The story of the Medici is truly fascinating. The family of bankers became the rulers of Florence, and through their patronage brought about the Renaissance and changed the western world forever. It was Cosimo de’Medici who first took control of Florence, commissioning the completion of the great red dome of the Florence Duomo by Brunelleschi. Part 1 of the Medici film concerning Cosimo is found here.
When he suddenly died, his son Lorenzo took charge. He would become known as “Lorenzo the Magnificent”, as he brought about some of the greatest works of art ever through his patronage. It is staggering how many great artists and thinkers came out of Florence at this time, and considering how small Florence is they must have been elbow to elbow with each other. One of the most important Renaissance painters that came about under Lorenzo deMedici was Sandro Botticelli. It was Botticelli who created the first overtly pagan images at a time when the church of the middle ages was still large and in charge, an act that would never have happened had Lorenzo not relaxed the attitude of the city toward ancient “non-church” ideas. This sort of attitude resulted in enormously free creativity in art, as well as in writing and in the sciences. All of it was happening in Florence.
The greatest painting in Florence today is in the Uffizi gallery, once the offices of the Medici palace (the word uffizi means Offices). It’s this painting here by Botticelli from 1486, called “The Birth of Venus”.
The painting is a true masterpiece of Renaissance art. In it, the mythical goddess Venus is blown into the shore on a shell and received into the world on land. The story from mythology is far more detailed (and downright gross but you’ll have to research that yourself). The image is a true celebration of beauty, an exercise in pure pleasure on the part of the artist. Botticelli elongates the figures, adding to their grace and movement. Just look at Venus’ neck… super long, yet he makes it work. Until this time, feminine nudes just weren’t very common, except in images of Adam and Eve from the garden. Here’s a great short video that picks the painting apart:
We must remember that the church in the 14 and 1500’s still held enormous sway even in free-thinking places like Florence, and the reception towards such images as “the Birth of Venus” and Donatello’s “David” was still highly controversial. This painting was a private commission from Lorenzo deMedici, as were many other revolutionary works. Public attitude was another matter. Enter the radical Dominican Monk, Girolamo Savonarola.
In 1490, Savonarola came to Florence. He took residence at San Marco (where his monastic cell is still seen today) and began preaching firey sermons about the last days. To a zealous preacher like Savonarola, Florence was filled with evidence of the devil’s work. Free-thinking was everywhere, as were symbols of vast Medici wealth. He saw they entire city going straight to hell, and made sure that everyone heard the message. He claimed to have the gift of prophecy, and foretold that Lorenzo would die soon (as it turns out, he was right). Savonarola must have been a very persuasive preacher, because he soon held the city in his hand. Even Botticelli, the painter or beautiful “pagan” paintings, fell under his spell. The Medici had no choice but to flee the city and Savonarola took charge of Florence in 1494. He set about cleansing the city and returning it to God.
He held an enormous public burning in the Piazza della Signoria that came to be called “the Bonfire of the Vanities”. Florentines came to cast all kinds of evils into the flames, including books and manuscripts, symbols of wealth, jewelry, ancient relics and statues, cosmetics, fine clothing, mirrors, musical instruments and many priceless works of early Renaissance art. Botticelli cast his own paintings into the flames. No one knows how many works were destroyed by the artist himself, but it must have been truly gut-wrenching for him. His work was his life, yet he feared- as many Florentines did- for his eternal soul and had no other choice. Over the next few years, public opinion turned on Savonarola. The city was used to Medici wealth and all the benefits it brought, something Savonarola wanted no part of. Eventually, things got so bad that the city revolted, and Savonarola himself was burned at the stake in the same spot as the bonfire. The entire episode was a black eye on the city and took years to recover from. The Medici returned, but under very different circumstances.
Please take the time to watch part 2 of the Medici film, called “The Magnificent Medici”. It is a great movie on all that was discussed here, and really brings to life this crazy time in Florence. Enjoy-