Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Alchemy of Francesco de' Medici

For some reason, I have always felt an affinity with Francesco de’ Medici: perhaps it has something to do with the unique spaces he commissioned or even the fact that our mothers share the same name, but I think the main reason is that his commitment to the ideals of Renaissance humanism and to the study of alchemy-- by all accounts his major passion in life-- lead me to think of him as the “intellectual” of the Medici Grand Dukes.  In this essay, I would like to lay out Francesco’s life, career and death in broad strokes before going on to discuss (what I am going to call) his greatest alchemical achievement.

Francesco de’ Medici was the eldest son of Cosimo I (1519-1574) and Eleanora di Toledo (1522-1562).  Cosimo had been a seventeen-year-old unknown when he became Duke of Florence in 1537, after his distant cousin Alessandro’s assassination (by another cousin), but by 1555 he had conquered the city of Siena, thus ultimately leading to his elevation (in 1569) as the first Grand Duke of Tuscany.

In 1562, Eleonora died during an outbreak of malaria outside of Pisa along with two of Francesco’s younger brothers: Giovanni (who was a 19-year-old cardinal) and Garzia (who was fifteen).  This loss greatly affected Cosimo, and in 1564 he retired from public life leaving Francesco to govern as regent.

Francesco was wed to Johanna of Austria (1547-1578), sister to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (1527-1576),  on December 18, 1565.   In honor of this occasion, the Cortile di Michelozzo (the cloistered courtyard you enter when you walk through the doors of the Palazzo Vecchio) was adorned with frescoes showing panoramas of the great cities of the Habsburg Empire (e.g. Vienna, Prague, Innsbruck).  [Here is a YouTube video of the Cortile di Michelozzo] This was a prestigious dynastic marriage for the Medicis, but it was not a happy one.  Four of the couple’s seven children-- including their only son-- died in infancy, and a fifth died at age fourteen. It is worth noting, however, that one of their two daughters to survive childhood, Maria de’ Medici  (1575-1642), would become Queen of France.

Upon his father’s death in April 1574, Francesco inherited the Grand Duchy.  The Italian wikipedia article on Francesco de’ Medici characterizes his rule thusly:
Francesco, like his father Cosimo, was inclined towards despotism, but, unlike his father, he proved unable to maintain Florence’s independence, sometimes acting almost as if he were a mere vassal of his [brother-in-law], the Holy Roman Emperor.... Moreover, Francesco did not interest himself much in politics, preferring to leave the fate of the Grand Duchy in the hands of numerous functionaries whom he trusted blindly.  He continued to heavily tax his subjects in order to send frequent tributes to the Emperor.

Francesco’s legacy as a patron of the arts is more worthy of praise.  No place illustrates this better than the room in the Palazzo Vecchio that bears his name. The Studiolo di Francesco is a windowless, interior chamber lined with wood panelling and inset cabinets built between 1570 and 1572; the room was designed by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574)-- by then nearing the end of his career-- with the humanist Don Vincenzo Borghini (1515-1580) acting as curator, overseeing the selection and placement of the paintings that cover its walls and ceiling and the statues displayed in its alcoves-- the combined contributions of over 30 artists.  

One of the first things one notices when viewing the studiolo is how Francesco’s parents, Cosimo and Eleonora, look down on the room from oval portraits placed high up on opposite walls-- painted, we’re told, by Alessandro Allori (1535-1607), based on the official court portraits by his teacher Bronzino (1503-1572).  

Leaving the parental portraits aside, there is a common theme which runs through many of the chamber’s paintings regarding the relationship between nature and art.  On the ceiling, we see female figures representing the four ancient elements, and-- in the center-- an allegorical fresco shows Nature handing an uncut stone (possibly the Philosopher’s stone) to Prometheus.  Meanwhile, several of the paintings covering the walls depict scenes where nature’s raw materials are transformed through the art of man.  Thus we see the invention of gunpowder, a mine, a bronze foundry, a glassworks, a goldsmith’s shop and an alchemist’s laboratory.  Several of these paintings also feature Francesco himself as a supporting character-- most famously, the Alchemist’s Laboratory by Jan van der Straet (a Flemish-born painter whose name was Italianized as “Giovanni Stradano”-- 1523-1605) where we see Francesco hard at work under the master alchemist’s direction.

In addition to the artwork that fills the studiolo-- making it a sort of Kunstkammer or “cabinet gallery”-- its cupboards were used to store various curiosities, thus rendering it a true Renaissance Wunderkammer or “Cabinet of Wonders.”  Among these were objets d’art which complimented the chamber’s overarching theme by incorporating elements of nature, such as a crystal vase shaped like a fish and an ornate, jeweled ewer whose body is composed of two nautilus shells.  We are also told that Francesco’s collection included medallions, mechanical devices, cut and uncut gemstones, rare substances believed to hold medicinal properties and trophies from rare animals including a unicorn horn (a ubiquitous item found in all the best Renaissance wunderkammer-- in reality, these were usually narwhal tusks). [See this page, in Italian, of the Palazzo Vecchio museum website for a host of photos of the room's paintings and objet d'art.]

Francesco also expanded the Giardini di Boboli. These regal gardens stretch out behind the Palazzo Pitti, a Medicean residence on the other side of the Arno river from Florence’s city centre, originally purchased by Eleonora in 1549 because she was fed up with climbing up and down the Palazzo Vecchio’s many stairs.  Throughout the gardens, one can see iconography representing members of the Medici family.  There is, for example, the tortoise (often depicted with a sail on its back) which Cosimo I had adopted as his personal symbol and the goat (Capricorn) which was Cosimo’s preferred zodiac sign (he was a Gemini with Capricorn ascendant).  Beside the Capricorn we sometimes see Aries, the ram, which was Francesco’s astrological sign.

The feature of the gardens most closely associated with Francesco is the Grotta di Buontalenti-- a sort of artificial cave complex constructed primarily by Bernardo Buontalenti (1531-1608) in the 1580s.  This unique Mannerist fantasy further elaborates on Francesco’s humanist philosophy-- suggesting that nature is wild and chaotic but that man, armed with knowledge, can tame it and bring forth harmony and beauty.  The Renaissance was an age of both discovery and of rediscovery of the Classics (sometimes mediated by Arab scholars), and thus inquisitive men like Francesco would not yet draw a distinction between scientific knowledge and what we would call religion, philosophy and arcana.  Sculptures and frescoes are placed among the grotto’s rock formations thus highlighting the contrast between the natural and the artistic.  Moreover, there is a progression, with the first of the complex’s three caves appearing the most naturalistic-- a large part of it covered with stucco stalactites, stalagmites and coral which  in some places form human and animal shapes. Meanwhile, the third and last room is the most refined and classically ordered; it is circular with a vaulted ceiling painted to resemble the firmament, and at its center stands a fountain supporting a statue by Giambologna (1529-1608) of modest Venus emerging from her bath.  It is also worth noting that four of Michelangelo’s “Prisoners” were displayed in the grotto-- sculptures left half-finished which give the impression that the titans or slaves are struggling to free themselves from the stone. [See this flickr photostream by Barbara Cesanelli for more photos of the Grotta di Buontalenti]

Francesco was also the first person to use the Uffizi as an art gallery.  The edifice was originally designed to house the administrative offices of Cosimo’s expanded state under one roof ; construction began in 1560 under Vasari, and work continued into the 1580s.  In 1584, Francesco commissioned Buontalenti with designing the Tribuna, the elegant, octagonal room at the heart of the Uffizi.  Upon its completion, Francesco began moving pieces previously housed in his studiolo (in particular the sculptures) to the Tribuna along with other highlights of the Medici family’s art collection.  The room provides a striking showcase: visitors cannot help but be impressed by the pietra dura marble floors, the walls upholstered with red velvet and the domed ceiling adorned with mother of pearl shells.  [IlSole24Ore has a slideshow with more photos of the Tribuna]

One last act of patronage worthy of note is the stately palazzo Francesco had Buontalenti design for his beloved mistress of many years, the Venetian noblewoman Bianca Cappello.   It was to be erected in the Oltrarno quarter of Florence, a short distance from the Palazzo Pitti.  Built between 1570 and 1574, this is the oldest documented building that can be definitively attributed to the artist who would act as state architect during Francesco’s reign. 


Johanna of Austria died in 1578, after falling down a flight of stairs far along in her eighth pregnancy.  Many people suspected foul play.  New evidence has emerged only recently, from an in-depth paleopathological study (dubbed “The Medici Project”) which examined the remains of members of the Medici family, entombed in Florence’s Basilica di San Lorenzo, in order to learn more about their lifestyle, health, environment and cause of death.  Among the studies findings, it is stated that Johanna died as a result of a ruptured uterus sustained during childbirth.  It also notes that she suffered from scoliosis and that the deformation of her lower spine would have caused complications during partum.  Her bones also shows signs of stress and damage sustained as a result of numerous difficult pregnancies and childbirths.  The child, who may have been born prematurely, did not survive.

Francesco married Bianca Cappello as soon as possible after the death of his first wife.  The couple had previously had a child together named Antonio (often called “Don Antonio,” 1576-1621).  During this period, Antonio was legitimated and recognized by Francesco as his rightful heir.

In October of 1587, the Grand Duke and Duchess both contracted malaria during a sojourn at the Medicean villa in Poggio a Caiano.  Francesco died on October 19 and Bianca followed hours later.  These deaths also gave rise to suspicions, with many people over the centuries advancing the theory that the two were poisoned.  However, the same scientific study cited above all but lays these rumors to rest as it found traces in Francesco’s bones of the parasite which causes malaria (the whereabouts of Bianca’s remains are unknown).   A previous study conducted in 2006 noted high levels of arsenic in remains they claimed belonged to Francesco and Bianca, but Gino Fornacciari-- Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pisa and leader of the Medici Project-- notes that arsenic was widely used in embalming in the 16th century.   Also worth noting: the project’s findings state:
The muscular insertions (deltoid, great  pectoral, great dorsal, biceps, forearm muscles) indicate a man of great physical strength. The skeletal markers associated with habitual horseback riding already noticed for Cosimo I, are almost all present. This new data changes completely the traditional view of Francesco I as an intellectual, sedentary scholar, nicknamed ‘the prince of the studiolo’ for his devotion to his humanistic and alchemic studies. On the contrary, Francesco evidently led a physically active life.
After the demise of Francesco and his second wife, his brother Ferdinando (1549-1609)-- a cardinal at the time--  assumed power, declaring himself Grand Duke and casting doubt on Don Antonio’s parentage.  Ferdinando hung up his cardinal’s robes and married Christine of Lorraine in 1589.  Meanwhile, Antonio relinquished any rights he may have had to the crown in return for (considerable) material support from Ferdinando, and at the age of eighteen he was pushed into joining the Knights of Malta (a celibate order).

Francesco had the Medici family’s relatively humble residence near Florence’s Piazza San Marco (known as the Casino di San Marco) renovated by Buontalenti in 1570-74, with the goal of using it as a laboratory for his alchemical experiments.  What did his proto-scientific investigations actually accomplish?  Needless to say, Francesco did not synthesize gold in his lab, but he did create something nearly as valuable-- porcelain.  

Porcelain ware was highly valued as an exclusive luxury good by Europeans in the 1500 and 1600s.  Almost all of these wares originated in China where the production of “true” hard paste porcelain dates back at least as far as the Tang dynasty (618-907); indeed, English-speakers today still refer to their porcelain tableware as “china.”  The earliest of these goods probably made their way to Europe via Muslim traders, but in the 1500s the Portuguese were the first to import porcelain directly from the Orient.  Francesco had probably heard tell how the people of Florence were awed by a pair of tall, handsome porcelain vases given as a gift to his ancestor Lorenzo il Magnifico by the Mamluk Sultan in 1478.

Thus porcelain was in high demand, yet Europeans at the time were unable to manufacture it themselves as they were ignorant of how it was made and with what ingredients.  In the 1568 edition of his Live of Famous Artists, Vasari mentions how Buontalenti was currently hard at work trying to discover the art of making porcelain.  Accounts suggest that the Grand Duke’s involvement in these experiments went beyond that of a mere patron and that he was often physically present in the “casino”-- either supervising the work or else getting his hands dirty.  

The first documented evidence of their success comes in 1575 when the Venetian ambassador wrote back to his city’s Signoria that Francesco de’ Medici had discovered the method for producing “the porcelain of the Indies;” he specifically cites the fact that the ceramics the Florentines had produced shared the translucence, hardness, light weight and delicacy of the definite article.

In reality, the porcelain produced in the Medici workshop was not very high quality: the objects fired often bore irregularities such as bubbles, cracks and holes.  Moreover, it was never a profitable venture, production remained on a small scale and the temperatures required by the method they employed tested the limits of the technological capabilities at the turn of the 17th century.

Still, this represented the first successful attempt by Europeans to imitate the porcelain imported from the Far East.   All the porcelain ware made in the workshop was classic white with cobalt blue decoration.  According to Wikipedia, some of the pieces bear a trademark consisting of a small representation of Brunelleschi’s dome (Florence’s most famous landmark) along with the letter “F” (for Florence or Francesco) while the Medicean coat of arms is printed on others .  

Most of the Medicean porcelain was given away by Francesco as gifts to foreign princes.  Today there are around 70 known pieces extant-- one of which is on display at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.  According to the museum’s catalogue, the base of the flask bears the trademark dome and F.

Production of Medicean porcelain was halted during the reign of Ferdinando I, probably not long after his brother’s death, and the experiment was quickly forgotten.  Europe would have to wait almost a century for its next manufactory of soft paste porcelain, which began in Rouen (Normandy), France in the 1670s.   This was followed by porcelain production in Meissen, Germany at the beginning of the 1700s.  The Meissen factory carefully guarded its trade secrets, but in 1712 a Jesuit named d’Entrecolles published a book about his mission in China in which he reveals the method of production of hard paste porcelain employed by the Chinese.

Images: Portrait of Francesco de' Medici c.1567 probably by Allori (or possibly Bronzino) can be found at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, image snagged from wikipedia; photo of Cortile di Michelozzo, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence taken from Palazzo Vecchio museo ragazzi website; photo of the Studiolo di Francesco, also in the Palazzo Vecchio, found on wikipedia, taken by wikipedia user sailko used under GNU license; photo of the entrance/facade of the Grotta di Buontalenti, Boboli Gardens, Florence taken from; photo of the Tribuna, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence taken from; the Alchemist's Laboratory by Giovanni Stradano is on display in the Studiolo di Francesco, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, image taken from wikipedia; Medici porcelain flask is on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, photo taken by Meeg on March 11, 2012