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Mobsters, Bankers, Popes Mix in Paris Show on Medicis: Review

"Leonor de Toledo" (1543) by Agnolo Bronzino, is part of the exhibition "Treasures of the Medici" running through Feb. 13. Source: Musee Maillol via Bloomberg

Jan. 5 (Bloomberg) -- They started out like the Sopranos. They ended up like the Morgans.

Before the Medicis became the most powerful family in Florence, they were little more than a clan of gangsters. Between 1343 and 1360, five of them were sentenced to death for capital crimes.

In 1397, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici decided to clean up the family act. He founded the bank that became the source of their immense wealth.

“Treasures of the Medici,” a Paris show, celebrates the family’s patronage of the arts and sciences. Proteges included Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael and Galileo.

The exhibition originally was planned for the Musee du Luxembourg where it was to open in 2008. Because of quarrels between the two curators, the French Senate, which runs that museum, canceled the show.

When Patrizia Nitti, one of the two squabblers, became director of the Musee Maillol, she took the show with her, although the tiny townhouse is hardly an ideal venue.

Some also may object to the arbitrary selection. No wonder, given the Medicis’ long and much ramified reign. Not only did they rule over Florence and Tuscany -- with intervals of disgrace and exile -- for three centuries; several became popes and others were queens of France.

Wise Men

One of the most remarkable items is Botticelli’s “Adoration of the Magi,” which could more aptly be named “The Adoration of the Medici”: The three wise men are Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464), who was the first to establish the family’s predominance in Florence, and his sons Piero and Giovanni. Lorenzo and Giuliano, Piero’s sons, are looking on.

Under Lorenzo (1449-92), dubbed “the Magnificent,” Florence enjoyed the most splendid period of its Renaissance. Not everybody was won over. In 1478, the Pazzi clan attempted a putsch: During Mass in the cathedral, Lorenzo was wounded, and his brother Giuliano was stabbed to death.

While his predecessors had respected the facade of the republican constitution, Cosimo I (1519-74) adopted the title of Grand Duke. There’s a wonderful portrait of his wife, Leonor de Toledo, by Bronzino in the exhibition.

The even more famous portrayal of his uncle Leo X by Raphael didn’t travel to Paris. Instead, there’s the fat pope on a cameo as well as Raphael’s portrait of the papal librarian, Tommaso Inghirami, nicknamed Fedra, because he was particularly good at performing as Seneca’s Queen Phaedra who lusts after her stepson Hippolytus.

Medici Satellites

Cosimo’s grandson, Cosimo II (1590-1621), studied with Galileo and invited him to settle in Florence. When the great man discovered the satellites of Jupiter, he politely named them Sidera Medicea in honor of his employer.

The show includes a contemporary copy of Galileo’s portrait by Justus Sustermans along with “Sidereus Nuncius.” That’s the first treatise based on observations made through a telescope in which Galileo explained that the surface of the moon is mountainous and irregular, not smooth as had been supposed until then.

Don’t expect a clearly focused, didactic exhibition. It’s more like an antique fair with a wildly varied collection of paintings, sculptures, violins, jewelry, astronomical instruments, manuscripts and knickknacks of all sorts.

The way the 150 or so items have been assembled may be debatable, yet each of them is worth your attention.

“Tresors des Medicis” runs through Feb. 13 at the Musee Maillol in Paris. Information: http://www.museemaillol.fr or +33-1-4222-5958.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at uthmann@wanadoo.fr.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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