Skip to main content



Michelangelo's Florence

By Susan Q. Graceson | HUMANITIES, May/June 2002 | Volume 23, Number 3

An international exhibition opening in June reveals the powerful relationship between the Medicis of the late Renaissance and the artists who worked for them. “Magnificenza! The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence” is a collaboration between the Detroit Institute of Arts and dozens of other institutions in this country and abroad.

Drawings and sculptures by Michelangelo and Cellini, paintings by Bronzino, Pontormo, and Salviati, and decorative arts by Buontalenti grace the exhibition. Many of the objects are on loan from institutions that have never lent them before, even to museums within Europe. The exhibition also draws on critical studies of the histories of various subjects--political science, theater, music, economics, botany, and pageantry.

How the Medici grand dukes used art to demonstrate their influence and beautify their city is the focus. The exhibition opens June 13 at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence and then moves to the Art Institute of Chicago in November and to the Detroit Institute of Arts next spring. It showcases the artwork of the family’s collections and commissions, which shaped the landscape of modern Florence.

The Medicis dominated the politics, economics, and culture of late Renaissance Florence. Returning from onagain, off-again exile, four Medici ruled the city in succession as grand dukes from 1537 until 1621. They were descendants of Cosimo the Elder, who had gained political power in Florence in 1434.

In the late fifteenth century, the young sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti went to live with Lorenzo the Magnificent and his family at the Palazzo Medici. There he became friends with two Medici cousins, Giovanni and Giulio, who would become Popes Leo X and Clement VII. Through the years they supported his career with important commissions in Rome and Florence.

In Florence, one of the most notable commissions was for the Medici Chapel of San Lorenzo, which would hold the tombs of the son and grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Lorenzo and Giuliano.

Then-Cardinal Giulio employed Michelangelo to design the memorials. The chapel was never finished, but from the plans and sculptures that were completed, a style was born that would influence the next generation of Florentine artists, the mannerists. One of the primary assignments for students of the Accademia del Disegno, which Michelangelo helped found, was to practice drawing the contorted forms of Dawn, Dusk, Day, and Night that drape the tombs of the chapel.

The exhibition will feature several of Michelangelo’s later drawings and sculptures lent from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence. It also includes one of the Medicis’ most prized sculptures, Michelangelo’s life-size marble David-Apollo (1525-32), on loan from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello. Like many of Michelangelo’s sculptures, it is unfinished. The piece is considered to be a combination of the biblical David and the mythical Apollo. The David figure holds an important place in Florentine imagery, representing the small republic’s triumph over tyranny. Michelangelo’s earlier David of 1503 was placed prominently in the Piazza Signoria by city officials as a reminder of civic ideals. Apollo connotes human grace and beauty, qualities associated with Cosimo I, who eventually owned the sculpture, which was originally intended for an anti-Medici patron, Baccio Valori.

Michelangelo died in 1564; he was nearly eighty-nine. The expanse of his career is consequential—he was important to the high Renaissance in the fifteenth century and ushered in an entirely new style and school of artists in the sixteenth. Although Michelangelo left for Rome in 1534 to paint the Last Judgment, his works in Florence--the David in Piazza Signoria, the Medici Chapel, the Laurentian Library of San Lorenzo--gained adulation in his own lifetime (followers referred to him as “Il Divino,” the Divine One). For decades after his departure to Rome, fellow Florentine artists and architects would imitate his forms.

Michelangelo’s relationship with the Medicis gave Florence dynamic art and architecture, yet the family’s most significant period of rule followed Michelangelo’s departure from Florence, during the reign of the first four Medici grand dukes: Cosimo I, who ruled from 1537 to 1574; Francesco, who ruled from 1574 to 1587; Ferdinando, who ruled from 1587 to 1609; and Cosimo II, who ruled from 1609 to 1621.

After a period of political unrest, the first grand duke, Cosimo I, was elected head of the republic at age seventeen and the same year became duke of Florence. Cosimo and his wife Eleonora set up workshops to produce tapestries, rock crystal and glass, porcelains, and precious hardstones. According to curator Alan Darr, Cosimo was determined to use the arts to restore his family to its past glory and to ensure its hold on Florence. With a belief in self-discipline, meticulous organization, and a reverence for tradition, Cosimo set the stage for his sons and grandsons, the future dukes of Florence. At his death, Cosimo had presided over Florence for thirty-seven years, the longest reign of any of the dukes.

The architecture that flourished under the grand dukes was greatly influenced by Michelangelo. These projects gradually transformed the entire architectural image of Florence. The Medici commissioned new buildings and refurbished existing buildings, always featuring prominent images of themselves in the designs.

Cosimo I named Giorgio Vasari the artistic superintendent of Florence. Vasari undertook extensive renovations of the Medici residences of Palazzo Medici and Palazzo Vecchio. He acknowledged being influenced by Michelangelo. He admired the Medici Chapel for being “in a style more varied and novel than that of any other master,” and said “all artists are under a great and eternal obligation to Michelangelo, seeing that he broke the fetters and chains that had earlier confined them to the creation of traditional forms.”

Without constraints, Cosimo and Vasari designed what is perhaps the greatest legacy of Cosimo’s reign--the Palazzo degli Uffizi, a U-shaped building that would house government offices and interconnecting art galleries. At Cosimo’s request, Vasari designed a secret passageway above the covered Ponte Vecchio over the Arno River so the Medici family could move unseen from the Uffizi to their residence at Palazzo Pitti in times of crisis.

The Uffizi was incomplete in 1574 when Vasari and Cosimo died. Bernardo Buontalenti, a set-designer and well-known architect who had trained with Vasari, became artistic superintendent under the next Grand Duke Francesco. Buontalenti completed the Uffizi in 1580, adding the domed Tribuna to showcase the Medici’s most precious collections, and the Granducal Theater in which their collection of prints and drawings would later be held. The Uffizi was the largest building produced by the Medici and the first in the Western world designed to hold an art collection.

Another grand-ducal legacy includes the creation of elaborate gardens and villas. In the Boboli Gardens, adjacent to Palazzo Pitti, Cosimo I commissioned Niccolo Tribolo to create a landscape of fountains, pools, and small buildings. When Francesco took over as duke in 1574, he continued the work his father had begun. Francesco “was not well liked by Florentines,” writes Darr, “because he seemed more interested in performing obscure experiments involving the relationship between art, nature, and science than in governing the city.” His fascination with nature, however, prompted him to include extravagant gardens in his architectural projects. These designs are among the great artistic and engineering achievements of the period and were duplicated all over Europe.

The Villa Medici featured elaborate grottos and fountains and Giambologna’s enormous sculpture of the Apennine. The gardens of the Palazzo Pitti featured Giambologna’s Venus. The Medici Villa at Petraia held a large bronze fountain figure of his Fiorenza, the female personification of Florence, which will stand at the entrance to the upcoming exhibition.

Giambologna, like other mannerist artists such as Cellini or Bronzino, took the emotional, twisted forms that Michelangelo created and refined them into a self-conscious elegance. The result is a Florence that reflects the changing tastes of its leadership. Today in the Piazza Signoria, two nude monuments stand side by side for comparison: the proletariat David of Michelangelo and Cellini’s ornamental Perseus, an appropriate legacy for the aristocratic grand dukes of Florence.

About the Author

Susan Q. Graceson is a writer in Falls Church, Virginia.

Funding Information

The Detroit Institute of Arts received $341,000 in NEH support to produce the exhibition “Magnificenza! The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence” and accompanying programs and catalog. The exhibition opens June 13 at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, November 9 at the Art Institute of Chicago, and March 16, 2003, at the Detroit Institute of Arts.