The Medici family of Florence held the unique position of being the leading patrons for an array of master works by artists throughout the Florentine Renaissance. A business-minded group, the family’s financial prowess allowed them to commission large and extravagant chapels, altarpieces, and frescoes for many religious institutions in Tuscany. Providing the monetary support for biblical scenes in both private and public chapels, the Medici were thus permitted to portray themselves within the Christian iconography, be it subtly via their patron saints or more overtly as likenesses of themselves infiltrated as characters in religious stories.
Masterfully incorporating contemporary political messages into the works they commissioned, the Medici inconspicuously exerted the growing power and strength of their dynasty by placing their portraits or representative saints into the integral, everyday structure of the church, ensuring simultaneously that the people of Renaissance Florence recognized the family’s influence while also safeguarding a place for themselves in history as patrons significant and worthy enough to both fund important art works and juxtapose themselves with key figures from the Bible.
Early in the family’s patronage, the Medici were not yet daring enough to put their own visages into religious art works, but instead granted artists to incorporate the family’s patron saints, Cosmas and Damian. According to legend, Cosmas and Damian were twin brother physicians, whose “principal role was that of protectors against sickness” (Hall, 79). As the name “Medici” means doctors, these brethren saints came to represent the Medici family. The saints are often depicted with the long, dark red gown of the Renaissance physician, with a matching red hat, and shown performing acts of healing and martyrdom.
Name-saints were thus intended to “explicitly reference the patron, a public display of piety and devotion believed to aid in his salvation” (Partridge, 43). Contracts that were established between a church and its patron stipulated that the patron had to decorate and maintain the altar, fund the initial endowment for its functioning, which in turn would grant the patron the rights to display his family’s coat of arms as well as to choose the artist and theme for the altar. It is through Medici patronage that many of the renowned artists of the Italian Renaissance were able to create their most influential and studied works.
Eventually, the Medici’s increased power made them comfortable enough to portray their own visages within the array of characters that populated the religious works they commissioned, allowing for associations that were “a visual expression of the special status the successful bankers laid claim to within the republic” (Kempers, 199). The Medici thus utilized these saintly depictions of themselves to further the implications and scope of their dynasty.
The works in this exhibition span the gamut of portraits of the Medici family in its early stages of patronage, in which the members are portrayed through their name-saints, and the latter stages of its patronage, wherein accurate likenesses of the members are presented as characters in the religious scenes depicted. Close examination of the works in this exhibition will demonstrate that the Medici seized many opportunities to display its familial wealth and the bold means through which the family was able to assert and confirm its power during the Florentine Renaissance.
Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. 2nd ed. New York: Westview Press, 2008.
Kempers, Bram. Painting, Power and Patronage: The Rise of the Professional Artist in the Italian Renaissance. Trans. Beverly Jackson. New York: Penguin Group, 1987.
Kent, Dale. Cosimo De’ Medici and the Florentine Renaissance: The Patron’s Oeuvre. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
Partridge, Loren. Art of Renaissance Florence: 1400-1600. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.