Half sixteenth-century Florence, half twentieth-century Coney Island, with a certain resemblance to seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting, Cornell's Medici Princess encompasses both an internal and deliberate logic that lies beyond the grasp of its viewer, exhibiting Cornell's interest in alternative understandings of the world around us. Eleanor Ward, of the iconic Stable Gallery, eloquently described the artist as belonging to a romantic world that only he knew and we were privileged to enter (E. Ward, quoted in D. Solomon, Uptopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, New York, 1997, p. 237).
Drawing influence from the culturally prominent Italian banking family, political dynasty and royal house, Cornell predominately turns to three young portraits of the Medici family, as well as Pinturicchio's Portrait of a Boy and Caravaggio's Head of a Boy in his Medici series. Possessing a penchant for art history, Cornell had a particular affinity for the Medici family as evidenced by his frequent use of their Renaissance-era portraits, which he had encountered first hand at the 1939 Worlds Fair. Occupying the central nave of his Medici princess altar pieces, Bronzino's Portrait of Bia de Medici, deeply resonated with Cornell. The illegitimate daughter of Cosimo de Medici, the young girl, who died of fever at age six, never knew the true identity of her mother. Cornell, who lost his own father at a young agea tragedy which no doubt impacted the artists obsession with the preservation of youth must have been entranced by the portrait, which was commissioned posthumously by Bias father. Similarly, the childhood portrait of Piero de Medici by the little-known female artist Sofinisba Anguissola reflects Cornell's own biography as the young prince suffered the loss of his mother at age eight. While the power and influence of the Medici family spanned numerous generations and had an impact on all aspects of culture, Cornell fixated on these childhood portraits. In Medici Princess, Bia is forever immortalized behind glass. The tribute to Bia becomes multiplied in this work, imprinting the image of the princess along the side corridors of the box and thus committing her visage to memory. Rather than having a diluting effect on the striking and memorable portrait, the use of repetition only increases the intensity of her never faltering gaze and serves to instill the image further into our consciousness.
With its arcade-like format, and die-like blocks, a sense of interaction becomes ignited within the viewer, and yet the inability to comprehend the manner in which the box is activated results in the ineffable world of Bia de Medici lying even more tantalizingly and poignantly beyond our grasp. Cornell himself discussed this in his notes when he mused that perhaps a definition of a box could be as a kind of forgotten game, a philosophical toy of the Victorian era, with poetic or magical moving parts, achieving even slight measure of this poetry or magic...that golden age of the toy alone should justify the boxs existence (J. Cornell, quoted in D. Ades, The Transcendental Surrealism of Joseph Cornell, pp. 15-41, Joseph Cornell, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1980, p. 29). As Lynda Roscoe Hartigan has described of these boxes:
"The structure of the Medici Slot Machines recalls the arcades decorative wood cabinets, including the use of a centralized or dominant image as well as compartments with prizes to attract attention. Cornell's Slot Machines do not literally operate, but their array of small objects such as jacks, game markers, and balls conjure the notion of play and the added excitement of winning a prize. The early moving picture machines found in penny arcades were also housed in wood cabinets equipped with peepholes and cranks to activate sequential images. In the Slot Machines, the repetition and stacking of images allude to filmstrips. Trained on the images of children, the sight lines that are painted on panes of glass in these boxes evoke the moving targets featured in arcade shooting galleries. However, in Cornell's translation, the reference takes on a subtle, sobering inflection, especially since he initiated the series during the Second World War. Concerned about the destruction of life, property, and European culture (much of it owing a debt to the Medici), Cornell used the shooting gallery motif to symbolize the indiscriminate damage that chance can cause" (L. R. Hartigan, "Medici Slot Machines, Shadow Play Eterniday," op cit., p. 106).
Indeed, there is an element of gravitas in this series that Cornell explored further in the more austere Slot Machines of the 1940s and 1950s. Owing a great deal to Johannes Vermeer, whose paintings The Milkmaid and A Lady Writing were also on view at the New York World's Fair, Cornell notably shared the Dutch masters fascination for scientific invention, cartography, astronomy and optics. Understanding the fundamentals of Vermeer's art and in particular his interior scenes Cornell adopted the rigor in which his predecessor structured his images, including his interest in perspective, color and light, as well as his painstaking attention to detail. Creating domestic arenas in which the everyday and the common place took on the aura of the transcendental and the sublime, one can sense the air and feel the light within Vermeer's paintings. Likewise, and probably more intriguing to Cornell, Vermeer's female subjects are simultaneously palpable and inaccessible. Following in Vermeer's path, Cornell underscored the structural component of his shadow boxes to give free rein to his own highly developed poetic imagery. Cornell emulated Vermeer's use of the genre subjects, as well as, in Medici Princess and Medici Slot Machine, the Dutch masters palette of blue, yellow, and white.
At once sophisticated and melancholy, the brown and blue tinted glassa visual effect borrowed from the daguerreotypecontributes to the tone of solemnity and purity, establishing an ideal for both innocence and youthful beauty. In his own daguerreotypes, Cornell centered a figure or face in a shadow casing and arranged a number of objects surrounding the space. He followed suit in the Medici boxes, juxtaposing the images with diagrams of European cities fashioned from pieced-together Baedeker maps and combing them with such real-life objects as marbles, jacks and cork balls, so that the memory of the Renaissance child becomes both real and contemporary, alive and very much present.