Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 17, 2017
Lia Markey Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence University Park: Penn State University Press, 2016. 264 pp.; 68 color ills.; 58 b/w ills. Cloth $79.95 (9780271071152)
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One of the defining facts about the Medici court in Florence in the late sixteenth century is how, despite the richness of its artistic culture and the depth of its collecting, it remained essentially a bystander in the exploration, colonization, and mercantile exploitation of the New World. The Tuscan state nonetheless saw value in conceptualizing the effect of the expansion of the globe as a matter of local concern in a series of carefully curated artistic projects, often tied to objects gathered from lands far beyond the local domain. Lia Markey’s new book, Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence, investigates the Medici’s varied projections of the New World within the confines of Florentine court culture by analyzing more than a dozen projects depicting the New World or displaying objects related to it (maps, featherwork, drawings of newly known plant and animal life). Arguing against a historiographic tradition portraying the Medici as rigid and systematic collectors, Markey’s study defines their response to the New World as tentative, curious, and, somewhat counterintuitively, increasingly turned away from empirical interest toward allegorization of the contact with the New World.

In some sense the later sixteenth-century Florentines were embarrassed by their scant participation in the first wave of European exploration, and, in Markey’s words, may have consciously decided to “compensate for their lack of colonial activity by acquiring things from and producing images of the Americas” (3). Because of enormous political turmoil throughout the Italian peninsula beginning in the 1490s, the great Italian navigators of the first wave of transatlantic activity sailed for foreign flags: besides the Genoan Columbus leading Spanish voyages, the Florentines Amerigo Vespucci and Giovanni da Verrazzano were sponsored respectively by Portugal and France. The Florentines in their own minds remained largely unstained by the legacy of the conquest, despite two Medici popes in Rome during some of its bloodiest years and a family line increasingly intertwined with the Habsburgs. Typical of this posture is Florentine historian Francesco Guicciardini, who in his Storia d’Italia (1537–40) declared that those voyages were compelled by “an immoderate lust for gold and riches.” Nonetheless, as Markey notes, the Medici had little compunction about collecting Mixtec masks, feather capes, and codices brought back as a result of those expeditions, and frequently made plays for those objects in diplomatic exchanges.

Markey’s study focuses on the reception of the Americas during the eras of three successive Medici sovereigns: Cosimo I (ruled 1537–74) and his sons Francesco I (1574–87) and Ferdinando I (1587–1609). Beyond overseeing the sumptuous reconstruction of Florence as a newly modernized autocratic duchy (symbolized by the establishment of the Uffizi and the expansions of the Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti) and commissioning major new triumphalist artworks and monuments from a talented array of artists including Giorgio Vasari, Benvenuto Cellini, and Giambologna, the late sixteenth-century Medici were inveterate collectors obsessed with gathering and cataloguing objects from around the world, as has been minutely detailed by Paola Barocchi and Giovanna Gaeta Bertelà, among many others. As Cosimo consolidated his power and ultimately managed to have his state promoted to Grand Duchy (in 1569), the display of objects as part of statecraft accelerated, even if those projects (from the Palazzo Vecchio’s Studiolo to the Uffizi Tribuna) rarely were realized according to their ambitious programs or remained intact beyond their initial installations.

As Markey makes clear in this fine book, the impact of the Americas factored directly and obliquely into many of the major decorative projects and collecting schemes at the Medici court in the late sixteenth century. Organized roughly chronologically, the book’s nine chapters each focus on the representation of the New World in a decorative scheme (such as the maps of the Americas in the Guardaroba Nuova), as topic of study (notably Jacopo Ligozzi’s drawings of plant and animal life), or as allegorized subject (as in Jacopo Zucchi’s ca. 1580 painting Allegory of the Americas, now in the Galleria Borghese). Initially the reception of first contact was muted: a handful of rarities in the Medici’s holdings (masks, featherwork, and the vague but frequent archival designation of robbe d’India) and the planting of tomatoes and maize at their villas. By the middle years of Cosimo’s reign, however, aspects of the encounter began to be regularly figured in Medici art, from depictions of a turkey in a ca. 1545 Dovizia tapestry after designs by Bronzino (subject of the second chapter) to Egnazio Danti’s nine painted maps of American territories in the Guardaroba Nuova (discussed in chapter 3). While Cosimo’s curiosity about what could be collected from the New World was distinct from the interests of his sons—Francesco was especially fascinated by American naturalia (explored in the fourth chapter), and Ferdinando took initial but ultimately failed steps in the early seventeenth century to set up a mining operation in Brazil—the piecemeal, secondhand knowledge of these territories nonetheless was recognized to reflect powerfully back on the court as a form of “vicarious conquest” (159).

Throughout this study, Markey proves extraordinarily skilled in employing archival material (particularly the Medici Guardaroba inventories) but wears it gracefully and lightly. Imagining the Americas hardly feels like a slog through the interpretation of documents; instead, the book moves through brisk chapters that touch upon the direct and indirect influence of the Americas upon the art, literature, festival culture, and agriculture of late sixteenth-century Tuscany. Among Markey’s most significant new finds is a previously unstudied copy of Bernardino de Sahagún’s so-called Florentine Codex. Now part of the collection of the Hispanic Society of America, the manuscript copy bears the Medici arms on its cover and is convincingly dated to Ferdinando’s reign. Markey links both the original three-volume version (now in the Laurenziana in Florence) and the New York copy to Ferdinando from his time as Cardinal Protector of the Franciscans, the order that sponsored Sahagún’s thorough account of Aztec customs and culture. The codex’s images would then inspire Ludovico Buti’s New World battle scene frescoed in the Uffizi Armeria in 1588, a chain of causality explored in a lucid chapter here.

Unlike Detlef Heikamp’s brief Mexico and the Medici (Florence: Edam, 1972), the only previous monographic study that touches upon this topic, Markey’s book moves beyond addressing Florentine collecting habits to think through the means by which New World encounters were absorbed and interpreted by the Florentines. This is especially true in the later chapters of the book, where Markey details how Ferdinando’s court sought to rebrand Amerigo Vespucci as a quasi-mythological originary figure. While Giovanni Stradano’s prints allegorizing Vespucci circulated widely in the late 1580s and early 1590s, the court also regularly figured the explorer in its own festival culture. Most remarkable is Markey’s reconstruction of the 1608 festivities for the wedding of Cosimo II to Maria Maddalena of Austria. Here Florentine nobles donned authentic New World feather costumes to play “Indiani” while an intermedio by Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger held in the Palazzo Pitti cortile climaxed with the arrival of an actor playing Vespucci stepping off a sailboat onto an island among nude natives and exotic fauna. As Patricia Seed’s Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) showed, such spectacles were not rare in Europe; but the Florentines were probably the most tangential power to celebrate it with such pageantry. By frequent repetition of Vespucci’s name and his place of birth, the Medici retroactively gave themselves a more pronounced role in events that had taken place a century earlier. The initial moment of ethnographic interest in the Americas had over time given way to allegorizing the moment of first encounter as representing the Tuscan grand duchy’s civilizing mission.

Without overstating Medici power or making too broad of a theoretical claim for the geopolitical and cultural reach of Medici interest in the Americas (nor pursuing whether there was any influence in the opposite direction), Markey’s book fits into the rapidly expanding shelf of books that frame exchanges in early modern culture beyond traditional North–South parameters, works that include Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann’s Towards a Geography of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) and, more recently, Alessandra Russo’s The Untranslatable Image: A Mestizo History of the Arts in New Spain, 1500–1600 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014) (click here for review) and Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello’s edited volume The Global Lives of Things: The Material Culture of Connections in the Early Modern World (London: Routledge, 2016). Taken together with Irene Backus’s current research on the Florentine understanding of China (and particularly efforts by the Medici to develop its own porcelain-making operations), Markey’s book establishes a Florentine court imaginatively involved in absorbing and interpreting the aftereffects of global contact despite—or perhaps because of—its position outside it.

Mark Rosen
Associate Professor of Aesthetic Studies, Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History, University of Texas at Dallas

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