Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Never judge a book.......

Cardinal Leopoldo de' Medici by
Il Baciccio, 1670

Leopoldo de Medici (1617-1675) was the youngest brother of Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici. He is possibly one of the ugliest of the Medici family during their three hundred year long rule of Florence and Tuscany (and they were a particularly ugly bunch on the whole) but what he lacked in looks he certainly made up for in smarts, and he is one of my favourite Medici’s.
This portrait is by one of the artists of whom he was very fond, Il Baciccio, and he is shown here in his cardinal robes. He was elected cardinal at the age of fifty after the death of Giovan Carlo, his older cardinal playboy brother. It was necessary for all influential and ruling families to have a close relative in a high placing in the church and Leopold was a good candidate to fill the newly papal Medici void as he was a bachelor and extremely intelligent, a formidable diplomat, well connected and very amiable. What is so fascinating about the Medici family of Florence is that there is a long list of family members who were outstanding patrons of the arts and learning, Leopold is one of the least talked about however even though he was one of the most significant in this respect.
Through out the family history so many of them were up to date, avant-guard supporters of new discoveries, technologies and  were addicted to knowledge. Sure, the heads of the family played dirty in order to sustain power, eliminate enemies and displayed ruthless acts of merciless violence in order to carry forth their projects of expansion and political desires but Renaissance Europe was a jungle and success in the field required that any successful player played with jungle tactics. However, the Medici family weren't simple brutes but they endlessly sought knowledge and spent tirelessly for the expansion of the mind, the beautification of the Florence and the patronage of talent in all fields making changes that were felt world wide. Leopold didn’t rule the duchy of Tuscany and so could dedicate more time to philanthropy than others. Galileo was the official court mathematician and scientist during the first half of the 1600's and Leopold was one of his most promising students. After his teacher’s death he personally sanctioned and supported Europe’s very first scientific academy, the Academia del Cimento (the Academy of the Daring), which met at his home, the Ducal palace (the modern day Pitti Palace), and he was the Academy’s CEO. He used his diplomatic skill to smooth out the differences between the various different strong characters in the group thus fostering a productive environment producing, amongst other  scientific advancements, the first barometer. He was a prolific letter writer to all heads of state in Europe, royal members, philosophers, writers, artists and politicians. He supported literary movements and was an extraordinary patron of the visual arts, in particular a collector of drawings, miniatures and self portraits of the artists (currently displayed in the Vasarian corridor). Over the years he built up a network of over eighty agents predominately in Italy but also in Paris, Flanders and Holland and elsewhere, who were perminately on the look out for artistic works and collections for sale and always kept him up to speed with developments and negotiating on his behalf.
He displayed his collection in his personal apartments on the third floor of the Ducal palace and upon his death it was, for the most part, taken to the Uffizi gallery. Of the 50,000 circa drawings in the Uffizi gallery collection today, 8,000 circa are courtesy of Leopold. He was particularly sensitive to the Venetian style, their unique colour palate and free brushwork, thus beginning the city's real display of the other great artistic Italian school along with that of Florence.  The love of the Venetian school was then continued by his great nephew, Gran Prince Ferdinand, another fascinating character…. the subject for another blog…. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011


I am a fish fiend and one of my favourite fish dishes is Cacciucco, a speciality from Livorno, the largest port town in Tuscany (circa 1.5 hours from Florence by car). Cacciucco is basically a fish stew using about 6-7 different types of fish and crustaceans cooked with tomatoes, garlic, chilli, sage and some red wine and served over thick slices of Tuscan bread (not fresh but from the days previous) which has been toasted and rubbed with garlic. The type of fish to expect are squid, cuttle fish, prawns, shrimps, mussels and different kinds of white fish typically used in stews. Red wine, not white wine, is the accompanying beverage to wash it down.
The etymology of this marvellous dish’s name is a bit of a mystery. Some say that it could derive from the Turkish word kacuk meaning little pieces, referring to the numerous chunks of different fish used, or it could be from the Spanish word cachuco, the name of a particular fish subsequently used as a generic name for fish in general. These two possible explanations, although seemingly unconnected, being from two widely differing cultures, are both perfectly plausible when we consider the history and geographical positioning of Livorno (the English name of the city is Leghorn, which I have always found has a ridiculous ring to it). As many large port cities traditionally are a melting pot of cultures, so too was Livorno, but maybe even more so than others. With the silting of the port of Pisa, Livorno slightly further south, was created as the new  port for the Duchy of Tuscany under the rule of the Medici family. Bernardo Buontalenti, the favourite architect and inventor for Grand Duke Francesco de Medici in the second half of the 1500’s, was commissioned to draw up plans for the new city and fortress.
The city was largely finished and launched as the active and important port city that it is still today, under Francesco’s successor and brother, Grand Duke Ferdinando de Medici, who, recognising the need to increase the Duchy’s revenue, made the port a 'porto franco', a duty free haven, as well as offering amnesty to all religious and ethnic groups and thus attracting persecuted groups and minorities such Jews, Huguenots, Armenians, Greeks, and later Moriscos (Muslims converted to Catholicism) as well as others, who, bringing their trade contacts and expertise, helped to fill the coffers of Tuscany and breathe some new life into the ever declining power of Tuscany on the European scene.
After devouring a Cacciucco, it’s time for a 'Ponce' to round of the meal in true local Livornese fashion. Ponce derives from the English word, Punch, and is similar, but with a slight Italian adaptation of the ingredients. English Punch is a mixture of tea, sugar, cinnamon, lemon and distilled alcohol (generally a base of rum or rice wine) and Ponce replaces the tea with coffee (obviously!!).
I went to the trattoria Il Sottomarino tel: 0586 887 025 in the centre of Livorno, . I hear that 'Antica Venezia', also in the centre of Livorno, does a very good Cacciucco as well, which I plan to try next time.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


The Alchemical laboratory.
One of the paintings on the top register.
Mercury, sulphur & other alchemical supplies would
have been kept in the cupboard below.
Portrait of Francesco I bottom right corner
One of the most long term secretive places in the city is now more open to the public - and I recommend to all and sundry that you check it out.  I love it! The study of the Grand Duke Francesco I is inside the medieval town hall building, which was used as the Medici ducal palace and ceremonial hall from the 1540’s. In the 1570’s, Francesco de Medici created a small room, accessed only from his bedroom and from his father’s study, where he would conduct his scientific, natural and alchemical  studies and experiments - in secret from the court that was then run with strict Spanish etiquette. He kept gold, silver, semi precious stones, bizarre and exotic artefacts from the New World, glass objects, rock crystal vases, beautifully designed and manufactured, and antiquities in cupboards decorated on the exterior with mythological, cosmological and historical scenes symbolically linked to the objects stored behind. The room itself resembled a casket, beautifully decorated, not only with these paintings on the cupboards and the walls above (thirty-four in total), but with wooden carvings on the ceiling and more figurative decoration in stucco and fresco. In fact, all of the figurative decoration was carefully planned by the Domenican Vincenzo Borghini, who was the official court iconographer or spin doctor. It was a program based on the four elements, the four humours, the four seasons and the four temperaments and how man transforms these natural forces using science, technology and art, creating more beautiful and marvellous objects and inventions. Thus, the personal casket room of Francesco displays the power of man as God on earth. The Damien Hirst diamond skull is temperarily displayed next to this room ( hence the temporary opening of the Studiolo to  public access)  in a blackened out space, rendering the power of the diamond (the hardest and most precious of stones) encrusted human skull even more poignant when considered with the alchemical philosophy of the era of Francesco de Medici. The Hirst exhibition 'For the Love of God' (see previous blog entry) is running until May, so plan a trip soon to the Palazzo Vecchio to experience the secret world of one of the most interesting of the Medici family members.