A taste for grandeur: the collection of a modern Medici
This wide-ranging collection exemplifies the splendour of Renaissance artistry and its enduring legacy
Spanning over 300 years of sculpture, painting and decorative art, Modern Medici: Masterpieces from a New York Collection, will be offered at Christie’s in New York on 27 January.
Inspired by the 15th-century Italian private spaces of study and contemplation known as studiolos, the spirit of this collection is one of scholarly interest and a studied appreciation for beauty. Above all, it reflects the age-old phenomenon of visitors coming away from Italy enriched in every sense.
The collector of the works offered in Modern Medici followed in the footsteps of the industrialists of America’s Gilded Age, who shared a taste for Renaissance grandeur.
‘New York has a tradition of recreating the Renaissance, as with Henry Clay Frick and J.P. Morgan,’ says William Russell, Jr., Head of the Early European Sculpture and Works of Art department at Christie’s. ‘The city has some of the best Renaissance objects in the world because American industrialists were trying to recreate that model of wealthy patrons who were also erudite and sophisticated, like the Medici. This collection extends from that tradition.’
Figures in bronze
A favoured category of the collector behind Modern Medici was Florentine and Baroque bronzes. From well-known items to those never before seen on the market, the assortment further underscores his sophisticated eye. ‘The quiet, contemplative study of bronze was where he excelled,’ says Russell. ‘It’s a rare direction for a modern-day collector because it requires a willingness to work with unknowns.’
Among the sculptures, some make direct reference to the Medici family, such as A terracotta model of the Dwarf Braccio da Poggio Fornione, a celebrated Medici court jester. Others draw from ancient cultures. Several scenes from Greek mythology appear throughout, including A bronze group of the Laocoön from the 17th century and another of Apollo flaying Marysas (circa 1691-1700).
The idea of the unknown is again present in A bronze figure of an écorché man (late 16th/early 17th century). The work, cast by celebrated Renaissance sculptor Willem Danielsz van Tetrode, shows a complex rendering of a muscular nude posing in a strange, balletic posture. ‘It was created at the end of the 16th century, when a fascination with anatomy had exploded,’ says Russell. ‘Here you’ve got science, anatomy, the study of man, but also this theatrical and unnatural posture that leaves a bit of mystery.’
What stands out overall in the collection is the quality of the works. In A bronze figure of Venus drying herself (circa 1585-1600), for example, we witness a striking flawlessness. ‘It’s perfection,’ says Russell. ‘Its colour, casting and condition show off the best of everything.’
The Dutch Golden Age
While the collection has a strong thread of Florentine taste, it also includes exceptional German, Flemish and Dutch works from 16th and 17th centuries.
One of the most striking examples is An overturned silver tazza, a partly peeled lemon and an olive on a silver plate, walnuts, hazelnuts and a knife on a draped table (1636) by Pieter Claesz. Despite its stripped-down composition, the still life is rife with symbolism.
The overturned long-stemmed cup is a possible warning against excess, while the oysters, considered an aphrodisiac, are relegated to the background. ‘Still lifes like this are often viewed through a moralizing lens,’ explains John Hawley, a Specialist in the Old Master Paintings department. ‘But equally important is what they have to say about the commercial activity and wealth of the Dutch Republic in the period.’
The lemons and olives, for example, speak to the country’s unrivaled access to luxury goods from far-flung locales. This coded language between artist and viewer is a theme that runs throughout the collection.
An intimate portrait
The German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach’s intimate Portrait of a Lady, three-quarter-length (circa 1520s) is characteristic of many of his compositions, in which women dressed in the highest fashions are set against dark backgrounds.
‘Though these portraits might record the likenesses of real members of the Saxon court, the paintings might also simply be representations of idealized feminine beauty,’ says Joshua Glazer, Specialist in the Old Master Paintings department. ‘However, there’s another theory that perhaps they’re meant to be disguised portraits of the courtesans or mistresses of whomever these works were painted for. The features are muted, so that only the owner of the portrait would know who is being represented.’
The jewel-like painting is meant to be held in the hand and studied. Accordingly, the previous owner kept the work in their library where it could be picked up and contemplated.
The cross-pollination of ideas
A landscape with lightning (circa 1650s) by David Teniers II — a court painter to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, Governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1646 until 1656 — presents a closely studied scene illuminated by a flash of lightning. Intimate in scale, the work would have been executed quickly to demonstrate the artist’s painterly skill.
Due to the painting’s size and subject matter, Teniers was likely capturing something of personal interest. ‘It’s relatively unusual to find an artist in the 17th century dealing with the transitory effects of light,’ says Hawley. ‘That practice is mostly associated with artists two centuries later painting en plein air. In many ways, this work is looking towards what’s to come.’
Teniers’ Allegory of Spring and Allegory of Winter (circa 1658) — from a set of four — are copies of Francesco Bassano’s larger allegorical works in which figures engage in seasonal activities. Once owned by Christie’s founder, James Christie, these replicas were created in preparation for Theater of Painting, a publication of Teniers’ that documented 243 Italian paintings from the collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. Beyond their quality and immaculate condition, the works highlight the cross-pollination of ideas between countries throughout the Renaissance.
An outstanding work of pietre dure
The collection also includes items inspired by the Medici workshops of the Renaissance, such as this magnificent neoclassical Italian center table (circa 1800-1810) made of gilt bronze and white marble inlaid with semiprecious hardstones.
The marble top, attributed to Giacomo Raffaelli, includes an array of rare stones in a geometric pattern set against a white ground. This method of pietre dure — inlaying semiprecious stones — was cultivated in the Grand Ducal Medici court in Florence, where artisans were supported by the family. It later spread throughout Italy and enjoyed particular success in Naples and Rome.
‘Florentine marble tabletops tend to feature very colourful, pictorial designs,’ says Will Strafford, Deputy Chairman at Christie’s. ‘Whereas here, the hard stones are prized for their own beauty. These incredible stones include rare German agates and Sicilian jaspers and reflect the artist’s passion for natural wonders.’
The base is also a work of extraordinary craftsmanship. It is believed that Raffaelli commissioned the gilt-bronze caryatids and cornucopia from Francesco Righetti, one of Rome’s leading neoclassical sculptors at the time. The figures are wonderfully textured, bringing the finest details into relief.
One of the most beautiful examples of Raffaelli’s geometric compositions, this table was included in the 2008 exhibition Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In the catalogue, Anna Maria Giusti, former Director of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, called it ‘one of the outstanding works of pietre dure made in a Roman style in the early nineteenth century.’
As with the rest of Modern Medici: Masterpieces from a New York Collection, it is the finest of artistic treasures.
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