Cut-throat Politics in the Palm of Your Hand (Favorites at Washington’s National Gallery, 9)

One of the genres of that reappeared during the Renaissance was portraiture: hundreds of  meticulously executed paintings have survived. Sculptured portraits are far fewer, and sculptured portraits with added color are even less common. One of my favorite painted terracotta portraits is at the National Gallery. If this portrait shows a characteristic moment (as portraits should), then this man must have spent a lot of time in serious thought.

Florentine 15th or 16th Century, probably after a model by Andrea del Verrocchio and Orsino Benintendi, Lorenzo de' Medici, 1478/1521, painted terracotta. Washington, National Gallery, Samuel H. Kress Collection

Florentine 15th or 16th Century, probably after a model by Andrea del Verrocchio and Orsino Benintendi, Lorenzo de’ Medici, 1478/1521, painted terracotta. Washington, National Gallery, Samuel H. Kress Collection

Florence rose to prominence from the 13th c. onward in large part because it was a city of wealthy merchants and had a comparatively large amount of political freedom – it wasn’t controlled by an absolute ruler such as a pope, king, or duke. But early in the 15th c., Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464), who had inherited enormous wealth and was himself an expert financier, came to dominate Florentine politics. His grandsons Lorenzo and Giuliano carried on Cosimo’s tradition of directing the city’s affairs while pretending to be the equals of other citizens.

The other wealthy Florentine families weren’t fooled. One of them, the Pazzi, plotted to kill Lorenzo and Giuliano during High Mass at the Duomo. Giuliano was stabbed to death; Lorenzo was injured, but recovered. This terracotta bust is probably a copy of one of the polychrome wax sculptures that were created to commemorate Lorenzo’s survival – hence the startlingly vivid realism.

What I’ll look for next time

The colors: it’s been recently cleaned, which can make a tremendous difference in colors.

Also: Representations of powerful men are usually created and positioned so you have to look up at them. I wonder if the effect is different if one looks up at the bust, rather than looking on eye level as the National Gallery photographer did?


While searching for that bust of Lorenzo on the National Gallery’s site, I turned up a work that floored me. Preface: We have thousands of artworks from Renaissance Florence, but few represent major political events. For example: Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497 was a turning point in the history of Florence, but I can’t find a single contemporary representation of it.

When I was looking for the bust of Lorenzo, the search results included a bronze piece barely larger than the diameter of a soda can: the Pazzi Conspiracy Medal. On the recto is a bust of Lorenzo, looming above a crowd of attackers.

Bertoldo di Giovanni, Lorenzo de' Medici, il Magnifico, 1449-1492 (The Pazzi Conspiracy Medal) [obverse], Italian, c. 1430/1440 - 1491, 1478, bronze. Washington, National Gallery, Samuel H. Kress Collection

Bertoldo di Giovanni, Lorenzo de’ Medici, il Magnifico, 1449-1492 (The Pazzi Conspiracy Medal) [obverse], Italian, c. 1430/1440 – 1491, 1478, bronze. Washington, National Gallery, Samuel H. Kress Collection

On the verso, among the crowd at the lower right, is the dead body of Giuliano.

Bertoldo di Giovanni, The Murder of Giuliano I de' Medici (The Pazzi Conspiracy Medal) [reverse], Italian, c. 1430/1440 - 1491, 1478, bronze. Washington, National Gallery, Samuel H. Kress Collection

Bertoldo di Giovanni, The Murder of Giuliano I de’ Medici (The Pazzi Conspiracy Medal) [reverse], Italian, c. 1430/1440 – 1491, 1478, bronze. Washington, National Gallery, Samuel H. Kress Collection

Cut-throat politics, indeed. I need to see this!

 Note

The Wikipedia article on the Pazzi Conspiracy has a sketch from one of 22-year-old Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks showing one of the conspirators, hung: a vivid reminder that Renaissance artists didn’t live in ivory towers.

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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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