The Life of Cosimo I de Medici: Art Patron Extraordinaire

We must talk about selfies before diving into the Medici exhibit at the Met. Selfies are a type of portrait, and they have been in existence since the invention of mirrors. Even the word "selfie" has its origin in a misspelling of "self-portrait" which was coined by English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1785. The first selfie was taken by Robert Cornelius on September 1839, using a camera he constructed himself.

  • Why are selfies or portraits so popular?

Selfies are a way to perform and express identity. They provide an opportunity for people to reclaim their voice, their reflections, and their representation. 

Many of our contemporaries like Andy Warhol used selfies as his medium to further his career and fame. Andy Warhol is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. He is most famous for his work in film and pop art, where he used printmaking, photography, sculpture, and painting to explore the subjects of fame and celebrity.

Warhol’s consistent use of a single image or icon to represent a larger idea was revolutionary at the time. He popularized the idea that any person or object can be elevated to iconic status in our culture through mass production and media exposure. 

Perhaps, he wanted to be the Medici himself. 

The Medici family- a ruling dynasty of Florence and Italy in the Renaissance. They were great patrons of the arts, science, and literature. For centuries, they were patrons of artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, architects like Brunelleschi and Donatello, economists like Galileo Galilei, and many others whose genius. 

The Medicis made their fortunes in trade and banking while living in an era when money flowed freely with other European powers such as Germany, Switzerland, but especially France.

This is why they are the best example of Florence as a center for cultural exchange, because their immense political, financial and cultural power allowed them to transform Florence into one of the most important centers for patronage in Europe.

The exhibition at the Met features over 90 works in a wide range of mediums. From paintings, sculptural busts, medals, and carved gems. Some of the artists are Francesco Salviati and Bronzino, along with Pontormo, the dominant painters in Florence at Cosimo’s behest.

The paintings are often rich in detail and offer a glimpse into a world that has largely vanished from our own, as these same individuals would have been long forgotten if it were not for the power of art. 

The Portrait of a Young Man by Bronzino 1530s - A boy is holding a book with a stylish hat framed by gargoyle-like masks in the lower bottom of the canvas with columns behind him. He portrays confidence and a distinctive attitude. But his elongated and elegant fingers are what captures our attention. Bronzino attempts to make his subject look glamorous and elegant. Books were often placed on tables, desks, or shelves with care and prominence as symbols of intellectualism. This signifies that they are experts on their subject matter, and they are likely involved in scholarly work or learning.

Bronzino was studious like this boy in the painting. He was a poet at heart. You will see from this exhibition how much talent he had and why Cosimo I de Medici (1519–1574)- the first Grand Duke of Tuscany hired Bronzino for many of his portraits. 


In the exhibition entryway, you will be greeted by a bronze bust of the Cosimo de’ Medici by Benvenuto Cellini that seems to be in motion. He is dressed in parade armor, with its winged head of Medusa, which is a timeless symbol of authority. Is Cosimo meant to be seen as a knight?

In reality, he was a man who preferred peace over war and promoted freedom of thought. Maybe this is the reason why Cosimo and Eleonora were married for sixty years. 

The love story between Cosimo de Medici and Eleonora de Medici is one that has been told for many years. They met at the age of twelve and fell in love as teenagers. The two started dating in secret, but eventually got married when she was sixteen years old.

Eleonora was the daughter of the viceroy of Naples and proved herself to be a loyal supporter of Emperor Charles V. Eleonora lived from 1522 to 1562. 

Eleonora di Toledo,The duchess wears red, a color associated with power and health. She bore eleven children. Her luxurious clothing is adorned with pearls, and on her hand, emblematically placed over her heart, she wears a table-cut diamond, a wedding gift from the duke. The other ring, a Roman intaglio, was found in her grave in 1948. 

Another incredible art is an allegorical marble relief — Pierino’s masterpiece—which celebrates Cosimo’s many initiatives in Pisa, the key maritime port of the duchy. Wearing toga and mantle, the duke stands in the center, helping a female figure representing Pisa to rise, while expelling enemies laden with plunder. Behind the duke reclines the Arno river god. Luca Martini—Cosimo’s administrator and Pierino’s patron (Pierino’s portrait of him is displayed nearby)—is pictured holding a compass and an astrolabe, standing between two youths carrying giant vessels that may allude to Martini’s work on Pisa’s hydraulic system. The promise shown in this remarkable work was thwarted by Pierino’s death at twenty-three.

A celebrated poet, Laura Battiferri (1523–1589) by Bronzino is our favorite portrait in this exhibit —her first collection of poetry was dedicated to Duchess Eleonora enjoyed a platonic relationship with Bronzino, with whom she exchanged lyric verses. The conceits that inform both their poetry and her portrait are exemplified in Bronzino’s words: "You, through your valor, vanquish [Petrarch’s] Laura and [Dante’s] Beatrice, and you are above them is worth, and perhaps also their lovers in style and song." Their relationship was self-consciously modeled after that of Petrarch and his beloved Laura. Her profile here resembles Bronzino’s portrait of Dante (on view nearby), and the open book she displays shows two sonnets by Petrarch. Given women writers had to work twice as hard compared to male writers, she was considered a celebrity author at her time. 

We would like to conclude this exhibition with a portrait of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), 1545, attributed to Daniele da Volterra - Michelangelo had finished the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel (1512) and started work on the Last Judgement in 1536 at age 61 when he rebelled against Cosimo. Their disagreements never stopped them from Cosimo facilitating Michelangelo's deceased body back to Florence where he felt Michelangelo belonged. 

We hope you've taken away something from the insights provided. Five hundred years ago, Florence was incomparably accomplished, and its contributions to society came with several benefits that continue to this day. 

We want you to think about portraiture in general - 

  • How it's evolved, what it's symbolized, and if anything has stayed the same. 
  • If not, what might be similar? 
  • Are portraits still seen as a sign of authority or power?

We recommend visiting the Museum early afternoon. It’s been the quietest this past week that we've experienced. 

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