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Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Early Modern Period

16th - 18th century


The smooth transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age is conventionally fixed on such events as the Reformation and the discovery of the "New World," which brought about the emergence of a new image of man and his world. Humanism, which spread out of Italy, also made an essential contribution to this with its promotion of a critical awareness of Christianity and the Church. The Reformation eventually broke the all-embracing power of the Church. After the Thirty Years' War, the concept of a universal empire was also nullified. The era of the nation-state began, bringing with it the desire to build up political and economic power far beyond Europe. The Americas, Africa, and Asia provided regions of expansion for the Europeans.

Proportions of the Human Figure by Leonardo da Vinci (drawing, ca. 1490)
is a prime example of the new approach of Renaissance
artists and scientists to the anatomy of the human body.



The Italy of Popes and Princes



Between the 15th and the 18th centuries, Italy was contested by the rulers of France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire. It disintegrated into interdependent political structures that quarreled with each other and maneuvered between the great powers. The popes and the northern Italian princes were united by ruthless power and family politics in their battle against municipal freedoms and fashioned their courts into shining centers of the arts and literature.


see also:






CLASSICAL MUSIC-The Middle Ages and the Renaissance, The Baroque Era







The Medici family coat of arms,
on a building in Florence, Italy

Medici Family

Italian bourgeois family that ruled Florence and, later, Tuscany, during most of the period from 1434 to 1737, except for two brief intervals (from 1494 to 1512 and from 1527 to 1530). It provided the church with four popes (Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV, and Leon XI) and married into the royal families of Europe (most notably in France, in the persons of queens Catherine de Médicis and Marie de Médicis).

Three lines of Medici successively approached or acquired positions of power (see the Table). The line of Chiarissimo II failed to gain power in Florence in the 14th century. In the 15th century the line of Cosimo the Elder set up a hereditary principate in Florence but without legal right or title, hence subject to sudden overthrow; crowns burgeoned, however, on the last branches of their genealogical tree, for two of them were dukes outside Florence, their last heir in a direct line became queen of France (Catherine de Médicis), and their final offspring, Alessandro, a bastard, was duke of Florence. In the 16th century a third line renounced republican notions and imposed its tyranny, and its members made themselves a dynasty of grand dukes of Tuscany.

The differences between these three collateral lines are due essentially to circumstances, for there was, in all the Medici, an extraordinary persistence of hereditary traits. In the first place, not being soldiers, they were constantly confronting their adversaries with bribes of gold rather than with battalions of armed men. In addition, the early Medici resolutely courted favour with the middle and poorer classes in the city, and this determination to be popolani (“plebeian”) endured a long time after them. Finally, all were consumed by a passion for arts and letters and for building. They were more than beneficent and ostentatious patrons of the arts; they were also enlightened and were probably the most magnificent such patrons that the West has ever seen.

Line of Chiarissimo II.
The Medici were originally of Tuscan peasant origin, from the village of Cafaggiolo in the Mugello, the valley of the Sieve, north of Florence. Some of these villagers, in the 12th century perhaps, became aware of the new opportunities afforded by commerce and emigrated to Florence. There, by the following century, the Medici were counted among the wealthy notables, although in the second rank, after leading families of the city. After 1340 an economic depression throughout Europe forced these more powerful houses into bankruptcy. The Medici, however, were able to escape this fate and even took advantage of it to establish themselves among the city’s elite. But their policy of consolidating their position by controlling the government—the work of the descendants of Chiarissimo II (himself the grandson of the first known Medici)—resulted in 50 years of serious misfortunes for the family (1343–93).

His grandson Salvestro took up his policy of alliance with the popolo minuto (“common people”) and was elected gonfalonier, head of the signoria, the council of government, in 1378. Salvestro more or less willingly stirred up an insurrection of the ciompi, the artisans of the lowest class, and, after their victory, was not above reaping substantial monetary and titular advantages. But in 1381, when the popular government fell, he had to go into exile. His memory, however, was still alive in 1393, when the popolo magro (“lean people”) once more thought it possible to take over the signoria. The mob hastened to seek out his first cousin, Vieri, who was, however, able to fade away without losing face. With Vieri this branch of the Medici was to disappear definitively from history.

Line of Cosimo the Elder.
A distant cousin of Salvestro was Averardo de’ Medici (or Bicci), whose progeny became the famous Medici of history. His son Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici (1360–1429), considered the first of the great Medici, inherited the family business based on cloth and silk manufacturing and on banking operations and made the family powerfully prosperous. Giovanni’s two sons, Cosimo (1389–1464) and Lorenzo (1394–1440), both of whom acquired the appellation of “the Elder,” founded the famous lines of the Medici family.

Cosimo de’ Medici, the older brother, established the family’s political base. He served on the Florentine board of war, called the Dieci (The Ten), and held other posts. His two sons were Piero (1416–69) and Giovanni (1424–63). The latter died before his father, who in death received the title “Father of His Country.” Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici maintained and strengthened the political fortunes of the family. He also fathered two sons, one of whom, Giuliano (1453–78) was assassinated. The second son, Lorenzo (1449–92), became in his own time Il Magnifico (The Magnificent).

Lorenzo de’ Medici deservedly holds an honoured place in the history of Florence and Italy. Inheriting from his forebears a deep respect for arts and letters, he became a poet himself as well as a patron of artists and a skilled statesman. His three children, Piero (1472–1503), Giovanni (1475–1521)—later Leo X—and Giuliano (1479–1516), played contrasting roles in the city’s history. Assuming the mantle of family power from Lorenzo, Piero alienated the people of Florence by siding with the French. Because of this act, considered a betrayal, the Medici had to flee Florence (1494). Giovanni, at that time a cardinal, used his influence with Pope Julius II to bring the family back to positions of power. Giuliano, who received the French title of duc de Nemours, was in poor health and died relatively young.

Piero, oldest of the children of Lorenzo the Magnificent, fathered one son, also named Lorenzo (1492–1519), who in turn had a daughter, Catherine (1519–89), who became queen of France as wife of Henry II; three of her four sons became kings of France. Giovanni, second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, became Pope Leo X. In commemoration of the deaths of Giuliano and Lorenzo, the two who had died relatively young, the family commissioned Michelangelo to complete the famous Medici Tombs in Florence. The few years of this period are often considered to be the apogee of the Medici age. The period has even been called “the century of Leo X.” From 1513 to 1521, surrounded by five nephews and cousins whom he had named cardinals, Leo X reigned less over Christianity than over arts and letters in the style of his father, the Magnificent, too occupied with patronage to pay sufficient attention to an unimportant monk by the name of Martin Luther. By the 1520s, nonetheless, the descendants of Cosimo the Elder had become few in number. To ensure that a Medici of the Cosimo line would continue to rule Florence, Pope Clement VII, nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent, installed Alessandro (1511–37), reputedly his own illegitimate son, as hereditary duke of Florence. In the same year, 1532, Clement VII abolished the city’s old constitution.

Alessandro proved to be cruel and brutally authoritarian. He ruled for five years. In 1537 he was assassinated by a companion who was also a relative.

The grand dukes of Tuscany.
Alessandro’s death did not terminate the Medici family’s power in Florence. A younger branch of the family, descendants of the Lorenzo who had been the brother of Cosimo the Elder, now came forward. Cosimo de’ Medici (1519–74), great-great-grandson of Lorenzo, became duke of Florence, then grand duke of Tuscany (1569), and reigned as Cosimo I. He established a new dynasty that perpetuated the family’s traditional regard for the arts and sciences. The descendants of Cosimo I, who ruled over Florence and Tuscany as grand dukes into the 1700s, included the following major figures.

Francis (1541–87), son of Cosimo I, was known equally as a suspicious despot, a tax master who nearly ruined the nation’s economy, and an estimable patron of the arts and sciences. He favoured the goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini; and his interest in science, particularly chemistry, led to establishment of a Florentine porcelain factory. Francis’ daughter became the queen of France as the wife of Henry IV and is known in history as Marie de Médicis.

Ferdinand I (1549–1609), younger brother of Francis and a cardinal when he succeeded to the grand duchy, showed more tact and experience in administration and, during his reign, brought Tuscany to new heights of stability and prosperity. He was the founder of the Villa Medici at Rome and the purchaser of many priceless works of art, such as the Niobe group and many other statues that he afterward transported to Florence. After his accession he retained the cardinal’s purple until the time of his marriage. He was in most respects his brother’s opposite.

Cosimo II (1590–1621), older son of Ferdinand I, reigned during a period when Europe was relatively at peace and when Tuscany’s abundant harvests helped to feed Europe and make Tuscany rich. From then on, however, a general decay set in. Ferdinand II (1610–70), oldest son of Cosimo II, was followed by his only living son and heir, Cosimo III (1642–1723), who in turn was followed by an only son, Gian Gastone (1671–1737), who died without issue. The European powers in 1738 transferred the grand duchy to the dukes of Lorraine, related to the Austrian imperial house.

The older Medicean line had generally honoured the republican ambitions of the people of Florence. The younger line established an authoritarian rule that had both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, constitutional forms and movements toward democratic government disappeared. On the other hand, Florence acquired a degree of stability that it had never known under the descendants of Cosimo the Elder. Despite the new stability, the city dwindled as a centre of art, science, and scholarship. The descendants of Cosimo I married into most of the royal houses of Europe; to a greater or lesser extent they preserved the family name and the family fortune; but, ruling mainly by military force, they seem in the context of history to have reduced the city’s role and importance as a centre of creative artistic effort and cultural renaissance. The grand ducal line disappeared with the death of Cosimo III’s daughter Anna Maria Luisa (1667–1743), widow of the elector palatine John William of Neuburg; she bequeathed all the art treasures of the Medici to the grand duchy and to Florence. Engraved on her tomb in the Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of the Princes) are the words Ultima della stirpe reale dei Medici (“Last of the royal Medici line”).

Additional Reading
Among many historians and memorialists contemporary with the Medici, Niccolò Machiavelli, Francesco Guicciardini, and, to a lesser degree, Scipione Ammirato cannot be dispensed with. Modern works, for a general view, include G.F. Young, The Medici, 2 vol. (1909, reprinted 1933; Italian trans. 1935; French trans. 1969), dated but still useful; Albert Jourcin, Les Médicis (1968; German trans. 1969); Gaetano Pieraccini, La stirpe de’ Medici di Cafaggiolo, 2nd ed., 3 vol. (1947), extensive researches on the hereditary features and diseases that run in the Medici family; and Marcel Brion, Le Siècle des Médicis (1969; The Medici: A Great Florentine Family, 1969). On institutions and banking, Nicolai Rubinstein, The Government of Florence Under the Medici, 1434 to 1494 (1966), based on a masterly examination of the Florentine archives, is fundamental; while Raymond de Roover, The Rise and Decline of the Medici Bank, 1397–1494 (1963), excellently clears up a difficult matter.

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Benozzo Gozzoli

Procession of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence (1459-60)

Medici family members placed allegorically in the entourage of a king from the Three Wise Men
in the Tuscan countryside in a Benozzo Gozzoli fresco, c. 1459, in the "Cappella dei Magi",
at Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence, Italy.

Procession with Lorenzo de' Medici, Piero de' Medici and Giovanni de' Medici


Lorenzo de'Medici (1449 - 1492)
Cosimo de'Medici (1389 - 1464)
Piero de'Medici  (1416 - 1469)


Lorenzo de' Medici as a teenager



Sandro Botticelli

Madonna of the Magnificat
(Madonna del Magnificat)

The family of Piero de' Medici portrayed by Sandro Botticelli in the Madonna del Magnificat.

Lucrezia de' Medici (1470 - 1553) was the eldest daughter of Lorenzo de' Medici and Clarice Orsini and mother of Maria Salviati and Giovanni Salviati, who was a cardinal from 1517 until his death. Her portrait was considered (as a newborn) as the baby Jesus in Our Lady of the Magnificat of Sandro Botticelli



Sandro Botticelli

Adoration of the Magi

(The Medici family and friends)

1. Lorenzo the Magnificent
2. Poliziano
3. Pico della Mirandola
4. Gaspare Lami
5. Cosimo the Elder
6. Piero the Gouty
7. Guiliano de' Medici
8. Giovanni de' Medici
9. Filippo Strozzi
10. Joannis Argiropulos
11. Sandro Botticelli
12. Lorenzo Tornabuoni





The Medici Chapel

The immediate occasion for the chapel was the deaths of the two young family heirs, named Giuliano and Lorenzo after their forebears, in 1516 and 1519. Michelangelo gave his chief attention up to 1527 to the marble interior of this chapel, to both the very original wall design and the carved figures on the tombs; the latter are an extension in organic form of the dynamic shapes of the wall details. The result is the fullest existing presentation of Michelangelo's intentions. Windows, cornices, and the like have strange proportions and thicknesses, suggesting an irrational, willful revision of traditional classical forms in buildings.

Abutting these active surfaces, the two tombs on opposite walls of the room are also very original, starting with their curved tops. A male and a female figure sit on each of these curved bases; these are allegories symbolizing on one tomb day and night, according to the artist's own statement, and dawn and dusk on the other, according to early reports. Such personifications had never appeared on tombs before, and they refer, again according to Michelangelo, to the inevitable movement of time, which is circular and leads to death.

The figures are among the artist's most famous and accomplished creations. The immensely massive figures of “Day” and “Dusk” are relatively tranquil in their mountainous grandeur, though “Day” perhaps implies inner fires. Both female figures have the tall, slim proportions and small feet considered beautiful at the time, but otherwise they form a contrast: “Dawn,” a virginal figure, strains upward along her curve as if trying to emerge into life; “Night” is asleep, but in a posture suggesting stressful dreams.

These four figures are naturally noticed more immediately than the effigies of the two Medici buried there, placed higher and farther back in wall niches. These effigies, more usual in execution, also form a contrast; they are traditionally described as active and thoughtful, respectively. Rendered as standard types of young soldiers, they were at once perceived not as portraits but as idealized superior beings, both because of their high rank and because they are souls beyond the grave. Both turn to the same side of the room. It has naturally been thought that they focus on the “Madonna,” which Michelangelo carved and which is at the centre of this side wall, between two saints. The heads of the two effigies, however, are turned in differing degrees, and their common focus is at a corner of the chapel, at the entrance door from the church. On this third wall with the “Madonna” the architectural treatment was never executed.

During the same years Michelangelo designed another annex to the same church, the Laurentian Library, required toreceive the books bequeathed by Pope Leo; it was traditionalin Florence and elsewhere that libraries were housed in convents. The design for this one was constrained by the existing buildings, and it was built on top of older structures. A small available area on the second floor was used as an entrance lobby and contains a staircase leading up to the larger library room on a new third floor. The stair hall, known as the ricetto, contains Michelangelo's most famous and original wall designs. The bold and free rearrangement of traditional building components goes still further, for instance, to place columns recessed behind a wall plane rather than in front of it as is usual. This has led to the work's being cited frequently as the first and a chief instance of Mannerism as an architectural style, when it is defined as a work that intentionally contradicts the classical and the harmonious, favouring expressiveness and originality, or as one that emphasizes the factors of style for their own sake. By contrast the long library room is far more restrained, with traditional rows of desks neatly related to the rhythm of the windows and small decorative detail in the floor and ceiling. It recalls that Michelangelo was not invariably heavy and bold but modified his approach in relation to the particular case, here to a gentler, quiet effect. For that very reason it has often been less noticed in the study of his work. At the opposite end of the long room, across from the stairway, another door led to a space intended to hold the library's rarest treasures. It was to be a triangular room, a climax of the long corridor-like approach, but this part was never executed on the artist's plan.

The sack of Rome in 1527 saw Pope Clement ignominiously in flight, and Florence revolted against the Medici, restoring the traditional republic. It was soon besieged and defeated, and Medici rule permanently reinstalled, in 1530. During the siege Michelangelo was the designer of fortifications. He showed understanding of modern defensive structures built quickly of simple materials in complex profiles that offered minimum vulnerability to attackers and maximum resistance to cannon and other artillery. This new weapon, which had come into use in the middle of the 14th century, had given greater power to the offense in war. Thus, instead of the tall castles that had served well for defensive purposes in the Middle Ages, lower and thicker masses were more practical. The projecting points, which also assisted counterattack, were often of irregular sizes in adaptation to specific hilly sites. Michelangelo's drawings with rapid lively execution reflecting this flexible new pattern have been much admired, often in terms of pure form.

When the Medici returned in 1530, Michelangelo returned to work on their family tombs. His political commitment probably was more to his city as such than to any specific governmental form. Two separate projects of statues of this date are the “Apollo” or “David” (its identity is problematic), used as a gift to a newly powerful political figure, and the “Victory,” a figure trampling on a defeated enemy, an old man. It was probably meant for the never forgotten tomb of Pope Julius because the motif had been present in the plans for the Julius tomb. Victor and loser both have intensely complicated poses; the loser seems packed in a block, the victor—like the “Apollo”—forms a lithe spiral. The “Victory” group became a favourite model for younger sculptors of the Mannerist group, who applied the formula to many allegorical subjects.

In 1534 Michelangelo left Florence for the last time, though the always hoped to return to finish the projects he had left incomplete. He passed the rest of his life in Rome, working on projects in some cases equally grand but in most cases of quite new kinds. From this time on a large number of his letters to his family in Florence were preserved; many of them concentrated on plans for his nephew's marriage, essential to preserve the family name. Michelangelo's father had died in 1531 and his favourite brother at about the same time; he himself showed increasing anxiety about his age and death. It was just at this time that the nearly 60-year-old artist wrote letters expressing strong feelings of attachment to young men, chiefly to the talented aristocrat Tommaso Cavalieri, later active in Roman civic affairs. These have naturally been interpreted as indications that Michelangelo was a homosexual, but such a reaction according to the artist's own statement would be that of the ignorant. The idea seems even less likely when one considers that no similar indications had emerged when the artist was younger. The correlation of these letters with other new events seems consistent instead with the view that he was seeking a surrogate son, choosing for the purpose a younger man who was admirable in every way and would welcome the role.

Michelangelo's poetry is also preserved in quantity from this time. He apparently began writing short poems in a way common among nonprofessionals in the period, as an elegant kind of letter, but developed in a more original and expressive way. Among some 300 preserved poems, not including fragments of a line or two, there are about 75 finished sonnets and about 95 finished madrigals, poems of about the same length as sonnets but of a looser formal structure. In English-speaking countries people tend to speak of “Michelangelo's sonnets,” as though all of his poems were written in that form, partly because the sonnets were widely circulated in English translations from the Victorian period, partly because the madrigal is unfamiliar in English poetry. (It is not the type of song well known in Elizabethan music, but a poem with irregular rhyme scheme, line length, and number of lines.) Yet the fact that Michelangelo left a large number of sonnets but only very few madrigals unfinished suggests that he preferred the latter form. Those written up to about 1545 have themes based on the tradition of Petrarch's love poems and a philosophy based on the Neoplatonism that Michelangelo had absorbed as a boy at Lorenzo the Magnificent's court. They give expression to the theme that love helps human beings in their difficult effort to ascend to the divine.

In 1534 Michelangelo returned after a quarter century to fresco painting, executing for the new pope, Paul III, the huge “Last Judgment” for the end wall of the Sistine Chapel. This theme had been a favoured one for large end walls of churches in Italy in the Middle Ages and up to about 1500, but thereafter it had gone out of fashion. It is often suggested that this renewal of a devout tradition came from the same impulses that were then leading to the Counter-Reformationunder the aegis of Paul III. The work is in a painting style noticeably different from that of 25 years earlier. The pervasive colour harmony is a simple one of brown bodies against dark blue sky. The figures have less energy and their forms are less articulate, the torsos tending to be single fleshy masses without waistlines. At the top centre Christ as judge lifts an arm to save those on his right and drops the other arm to damn those on his left, suggesting in the idiom of the period a scale to weigh men in the balance. The saved souls rise slowly through the heavy air, as the damned ones sink. At the bottom of the wall skeletons rise from tombs, a motif taken directly from medieval precedents. To the right Charon ferries souls across the River Styx, a pagan motif which Dante had made acceptable to Christians in his Divine Comedy and which had been introduced into painting about 1500 by the Umbrian artist Signorelli. Michelangelo admired this artist for his skill in expressing dramatic feeling through anatomical exactitude.

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Tomb of the Medicis



View of the Medici Chapel

Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence



Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici

Marble, 630 x 420 cm
Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence


Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici
Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence



Marble, length: 194 cm
Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence



Marble, length: 185 cm
Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence


Tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici

Marble, 630 x 420 cm
Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence


Tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici
Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence



Marble, length: 195 cm
Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence



Marble, length: 203 cm
Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence



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