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For over three centuries the Medici family dominated Renaissance Florence and much of its economic, political and cultural life. In the arts, the wealthy family is largely remembered for its patronage of painting, sculpture and grand architecture, but a new exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum suggests that the objects most highly valued by the Medici were often those you could hold in the palm of your hand. “Gems and Jewellery of the Medici” introduces more than 70 objects from the family’s collection, including rings, pendants and cameos as well as paintings showing how they were worn and the function they served — be it decorative, social or even political.

The House of Medici rose to prominence in Florence in the 15th century with the Medici bank, a financial powerhouse that was, in time, to extend its reach across Europe with branches in Lyon, Geneva and London. This economic clout helped give the family real, if unofficial, political power in the city even before successive heads of the family assumed the title Duke of Florence. Notwithstanding periods of war, rivalry and defeat (the Medici was weakened and at one point driven out of the city) the family consolidated its position when Cosimo de Medici (1519-1574) became the Duke of Tuscany by papal appointment.

The Medici often courted the Vatican closely and over the centuries produced no less than two popes of its own. Unlike a famous Bronzino portrait of Cosimo as a beardless youth, this exhibition shows him slightly older and fiercer looking, in a painting by an unknown Florentine artist. He wears a crown featuring the red fleur-de-lis symbol of Florence and holds a staff with the same flower design.

Near the painting, several glass cases showcase a range of jewelry that the Medici owned, in particular rings and pendants, including a tiny diamond bearing the family’s coat of arms. Cameos feature greatly here, some of ancient Roman vintage. These testify not only to the family members’ interest in collecting antiquities, but also their support for the arts and crafts of their day, with a number of the gems set in pieces made by contemporary goldsmiths and craftsmen.

The cameos depict religious themes, such as the adoration of the magi or the pieta, ancient mythology (Venus), battle scenes and portraits of prominent people, not least the Medici themselves. One from around 1574 depicts Cosimo looking into the eyes of his wife Eleanor of Toledo, whom he married about a decade earlier. Their son, Francesco, later married Joanna of Austria (1547-1578), daughter to Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor (1503-1564). A painting from around 1568 shows Joanna with her hair decorated with pearls that Cosimo is recorded as having given to her to mark the union — a coming together of two individuals and, even more importantly, two regional power bases.

As with any dynasty, such international alliances were a valuable way for the family to build trusted friendships, expand its connections and strengthen its position. To this end, two of the Medici women became queens of France, one of which was the daughter of Francesco and Joanna, Marie (1575-1642), who married Henry IV (1553 -1610). In a portrait painted by Frans Pourbus II (1569-1622), Marie’s dress is decorated with at least 300 pearls (a modest selection of the 5,000 that were in her possession) and is emblazoned with the familiar fleur-de-lis motif — an emblem that not only represented Italy’s Florence, but also the French royal family, and, as such, became a symbol of the close ties between the two powers.

In a similar fashion, the exhibition introduces other Medici marriages and alliances. Not all of which were happy arrangements: One painting depicts Isabella de Medici (1542-1576), who married into the powerful Orsini family but, we discover, was later murdered by her husband for her infidelity.

One of the more curious items on display is a pendant made in Flanders that depicts a mighty dragon with its tongue sticking out, having been stung and poisoned by a tiny bee. Little about the meaning of the object is known, but considering that the creature’s tail features the red lilies associated with the Medici family (who also sometimes used the dragon as a symbol) and that the bee appears on the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand I, one possibility is that the piece of jewelry was created to remind the family that political alliances are tenuous, and relatives and friends can just as easily turn into jealous, vengeful enemies.

Not all of the items on display carry such political connotations, and many appear intended soley for the pleasure of decoration, but as “Gems and Jewellery of the Medici” demonstrates, a deeper significance can often lie hidden beneath the gleam of any dazzling ornament.

“Gems and Jewellery of the Medici” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, runs until July 5; 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. ¥1,400. Closed second and fourth Wednesday. www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp

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