Despite its importance for the sixteenth century, the place of Latin American material culture of the colonial period in Early Modern European collecting has only recently come to form a significant part of studies of this phenomenon. Lia Markey’s new book will prove a further important resource and corrective for scholarship as it forms a bridge between traditional Italo-centric studies of the Renaissance and those of the New World, the like of which has not been attempted since Hugh Honour’s book, European Images of America (1975). Markey’s work should also be of particular interest to readers of this journal since it is one of the first books to address in detail the collecting and display of works from the Americas in an Italian context, specifically that of Florence. Furthermore, in addition to its own close attention to archival source material, as the introduction acknowledges, throughout the discussion Markey’s scholarship builds upon other, recent studies of and theoretical approaches to sixteenth-century grand-ducal Medici collecting. Markey’s book forms a significant intervention as, remarkably, although it remains little known, Florentine collections still contain some of the most important surviving early Latin American material culture, both pre- and post- Conquest, such as the so-called Florentine Codex (discussed at length in chapter 6). After a detailed introduction that sets the scene by discussing earlier precedents, each of the following, roughly chronological, chapters focuses upon certain objects in the Medici collections in order to elucidate contemporary responses to these items. The narrow time-span ensures a tight focus, covering the reigns of the first three Medici dukes from 1537 to 1609 – the heyday of the Grand Duchy. Through their close ties to the Spanish Habsburgs (Cosimo I married Eleonora di Toledo in 1539) these Medici grand-dukes enjoyed privileged access to the riches of the new empire. As chapter 4 makes clear, once in Florence these objects entered an established network of gift exchange that marked out the precarious relationship between the Grand Duchy and the crown of Spain throughout the sixteenth century. As progressively revealed by the discussion, this was not a static process of acquisition either, but changed from reign to reign. Thereby Markey’s discussion in this volume moves from being a straight history of the Medici collections to becoming an ‘exploration of the intersections between collection, representation, and acquisition knowledge of the Americas’, as the title ‘Imagining the Americas’ suggests. Nonetheless, as the volume also makes clear, from as early as the late 1530s, the Medici came into possession of canonical examples of all the major forms of material culture produced in the Americas, including masks, feather-work and codices. Chapter 3 is a fascinating discussion of how such novel objects fitted into already established patterns of collecting. It is not only the objects themselves that come under discussion here, however, but also the impact their arrival had on the arts and literature of contemporary Florence. It has long been realized, for example, that the presence of the Florentine Codex allowed for the uniquely informed frescoes by Ludovico Buti in the Uffizi that date from 1588. What is brought out here is how the familiar, such as the turkey, was once exotic. This bird weaves throughout Markey’s text, occurring in Giovanni da Udine’s frescoes of the Villa Madama for Clement VII, in a Dovizia tapestry of the 1540s and as a sculpture by Giambologna. In every way, informed patrons such as the Medici were now not only looking back to classical antiquity in their projects but also forward to these New Worlds that were being opened up. Indeed, as has been demonstrated by previous scholars, they drew frequent comparisons between the two: Pliny the Elder’s equation of the possession of art as an expression of authority was a well-known trope at this period. Furthermore, by a variety of means Medici knowledge of these New Worlds, even if at second-hand, was in fact extensive and informed. What is not made clear is why the impact of these objects should have been so striking upon Florence in particular in comparison to other Italian States: at Rome, despite apparent Spanish domination of the city, there is little today that reveals their once vast Empire. Even in Rome, however, Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici’s powerful position and philo-Hispanism had given him privileged access to such objects, which he sought out rapaciously – and the chapters discussing his collecting form a fitting finale. Markey’s final thesis that Medici patrons such as Ferdinando became such avid collectors as a form of displacement activity and as a ‘vicarious conquest’ as they were barred from colonial enterprise themselves is thought-provoking. A broader survey is now needed to chart the impact that being part of the Habsburg imperium had upon the New World experiences of early modern Italians more generally, precluded as they were by strict laws from voyaging there themselves. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Journal of the History of Collections – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 19, 2018
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