Executed in 1942, Joseph Cornell’s Medici Slot Machine: Object is the first example from what is considered the artist’s most important body of work. Described by Deborah Solomon, the art critic and Cornell’s biographer, as not only his best box from 1942, but perhaps the best box of his entire career, it features the beguiling image of a young Italian aristocrat dressed in fine robes. Around this mysterious figure, Cornell has assembled a collection of enigmatic and fascinating objects that create a magical and mysterious world; these children’s toys and grown-up items evoke a place somewhere between childhood and adulthood, a place where nothing is quite as it seems. Such is the quality of this extraordinary work that it has become the standard for the rest of the artist’s career. As a result, Cornell’s series of Medici boxes are among his most treasured creations, works that are rich in both symbolism and imagination.
This highly personal homage features the portrait of Massimiliano Stampa, the third Marchese di Soncino, as painted by the female Renaissance artist Sofonisba Anguissola. Cornell may have viewed the painting when it was exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1920s, or he may have noticed a reproduction in the October 1939 issue of Art News, where the painting was erroneously identified as that of Pietro de’ Medici. Whatever the source, it is clear that Cornell was captivated by the boy’s likeness, and he used the image to initiate this important series. Anguissola’s portrait is the only full-length portrait that Cornell selected for the Medici Slot Machines, and some scholars think that Cornell may have regarded it as something of a ‘self-portrait.’ Whatever the reason for his choice, Cornell obviously regarded it as an important image as he included it in at least two other examples of his work including Untitled (Medici Boy), circa 1953 (Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth), and Untitled (Medici Prince), circa 1952.
The inspiration for the boxes themselves come from many different sources; most obviously, these meticulously handcrafted objects emulate the old-fashioned penny slot machines common to Coney Island and Atlantic City in the 1920s and 30s, as well as the candy and bubblegum machines found in local five-and-dime shops. “There was a chewing gum machine in the BMT subway station at 34th street that Cornell found particularly striking,” Deborah Solomon has explained. “It was this unlikely object that served as a model for his Medici Slot Machine, which he envisioned as a fantasy version of the original, something ‘that might be encountered in a penny arcade in a dream,’ as he once noted” (D. Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, New York, 2015, p. 139).
In Medici Slot Machine: Object, rather than load the machine with tokens or coins, Cornell has crafted one-inch blocks featuring black-and-white, sepia-toned, and color reproductions of Renaissance paintings and maps. These blocks are offered as prizes alongside the jacks, marbles, colorful balls and a wooden die (that Cornell made), all displayed to mesmeric effect in a mirrored compartment along the lower edge. Anchoring the work along the lower edge is a compartment containing a compass mounted to a metal coil which allows it to quiver when it picks up vibrations transmitted or picked up from the outside world. The sepia-toned copy of Anguissola’s portrait of Massimiliano Stampa presides over the scene—somber and serious despite his obvious youth—which lingers in dreamlike homage to Cornell’s own childhood. As in other Medici Slot Machines, Cornell has hand-painted a thin, black grid over all segments of the box, which reads as a perspectival drawing aid developed in the Renaissance. The Medici Slot Machines are fascinating constructions that testify to the artist’s encyclopedic knowledge of art history and his obsession with popular culture. This witty, surreal creation combines fine art and personal memory, making for a powerful work that embodies Cornell’s lifelong pursuits.
Having spent the 1930s working in New York as a textile designer at the Traphagen Studio in Manhattan, and making his small toys and shadow boxes on the side, in December of 1941 Cornell gathered the determination to pursue art-making full time. He left his job at Traphagen, and moved back into the family home on Utopia Parkway in Queens, New York. There he created a basement studio that would serve as a repository for the many books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines and other ephemera he collected over the years, which he organized in cardboard boxes according to an esoteric system of classification known only to himself. Cornell regularly perused the many dime-stores and bookshops around New York, on the hunt for objects that might spark his interest. “It was during one such Manhattan ramble that Cornell, or so he said, conceived the idea for his extraordinary Medici Slot Machine… He was making his rounds of the bookshops one day in the late 1930s when he chanced upon a stockpile of reproductions of a painting of a Renaissance prince—a willowy, wide-eyed adolescent whose face he found inextricably arresting” (D. Solomon, ibid., p. 139).
The present work is one of the most reproduced, exhibited and discussed of the Medici Slot Machines, and it relates to the other Renaissance portraits Cornell depicted in the series, such as Bronzino’s portrait of Bia de Medici, and Pinturicchio’s Portrait of a Boy. Peering beneath the glass paneling, one discovers the frank portrayal of the nine-year-old boy, dressed in the trappings of his Renaissance finery, in a portrait commissioned on the occasion of his father’s death, at which time he inherited his title of 3rd Marquis. Cornell may have presumed the painting depicted Pietro de’ Medici, who was the son of Cosimo de’ Medici. Pietro had lost his mother at a young age, and later went on to lead a difficult and troubled life. Upon learning of his wife’s adultery, he strangled her with a dog leash and then murdered her lover, before being exiled to Spain. The haunting portrayal of Pietro de’ Medici’s biography may have dovetailed with Cornell’s own, since the artist lost his father at a young age, and lived a tense family life with his mother and his disabled brother. Critics have also suggested that the Medici Slot Machines may also relate to Cornell’s growing unease about the Second World War.
Cornell’s Medici Slot Machine series were named in honor of the Florentine family whose dynasty has become synonymous with the flourishing of the arts and the pursuit of knowledge during the Italian Renaissance. From the 15th to the 18th century, the Medici exerted their influence and patronage over Florence and Tuscany, having facilitated the work of the greatest Renaissance artists and architects of all time. In the present work, Cornell pays homage to the lesser-known Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola, a female artist who came of age during the High Renaissance. As a young woman, she traveled to Rome and there met Michelangelo, who was immediately impressed with her talents and gave her informal training. She ultimately worked for many years as a court painter to King Philip II of Spain, and her portraits of children were particularly well received. The portrait of Massimiliano Stampa that Cornell features in the center of Medici Slot Machine: Object was Anguissola’s first official commission.
“What is a Medici Slot Machine?” writes Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, the art historian who has written about so much of Cornell’s work, in 2003: “The concept did not exist until the artist thought of it and gave it actual form in a family of boxes. From reproductions of Renaissance paintings of children and architectural floor plans, panes of colored glass, and wood game markers, balls and cubes, Cornell created a structure that meshes the Renaissance fascination with mechanical wonders and his childhood memories of games of chance in New York’s penny arcades” (L. R. Hartigan, “Dance with Duality,” in Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay...Eterniday, New York, 2003, pp. 22-23). Indeed, in this—the earliest example and the penultimate one that initiated the series—the Cornell’s Medici Slot Machine displays the mysterious, and often deeply personal, themes that would sustain the artist for the duration of his career.