WTF Art History

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  1. West Side Medici

    The Medici family was badass in every way: they built and lived in huge palaces in and around Florence and Rome, they commissioned art from the greatest artists of their time (from Botticelli to Michelangelo), they exiled people they didn’t like from Florence, and they controlled the bank (and at times the papacy as well).  Badass right?  In the sixteenth century, a member of the family established himself as Grand Duke of Tuscany, a pretty flashy title and a bold move politically as such a title was often reserved for foreigners and those of truly noble status (of which the Medici were not, even if they were extremely wealthy).  His named was Cosimo I (not to be confused with his fifteenth century relative of the same name, also called ‘il Vecchio’, the older).  In portraits of Cosimo and his family by Bronzino, each are shown making a distinct hand gesture, the use of which today could get them shot in certain neighborhoods.  I’m referring to the west side gang sign.  Take a look, they all make some variation of the gesture, except Francesco who flashes the shocker… he was a little odd and probably kinky like that.

    Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Cosimo I de' Medici, c. 1544-45, oil on panel.  Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo with Her Son Giovanni, 1545, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Giovanni, Son of Cosimo I de' Medici, 1545, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Giulia, Daughter of Alessandro de' Medici?, c. 1548-50, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Maria, Daughter of Cosimo I de' Medici, 1550-51, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Bia, Cosimo I's Illegitimate Daughter, c. 1542, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Francesco, Son of Cosimo I de' Medici, 1551, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

    Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici, c. 1544-45, oil on panel.  Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo with Her Son Giovanni, 1545, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Giovanni, Son of Cosimo I de’ Medici, 1545, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Giulia, Daughter of Alessandro de’ Medici?, c. 1548-50, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Maria, Daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, 1550-51, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Bia, Cosimo I’s Illegitimate Daughter, c. 1542, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Francesco, Son of Cosimo I de’ Medici, 1551, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

    Several disclaimers should be made before continuing.

    1. The gesture they make in no way refers to the actual west side gang
    2. The Medici family are not unique in being shown making this gesture in paintings
    3. The gesture has been considered by some to be one of modesty (as I’ll explain below)
    4. The gesture is not some Dan Brown secret code signaling Medici allegiance since well-known individuals of the anti-Medici sort also make the gesture
    5. This entry is supposed to be fun with a dash of actual scholarship just for good measure, so proceed accordingly

    Let’s address the modesty gesture.  I’ll use a sculpture of Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, to make the point.  Whenever Venus is shown covering her nude figure art historians refer to her as Venus pudica, which we often translate as “modest Venus” but it quite literally refers to the fact that she gestures towards her pudenda.  Take a look at the appropriately titled Medici Venus, today located in the Tribuna of the Uffizi (once it reopens that is): Venus makes the so-called “west side” gesture to cover her nudity, thus she is being modest.  Some scholars argue that modesty lies behind the gesture seen in the Medici portraits.  Perhaps.

    Medici Venus, 1st century B.C., marble copy of a bronze Greek original.  Galleria degli Uffizi, FlorenceMedici Venus, 1st century B.C., marble copy of a bronze Greek original.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

    In terms of other, non-Medici making the gesture, take a look at Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man in Washington, D. C.

    Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1489/90, tempera on panel.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man, c. 1489/90, tempera on panel.  National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

    And now, just for your scrutiny, here are full-size versions of each of the Medici family members shown above.  Enjoy!

    Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Cosimo I de' Medici, c. 1544-45, oil on panel.  Art Gallery of New South Wales, SydneyAgnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici, c. 1544-45, oil on panel.  Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

    Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo with Her Son Giovanni, 1545, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, FlorenceAgnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo with Her Son Giovanni, 1545, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

    Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Giovanni, Son of Cosimo I de' Medici, 1545, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, FlorenceAgnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Giovanni, Son of Cosimo I de’ Medici, 1545, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

    That’s a lot of dexterity for such a lil’ guy!

    Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Giulia, Daughter of Alessandro de' Medici?, c. 1548-50, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, FlorenceAgnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Giulia, Daughter of Alessandro de’ Medici?, c. 1548-50, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

    Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Maria, Daughter of Cosimo I de' Medici, 1550-51, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, FlorenceAgnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Maria, Daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, 1550-51, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

    Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Bia, Cosimo I's Illegitimate Daughter, c. 1542, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, FlorenceAgnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Bia, Cosimo I’s Illegitimate Daughter, c. 1542, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

    Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Francesco, Son of Cosimo I de' Medici, 1551, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, FlorenceAgnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Francesco, Son of Cosimo I de’ Medici, 1551, oil on panel.  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

    [Told you Francesco was a little odd, just look at his snarky smirk and the shocker gesture!]

     
     
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