· 06 September 2017 ·
[Florence, the Medici, and artistic patronage]
I’ve been thinking about the history of artistic patronage lately. Not as far back as the Romans or the Mesopotamians, but the Quattrocento, the early years of the Italian Renaissance. Florence in the late 1400s, a century before I visited there. How patronage was done alla Fiorentina, in the style of the Florentines. This is not about spinach or beefsteak.
Well, not until the end.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
134×111 cm / 52.8×43.7 in
see Sources below for links to high‑resolution images
Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli painted this version of The Adoration of the Magi in 1475-76. He was close to 30 years old at the time, already a well-known artist, and a client of the wealthiest and most powerful political and artistic patrons in Florence, the Medici.
The painting, in tempera on wood, was made for the basilica of Santa Maria Novella, to be the altarpiece in the del Lama family’s private chapel. Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, a banker, tax collector, and exchange broker who was also a Medici client, commissioned the painting in an attempt to put his sins behind him. Moneylenders like Gaspare worried about the health of their souls due to the usurious fees they charged, though that worry never seemed to result in rate reductions. Instead, they preferred to do penance by using some of their profits to endow chantries or pay for construction projects and art commissions such as this one.
If the name Santa Maria Novella rings a bell, it might be because I wrote about it not long ago. It was one of my stops during my visit to Florence in 1575. Back in 1533, the monks who worked in the monastery’s pharmacy created a scent called Acqua della Regina for a Medici heiress, Caterina (Catherine), who was moving to France. Long story short, Acqua della Regina was on my shopping list. Long story long is here.
Alas, by the time I got to Florence the Adoration of the Magi was no longer at Santa Maria Novella. The painting had been sold in 1570, when alterations were made to the church. The purchaser was Don Fabio d’Arrazola, Marchese di Mondragone, favoured chamberlain at the court of His Grace Francesco I de’ Medici, Regent and later Grand Duke of Tuscany. Mondragone, an avid art collector, had the Botticelli moved to his newly-refurbished palace nearby. As luck would have it, just a few months before my arrival the half-Spanish chamberlain was caught passing Tuscan secrets to Philip II at the Escorial, and he fell hard from His Grace’s good graces. He had to sell his bello palazzo per una canzone and leave town pronto. I’m pretty sure the painting was still at the palazzo during my visit, but I wasn’t able to make arrangements to see it. I didn’t want to start an international incident – England and Spain before the Armada, things were complicated. I swallowed my disappointment and spent my time at the church with the Ghirlandaio frescoes instead.
Since Gaspare del Lama the commissioner and Sandro Botticelli the artist were both part of the Medici clientele, it was a no-brainer that they would use this painting to suck up to promote their eminent patrons. Portraying the Magi are Cosimo the Elder (5) and his sons Piero (6) and Giovanni (7). Also depicted are Piero’s sons Lorenzo (1) and Giuliano (8). Here’s the complete list, to the best of my fact-checking abilities .
- Lorenzo de’ Medici “the Magnificent” (1449–1492) – Son of Piero the Gouty. Portrayed as a teenager.
- Angelo Ambrogini aka Poliziano or Politan (1454–1494) – Classical scholar, poet, humanist, translator, tutor. Lorenzo’s protégé and political confidante.
- unidentified, possibly a member of the del Lama family such as a son of Gaspare
- Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) – Nobleman, humanist, philosopher.
- -magus- Cosimo de’ Medici “the Elder” (1389–1464) – Founder of the Medici dynasty.
- -magus- Piero de’ Medici “the Gouty” (1416–1469) – Son of Cosimo, father of Lorenzo.
- -magus- Giovanni de’ Medici (1421–1463) – Son of Cosimo, younger brother of Piero.
- Giuliano de’ Medici (1453–1478) – Son of Piero, younger brother of Lorenzo. Assassinated in the Duomo three years after the painting was made, during the Pazzi conspiracy.
- Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama – The painting’s commissioner. I couldn’t find his dates, though he’s shown as a white-haired older man. The Adoration commission appears to be his lone appearance in the historical record, in what I have been able to search through.
- Ioannis Argiropoulos aka John Argyropoulos (c. 1415–1487) – Greek émigré, humanist scholar and lecturer. It was said that he died of a surfeit of watermelon. There are web pages about everything.
- Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445–1510) – Self-portrait of the artist.
- Lorenzo Tornabuoni (1465–1497) – Florentine nobleman with close ties to the Medici. Son of Giovanni Tornabuoni, donor of the Ghirlandaio frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel at Santa Maria Novella. Cousin and friend of Piero “the Unfortunate” de’ Medici (unfortunately not in the painting), the eldest son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Giovanni’s sister was il Magnifico’s mother.
The men in the painting encompass the entire fifteenth century, from 1389 to 1510. That’s a lot of generations, in a time when men died young (and women even younger). The average lifespan of the ten on that list with known dates is 47.8 years. Take out the three who reached modern retirement age (65) and the average drops to 38. One of those seven was stabbed to death at 25, two were apparently poisoned at 31 and 40, one had his head struck off for conspiracy at 32. They never even made it into infectious-disease early-mortality statistics. With this rate of turnover, family unity was crucial.
Portraying these men as the adorers in the Adoration puts the emphasis on the Medici dynasty, but it also spotlights the humanist learning that was taking hold in western Europe during the late 1400s. If you were a leader in this highly social culture, you aimed for public advertisement of your family’s money, power, fecundity, brains, and good taste. Putting portraits of your ancestors and relatives and your intellectual pals into exquisite religious art was an effective way to accomplish this. Everyone went to church, so the pictures on display served as the Facebook of the Quattrocento.
It didn’t matter that the men weren’t all alive at the same time, or that some were dead when the painting was made. Chronological accuracy was never the point. Placing the Medici in the middle of Christ’s nativity was an expression of their self-image. They identified with the Wise Men, and they wanted you to know it.
Gaspare del Lama was in this case a middleman, paying for the Adoration as a heavenly insurance policy. But he was only riding the mantles of the Medici. The patrocinio was all theirs.Lorenzo il Magnifico was Lord of Florence from 1469 until his death in 1492. His father was Piero the Gouty, his son Piero the Unfortunate. I wish I could invent names this good. Piero minore was already earning his sobriquet at age three when he was too young to be included in the Adoration. A dozen years later, Domenico Ghirlandaio painted him into a Tornabuoni Chapel fresco, so he got face time in Santa Maria Novella after all.
Catherine de’ Medici was Lorenzo’s great-granddaughter. She was fifty-six when I met her in 1575, older than in this circa-1560 portrait, still wearing her noted weeds.
The use of the term Florentine to describe a dish containing spinach is, like the perfume, directly attributable to Catherine. Trailing her bergamot and orange blossom, she brought Italian culinary innovations and ingredients with her in 1533 when she married the future king Henri II of France, the match made by her Medici uncle Pope Clement VII. Some say the spinach story is spurious, but I know better.
Finally, bistecca alla Fiorentina. I hope you can read Italian. There are only four ingredients, plus the fire.
 There was a lack of consensus among the sources listing the men in the painting. For a few of the non-Medicis, some guessed, others were simply lazy. (Probably Stratfordians. Especially when it comes to Italy, those folks miss a lot.) I’ve done my own research in an effort to get the IDs correct. I point this out because a couple of the sources identify (9) as ‘Filippo Strozzi’ rather than Gaspare del Lama. After I spent too much time on the question, I’m convinced that it’s Gaspare. Here’s my case:
Exhibit A: There were three Filippo Strozzis, but only one was born before the Adoration’s own nativity. Botticelli may have played loose with the past in his painting, but he didn’t fabricate anyone from the future. The living Strozzi, Filippo the Elder (1428–1491), was another wealthy donor at Santa Maria Novella. His tomb is found there. Here’s the rub: the Strozzi and the Medici were, despite some intermarriage, bitter rivals and often mortal enemies. Montagues versus Capulets. That a Strozzi would be included in such a public paean to Medici superiority is extremely unlikely. Almost as unlikely as an unlettered, untravelled provincial glover’s son writing the works of… you know.
Exhibit B: Filippo, at age 47 in 1476 (below left), sculpted by Benedetto da Maiano, does not resemble the elderly gentleman looking directly out of the picture at the viewer (below right) painted by Botticelli in 1475-76. If these two images made within a single year’s time both represent the same 47-year-old man, the faces should be close to identical. Botticelli was a gifted portraitist and would not have painted his subject older than he was. This may also provide further insight into why Gaspare commissioned the painting in the first place. The ageing usurer was worried about his soul’s next residence, because it wasn’t long from making the journey.
The same man, in the same year? I don’t think so.
It would have been helpful to have Gaspare’s birth and death dates, but even without them I believe I’ve proven the case beyond a reasonable doubt. I’ve got experience with circumstantial evidence.
Sources and Additional Reading:
- • The Story of a Famous Botticelli [Google Books]
- · by Herbert P Horne
- · The Monthly Review
- · Sir Henry John Newbolt, Charles Hanbury-Williams, editors
- · Volume VI, January-March 1902, pgs 133-145
- · John Murray, London, publisher
- • High-resolution images of The Adoration of the Magi
- · Annotated image – [wikimedia.org]
- · Another one, not in complete agreement with the first [wikimedia.org]
- · Zoomable – Google Arts and Culture [google.com]
- • The Adoration of the Magi, 2:44 video [ovovideo.com]
- • A later Botticelli Adoration of the Magi, circa 1478-1482 [nga.gov]
- • The Life and Art of Sandro Botticelli [Google Books]
- · by Julia Cartwright Ady
- · pgs 52-60 in particular
- · Duckworth, 1904
- • Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance, 4-part television series, 2004 [pbs.org]
- · Interactive Medici family tree
- · Botticelli bio (mentions del Lama)
- · available in US on DVD and Amazon Prime Video [amazon.com], Episode 1 in particular, re patronage and the Adoration
- • Ghirlandaio frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella [travelingintuscany.com]
- · painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop, 1485-1490
- · still there today for you to see with your own eyes
- · Annotated image of The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple [wikimedia.org], shows Lorenzo Tornabuoni (holding gloves) and Piero de’ Medici “the Unfortunate” (dark hair, head turned) in the group of youths at the left
- • Conversations: Lorenzo de’ Medici and William Shakespeare (sigh)
- · Lapham’s Quarterly [laphamsquarterly.org]