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Giorgio Vasari's Portrait of Lorenzo
The Magnificent: A Ciceronian Symbol of Virtue and a Machiavellian Princely Conceit

Liana De Girolami Cheney
Professor of Art History, Chairperson Department of Cultural Studies, University of Massachusetts Lowel


«L'invenzione fa mettere insieme in istoria le figure»
(«Invention unites personages in history» or «Invention historically unites personages»)1
Giorgio Vasari

In 1533, under the patronage of the Medici family, Giorgio Vasari receives a com-mission from Ottaviano de'Medici, father of Pope Leo X, Medici, to depict two Me-dicean portraits: Alessandro de'Medici and Lorenzo de'Medici, surnamed The Magni-ficent. In depicting these emblematic portraits, Vasari is guided by literary conceits2. This essay examines Vasari's manner of composing images for a program as a compen-dium of visual iconography. These images derive from and parallel with the literary practices and conceptions of the emblematic tradition established in the writings of An-drea Alciato, Vincenzo Cartari, Annibale Caro, Paolo Giovio and Pierio Valeriano. In doing so, this essay focuses on a specific image, Vasari'sPortrait of Lorenzo The Ma-gnificent (Fig. 1), as an iconographical example of Ciceronian virtue (virtù) and Machia-vellian princely conceit (concetto).

Giorgio Vasari's early artistic and literary accomplishments are formulated in the humanistic circles of Florence under the auspices of the Medici and in Rome under the Farnese court, where Vasari, a sixteenth-century Italian artist, comes into contact with literary scholars such as Annibale Caro and Paolo Giovio3. Through his study of the writings on imprese and emblems by Caro and Giovio, Vasari cultivates his know-ledge of iconology4. In the Vite, he praises Caro, the renowned Roman poet and tran-slator of classical literature and secretary to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, for his «invenzioni cappriciose, ingeniose e lodevoli molto» («inventions that contain whimsicality and ingeniousness, and are highly praised»)5. Caro, in turn, acknowledges Vasari's mastery in painting as well as the art of conceiving subject matter:«You are both a poet and a painter, and in each of these pursuits one tends to express one's own ideas and conceptions with more passion and zeal», he states6. Seeing a similarity between painting and poetry, Caro considers the writings of emblematists, such as Andrea Al-ciato's Emblemata and Vincenzo Cartari's Imagine delli Dei de gl'Antichi, to represent outstanding iconographical manuals for artists and humanists, and praises them for their significance7.

Moreover, Vasari's literary knowledge of hieroglyphs and emblematic derives, as he recounts in his autobiography (vita), from his education in the classics with Pollastra (Giovanni Lappoli), his tutoring with Pierio Valeriano during his formative years, and his contact with emblematist Andrea Alciato in Bologna8. Vasari's artistic invention is a Maniera conceit that is exemplified in the painting of the Portrait of Lorenzo The Magnificent of 1533 at the Galleria degli Uffizi (Fig. 1) and in the modello at the Ga-binetto dei Disegni e Stampe of the Uffizi (Fig. 2)9.Vasari decodes the clavis interpretandi of the painting in a letter to Ottaviano de'Medici10.


Fig.1. Giorgio Vasari, Portrait of Lorenzo The Magnificent, 1533 (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)


Fig.2. Giorgio Vasari, Portrait of Lorenzo The Magnificent, 1533, drawing (Gabinetto dei Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence)

And if it were agreeable to you Excellency that I should make a picture, depicting a portrait of The Magnificent Lorenzo the Elder, in the very clothes he wears at home. I will look for an image that is thought to be most like him in expression, and make mine from this effigy for his portrait. For the rest of the picture I have thought of composing this invention, with the hope that it will please your Excellency, knowingly that you are better acquainted with the actions and manners of this most remarkable and exemplary citizen. My intention is to include in this portrait every ornament significant of the great qualities that made him illustrious in life, and show that all his honors were solely of this own attainment. I shall depict him sitting, dressed in a long gown of purple, lined with fur of white wolves. In his right hand, he holds a sash [or pocket-handkerchief], hanging from the center of a large antique belt. Also hanging from the belt is a red velvet purse. The arm rests at the base of a pilaster [pillar] made as imitation of marble, which supports an antique vase of porphyry. On the pilaster [pillar] is the head of Deceit or Falsehood [Bugia], biting her tongue at being discovered by The Magnificent Lorenzo. At the base of the pilaster [pillar], I shall insert this inscription, «Sicut maiores mihi, ita et ego post mea virtute praeluxi». Above this I have made a mask of a most brutish and ugly visage of Vice [Vizio], which is pressed down by the weight, placed in his forehead, of a transparent and beautiful vase filled with roses and violets, with this inscription, «Virtus omnium vas». The spout of this vase pours water into a mast of a most beautiful mask, crowned with laurel. On the mast of the mask is this inscription, «Praemium virtutis».

On the other side of the portrait there is another vase of simulated porphyry. This vase is in the shape of an antique lamp with fantastic feet at the base. Atop there is a mask with a bizarre expression, showing oil descending from the mask's horn, above the forehead, into the mask's mouth, where the tongue, like a sheet of paper, supplies the flame. This is to signify The Magnificent Lorenzo's singular excellence in government; not only in eloquence, but also in everything, maximized by his good judgment, he was a beacon to his illustrious descendants and his magnificent city.

If this invention should be satisfactory to your Excellency, please send your commands to me at Poggio. However, deficient my poor abilities may be, yet in this I have done my best, and implore your Excellency's mildest judgment on it. I requested Lord Ottaviano de' Medici, by whom I have sent this, to make my excuses to your Lordship: and can only say, my most illustrious Lord, that whatever, I do for you Excellency will be always done with my whole heart, (signed) Giorgio Vasari, Florence, Jan 1533.

In the painting, Vasari praises Lorenzo The Magnificent for his virtues of honesty, justice and good judgment (prudence) with the signification of the imagery with the Ci- ceronian inscriptions and Machiavellian notions11. The unusual combination of ima-ges, symbols and Latin inscriptions attest to Giovio's iconographical intervention. Va-sari's portrait is posthumously executed almost 40 years later after the death of Lorenzo The Magnificent in 1492. With this commemorative and honorific portrait, Vasari con-tinues to immortalize and memorialize for the Medici family Lorenzo The Magnificent's fame and glory as well as promoting the power of the Medici in Florence.

The numerous Quattrocento and Cinquecento portraits depict Lorenzo The Magni-ficent as a citizen and not a princely ruler. There he is usually dressed in Florentine-citizen attire as seen in the sculpture of Andrea Verrocchio of 1475 in the National Gallery of Washington, DC (Fig. 3) as well as in a bronze medal by Niccolò Fiorentino of 1480, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fig. 4), where Lorenzo is portrayed in profile recalling ancient coins of rulers. In painting, Botticelli portrays Lorenzo as a young king in theAdoration of the Magi of 1468 at the Uffizi (Fig. 5), whereas Dome-nico Ghirlandaio depicts Lorenzo among the literato (Pulci) and donor (Sassetti) in the 1485 fresco cycle of the Sassetti Chapel in SS Trinità, in Florence (Figs 6 and 7)12. After the death of Lorenzo, his dead mask and these present portraits become the source of inspiration for the depiction of Lorenzo's portraits, such the anonymous sculpture at Poggio a Caiano. But Leonardo's profile depiction of the Portrait of Lorenzo of 1500 at the Ambrosiana in Milan (Fig. 8) combines Niccolò's profile image and composition with Verrocchio's sculptural portraiture. Furthermore, Leonardo's Portrait of Lorenzo fuses the honorific imagery of a commemorative medal and honors his teacher's con-ception of natural portrayal. Verrocchio's portrait also influences Mannerist painter Bronzino's Portrait of Lorenzo of 1550 at the Uffizi (Fig. 9).


Fig.3. Andrea del Verrocchio, Lorenzo The Magnificent, 1475, sculpture (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)


Fig.4. Niccolò Fiorentino, Lorenzo The Magnificent, 1480, medal (Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Fig.5. Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1468 (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)


Fig.6. Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pulci, Lorenzo and Sassetti, 1485, detail (Sassetti Chapel, SS.Trinità, Florence) [Photo: author]


Fig.7. Giorgio Vasari, Lorenzo the Magnificent Surrounded by Philosophers and Men of Letters, 1560-65 (Sala di Lorenzo Il Magnifico, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence) [Photo: author]


Fig.8. Leonardo, Portrait of Lorenzo de'Medici, 1500, drawing (Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan)


Fig.9. Bronzino, Portrait of Lorenzo de'Medici, 1550 (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)

Perhaps the most revealing portrait of Lorenzo is the depiction by Girolamo Mac-chietti's Portrait of Lorenzo de'Medici of 1540-50 (private collection in Florence, Fig. 10) a collaborator and follower of Giorgio Vasari13. Here, Lorenzo is portrayed in front of landscape, seated in a veranda. Next to him is a tree filled with laurel braches, an attribute for his name, Lorenzo.


Fig.10. Girolamo Macchietti, Portrait of Lorenzo de'Medici, 1540-50 (Private Collection, Florence) [Photo: author]


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