Particularly in the case of the early modern period, the so-called global turn in art history has tended to lionize the metropole. The urban focus of such major exhibitions as Venice and the Islamic World (2007) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Lisbon-focused The Global City (2014) at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga has helped to construct an image of European cities as the spaces par excellence for multi- and transcultural interactions in art, visual, and material culture. Despite Florence’s unquestioned centrality within the art historical tradition, its relative isolation on the broader political and mercantile stage made the city on the Arno a latecomer to this growing revisionist canon of “global cities.” Florence lacked the substantial maritime trade with Islamic lands that made first Genoa and then Venice commercial entrepôts and, like most of its Italian counterparts, it was shut out of the enormously lucrative and brutal conquest of the Americas. Still, the city has hardly been untouched by art historians’ reconfigurations of relationships between the global and the local, and if scholars got off to a slow start, the ties that bound Florence to an ever-expanding world of commerce and diplomacy have increasingly taken center stage. Lia Markey’s Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence takes its place among the most prominent examples of this sea change, as it explores the long and sometimes unexpected tendrils connecting Medici Florence to the Atlantic world.
Focused on case studies drawn from the grand ducal court between its establishment in the 1520s and the early decades of the seventeenth century, Markey’s book provides a concise overview of Florentine cultural engagement with the Americas. While the Medici thirst for rare and precious objects from the New World plays an important role, this is first and foremost a study of representation rather than outright possession and display. The creative cataloging, restaging, and pictorial recording of the places, flora, fauna, and people of the Americas serves as the book’s backbone. Some studies coalesce around familiar monuments, staking convincing claims for the paramount importance of newly acquired knowledge of the Americas to our understanding of their original impact. Chapter 3 reexamines the Guardaroba nuova, the room designed to house Cosimo I’s growing collection of precious rarities, artifacts, and natural wonders, decorated with Ignazio Danti’s comprehensive cartographic paintings. Other chapters center on less-familiar American motifs nonetheless hiding in plain sight. Lodovico Buti’s 1588 ceiling frescoes for the Uffizi, too easily passed by as typical grotesques, serve in chapter 7 as pivotal expressions of Ferdinando I’s engagement with the Florentine Codex.
Imagining the Americasin Medici Florence is perhaps at its best in its embrace of sixteenth-century Florence’s staggering range of visual and material culture. Paintings loom large, but take their place among prints and books, textiles, feather mosaics, stone inlays, and ephemeral structures for festivals. Chapter 4, for example, provides a hugely satisfying introduction to Jacopo Ligozzi’s botanical and zoological illustrations of New World subjects and the ways in which this emerging scientific knowledge served to invent the natural world of the Americas for Florentine viewers. Throughout the book, Markey has selected arresting images whose mimetic naturalism is powerful and sometimes startling. The turkey at the center of Bronzino’s Dovizia tapestry (1545), to point only to one of the most recognizable and quintessentially American of these subjects, emerges in chapter 2 as a creature every bit as compelling as Albrecht Dürer’s famed rhinoceros. A reader, even one previously unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Medici Florence, comes away not just with a newfound recognition of the visual ubiquity of the Americas in early modern Italy but with a remarkably clear sense of the political and diplomatic environment to which such images responded. Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence will undoubtedly become the classic work from which future studies depart and against which they will be judged.
At the thematic core of this book are a series of binary pairs: the real and imagined Americas, their vicarious and actual conquest, the oscillation between ethnography and fantasy. As such the strength of both the works it draws on and the book itself often lies in the powerful ways that practical distance from the people and places of the Atlantic world spurred ingenious visual solutions. Indeed, the Americas a reader encounters in Markey’s Florence is one not just imagined but fairly invented by the Medici princes and their favored artists. Such aspirational and imaginative dominion was hardly constrained to the Atlantic world. While touched upon briefly, the relationship between the strategies employed by artists like Buti, Ligozzi, and Jacopo Zucchi for the Americas and those utilized by these and other artists to reframe the classical past, to imagine the Byzantine world, and especially to visualize the Ottoman lands and their inhabitants warrant further exploration. In particular, it might be worth investigating this Medici New World in light of the grand dukes’ equally fantastical projects to revive crusading in these same years. Cosimo I’s formation of the Knights of Santo Stefano as a crusading order with (entirely unachievable) ambitions to retake the Holy Land too might be best approached as another form of vicarious conquest. After all, the earliest Florentine maps to include the Atlantic world called the Americas a terra nuova sancta—a new Holy Land.
The book’s conclusion turns to a brief rumination on this central concern of “vicarious conquest.” Markey’s assertion that the American components of the Guardaroba nuova “would compensate for the Medici’s inactivity in the Americas and make clear to Spain and the other powers of Europe that the Florentine family too were gaining from the riches of this new land” encapsulates this undeniably sensible argument (45). The “vicarious” conquests provided by Danti’s maps or Zucchi’s allegorical panel painting (the focus of chapter 6) present viewers with an overtly aestheticized, even sanitized vision of European encounters with the Americas. Violence is not wholly ignored. Buti’s frescoes with their stylized battles between Amerindians and Spaniards figure prominently in chapter 7. Yet these martial frescoes effortlessly incorporate such brutality into a register of aestheticized violence characteristic of the Florentine heroic tradition. And Buti’s cursory acknowledgment of conquest is a rarity here. The overwhelming vision of the Americas presented in this Florence—intentionally and powerfully Medicean—is that of imaginary abundance, credible only because it was vouchsafed by the convincing and dazzling naturalism of works like Giambologna’s cast-bronze turkey in the Bargello. We might ask, however, to what extent our own art historical focus on this visual culture of vicarious conquest allows us to sidestep—a little too comfortably—the naked violence that is necessarily front and center in studies of the Spanish tradition.
These aestheticized Americas also raise questions about Florence’s place in our emerging global art history. Sixteenth-century Florence long stood at the very heart of the discipline’s canon, thanks in no small part to Giorgio Vasari, his Lives of the Artists, and Cosimo I, Vasari’s patron. Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence forces us to confront head-on the well understood, but never fully internalized, fact that this artistic capital was nonetheless very far from the centers of political and mercantile power on the European (much less world) stage. Its centrality was a built one, consciously pushing against the constant acknowledgment of its own true peripherality. In one sense, Markey’s study affirms Florence’s outsize reputation and influence. Chapter 8, for example, convincingly traces the impact of Jacopo Stradano’s engraved images of the Americas in his late-1580s Nova Reparata (New Discoveries). The wide reach of printed works like Stradano’s provided pathways for Medici conceptions of the Americas to shape the visual imagination well beyond Florence and even Italy. On the other hand, we might well wonder about the extent to which our own revisionist turn to consider the city’s place within a wider globe raises certain questions about the relationship between the aestheticized Americas (and Americans) of Medici patronage and the motivations of our own scholarly projects.
For the art historian, recognizing the prominence of these Medici Americas requires too that we confront a few slightly uncomfortable truths. First, that our disciplinary focus on Florence has always and ever worked to grapple with and ultimately suppress the city’s marginality. Second, and more significantly, that the present scholarly globalization of a city like Florence (and for that matter Venice or Lisbon) satisfies certain academic trends, yet coincides equally well with the ambitions of early modern states and their rulers. Our desire to trouble the parochial narratives of early modern Italy may also lend support to hegemonic constructs—in this case those of Medici power, propaganda, and the fantastical Americas that served as one of their most enduring legacies.