Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 21, 2021
Francesco Freddolini and Marco Musillo, eds. Art, Mobility, and Exchange in Early Modern Tuscany and Eurasia Routledge Research in Art History. New York: Routledge, 2020. 236 pp.; 45 b/w ills. Cloth $160.00 (9780367467289)

With the global turn in early modern studies, more and more work has been done to understand better the artistic exchanges between distant lands. Questions of taste and appropriation and explorations of how art objects functioned as diplomatic gifts have been probed, though mostly with a Eurocentric focus. Italy has, in many of these studies, maintained its (anachronistic) primacy as artistic interlocutor with the world, and Florence (and, by necessity, the Medici) its identity as the umbilicus mundi of early modern art. This persists, despite the fact that other areas in and beyond Italy had more political, social, and artistic capital, better equipped ports and ships, and stronger global and well-established trade networks to more easily facilitate the circulation of goods. The magnetic draw to Florence is inescapable, however, in part because of the plentiful fruit in the state and private archives there, and in part because of the plethora of secondary sources on various aspects of Florence and its artistic production.

In Francesco Freddolini and Marco Musillo’s anthology, Art, Mobility, and Exchange in Early Modern Tuscany and Eurasia, the Medici stronghold remains firmly intact. However, the essays in the volume work hard to broaden the scope—not just geographically, but also in terms of typologies of art, the inclusion of lesser-known artists, and methodological approaches. As Freddolini explains in the introduction, the Medici, despite all odds, wanted to become the central interlocutor among the four continents. This volume explores how visual culture responded and promoted this identity, focusing specifically on the exchanges with Eurasia. The essays in the three sections—“Mediterranean Connections,” “Livorno,” and “Infrastructures and Networks of Exchange and Asian Interactions”—decenter Florence by expanding to a more even-handed discussion of Tuscany, and by discussing cultural exchange between these sites as fruitful and reciprocal.

Part 1 begins with Brian Brege’s essay, “Making a New Prince.” He explores how the Medici engaged in the elevation of a rebel prince, Ali Pasha, who became a sovereign after the 1605 execution of Canbuladoglu Hüseyn Pasha. The Medici offered necessary material support, and in exchange they were allowed free commerce in his lands. As they did elsewhere, they employed works of art as a diplomatic tool, sending even large objects, such as complex fountains, as gifts. Joseph Silva’s essay, “‘To the Victor Go the Spoils’: Christian Triumphalism, Cosimo I de’ Medici, and the Order of Santo Stefano of Pisa,” focuses on architecture, spectacle, paintings, and spoils in regard to conflicts between the Order, Barbary corsairs, and Ottoman Turks. He addresses the intentional parallels in visual and literary production that establish connections between the Order and the Crusades and to the third-century Saint Stephen in both visual and literary production. The final essay in this section, Federica Gigante’s “Medici Patronage and Exotic Collectibles in the 17th Century: The Cospi Collection,” centers on Ferdinando Cospi’s collection in Bologna as a sort of Medici outpost for signaling their international trade connections and their ability to acquire objects, including a saltcellar from Goa, a Turkish scale used for weighing money, and natural objects like hair from elephants. While the documentation of the collection, including correspondence from the Medici court, makes clear that they did send these objects to Cospi, their motivation as proposed by Gigante is conjectural.

In part 2 the centrality of the port of Livorno, and specifically its designation as a free port, is identified as the key factor in enabling the Medici to engage in international trade, but also for its evolution as a major commercial site for merchants from England, France, the Ottoman Empire, and beyond. Corey Tazzara’s “Disembedding the Market: Commerce, Competition, and the Free Port of 1676” traces the history of the port from 1590, when its doors were opened to foreign merchants, to the institution of stallage in 1676, which enabled merchants to store goods in the port’s warehouse facilities, and identifies principal moments in the elevation of Livorno to a major international port and the site of a free commodity market. Tiziana Iannello’s “Red Coral from Livorno to Hirado: Early Trading Networks and Maritime Trajectories, c. 1570–1623” follows in lockstep with Tazzara’s essay, but homes in on Livorno as a center for coral manufacturing and export, and defines the role of the British community there in trading with Japan, India, Southeast Asia, and China. The East India Company listed red coral as one of its most productive trade commodities: that Livorno was a free port made this growth possible. Cinzia Maria Sicca’s essay, “Florentine Identity and Trade with the Levant,” focuses on the exponential growth of Ginori’s manufacturing enterprise, particularly in wares to be sold in the Levant. She ties this success to the fact that Carlo Andrea Ginori became governor of Livorno and took advantage of a treaty that allowed for easy trade with the Ottoman Empire, all of which occurred beginning in the fourth decade of the 1700s. Ginori produced objects that reflected knowledge of Portuguese, Ottoman, and Chinese porcelain and appealed to global taste, opening up the market and expanding Ginori’s productivity. These objects, along with the commerce of pietre dure objects, were identified as examples of Florentine ingenuity in a global marketplace.

Part 3 focuses further on the types of objects produced specifically for export. Erin Benay, in “Of Rhinos, Peppercorns and Saints: (Re)presenting India in Medici Florence,” explores the taste for objects connected to the cult of Saint Thomas that originated in the site in India where he was buried, Mylapore. She argues that the motivation to collect these objects was to own evidence of the successful conversion to Christianity of foreign peoples. Benay identifies multiple objects in the Tesoro dei Granduchi as the results of this interest and also as evidence of the production of Christian images that relied on Buddhist or Hindu models. Francesco Freddolini’s essay, “Eurasian Networks of Pietre Dure: Francesco Paolosanti Indiano and His Early Seventeenth Century Trade between Florence and Goa,” surveys the biography of Paolosanti, who made multiple trips and established trade relations between Florence, Goa, and the Mughal court. Through archival documents, in particular a 1621 list of pietre dure, painted stones, and other luxury objects that Paolosanti prepared for shipment, the author is able to prove that some objects at the Mughal court tentatively identified as originating in Florence did indeed come from there. Marco Musillo’s “The Fata Morgana of Cosimo III de’ Medici: Giovanni Gherardini and the Portraits of Kangxi” explores the grand duke’s desire to understand and own visual exemplars of Chinese culture, particularly those associated with Kangxi, the Chinese emperor known for his Edict of Toleration (1692), which situated Christianity on a par with Daoism and Buddhism. The portrait in the Uffizi attributed to Giovanni Gherardini, a Florentine artist who lived and worked at the imperial court in Beijing from 1700 to 1704, documents this interest, though as Musillo elucidates, its history is rather enigmatic. Musillo traces how Cosimo III saw Russia as the gateway to exchange with China, with rather failed outcomes, but also connected to China via Jesuit missionaries, particularly Claudio Filippo Grimaldi (1638–1712), who brought him objects from there and also took gifts, including scientific texts, from the grand duke to give to the emperor. Musillo calls for deeper study of the Chinese-Tuscan relationship beyond, as it is now, the study of a more “provincial” taste and curiosity.

I must note here that the essays in the volume are overall very strong, and the volume is a major contribution to this area of inquiry. However, the book suffers because of the shockingly poor quality of the images, especially as many of the objects illustrated are not well known. One can only use them as a basic reference point and seek out photographs elsewhere for closer study.

While all of the essays in this volume are compelling and useful for a more accurate understanding of the place of Medici Tuscany in global relations from circa 1600 to 1800, perhaps Musillo’s postscript is the most powerful and provocatory. In it, he asks scholars to return to the archives, reminding them of the bounty held in those in Florence, but he also advises approaching them like a viewer to a cabinet of wonders: to see in the documents the many threads that connect them to the world beyond. Musillo further advocates for a more nuanced discussion that moves us away from historic biases in our fields, but also beyond what often seems like the rubber stamp of “global” in contemporary scholarship. Freddolini and Musillo’s volume provides a model of how this can be done effectively.

Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio
University of Vermont