most Illustrious Men and Women

The humanist-physician Paolo Giovio gathered an impressive collection of portraits of uomini famosi---mostly philosophers, generals, men of letters, and rulers---which were housed in his villa on Lake Como. Cosimo I, for whom Giovio had worked in the final years of his life, commissioned Cristoforo dell’Altissimo to make copies of these portraits. A 1553 letter indicates that the Florentine painter had almost completed twenty-four portraits, including those of Lodovico Ariosto, Pietro Bembo, and Henry VIII Tudor. Today, these very copies are displayed in the corridors of the Uffizi Gallery. 


A virtual gallery of sorts, composed of documents about illustrious men and women, could be created at the Medici Archive Project. For the past two years, MAP fellows have been working on the letters in the Mediceo del Principato (Medici Granducal Archive). Documents on figures such as Duke Cosimo I, Emperor Charles V, Saint Charles Borromeo, Queen Elizabeth I, and Pope Paul III are entered daily in our database. Every so often, we run into material that sheds light on the lives and works of artists, scientists, and scholars. The painters Sofonisba Anguissola and Giovanna Garzoni are cases in point. Roberta Piccinelli’s article on Garzoni is featured in this issue of the Gazzettino. Former MAP fellow Maurizio Arfaioli has discovered new facts about Sofonisba’s personal relationship with Francesco de’ Medici. His study will appear in MAP’s first collection of scholarly essays, provisionally entitled The Medici and their Archive: Politics and Culture in Early Modern Tuscany, due out in 2010. Another rare encounter in the folios of the Mediceo occurred with Hans Holbein. Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, informed Grand Duke Cosimo II that the portrait by the Northern Renaissance painter that he requested was on its way to Florence. This picture is displayed in the collection of artists’ self-portraits in the Vasarian corridor.

On the other hand, artists such as Baccio Bandinelli, Alessandro Allori, Agnolo Bronzino and Giorgio Vasari are familiar faces in the Mediceo. Among these numerous documents, one is especially striking. Francesco, not yet Grand Duke, wrote to Hernando Álvarez de Toledo stating that he could not grant the request for paintings by Vasari and Bronzino, because “one is very busy with stories in the Sala Grande [Salone dei Cinquecento], while the other is so old that his eye is a mess and his hand is trembling”. A plentiful source of uomini famosi is Roberto Pucci’s European travel journal. His first-hand account of his meeting with Diego Velázquez at the Palacio Real and his descriptions of the works he saw by Titian, Veronese, Mantegna, Dürer, van Eyck, Raphael, and Rubens are most noteworthy. Speaking of Rubens, former Project fellow Mark Rosen while at MAP discovered how the Flemish painter in 1603 acted as an intermediary between the Florentine and Spanish courts. Rosen’s article was published in the prestigious journal Oud Holland.

The letters chronicling Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sojourn in Paris confirm his celebrity status and his personal relationships with sovereigns. The Florentine ambassador Filippo Marucelli announced (5 June 1665) to Grand Duke Ferdinand II that Parisians had greeted Bernini with a standing ovation. At the end of that month, “Cavalier Bernini has been summoned to show his plans for the Louvre façade… He spent two hours on Tuesday in the King’s chambers and began sketching the statue that he must shape for His Majesty.” Three months later, Marucelli described how the “liveliness” and “drapery” of the marble bust of the King were very much praised. The sculptor, after receiving a handsome reward from Louis XIV, was finally ready to leave Paris in late October. The Florentine ambassador could not ignore, however, how Bernini had left the stingiest tips for his servants. Dr. Sheila Barker is completing her book Bernini in the News, exploring the media craze surrounding this Baroque sculptor and architect.

A place of honor in our imaginary gallery is reserved for Galileo Galilei, since MAP Chair Martha McGeary Snider was instrumental in securing one of his two surviving telescopes for the Franklin Institute exhibition, Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy. A letter from Felice Monsacchi, chaplain of the traveling party accompanying the future Grand Duke Cosimo III in Europe, reported on the group’s visit to Oxford University. The son of Ferdinand II, at the time twenty-seven years old, “attended a number of lectures on philosophy and mathematics and deigned even to attend some heated debates over Galileo’s doctrines on the subject of modern philosophy.”

A compilation of documents of famous people is doubtless an arbitrary undertaking---an intellectual divertissment. Methodologically, it is somewhat distant from the scholarly and unbiased scrutiny that takes place everyday at MAP. For MAP fellows, a delivery of marzolino cheese to a court functionary will always have the same importance as a letter by Vasari to Cosimo I about Michelangelo’s unwillingness to return to Florence. And yet, just like mysterious political murders, medical remedies, iconoclastic violence, and tobacco shipments from Virginia, these accounts of illustrious figures provide an idea of the depth and breadth of this “museum of wonders” comprised of over three million letters.

Alessio Assonitis, Research Director