The Medicis in Providence

By Emily Gold / November / December 1999
November 5th, 2007
During a nine-day festival this fall, visitors stopped by the carriage houses of the Old Stone Bank to watch Florentine artisans demonstrate their crafts. At left, Eugenio Taccini glazes a plate.
Photographs by John Abromowski and Peter Goldberg

More than 13,000 visitors trekked to Brown's Bell Gallery and Old Stone Bank building this fall for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience what the Renaissance might have looked like. The Splendor of Florence Festival, a nine-day celebration of the friendship pact between the cities of Providence and Florence, combined the art of Renaissance Italy with the craftsmanship of contemporary Florentines.

Drawing crowds to the Bell Gallery were ten portraits of the Florentine Medici dynasty. On loan from Florence's famed Uffizi Gallery, the portraits were painted after the Medici family came to power in 1537. In the paintings, the Medicis, who were the great patrons of Florentine artists, are draped in jewels, lace, and gold brocade. At the time the artworks were painted, they served as official demonstrations of the family's power and lineage.

"To our eyes they may seem overdone," says the exhibit's cocurator and Assistant Professor of Art History Evelyn Lincoln, "but to a Florentine, and to anybody living in the time period, these are amazing visions of power and privilege." Portraits include those of Ferdinando I de Medici, a cardinal who became grand duke of Tuscany, and Isabella de Medici, the daughter of the first grand duke, Cosimo I, ruler of Florence. "These are the kinds of paintings," Lincoln says, "that nobody's going to see outside of Florence."

Lincoln - along with co-curator Catherine Zerner, a professor of art history, and Bell Gallery Director Jo-Ann Conklin -traveled to Florence in January to choose the ten portraits. When she got back, Lincoln searched the Rhode Island School of Design museum for jewels, lace, and other objects reminiscent of the period. She also stumbled upon nineteenth-century Gorham silver that was made in Rhode Island and that borrows its design from the Florentine Renaissance tradition. The objects helped turn the festival into much more than an exhibit of paintings. "It's unusual," Lincoln says, "for a show to have objects, paintings, and prints all together."

Even more unusual is what was at the Old Stone Bank building: a crew of live artisans. In eight carriage houses behind the building, Florentines set up shop and got to work on such old-world crafts as glassblowing, leather tooling, tile-making, and ironsmithing. Office workers on lunch break crossed the river from downtown and descended from College Hill to jam the tiny courtyard and watch artisans glaze tiles, paint stationery, and transform silver into wearable works of art.

The Splendor of Florence Festival drew 10,500 people to the Bell Gallery, seven times the usual draw of 1,500, according to Conklin. "What is always rewarding to me," she says, "is to see new faces in the gallery."

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November / December 1999