Vasari, the Medici, and the Grotesques of the Palazzo Vecchio

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McColeman, Susanne
Cosimo I de' Medici , Grotesques , Eleonora di Toledo , Francesco I de' Medici , Palazzo Vecchio , Marco da Faenza , Bianca Cappello , Giorgio Vasari
In 1540, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and his wife Eleonora di Toledo moved from the Medici palace on the Via Larga into the Palazzo Vecchio, the former seat of the Florentine republican government. As part of the ducal couple’s efforts to fashion their public identity, they embarked on an extensive new decorative program, which included entire walls, ceilings, and tapestries ornamented with grotesques. When Cosimo’s son and heir, Francesco I, married Giovanna d’Austria and then ruled years later with his second wife Bianca Cappello, they commissioned more grotesques for the palace. Though they are used throughout the seat of Florentine politics, the grotesques of the Palazzo Vecchio have been largely unstudied. According to sixteenth-century sources, artists had the license to follow their whims and fancies when they executed grotesques. The central question of this study is why these patrons would have commissioned so many works in which they were expected to relinquish control of the project to the artists, especially in spaces in which their self-fashioning was paramount. Cosimo was, after all, well-known for his rigid control over even minute political and cultural affairs. Particularly revealing are the texts of Giorgio Vasari, who both championed the status of the artist and tirelessly promoted the interests of his patrons, and the grotesques executed by Marco da Faenza under Vasari’s supervision. These works suggest that certain themes and guidelines were dictated to the artists, but that within the given parameters a great deal of freedom, whimsy, and humour were welcome, complementing the values held by sixteenth-century Italian courts. These themes and the degree of license permitted varied according to the location of the grotesques as well as the gender of the intended viewers. The rich cultural connotations of the style and the capriciousness with which imagery could be manipulated produced a range of all’antica painting that could be elevated or base, religious or secular, serious or playful. In every case, with their rhetoric of freedom, grotesques created the impression that the Medici cultivated free expression and established a Golden Age in which liberty reigned.
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