Sustermans the Magnificent

Even more random than usual…

For no reason, woke up this morning with the thought that, when those Renaissance Florentines added ‘the Magnificent’ to Lorenzo de Medici‘s name, maybe they were making fun of him. Italians are like that. We’re approaching 30 years of marriage, my wife and I, to each other, even, which means we are also approaching 30 years since we went to Florence together. I guess that’s why all these old dead Italians are on my mind.

Cosimo de Medici  (27 September 1389 – 1 August 1464) was a tough old bird, but suffered a fate common to high-achieving fathers everywhere: his son Piero (1416 – 2 December 1469) wasn’t quite up to managing what he left him. (When you are distinguished from other Piero de Medicis by the suffix ‘the Gouty’ you kinda know you’ve not exactly distinguished yourself. On a more positive note, his grandson was Piero the Unfortunate, so I suppose Piero the Gouty at least avoided being the most pathetic Piero de Medici.)

Cosimo, like the good mafia don he was, believed in laying low. No ostentatious buildings (1) or monuments – just be content with knowing you own and run things. Like Whitey Bulger living like a monk (2) in Boston and heading down to the Caribbean to spend his money and party, Cosimo believed it wise to not flaunt his wealth in the faces of the people who could have him banished, put a contract out on him or otherwise make life unpleasant.(3)  Better to patronize the arts and get a reputation for culture and refinement. His son Piero the Gouty more or less followed suit.

This brings us to Piero’s son Lorenzo (1 January 1449 – 9 April 1492). One does not pick up the sobriquet ‘the Magnificent’ by laying low. Larry commissioned (4) a few less than subtle works to the glory of God and State via the more essential glory of Larry and his family. ‘Understated’ would not be an adjective leaping to mind when viewing the Medici’s parish church, San Lorenzo, for example.

The Omphalos of Wikipedia says: “In 1471, Lorenzo calculated that since 1434, his family had spent some 663,000 florins (about US$460 million today) on charity, buildings and taxes. He wrote,

“I do not regret this for though many would consider it better to have a part of that sum in their purse, I consider it to have been a great honour to our state, and I think the money was well-expended and I am well-pleased.”

Lorenzo represents a high point, taste-wise, in Medici art patronage. When you have Botticelli and Michelangelo working for you, it’s a bit hard to go too far wrong. Later Medicis fared not quite so well.

This brings us back around to the title of this post. Justus Sustermans (28 September 1597 – 23 April 1681) is a perfectly good artist, wonderful even, who painted for  Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany for much of his career. He had the reputation of being the finest portrait painter in Italy. Check it out.

Here’s the problem: if you visit Florence, you will no doubt spend a few days checking out the Ghiberti Doors, Michaelangelo’s David, the Giottos and Botticellis in the Uffizi, the Fra Angelicos in San Marco, and on and on. Then, maybe, you’ll cross the Ponte Vecchio and drop in on the Pitti Palace. Which is positively packed with Sustermans.

Sustermans, I’m told by the Wikipedia article, grace the walls of many fine museums around the world. They really are fine art, by a really good artist. But if you’ve just been looking at the David, or Primavera (much better in person than any picture), and a hundred more timeless masterpieces, and your brain is full and feet are tired, by about the 50th Sustermans, you’re pretty much beyond making considered esthetic judgements.

I, being somewhat irreverent, and drunk with the joy of walking around Florence with my new bride, took to turning to her as we entered a new gallery in the Pitti Palace (there are many) and spotted one of the inevitable Sustermans and saying, deadpan, “That is the finest Sustermans I have ever seen.”

Maybe you had to be there.

  1. Well, there is this, which, while hardly your middle-class 15th century town home, comes off as elegant understatement once one gets a gander at the appalling grandeur of the Pitti Palace.
  2. Apart from the murder and mayhem – sort of a Dan Brown style monk, as it were.
  3. I love this tidbit from Wikipedia:

On Easter Sunday, 26 April 1478, in an incident called the Pazzi conspiracy, a group including members of the Pazzi family, backed by the Archbishop of Pisa and his patron Pope Sixtus IV, attacked Lorenzo and his brother and co-ruler, Giuliano, in the Cathedral of Florence. Giuliano was killed, but Lorenzo escaped with only a stab wound. The conspiracy was brutally put down by such measures as the lynching of the Archbishop of Pisa and the death of the Pazzi family members who were directly involved.

Got that? Your competitors put the hit on you. On Easter. In the Cathedral. In response, your family arranges to have the Archbishop of a neighboring city lynched and participating members of the competing family snuffed. I wonder if something along the lines of a horse’s head showed up in the Pope’s bed? This is the same pope to whom Lorenzo sent Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, and other Medici court artists to do a little light decorating in the Vatican, thus firming up the Medici-pope relationship. Somehow. It’s Italian, we are not supposed to understand, exactly. Just know Don Corleone would have approved. It’s just business, I’m sure.

Italian politics are indistinguishable from mafias for most, if not all, of Italian history.

4.  Or caused to be commissioned – his actual role in getting art paid for is evidently a matter of dispute.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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