Art and Nature at the Court of Francesco I de’ Medici: Coral, Rock Crystal, Lapis Lazuli, and Shells

Thumbnail Image
Merla, Heather
Francesco I de' Medici , Coral , Rock Crystal , Lapis Lazuli , Shells , Art and Nature
This dissertation considers the relationship between art and nature in Florence under Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici (1541-87) through an investigation of four materials: coral, rock crystal, lapis lazuli, and shells. The use and representation of these natural materials in spaces and objects associated with Francesco reveals the complexity of the art/nature duality at the time and place in which art was taking shape as an academic practice in the form of the Accademia del Disegno and the writing of art history by Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) and others. Further, attitudes towards the natural world were shifting as a result of the work of naturalists such as Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), a long-time correspondent of Francesco, and European explorations into the wider world. These case studies have broader implications for such issues as Medici heritage, the legacy of Michelangelo, the style sometimes called “Mannerism,” natural history, and global expansion. Under Francesco, the generative forces of art and nature were united, as suggested in his Studiolo, the gardens of Pratolino, in objects such as mounted branches of coral, rock crystal vessels, sculptures encrusted with shells, and paintings filled with ultramarine, and, most explicitly, in the operation of artists’ workshops next to alchemical and other “scientific” laboratories within the Casino di San Marco, the activities of which Francesco actively participated, satisfying his own intellectual curiosity into the workings of nature and its transformations at the hands of skilled artists. This dissertation will demonstrate that the relationship between art and nature not only played out in realm of style, as espoused in art theoretical texts, but in the materiality of the arts, placing those irregular natural substances of Mother Nature as central to the culture of Francesco’s Florence.
External DOI