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07.10.18, Fusco and Corti, Lorenzo De' Medici

07.10.18, Fusco and Corti, Lorenzo De' Medici

Laurie Fusco and Gino Corti have put students of the Renaissance greatly in their debt by writing Lorenzo de' Medici: Collector and Antiquarian. The major achievement of this book is the formidable discovery, mostly in the Archivio di Stato and the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence, of a hundred and seventy-three letters which were mostly written by high-standing officials in the Medici bank (namely, members of the Tornabuoni family, assisted by Luigi da Barberino); they also include ten letters by Lorenzo himself and twenty-nine summaries of communications he dictated. In unearthing this material, Fusco and Corti add to the forty-eight letters which scholarship already knew, and render the evidence on Lorenzo the most substantial so far compared with any other early Renaissance collector. Letters about collecting in the fifteenth century are rare, and the work under review sets Lorenzo's legacy apart from other principal collectors of the same time, like Pietro Barbo and Francesco Gonzaga, information about whom largely depends on inventories that, of course, offer a sketchier overview of their transactions.

By contrast, Lorenzo's correspondence gives an intimate picture of Il Magnifico over the two periods of his collecting career, on which he embarks in 1465, aged sixteen, when he writes to his thirteen-year old brother, Giuliano, about some antiquities he gathered to send him. In this first period the young collector is still lacking in experience, and his items are mainly gifts. In September 1471, at twenty-one, Lorenzo is elected ambassador of Florence to Rome for the coronation of Sixtus IV. The new pope puts the Medici Bank in charge of the Camera Apostolica, and treats the firm preferentially as purveyors of the impressive collection of his predecessor, Paul II. The second period of Lorenzo's collecting is triggered in 1484 when he takes advantage of the two weeks when the papal seat is vacant (i.e., between Sixtus IV's death on 12 August and the election of Innocent VIII on 29 August) to obtain more objects from Paul II's treasure. This intensely active period of collecting, which lasts until Lorenzo's death at forty-three in 1492, is marked by his confident connoisseurship, the extensive operations of his bank and his vast network of contacts.

Next to the newly discovered documents, Fusco and Corti present helpful new transcriptions of texts whose current editions leave something to be desired; for instance, Francesco Cegia's secret ledger, which verifies that Cegia is at the centre of an underground movement of Medici partisans who try to rescue objects of the family after Charles VIII invades Florence.

One of the admirable qualities of this book is its modesty. Fusco and Corti do not centralise their important findings, but yarn new and old documents into one narrative. To take one example, in describing Lorenzo's troubled transactions with Giovanni Ciampolini, a very difficult dealer, the writers combine published descriptions with their fresh evidence, and they succeed in wonderfully capturing the collector's frustration over the protracted negotiations.

For all its laudable modesty, Lorenzo is extremely ambitious. Fusco and Corti want to compose a virtual inventory of all objects ever mentioned in all relative documents. In doing so, they have to revise much of the bibliography: they practically take issue with all proposals to date identifying Lorenzo's heads and busts with sculptures that are now in the Uffizi Gallery. This is a bold move, as most of the descriptions of Lorenzo's items are general, his own inventory of 1492 is notoriously incomplete, and the Uffizi sculptures are recorded after the Renaissance.

In a dazzling performance of scholarship, Fusco and Corti provide a wealth of information, which will be of interest to a readership wider than the close students of Lorenzo. A copy of an invoice dated 3 April 1492 mentions the Constantinople-born scholar John Laskaris (1445-1534) obtaining a marble head for Lorenzo in Candia (Crete). In the review of the monetary worth of Lorenzo's objects, readers get a glimpse of the wide divergence in the Renaissance values between ancient and modern art: even works by Sandro Botticelli, Giotto, Domenico Veneziano, Filippo Lippi, Antonio and Piero Pollaiulo and Jan van Eyck, among others, have been listed at only 2 to 30 florins, thus giving an insight into their early reception. Details about the doctoring of accounting books by Giovanni Tornabuoni (and his nephew, Nofri) disclose fifteenth-century practices which remain wildly popular. Our attention is drawn again to a fascinating portable altar (the "Sacred Stone", composed of pieces of jasper, surrounded with relics and mounted in silver), dubbed Byzantine (but I should agree that the Venetian influence is unmistakable), which has regrettably received scant attention until now. It is very welcome indeed to have new evidence on the provenance of the sensational Head of Christ, which has been correctly assigned (not by Fusco and Corti) to twelfth-century Florence (the poor black-and-white reproduction, however, does not do justice to this superb Pantocrator mosaic, unlike the glorious colour picture in Eredit del Magnifico [1992], p. 132).

Despite its many merits, Lorenzo is not faultless. Its prose style resembles a breathless reading of long inventories. Repetition of material is not avoided. Arguments not conducive to the points which the writers wish to make are often dismissed too quickly.

On the whole, Fusco and Corti's strength lies in thorough archival work, not analysis. The present reviewer would have expected from a book of such scope to contextualize Lorenzo's collecting within the humanist appreciation of wealth as crucial to the well-being of society. It is not commendable that there is no discussion of (or survey of the debate about) Lorenzo's dealings in the frame of the cultural climate mapped out, for example, by Poggio Bracciolini's fully-fledged, and Leon Battista Alberti's more cautious, endorsement of prosperity (in "De avaritia et luxuria" and "I libri de la famiglia", respectively).

On a more specialised issue, the book argues that Lorenzo had claims to divinity on the evidence of a manuscript illustration showing Il Magnifico present in the Pentecost and haloed (reproduced from Garzelli and De la Mare, Miniatura fiorentina del Rinascimento, 1440-1525 [1985], fig. 1025). We should remember that in Renaissance painting scenes involving the presence of God or saints are occasionally put to a variety of uses, one of which is to pay a patron the ultimate compliment of being in divine company. Sandro Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi of c.1475 features portraits of the Medici as the Magi. Not entirely dissimilar are various forms of artists' presentation of themselves in proximity to the divine. Rogier van der Weyden paints himself as St. Luke making a drawing of the Madonna breastfeeding the Child in Der hl. Lukas zeichnet die Madonna (1440, now in the Boston Museum of Arts). Albrecht Dürer's Self-portrait in Furred Coat (1500) is strikingly Christ-like. Giorgio Vasari in his le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori et architettori writes that in 1355 Andrea di Cione, the Florentine sculptor better known as Orcagna, "In vno de'quali Apostoli ritrasse di marmo se stesso vecchio com'era, con la barba rasa, col capuccio auuolto al capo, e col viso piatto, e tondo" (p. 186 in the Giunti edition of 1568; no apostolic connection in the Torrentini edition). In Medieval and Renaissance literature there are many examples of this subtle manoeuvring of the self into a position of nearness to a high personality, be it religious or not. Dante does not hesitate to place himself "sesto tra cotanto senno", amidst the company of the most prestigious poets in history ("Inferno", 4: 88-90). Robert of Basevorn in the prologue to his Forma praedicandi (1322) with seeming humility declares that nothing proceeds from him alone, but everything he will narrate derives from God, effectively identifying himself with the evangelists and the apostles. A number of prologues to Medieval Greek romances follow this pattern. In sum, Lorenzo's inclusion in the Pentecost does not necessarily prove any claim on his part to divinity, but it is an established, albeit risqué, technique of aggrandisement.

These objections aside, Fusco and Corti have written an impressive book which will become a standard reference tool for anybody who wants to study Lorenzo de' Medici and collecting in the early Renaissance.