Caravaggio and the Medici in the spotlight at the Uffizi

Caravaggio and the Medici in the spotlight at the Uffizi

A controversial artist on the run for murder and a cardinal-turned-Grand Duke with a flair for drama: it’s little wonder that Caravaggio and Ferdinando I de’ Medici are the forces behind the artist’s extraordinary Head of Medusa (1597/98), now a showpiece of the eight sumptuous new rooms dedicated to Caravaggio at the Uffizi Gallery.

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Caravaggio and the Medici in the spotlight at the Uffizi

A controversial artist on the run for murder and a cardinal-turned-Grand Duke with a flair for drama: it’s little wonder that Caravaggio and Ferdinando I de’ Medici are the forces behind the artist’s extraordinary Head of Medusa (1597/98), now a showpiece of the eight sumptuous new rooms dedicated to Caravaggio at the Uffizi Gallery. 


Caravaggio and Ferdinando I: Theatrical realism and extravaganza

Painted on a ceremonial wooden shield and captured at the moment after her decapitation – shocked eyes wide and comprehending, neck spurting blood – Caravaggio’s Medusa is a riveting work of unsettling realism that was commissioned by the artist’s chief patron, Cardinal del Monte, as a gift for Ferdinando I de’ Medici. 

But why the Medusa? This fearsome symbol not only represented conquest over enemies – in the Ancient Greek legend, Medusa’s roving gaze turned men to stone, and it was only by holding up a mirrored shield that the hero Perseus was able to defeat her – but during the Renaissance it also stood for the triumph of reason over the senses. 

Ironic, therefore, that it should be a gift for our flamboyant Grand Duke, renowned for his opulent parties and theatrical extravaganzas.

When Ferdinando relinquished his role as cardinal to take up the reins of Medici leadership after the suspicious death of his brother Francesco, he did so as though he were born for it. For his marriage to Christine of the House of Lorraine, Ferdinando splurged on wedding festivities that lasted six weeks and included fireworks, banquets, exquisite displays of sugarwork, 2000 foreign guests and, to the awe and delight of spectators, an entire naval battle re-enacted in miniature, held in the flooded courtyard of Palazzo Pitti.   


The Medicean Theatre inside the Uffizi 

Renowned for his dramatic use of light, spotlighting his subjects as though they were stage actors, Caravaggio’s theatrical approach may have hit its mark with the Medici family, already well-versed in creating spectacle as propaganda. Before he died Francesco commissioned Bernardo Buontalenti (he of the naval battle re-enactment fame) to construct the Medicean Theatre inside the Uffizi, astounding the public with performances heightened by optical illusions and innovative mechanics. (When Ferdinando took over he significantly altered the decorative scheme to reflect his own authority.) 

In a neat line of symmetry with the current exhibition, it was also Francesco who established the Uffizi as the world’s first museum, initially private and then public, to showcase the Medici’s ample treasures and, in true Medicean style, further cement the family brand and their right to rule.



Caravaggio’s Florentine legacy 

  And so what of Caravaggio? Orphaned at 11 and dead before 40, a man wanted for killing a pimp during a street brawl, his troubled and violent nature spurred an extraordinary output. 

The Uffizi’s magnificent homage to the artist, inaugurated in February 2018, showcases the range of his masterful, dark and subtly witty paintings alongside major works from the seventeenth century drawn from Medici and European collections, with eight sections titled Between Reality and Magic; Caravaggio and Artemisia; Caravaggio: Medusa; Caravaggio: Bacchus; By Candlelight; Rembrandt and Rubens; Galileo and the Medici; and Florentine Epic.


Whether a spectator to art or a willing participant in spectacle, the Uffizi’s new section casts an illuminating light on the dynamics at play in both the seventeenth century’s halls of power and its gritty daily reality.      

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