Saturday, December 3, 2011


Detail of The Gathering of Manna. 1540 by Francesco Bacchiacca in the National Gallery of Art, Washington
I think that everybody agrees, the giraffes in the zoos always draw a crowd - tall, leaf eating, polka dotted, weird bodied animals that they are. In the fifteenth century, Lorenzo the Magnificent was given as a gift one of these magnificent exotic creatures by a Mamluk ruler in, what is now, Egypt. It was paraded around the city on feast days and for important events. No one had seen anything like it before, or at least very few people had seen one since Julius Caesar had brought one to Rome in the 1st century B.C. After this, the first giraffe in Europe was in 1261 when Frederick II (another fave man of mine) received a giraffe in exchange for a white bear. The Medici giraffe pops up in various masterpiece works around the city, but as Ferris Bueller said in the 1980’s cult movie (with slight alterations), ‘if you don’t pause for a second you’ll miss it’. The next time that you go to the Chiostro dei Voti (the Votive cloister) in front of the Santissima Annunziata church, check out the ‘Adoration of the Magi’ fresco by Andrea del Sarto in 1511, and you’ll see the giraffe bobbing in the background.

Adoration of the Magi (1511), Votive cloister, Santissima Annunziata church, Andrea del Sarto, fresco.
In fact, this was a favourite subject to insert the giraffe into, as the three kings came from far distant lands and it was staged in a far distant land, where giraffes reign. Domenico Ghirladaio inserted the Medici giraffe in the same subject scene in the Tornabuoni family chapel / high altar of the Santa Maria Novella church. This in fact is interesting as it was painted in 1488 not long after Lorenzo had received the animal as a gift, so it stands as an up to date window to contemporary happenings in the city.
Adoration of the Magi (1488), Tornabuoni family chapel / high altar in the Santa Maria Novella church, Domenico Ghirlandaio, fresco, 1485-90
So why is a giraffe so cool, other than the random image that one conjures up immediately of the animal cruising around the medieval streets, bobbing up and down, along with the flamboyantly dressed Florentines of the Quattrocento? Anologies were important back then.  The walnut was considered to increase intelligence as it was the shape of the brain, and diamonds evoked stars as they both shone so brightly and so were associated with almost god-like qualities.  Thus, exotic and rare animals reflected the aristocratic and specialness of the owner’s character. The Medici had an outstanding menagerie which they kept at their villa in Fano. The city of Florence also boasted a wondrous collection of animals and, aside from the ubiquitous lion (they had circa twenty-five kept behind the town hall until second half of the 1500’s), they had tigers, bears, bulls and greyhounds.

The Medici organized events with these animals, often when important visitors came to town. Inspired directly and deliberately from Roman sources, they staged combats between animals such as lions and bears. For the visit of Pope Pius II in 1459, the roads leading to the town hall square were blocked off and animal combats were staged. A giant giraffe mannequin, moveable due to the twenty men inside the animal, was created to excite the lions. The show proved to be a failure as it seems the lions weren’t hungry and didn’t perform so the spectators went home unsatisfied.

The town mayor, Matteo Renzi, has just opened up two more rooms in the town hall for vistors to view - the room dedicated to Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent on the lower floor of the granducal apartments. The central ceiling panel of the room dedicated to Lorenzo the Magnificent depicts Lorenzo, primo inter pares, encircled by artists and diplomats, and directly behind him is his fabulous giraffe. 

Ambassadors pay homage to Lorenzo the Magnificent, 1556-58, Giorgio Vasari and Marco da Faenza, fresco, central ceiling scene in the Lorenzo the Magnificent room, Palazzo Vecchio.
The poor famed giraffe however left the world with a whimper and not a bang when he died, as the legend has it, having hit his head on a low hanging beam.

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