The Medicis: The Original Koch Brothers

For more than three centuries, the Medici dynasty ran Florence, Italy, becoming the most influential art patrons the world has ever known. The multinational bankers kickstarted the Renaissance by forming the first art school and gave much-needed financial patronage to Michelangelo, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Sandro Botticelli, Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci and Filippo Brunelleschi, among others. Despite the nickname “God's Bankers,” the family didn't provide commissions out of charity, but rather ostentation: Botticelli painted Medici family members side by side with the Holy Family, so that should give you an idea of the less-than-modest branding it was aiming for.

You won't see the big names represented in “Gems of the Medici,” the international touring show now on view at the Bowers Museum. Glyptics (carved precious stones) make up the bulk of the exhibition, mainly in cameos (carved images that rise up from the jewelry) and intaglios (carved images in which the image depresses into the jewel), most created by unknown artisans. While many of the pieces are crafted to feature images of the family, the majority are of Greek mythological figures (Hercules, Minerva, Triton, Venus, Diomedes, etc.), with curator Ricardo Gennaioli providing very brief glimpses of the myths and how the jewelry further enhanced the Medici cache by aligning members with gods, power and history.

No matter the painstaking handiwork required to make them—plenty, based on the informative video detailing each step in the process that's showing in the last room of the exhibit—if you've seen a couple of dozen Hellenic cameos, you've basically seen them all. Display issues only add to the underwhelming feeling: When the Bowers featured a collection of tiny Rembrandt etchings back in 2009, the curators were gracious enough to include magnifying glasses. Inexplicably, that hasn't been done here, even though the majority of the carved gems displayed are smaller than a quarter or a dollar bill folded in half. Minus the necessary magnification, making out the minute details is impossible. I witnessed visitor after visitor bend down to get a closer look, swiveling their heads this way and that, then give up and move to something requiring less eye strain.

It's the larger art pieces that really command the attention, such as two bowls carved out of thin jasper, so delicate they'd shatter if you exhaled on them. I wasn't entirely sure what I was looking at in the captivatingly weird Vase With Handles in the Form of Swans With Putti, its silver birds swapping spit with naked, gilded-bronze, winged babies, mouths pressed tightly together in a kiss. I especially enjoyed the rich details of the much-larger commesso (Florentine mosaics): Table Top With Parrot and two mausoleum reliefs initially created for Medici tombs erupt with vivid color; The Victory of Samson Over the Lion, from 1612, tells us an entire story, with the Biblical figure resting idly against a tree, glorious land and seascape behind him, a lion torn into several pieces lying at his feet, giving us, yet again, a very clear picture of how the Medici saw itself in the world.

The show's curation fails in the less-than-thorough documentation of Medici historical background. Biographies of the patriarchs are limited to a couple of incomplete paragraphs, and a timeline is provided, but it's hardly enough to put the individuals, let alone their mass accumulations of wealth and power, into any kind of context. The exhibit arrives on these shores from Italy, where understanding the influence of the Medici family would be a given, but I'm not sure that translates to the U.S., a country notoriously shoddy in its understanding of world history.

The Medici was a Renaissance mafia, with its tentacles in finance, politics and religion, the family's wealth composed of ill-gotten gains accumulated by the exploitation of others: collusion with pirates, usury, bribery, involvement with oppressive religious systems, political corruption and war profiteering. While the exhibition is not a wholesale whitewash of the family, it conveniently skips over its criminal behavior, the most egregious and obvious example I noticed was a brief mention that Galileo was given patronage and protection by the family. What it conveniently leaves out is that when the Medici feared political/religious repercussions of their support of the scientist, it defunded him, leaving him to be censored, humiliated and imprisoned by the Roman Inquisition.

I understand the exhibition is called “Gems of the Medici” and not simply “Medici,” but while heralding the family's achievements, why be negligent about the criminality, betrayal and questionable ethics that allowed those accomplishments in the first place? All these centuries later, isn't it time to stop letting the rich and powerful continue to write their own histories?


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