Archive for History

A Passion for Porphyry

The Vatican museum: hall after hall of ancient Rome.  Shelves crowd the corridors with busts of Caesar, of Cicero, of a hundred obscure Senators, of still more-obscure Romans, anonymous but vivid with two-thousand-year expressions of resolve or grit or whimsy crowded shelf on shelf.  Here sits Penelope still patient, Diana hunting, Bacchus laughing merry, while somewhere in the distance the Sistine Chapel lurks, complacent in its celebrity.  In the Hall of Animals, Roman hounds sniff at Roman horses, rabbits, crabs, crocodiles, camel heads with their enormous, gummy lips, all stone.  The Belvedere Courtyard stunned you with its circle of masterpieces every one of which transformed the history of sculpture: the Belvedere Apollo, the Belvedere Torso that so fascinated Michelangelo, and, as matchless when the Renaissance unearthed it as it was when Pliny called it the best of sculptures 1500 years before, the real Laocoön.  The walls and ceilings of the patchwork labyrinth-palace are such an ocean of gilded cornices and marble tracework that it becomes impossible to tell north from south or ground from upper floors, so all sense of grounded space is long gone as you turn the corner into a grand scarlet rotunda, floored with vivid Roman mosaics.  Statues of gods and emperors loom, more than twice life-height: grim-faced Athena, tired Claudius, the massive gilded Hercules; while the friend beside you stops dead and, slack-jawed, points at a big stone tub in the middle of the room: “Look at the size of that hunk of porphyry!”

Yes, it’s porphyry, a dark, reddish-purple speckly stone, and this room, for the many who enter and ooh and aah and glittering Hercules, is another moment of material illiteracy.  Just as a Catholic spots John the Baptist by his hairshirt, and a fashionista a Gucci handbag by whatever alien cues its curves contain, so from the Roman Republic to Napolean a European knew what porphyry implies: Wealth, Technology, Empire, Rome.

Porphyry has become a generic term for igneous rock containing large spots (crystals), but the source of the name is the Greek word for purple, and the purple form is the true original.  This is referred to as Red Porphry, Purple Porphyry, or, most aptly, Imperial Porphyry.


The Imperial Porphyry found in Italy came from a single mine in Egypt, the Mons Porphyrites.  It was imported by the Romans as a decorative accent stone, for use in tiled floors, as colored columns, or occasionally carved into a vase or sculpture.  Its color invokes Royal Purple, but is also very close to the color of the fabulously expensive shellfish-based purple dye which produced the purple stripe which marked the tunics and togas of the Senatorial class.  This also dyed the completely purple toga worn by those who occupied the rare and severely powerful office of Censor, a special official created only on occasions, whose task was to examine the state of the Senatorial families and judge which were still worthy of office and who should be removed or added to the roster of Rome’s leading citizens.

A Roman statue with a purple toga rendered in porphyry, from the Boboli gardens behind the Medici’s Pitti Palace.

Several Caesars held this special office, so purple, and porphyry, and as their palaces became more opulent it became increasingly an imperial symbol.  In Constantinople, once the capitol moved in the late empire, the imperial palace contained an entire room covered in porphyry, and this was traditionally where empresses gave birth, giving imperial princes and princesses the title Porphyrogenos, “born to the purple”.

Porphyry is extremely hard, also dense and heavy.  Even lifting a substantial hunk of porphyry is a great feat, let alone transporting it by ship from Egypt.  It is also so hard that it takes very strong, well-tempered steel to cut it, and even then, achieving any great degree of precision is very challenging.  The Romans had steel good enough, but it too was lost in the Middle Ages, making Roman porphyry artifacts not only symbols of the Caesars but of the impossible godlike skills of the ancients, which their weak successors could only marvel at.  It was physical, recognizable proof that the Romans could do the impossible.  In addition, the location of the mine in Egypt was lost around the fourth century AD, and not successfully rediscovered until 1823.

Imperial Porphyry has a cousin, green porphyry, or Lapis Lacedaemonius (or Spartan basalt), commonly called Serpentine (confusingly since it IS NOT the same thing as the far softer serpentine subgroup of stones including antigorite, chrysotile and lizardite, but they are all sometimes called serpentine).  It is just as hard, coming from a mine near Sparta (or near the modern Greek town of Krokees).  It is speckled too though often with larger speckles, many somewhat rectangular or X-shaped.  The combination of rich green and purple, usually set in a white Italian marble background, was an extremely popular decorative element seen all over Rome, in the houses of Rome’s imitators, and especially in palaces and churches which re-used floor tiles looted from Roman sites.  Porphyry ornaments the floors of Rome’s greatest churches, with the size and density of porphyry among the framing stones increasing toward the altar.  The header at the top of this very blog shows a porphyry section from the floor of the Sala della Disputa, the frescoed room in the Vatican which hosts Raphael’s incomparable School of Athens, while the Sistine Chapel Floor (not a phrase you hear often enough) completes the opulence of the other decoration with a dense decoration more purple than white.

In the Middle Ages, then, porphyry meant Rome, specifically the lost power of the Caesars who could reach across oceans and achieve impossible feats.  Anywhere porphyry appeared it was a Roman relic, and anyone who had it could claim thereby to be an inheritor, in some small way, of that lost Imperium.  Porphyry also came, over the middle ages, to symbolize Christ (reddish purple = blood), but in the Middle Ages everything came to represent Christ, from griffins and unicorns to pelicans and pomegranates (no, it’s totally not a co-opted pagan symbol, why do you ask?), so what distinguished porphyry from the zillion other things that represented Christ was still its imperial connection and its technological unachievability.

Re-purposed porphyry in a Church floor, with remnants of its Roman inscription.

Thus everyone who’s everyone wanted porphyry, and if you wanted it, you had to steal it.  The only porphyry in Europe lay in things the Romans built, so every prince and republic and sculptor who wanted this symbol of Roman power had to steal it from the source.  Want to put in a nice porphyry floor for a Church?  Loot it from a Roman temple.  Want to advertise the imperial majesty of Mary Queen of Heaven?  Make the altar out of an old, repurposed porphyry sarcophagus.  If a pope wanted porphyry columns for his tomb, he had no better source than to go to some surviving Roman temple (say, the Pantheon…) and rip out the porphyry, perhaps if he’s polite substituting some less valuable stone to keep the looted edifice from falling down.

Some places already had porphyry brought there by the Romans, and in these cases it was proudly displayed as proof of the noble Roman origins of a town or province.  Even in Florence, on the baptistery which is the literal heart and center of the city, the gilded Gates of Paradise are still flanked by two old, cracked and mended, asymmetrical dark reddish columns, built into green and white facade despite a complete chromatic mismatch.  So old and dull are they that many don’t even notice them upon first or even third visit, but these are porphyry, relics of the Roman-era Church of Santa Reparata, or its predecessor, preserved and re-used here as proud proof of Florence’s Roman roots.

The Uffizi “lupa” i.e. she-wolf

Porphyry sculpture was even more impressive than a tile or column, since working such an adamantine substance into complex shapes required immense time and skill.  Diamond was rare and valuable and not a practical tool for trying to make a large chisel to work large stone, but short of diamond the only means to shape porphyry was to rub it against another piece of porphyry for a very long time, grinding both down, a clumsy, labor-intensive and imprecise technique.  Many, especially the Medici family, poured funds and efforts into researching ways to make a metal sharp enough to carve porphyry, or a solvent capable of weakening it, in hopes of adding this to their list of resurrected Roman achievements.  Even before they succeeded, however, possessing a Roman porphyry sculpture was an even grander boast than possessing simple tiles, and at last now we can understand why, in the Uffizi Gallery, where the great Roman sculpture treasures of the Medici are still housed, one comes around the corner to the very center of the U-shaped gallery, expecting to see in the center some exceptional masterpiece, an Emperor or bold Athena, one sees instead the mangled, limbless torso of an animal.  Look again: those hips, those hanging teats.  This is the mangled, limbless torso of a porphyry she-wolf, the symbol of Rome herself.

A porphyry bust at Versailles.

Naturally, the greatest concentration of porphyry lay (and lies) in and around Rome itself.  The farther you are from Rome, the scarcer (and more impressive) porphyry becomes.  Florence had a couple columns and the odd basin, but for more porphyry they had to buy or steal from Rome, or elsewhere.  The Venetians carried off large pieces of porphyry from Constantinople when they looted it, and still display them proudly as pulpits on either side of the main alter in San Marco.  Porphyry in northern Italy is comparatively scarce, so a Venetian palace with a few roundels in its facade makes a real statement.  Even as far as France, when Louis was decorating Versailles, porphyry was scarce indeed, but what few busts and vases he got hold of went straight into the best places: the throne room, and the Hall of Mirrors where every visitor would see, and understand, Louis = Caesar.

The pope always wins the Who-Has-The-Most-Porphyry Competition, and the Vatican is its grand display case.  The staggeringly enormous porphyry basin in the round sculpture room in the Vatican palace is referred to as Nero’s bathtub, and is the largest piece of porphyry I have ever seen; I would not be surprised to discover it is the largest in the world.

The sarcophagus of St. Helen

One is generally still reeling from trying to imagine the staggering cost and difficulty of creating and moving such an object, when in the next room one encounters an even more impossible vision: two enormous solid porphyry sarcophagi, both taller than a standing person, and covered in deep relief carvings of horsemen, prisoners and acanthus leaves.  This is Rome indeed.  Specifically, these are the sarcophagi of the women of Constantine’s family, including the tomb of his mother, Helen, or more specifically Saint Helen, who traveled to the holy land and brought back the True Cross and the Lance of Longinus and… at least one other major relic, but I can’t right now remember whether it was a nail or part of the Crown of Thorns, or perhaps that piece of the Holy Sponge they have in Rome…  (Spot the Saint moment: Helen’s attribute in art is that she carries the cross.)  Regardless, the two tombs have no Christian imagery, just the most Roman of Roman decorations, horsemen leading vanquished prisoners for Helen, and for the other fertility images.  In deep, impossible relief.  In an era when it was a substantial feat to scrape two looted pieces of porphyry into sufficiently matching shapes to make them seem symmetrical in a floor pattern, there is no purer proof of the godlike power of the ancients.  After that, there is just too much, and every further encounter with porphyry in the Vatican labyrinth feels like one, two, three, five, ten too many.

That guy should be taking a photo of the porphyry!

St. Peter’s is just as much a showroom for porphyry, with columns, tiles, tombs.  Every purple object that, from a distance, makes you think “is that porphyry?” turns out to be the genuine article.  And it’s worth keeping in mind that, except for the most modern pieces, they’re all relocated chunks of what were Roman temples scattered around the city from the Caesars’ days.

One large porphyry round in the floor close to the entrance is supposed to be the stone from the original St. Peter’s on which Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor (and successor to the Caesars) on Christmas day, 800 AD.  It’s just inside the entrance in the exact center of the Church, sort of balancing the altar, secular power facing sacred.

Perhaps my favorite piece of papal porphyry, though, is this set of porphyry keys carved and set into other stonework in the threshold of the Church, so every visitor who enters walks across them.  Most ignore them, but in the pre-modern world one glance at heraldic papal keys in porphyry spells a very special kind of awe: not only does the pope have Porphyry but apparently he has the power to carve it into a Christian shape.  Clearly he is Rome’s successor.  With so many visiting feet for so many centuries, the papal threshold keys are also the best proof I know of the extreme hardness of porphyry, since the stone around them is worn down by more than a centimeter, while the keys stick up, unharmed by the tread of millions.  The Florentine Museum of the History of Science has examples of scientific instruments and grinding stones fashioned from porphyry, chosen for its rigidity and inelasticity as well as for its opulence.

It is not easy stopping traffic long enough to take this detail shot of the threshold of St. Peter’s
Note how much more detailed the carving on the marble chest is than the porphyry head on this bust of a late Medici.

The ability to carve porphyry was eventually recovered, and in the 18th century Roman relics were transformed into large numbers of sculptures, especially busts, of rather questionable taste and quality.  Porphyry remains hard to work with, so the very subtle curves and scratches necessary to make a really lifelike human portrait are simply impossible in it.  Its products are always a little too smooth and shiny, the edges of the eyes clumsily cut, the wrinkles a little too smooth, like waves rather than folds.  Also, purple with speckles is not the most flattering skin tone.

Fake porphyry was, naturally, an industry as well, and many of the most famous buildings in Europe contain not only real porphyry but painted fake porphyry, made of plaster or wood painted with the signature purple and speckles.  This was most often done for bases on which statues sat, or for trim around rooms, but the Villa Borghese in Rome contains whole tabletops of fake porphyry, with real porphyry busts nearby to make them plausible.  Porphyry was also a popular ingredient in painted scenes, especially paintings of imagined palaces, and of places intended to be ancient Rome.  And heaven, of course.  The halls of Heaven, where saints and angels pose for altarpieces, have plenty of porphyry.

Reverse of a decorative wooden platter, painted to look like porphyry
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Good morning, Giotto!

This morning the Campanile is having some inspections & cleaning.

The city of Florence would like it to be known that 7:00 AM is the correct time to get up and admire Giotto’s bell tower.

Perhaps you didn’t hear me.

IT’S 7 AM!  DONG!!!  I’M A BELL TOWER!  DONG!!!  LOOK AT ME!  DONG!!!  YOU WEREN’T STILL SLEEPING WERE YOU?  DONG!!!

Needless to say, sleeping in is an impossibility in an apartment a few blocks from, not one, but eight separate audible bell towers, which all ring with different degrees of force and verve at different times, all day.  Every day.  Especially Sunday.  The main campanile, though, designed by Giotto and started in 1334, is the hefty one, and guarantees a long, productive morning out of everyone.  Actually, the bell tower (or Campanile) was not finished to Giotto’s design, but he still gets credit, since he is, after all, the much-beloved heart and founder of Renaissance art.

Yes, it is that big, and it's three blocks from where I'm trying to sleep.

Why?

Five minute art history lesson: amaze your friends and impress your parents by being able to tell at a glance the difference between Medieval and Renaissance art!  Yes, it’s that easy.

To explain why Giotto matters I will take you to the first main room of the Uffizi gallery to look at three identical altarpieces depicting the Madonna enthroned with child and angels.  All derive from that era in which almost all art (I’m not talking 3/4, I’m talking 90%) consisted of nearly-identical, stiff iconic images of saints.  In fact, it’s safe to say 50% of them are the Madonna and Child.  This is an era of art that some people find beautiful but many find tedious and repetitive, and both camps are, in my opinion, right.  It is also the perfect way to demonstrate what Giotto did, and why everyone considers him the beginning of Renaissance art.

Madonna Ruccelai (Duccio di Buoninsegna; 1285)

Above is a lovely Madonna by Duccio di Buoninsegna, an excellent late medieval master.  (Click for a bigger version).  Note the beautiful and detailed patterns on the drapes behind the Madonna, rendered in elaborate colors and veined with gold leaf which would have glittered hypnotically in the church candlelight.  It’s beautiful.  Note too that Mary has pretty-much no anatomy.  She’s a big blue blob with a knee, and stars on her robe (one of Mary’s attributes, since Mary is the Queen of Heaven so gets stars).  The angels too are lovely with detailed wings, floating in a stack in non-space.  And her throne, elaborately patterned, knows nothing of perspective.  The whole thing is nearly-identical to a Byzantine icon.

Now, jumping up a few years:

Maestà di Santa Trinita (Cimabue, 1290-1300)

This Madonna, by the excellent and progressive artist Cimabue.  New things are going on here.  Mary has a lot more anatomy: feet, drapes outlined in gold.  The angels, with their lovely wings, are not floating vaguely but are in front of each other as if actually in the same place.  The throne has no formal linear perspective, but does have breadth due to being broader in the front than in the rear.  This is again lovely.

Now, check out Giotto’s:

Ognissanti Madonna (Giotto, 1314-27)

Houston, we have volume.  Look at Mary’s body; she has a chest, weight.  Look at the baby; you can tell how thick his arms and legs are.  Look at the kneeling angels, how you can see the volume of their thighs.  And check out the saints standing on either side: they’re standing in space.  In a plane.  Not just in front of each other but on an actual floor, like people standing in a room.  Their halos are starting to get in the way too, setting the stage for the era when halos will turn from gold discs to smaller arcs, to make room for other objects occupying the same space.  Look at their faces, how they have the proportions of real faces.  Mary less than the others, but the angels’ eyes are in the vertical center of the head, their brows, chins, noses, all in correct proportion.  If he had secretly snuck in a portrait of a real human onto one of those standing saints it would look the same.  Look how the shading on the drapery isn’t just lines but actual shadow so it looks really 3-dimensional.

All checked out and ready for the week.

When you look at it by itself, yes, it’s another fairly monotonous painting of the Madonna, but with more realistic figures we can now move toward realistic space, realistic facial expressions, people interacting with objects, foreground, background, landscape, architecture.

With this we can have a Renaissance.

And with this you can literally glance at a painting, look at how the figures are proportioned, and tell the difference between something from the Renaissance and something that’s in the Medieval/Byzantine/eastern tradition (since, after all, they still make icons of Mary as a shiny blue blob, they just don’t do it much in Italy…)

And I didn’t make you get up at 7 AM to do it either.  DONG!!!

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Vasari, the Palazzo Vecchio and the History of Florence (Begins Introductions to Historic Cities Series)

Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio

On July 30th Florence, the Uffizi gallery, Google and numerous other Earthly powers celebrated the 500th birthday of Georgio Vasari (1511-1574).

Both praising and describing Vasari are challenging, since no one could in fairness call him one of the Renaissance’s best painters, nor one of its best architects, nor even one of its best biographers. His Lives of the Artists is certainly what has brought him the most fame, but this collection of brief biographies of Renaissance artists is not only dry but unreliable, both in the poor-fact-checking-sense and in the extreme and unblushing bias which is as ubiquitous in pre-modern biography as tomato sauce on an American pizza. We read Vasari today only because he was these artists’ only biographer, and needs must as the paucity of sources drives. Yet, if Vasari was surpassed by many in arts and letters, walking the streets of Florence today I can think of few who touch him in footprint. He was a Great Figure of the Renaissance, one whose touch I feel constantly as I cross squares and explain architecture to new-made friends, to whom I find myself constantly repeating, “Of course, that bit wasn’t like that back then—it was redone by Vasari.” In brief, Vasari redid the Palazzo Vecchio. At length, in order to avoid making Vasari seem to be a petty, place-seeking stooge, I’m afraid I have to go back a ways…

Once upon a time the Roman Empire ended, and with it the network of roads and trade and safety that had strung cities together into a web of economy and culture. Small, unsteady kingdoms followed, but in Northern Italy at least, while cities formally passed from prince to distant prince, the absence of real central infrastructure and enforcement left them virtually alone. Italy’s cities became citystates, ruled by remote powers, pope or Emperor, in name only, while in reality they governed themselves, walled islands of population and production, independent and, at first at least, many republican. They had Rome as their model, an elite voting population and elected offices, not quite the same as the old republic but close enough to breed patriots as proud as Cicero. But these little city republics, like Rome’s, weren’t stable. Faction fighting bred civil war, brought on partly by ambitious families but more often by that Hobbesian principle that anyone powerful or rich enough to be envied by his neighbors can never sleep safe at night until he has deprived said neighbors (through subjugation or execution) of the ability to kill him in his sleep. Winners became rulers and one-by-one the city republics became the seats of lords and dukes and counts and other-titled princes. (This is all oversimplified, of course, but the romantic narrative is more important than the gritty details when our purpose is to understand what the Palazzo Vecchio means as a symbol of what was.)

Florence held out longest of the great cities (excepting Venice; we must in all things except Venice, since Venice is that special), Florence the stubborn, free, fractious, strange Republic. Over and over it nearly fell, as ambitious nobles and entrenched vendettas (think Montagues and Capulets) made the streets stream with blood and the road with exiles, Dante among them. From a pure body-count perspective there is no way around admitting that the surrounding cities that did turn to monarchies were better off, stable, efficient, comparatively immune to faction fighting, but free Florentines would never sacrifice liberty and dignity for ease and calm—and this includes the vast, disenfranchised majority who were not members of the voting elite but still took pride in their Republic.

San Gimignano still has its towers (wiki pic)

After one near-tyrant too many, the Florentines decided to create a system of government which could never, ever let anyone gain enough power to take over, and so conceived the Signoria, a system so bizarre that if someone made it up in fiction no reader would think it plausible. The Florentines had long since exiled, killed or at least banned from government all their nobility. The private towers of the powerful families, which had once turned Florence into a forest of tiny battle-ready fortresses, were knocked down, their palaces burned, and a new law forbid any private citizen from building tall towers which could be used as private forts to defend elite families as their goons battled in the streets below. What remained as the elite were members of the merchant guilds, the great trade families who controlled cloth production, oil, wine, medicine, bureaucracy and, that great Italian invention, banking. A Signoria, or council of elected rulers, was created in 1282, a vaguely-defined political body also used by several other Italian republics. Florence’s unique system of “scrutiny and lot” was introduced in 1328, in which each qualifying member of the great guilds over thirty years of age was examined for fitness and then his name was put in a bag. Every two months nine names were pulled out, and these nine men became the Signoria, the ruling council, to rule the city for two months. At the end of these two months new names were drawn, so no one ever ruled alone, and no one was in office anywhere near long enough to form a personal power base. There were no elections to fix or sway with bribery and campaigning, so all would remain fair and stable and happy ever after. In theory, at least.

 

The Palazzo Vecchio

The Palazzo Vecchio (begun in 1299, the year before Dante went to Hell), was built to house the Signoria, and while in office they were held within the palace and never permitted to leave, since outside they could be bribed, kidnapped, even contaminated by passing heretics or devils (horror!). The palace was built on the crater left when the victorious Guelphs razed to the ground the palaces of their Ghibelline rivals (think Montagues on the smoldering graves of Capulets) and instantly became the symbol of the unity, stability and prayed-for longevity of the noble Republic.

The apartments of the Signoria, grandly decorated with painted wooden ceilings, were on the top floor. The ground floor was originally open, a place where people could gather and talk and trade. It was later closed in so a garrison could defend the palace from attack. On the lower levels, representatives of the people receive the laws sent down by the Signoria, and could vote to accept or reject them. An intermediate floor between the council level held the scribes and clerks and secretaries who kept the system running.

Yes, Assassin’s Creed fans, there really was a prison in the tower, and if someone you know was imprisoned there, that means he was very, very naughty.

Finally the great tower was a symbol of the supremacy of the republic, and at the top a special prison was built to hold the most dangerous traitors against the state, who were sometimes executed by being hanged off the tower itself.

A completely unfounded but nonetheless delightful urban legend holds that the semicircular battlements on top of the tower, associated with the defeated Ghibelline faction in contrast with square battlements used by Guelphs, represented the vicious, Ghibelline-leaning traitors imprisoned there.

Problem is, the Signoria system had one vital flaw:

(A new Signoria is elected)

Duke of Milan – Hello, Signoria. I’m the Duke of Milan. Congratulations on your election. Have a fruitcake.

(1 week passes as the Duke’s message is carried from Milan to Florence)

Signoria – Nice to meet you, Duke of Milan. Thanks for the fruitcake. We knit you this nice scarf.

(1 week passes as the Signoria’s reply is carried back)

Duke of Milan – Thanks for the scarf. Now that we’re friends, would you like to make a treaty for mutual defense against the French?

(1 week passes)

Signoria – Sure, we hate the French. What do you propose?

(1 week passes)

Duke of Milan – I propose committing X many troops, Y many florins, and everyone involved gets cookies every Thursday in honor of St. Ambrose.

(1 week passes)

Signoria – We want to send W many troops and Z many florins, and we demand that the cookies be distributed in the name of St. Zenobius.

(1 week passes)

Duke of Milan – Perhaps X many troops but Z many florins, and the cookies can be distributed in the name of both saints?

(1 week passes)

Signoria – Who are you? What are you talking about? We don’t want to give our troops and florins to someone we’ve never talked to! And we abhor cookies!

(1 week passes)

Duke of Milan – You had another election, didn’t you? Hi, Signoria, I’m the Duke of Milan. Have some fruitcake. Now, about the French…

No Tyrants within these Gates (David agrees).

Needless to say, the Signoria system was not popular with foreign powers who needed to negotiate with Florence’s government, nor with Florentines who needed to negotiate with Florence’s government, since the toothlessness which made the Signoria tyrant-proof also made it about as streamlined as a hedgehog. It certainly didn’t help that the guild members generally had no experience of government, and two months is far from long enough even to learn the ropes. Hence the rise of the Medici.

You see, there’s this brilliant thing called ‘banking’ which means you can leave your money with people in one city, and then go to another city and receive the same amount of money (minus a small fee), without having to carry bags of gold with you on the road where, in the absence of a real empire, bandits and adventuring parties roam free. The savings, in cash and in not getting your throat slit, made this option instantly popular, and the Italian families who did it instantly wealthy. The Medici managed to finagle the position of Official Bankers to the Pope, which meant that it was their job to escort donations, church taxes, land rents, indulgence fees and every kind of income from every church in Christendom back to Rome, taking a healthy cut. This rapidly made the Medici just about the wealthiest private people since Crassus.

Cosimo de Medici (1389-1464) was the one who applied wealth to politics. If you have enough money to keep a third of the city of Florence on your payroll, then you can tell all your clients “Do XYZ if you’re elected to the Signoria,” and then even if you can’t contact them while they’re inside, a third of the Signoria on average will still do what you want. Then, if the Duke of Milan wants to negotiate, instead of negotiating with the fleeting and inexperienced Signoria, he can negotiate with Cosimo, a stable, long-term political contact who will still be there in a year’s time. And eventually if Cosimo finds a way to bribe the men whose job it is to pull the names out of the bag, then things get even easier.

Was this Medici takeover tyrannical? Absolutely, since it directly perverted and controlled the Republic. Was it good for Florence? Absolutely, since Cosimo’s unofficial rule lent great stability, and he spent his enormous wealth on neoclassical architecture, public art, libraries, translating Plato, plumbing, a perfect mix of useful and sublime contributions to the glory and everyday living of his fellow Florentines.

There was resistance, of course. In 1433 Cosimo was arrested and imprisoned in that same Palazzo Vecchio tower where so many dangerous traitors and would-be tyrants enjoyed a last, grim vista of the city they tried to enslave. He escaped, bribing the cell guard with 300 florins and the captain with 700 florins, and is reported to have said they were the two stupidest men in history since he was the wealthiest man in Italy and would have happily paid tens of thousands of florins for his liberty. At the next election, by a total and not-remotely-bribery-related coincidence, all the members of the new Signoria decided to invite him back.

There were more tumults after Cosimo’s return – weak Piero’s succession, the bloody Pazzi conspiracy, assassin priests, the French invasion, the Black Friar Savonarola (stories for another day) – but the important part is that Cosimo never officially ruled anything. Legally he was a private citizen and remained so through his life. So did his successor Piero, and his successor, much-loved Lorenzo de Medici, a perfect humanist prince except that he was never technically prince of anything. The Signoria system continued, officially, with Medici control behind the scenes, and while it did so did Florentines’ patriotic zeal and, with it, enmity against the Medici tyrants.

Duke-worthy Offices

For more than a century the Medici kept being opposed, thrown out, restored, struggling to maintain control of their infamously fractious and rebellious city, until in the early 1500s there was one overthrow too many. The Medici raised a fresh army, marched in, got rid of the Signoria and in 1531 finally had themselves crowned Dukes.

Returning to Vasari…

Architecture remained the physical embodiment of Florence – its government, its church, its people – and the Palazzo Vecchio was by now the solid, permanent embodiment of the authority to rule. The Medici moved in, literally occupying the Signoria’s seat, a permanent end of the Republic. The old palace needed to be redone, and it was Vasari’s job to turn this icon of the long-loved Republic into a symbol of its death and rebirth as a glorious Medici monarchy.

The palace itself he had redecorated with new, more beautiful (and expensive) gilded ceilings, pseudo-Roman frescoes, and a beautiful but unsubtle mural of the Medici besieging Florence, with the simple message: you are here, my troops are here – think about it.

Vasari’s “Siege of Florence”

He also tore down the old quarter by the Palazzo Vecchio where the merchant guilds had had their headquarters and created the Uffizi, “offices”, a long, folded neoclassical loggia surrounding a new public square. Inside the guilds were installed into new, nicer, more mathematically harmonious and luxurious lodgings provided by their new ducal master. Below, the new square was comfortable and shaded by the galleries, perfectly situated to be the new center of commerce and civic gossip, again dominated by the elegant silhouette of the duke’s new offices above. Florence’s civic heart was literally transplanted into the duke’s architectural grasp. The offices were then decorated again with Roman-style grotesque frescoes, antiquities, the family’s collection of Renaissance masterpieces, busts of Roman emperors, and portraits of Medici family members and their famous vassals and political allies.

Vasari’s addition

The surface of the Uffizi is all perfect neoclassicism, elegant symmetrical gray window frames and pediments in harmonious mathematical precision, creating a square which feels at the same time new and ancient, and above all planned, intentional, in contrast with the eclectic mix of different eras’ facades which surrounded every other square in Florence and, pretty much, in all of Italy. Even before the installation of the statues of Cosimo Pater Patriae and Lorenzo il Magnifico, the feeling of standing in the square below the Uffizi is the best possible summary of the events: the chaos and liberty of the Republic have been replaced by an educated, organized, neoclassical, irresistible force. Vasari carved that lesson in brick and stone, and made it clear.

He also created the Vasari Corridor, a closed, elevated walkway which starts at the Palazzo Vecchio itself, connects it by a high (dukes only!) bridge to the Uffizi, then on the far side connects the Uffizi to a long hallway which runs well above head height along the river, across the Ponte Vecchio with its tight-crammed sparkling goldsmiths’ shops, through the houses and rooftops of the quarter across the river, and ends at the Palazzo Pitti, a much larger,

The Vasari corridor

grander second palace which Vasari’s scheme connected with the first. The Palazzo Vecchio was, after all, more than two hundred years old, and a bit cramped and old-fashioned, built for cobblers and dyers, not for dukes. The Pitti Palace had worthier apartments (worthy to house the kings of Italy in the early days of the unification). Now the Duke could walk in assassin-proof safety from palace to palace, even across the river, and more, now the Duke’s movements were a central part of the city’s face. Florentines going about their daily business would (and still) follow along the ducal way, enjoying the shade provided by the walkway above, while all across the city one could see the corridor along the bridge, tying the two halves of the city together like a great artery. Its pulse was the Duke.

Was Vasari a fawning Medici stooge? Essentially. Was anybody NOT at this point? Not who had a job. Artists need patrons, and the Medici were a wealthy, cultured, politically savvy, respectable and above all stabilizing force for a city that had gone through a dozen regime changes in two generations. Vasari was not one of the Renaissance’s greatest painters, nor its greatest architects, nor its greatest authors, but I will nominate him unreservedly for the title of greatest communicator.

Vasari’s Space

He packed the feeling and intensity of what had happened, two hundred years of chaos and gradual transition, into a series of physical spaces which perfectly teaches the viewer what happened and what this great change meant, even if the viewer doesn’t actually know the specifics of the great events which created these great spaces. Architecture, painting and interior design combine to create a very specific tint of awe, one which really does communicate both what was lost and what was gained.I know no comparable grand architectural scheme—not the Vatican Palace, not St. Peter’s, not the castles of Milan or Naples or even Versailles—which succeeds in channeling history so complicated into a simple view. Florence’s history, as you can tell, needs concise summary or it turns into a saga. Vasari turned it into a vista, and was in that perhaps a better biographer of Florence than he was of his fellow artists.

For that achievement, on his five hundredth birthday, he deserves congratulations.

Jump to an Overview of Florence’s Museums, or Venetian Carnival.

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