The much awaited exhibit on the Cinquecento in Florence opens on September 21 at Palazzo Strozzi. It’s the third in a line of exhibits dedicated to this period by curators Carlo Falciani and Antonio Natali, starting with Bronzino in 2010 and continuing with Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino in 2014. As such, it’s been a decade in the making, a conclusion that, after focusing on the most famous names of this period, proposes a thematic overview of the century.

This is a scholarly exhibit, with roots in exhibitions dedicated to the 16th century staged at Palazzo Strozzi earlier in the 20th century (1940 and 1956). It intends to debunk “countless clichés [about the period] according to which, after the magnificent era of early 16th-century Florence, the city was destined for a languid and sterile autumn.” And for sure there is nothing autumnal in the vivid colours and range of styles of the many altarpieces (in particular) shown here. For viewers less familiar than the curators with the standard interpretations of this period (a category into which I put myself), there’s an opportunity to compare the styles of the period’s most important artists and their followers, observe how sculpture and painting evolved together, and learn about some of the themes of concern to this public.

As with many shows at Palazzo Strozzi, racing through to see what’s inside, I find myself at the end earlier than I expect it. My recommendation is to spend a lot of time in the first few rooms, especially in the second one.

Andrea del Sarto's Lamentation with Michelangelo's River God
Andrea del Sarto’s Lamentation with Michelangelo’s River God

We start out with the first room, which the curators bill as a reminder of the shows that have already taken place before this one. Kind of like “as seen previously on this screen,” but using out-takes, not footage you have previously seen in other episodes. Star of this room is a delicate altarpiece by Andrea del Sarto from the Palatine Galleries that somehow I’ve never noticed – juxtaposed nicely with Michelangelo’s bozzetto for a River God.

Detail of the host in Andrea del Sarto's altarpiece
Detail of the host in Andrea del Sarto’s altarpiece

The Sarto work is from a period in which the Roman Catholic church was very concerned with showing Christ’s real presence in the consecrated host in view of the dissent and denial embodied in the teachings of Martin Luther. At the bottom of this painting is a host, painted in white against a white cloth, with a crucifix emblazoned on it in additional white paint.

Now THIS is amazing!
Now THIS is amazing!

Room two is where I suggest you spend a long time observing this unprecedented juxtaposition of three great masters. Rosso Fiorentino’s Deposition from the Cross from Volterra (1521), Pontormo’s Santa Felicita Deposition (1525–8) [just restored – read my analysis] and Bronzino’s Deposition of Christ from Besançon (c. 1543–5), here for the first time.

Detail of the center of Bronzino's Besancon painting
Detail of the center of Bronzino’s Besancon painting

This painting was to be the center of the chapel of Eleonora da Toledo in Palazzo Vecchio, where it was installed in the summer of 1545, but then the Duke sent it as a gift to Nicolas Perrenot de Granvelle, secretary to Emperor Charles V and native of Besancon. Eleonora had Bronzino make a copy, which reproduces the composition but changes the iconography. The curators say that “there is no question that Bronzino, Pontormo’s beloved pupil, either returned to the Capponi Chapel or…” was inspired by the moving language of Andrea del Sarto’s work in Luco di Mugello. When I spoke with Daniele Rossi, the restorer of the Pontormo Deposition, he spoke about how the green of that painting has lost its original force. Perhaps it would have been closer in colour to that of the central figure in this Bronzino, given the proximity of the two works.

Counter reformation altarpieces room
Counter reformation altarpieces room

I entered this room full of counter reformation altarpieces with fellow blogger Caterina and we both were taken aback by the “heaviness” of this room. We’re not used to seeing such huge altarpieces, so close together. If the intention is to show the accessibility of these works, the initial impact is… surprising. Cosimo de’ Medici promoted the creation of these works post 1563. They were to be painted in an “approachable” style, illustrating religious themes in a language everyone could understand and including figures in contemporary dress to allow the faithful to identify the more easily with them, thus involving them emotionally and directing their thoughts to devotion.

Two counter reformation altarpieces
Two counter reformation altarpieces

Two works next to each other demonstrate just some of the range of styles in this period. I had never seen the work on the left, by Peter Candid, Bruges-born (Volterra, 1586), whose angular brush strokes show some observation of Rosso Fiorentino and an immense modernity. Next to it, a smooth and just gorgeous Adoration of the Magi by Girolamo Machchietti for San Lorenzo (of the same date, 1586).

Detail of
Detail of painting by Girolamo Machchietti

To follow are two rooms with smaller paintings, here getting in to some of the themes of this period. The first looks at portraits, which are in many different styles. At the center of the room is a marble dwarf. The work that most impacted me in this room is a postuhumous portrait of a 6-month old child (who looks like he’s already affected by middle-aged balding and paunch), one of three children of Cavalier Niccolò Gaddi who all died young. It’s by Maso di San Friano, in a private collection, and I’ve never heard of this artist! Caring for the child is a young black page.

Dwarf, and portrait of Sinibaldo Gaddi
Dwarf, and portrait of Sinibaldo Gaddi

Another room looks at the culture of the Studiolo. Francesco I de’ Medici had one at the Palazzo Vecchio, but this trend extended in the homes of wealthy intellectuals. These works address both sacred and profane topics, small pieces of great value, though perhaps not pieces we’ve seen before or studied in art history books. The room is set up in a double register, evoking the studiolo space in an excellent solution to fitting many works in one exhibit.

The studiolo
The studiolo

Here I’ll pass the word on to the curators:

Indeed, ‘lasciviousness’ and ‘devotion’ are ideal words to sum up two realities, two world visions and even two conditions of the soul, different and even antithetical, but that coexisted nevertheless, proceeding along two parallel tracks. This is a path that, in Florence far more than anywhere else, can easily be noted; it is a path that exalts the ability to master different languages (sometimes connected with the scientific innovations of the period) without relinquishing the complexity of registers that had made the century so great.

Thus, it will be easy to see (in the last two rooms of the exhibition) that there is no truth to the idea that, starting in the mid-16th century, figurative language in Florence languished and petered out in the glow of extreme and funereal ‘Mannerism’, not producing seeds capable of bearing fruit in the following century.

The end of this period
The end of this period

The style of Giovan Battista Paggi’s Transfiguration for the Church of San Marco (1596) certainly demonstrates a major shift from the precise lines of our Bronzino’s just a few rooms back. The same can be said of the Cigoli Martyrdom to its right (1605). Action has been moved off-center and is represented with a new palatte and brush stroke that can be defined as “Baroque”.

Through the exhibit, the curators encourage us to “rather than dwell on stylistic language, […] venture more scrupulously to investigate themes, subjects and thoughts.” Certainly, they have promoted a wider understanding of the Cinquecento, in all its elegant languages.

Visitor Information

The Cinquecento in Firenze “modern manner”and counter-reformation.

Palazzo Strozzi, September 21 2017 to January 21 2018

Tickets full € 12,00; reduced € 9,50

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