The man in the red velvet hat

Jamie Mulherron on “Nello Splendore Mediceo: Papa Leone X e Firenze” at the Museo delle Cappelle Medicee, until 6 October

Antonio d'Orsino Benintendi, Leo X

For all Vasari's fresco cycle in the Palazzo Vecchio, for all Pietro Santi Bartoli's series of prints on his life and exploits, and for all the many excellent things in this exhibition, Giovanni de' Medici, Pope Leo X (1475-1521), remains an inscrutable character. We never get a feel for him as we do with his predecessor Julius II through anecdotes (such as his beating of Michelangelo), or even his of relation the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I (1519-74), whose personality comes over in abundance in the many portraits and allegories of him. But perhaps that is what Giovanni de' Medici was like. One of the main works in the show, on loan from the V&A, a terracotta portrait bust attributed to Antonio d'Orsino Benintendi, is a deeply realistic and psychological portrait which gives the impression of a character as hard to read in life as history.

The exhibition begins in the crypt where we enter the enchanted youth of the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and are introduced the philosophy of Marsilio Ficino, the art of Sandro Botticelli and Antonio Pollaiuolo, and the beautiful small panel of The Return of Judith and Betulia by Botticelli. The end of his idyllic childhood of art, music and hunting was precipitated by Giovanni's rapid rise to clerical stardom - raised to the cardinaliate at the age of 13 - and definitively shattered by the expulsion of the Medici from Florence in 1494.

By way of small bays dedicated to Florence under Savonarola and Pier Soderini, the exhibition continues upstairs in the Chapel of the Princes. Cardinal Giovanni has now become Pope Leo X and the Medici have returned to Florence. Medici-sponsored festivals celebrating their return to the city for the carnival of 1513 and St John's Day in 1514, the former represented by monochrome panels by Andrea del Sarto and Pontormo, act as precursors to the central event of the show: Leo X's triumphal entry into Florence in 1515. This was a great artistic event of ephemeral decoration in the history of Florence, but only words survive, and some of the exhibits associated with the event where "imitation vied with the real" are at best tenuous. This very weakness is, however, turned into one of the exhibition's great strengths - a virtual reconstruction based on original documents with Italian dialogue and English subtitles. It was, for example, fascinating to discover that the young Rosso Fiorentino was responsible for one of the most lavish arches of the day dedicated to the personification of Hope with 21 pillars loosely based on the Temple of Solomon and profusely decorated with pomegranates and acorns.

Located in the centre of the chapel is a specially designed polyhedral "pod"— rather like a golf ball—wherein a slightly unlikely combination of themes converge: Leo's patronage of Raphael in Rome, represented by copies of Raphael's famous portraits, and the Reformation represented by a Cranach portrait of Luther and his wife. A treasury of Leo X's plate is displayed in a room to the right behind the altar. Here one finds one of the most extraordinary objects in the show: a crozier of gold and silver, given by the pope to the Basilica of San Lorenzo in 1520. Made in imitation of a gnarled wooden staff, the knots are a goldsmith's wonder.

The exhibition includes many documents and objects and it ends with Michelangelo's masterpieces in the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo: the tombs of Giuliano, Duke of Nemours and Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino. Here also on display for the first time is the remarkable "crown" of the lantern for the New Sacristy, designed by Michelangelo and executed by the goldsmith Piloto, the subject of an essay in the catalogue by Vincenzo Vaccaro. Rather than the traditional sphere, Michelangelo specified a polyhedron—hence the "pod" of Raphael and Reformation in the chapel.

The exhibition is accompanied by a lavish catalogue with many in-depth essays. Giovanni de' Medici, Leo X, famously portrayed by Raphael in a red velvet camuccio, may remain an inscrutable personality, but this exhibition shows him to have emphatically been a Medici, a Florentine, and a papal Maecenas.

Published Thu, 27 Jun 2013 16:30:00 GMT

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