· 6 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 Mesopotamians or the Romans, 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 x 111 cm / 52.8 x 43.7 in ·
· see Resources 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 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 endowing chantries or paying 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 had 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, in two parts. Perfume and pirates and a bit of pentameter.
Sadly, the Adoration of the Magi was no longer at Santa Maria Novella when I was there. The painting had been removed in 1570, when alterations were made to the church. His Grace the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo I de’ Medici had a favourite chamberlain named Don Fabio d’Arazzola, Marchese di Mondragone, a Spaniard. Mondragone bought the Botticelli and installed it in his shiny new palazzo a block away. As my luck would have it, just a few months before my arrival in Florence the chamberlain was caught passing Tuscan secrets back to Philip II at the Escorial, and he fell hard from His Grace’s good graces. He had to sell his palazzo for a song and leave town in a hurry. I’m pretty sure the painting was still there 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, it was complicated), so I swallowed my disappointment and spent my time in 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. If I haven’t included a link, just go to Wikipedia.
- 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, or at least in what I can search of it on the internet.
- 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 (not in the painting, unfortunately), eldest son of Lorenzo. Giovanni’s sister was il Magnifico’s mother.
Notice the dates of the individuals, which span 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 men dated on that list is 47.8 years. Take out the three who reached modern retirement age (65), and the average drops to 38. One 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 the infectious-disease early-mortality statistics. With this rate of turnover, family unity was crucial.
The selection of 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 the 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 obviously not 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 on the mantles of the Medici. The patrocinio was all theirs.
Lorenzo il Magnifico was Lord of Florence from 1469 until his death in 1492, following his father Piero the Gouty and preceding his son Piero the Unfortunate. I wish I could invent names like this. The younger Piero was already unfortunate at the age of 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 his face time at Santa Maria Novella after all.
Catherine de’ Medici was Lorenzo’s great-granddaughter. She wasn’t born until 1519. She was 56 when I met her in 1575, older than in this portrait, but 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. She brought Italian culinary innovations and ingredients, including spinach, with her from Florence when she travelled to France in 1533, trailing her scent of orange blossom and bergamot, to marry the future Henri II. Some say this culinary connection to Catherine is spurious, but I know better.
Finally, bistecca alla Fiorentina. I hope you can read Italian. There are only four ingredients, not counting the fire.
 There was a lack of consensus among the sources I found that listed the people in the painting. For a few of the non-Medicis, some were guessing, some were just lazy. (Probably Stratfordians. They’re not too bright when it comes to Italy.) I’ve done my own research in an effort to get the IDs right. I point this out because a couple of the sources identify (9) as ‘Filippo Strozzi’ rather than Gaspare del Lama. After I spent far too much time on the question, I’m convinced that it’s got to be Gaspare.
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 live Strozzi, Filippo the Elder (1428–1491), was another wealthy donor at Santa Maria Novella. His tomb is there. The Strozzi and Medici families were, however, despite some intermarriage, bitter rivals and often mortal enemies. This was Montagues-vs-Capulets-level enmity. That Filippo would be included in a public paean to Medici superiority is extremely unlikely. Almost as unlikely as an unlettered and untravelled Warwickshire glover’s son writing the works of… well, 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 are two images of the same 47-year-old man made within a single year’s time, the faces should be close to identical. Botticelli was a gifted portraitist, and he wouldn’t have painted his subject any older than he actually was. This might also provide further insight into why Gaspare commissioned the painting in the first place. The aging usurer was worried about his soul’s next residence because it wasn’t long from making the trip.
· 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 proved the case beyond a reasonable doubt. I’ve got some experience with circumstantial evidence.
Additional Reading and Resources:
• 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, OVOpedia [ovo.com]
• A later Botticelli Adoration of the Magi, c. 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]
VERO NIHIL VERIUS