Francesco I de' Medici and the Renaissance microcosm

December 18, 2011

Francesco I de' Medici and the Renaissance microcosm
by Clare Brown

Reading the 3PP post on the studiolo of Francesco I de' Medici recalled my dissertation work on the gardens at Pratolino. Accepting an invitation to explore this further, the following piece examines the thematic relationship between Francesco's studiolo and the gardens surrounding the Villa di Pratolino.

Pratolino describes "small field/meadow". This large piece of land about 10 miles north of Florence was purchased by Francesco in the late 1560s. Orchestrated by his court architect/designer Bernardo Buontalenti, the massive project was completed in 1581. The wonders - comprising of fountains, rare botanics, fish ponds, grottos, statuary, complex hydraulics and automata - that were erected in this garden and within the villa itself were astonishing. For many years it was a high point for those people on the Grand Tours of the 17th and 18th centuries; both Michel de Montaigne and John Evelyn noted the glories in their diaries.

Giambologna's Colossus of Appennino

As the complex was been bought/sold, changed, demolished and fallen into neglect over time, garden historians became reliant on these descriptions as well as near contemporary etchings and paintings to reconstruct the garden. Most importantly the Utens lunette (1599) captures the villa and gardens to the South but sadly neglects the huge works to the North, including the giant man mountain Appennino, the Temple of the Four Winds and the large expanse of lawn to the back of the villa.

Giusto Utens's Pratolino lunette. 1599

The meanings within the garden have been much discussed, but it is interesting to look at some of the ideas in relation to his studiolo. For Franceso and his contemporaries, a studiolo was a private space, normally within the inner recesses of the house, so that it would "be especially free from intrusion". 1 Jocelyn Godwin points out that though Francesco’s two great creations were begun in the same year they served different purposes, "the studiolo was Francesco’s solitary microcosm, while Pratolino was for his life with Bianca Cappello".2  Alternately, it is possible to see the garden park of Pratolino as an external studiolo.

The park afforded the Grand Duke privacy and the space to be alone with his investigative obsessions and to escape from and evade responsibility, reality and court protocol. Francesco and his wife Bianca would stay for the summer with their reduced court residing in the buildings away from the villa. 3 Further, the themes of art, nature, mythology explored in the decoration of the studiolo are echoed in the garden on a grander scale. 4 I regard this as an example of the Renaissance fascination of the macrocosm-microcosm,
The theory of the parallelism of macrocosm and microcosm, according to man, the microcosm contains "in miniature" everything that the macrocosm contains, obeys the same laws and displays the same structure as the macrocosm, infinite nature. From Nicholas of Cusa onwards, this parallelism had become a common place of Renaissance philosophy.  5
There is an orderly progression from the man, his small room and then to his garden, and place in the cosmos with each being replicated perfectly. Indeed, the garden was seen as "a veritable microcosm, a measured and orderly model of the universe, a place where heaven and earth would mingle with all the close inter-relationships which this implied". 6

The studiolo, as a cabinet of wonders - an actual treasure chest in form and function - also displayed the universe in miniature with its collection of natural and man made treasures. The Renaissance idea of the unity of man and the world around him was an important philosophy to Francesco; as another great inventor wrote, inventors are interpreters between Nature and Man and the interpreter is to be highly esteemed. 7 Francesco with his knowledge of the natural and artificial world would have seen himself in this way.

It would be useful to point out here that a visit to the studiolo throws an entirely different light – both figuratively and literally – on the subject. It is curious that regardless of the intellectual interest of the viewer, on being in such a place has an immediate emotional impact. The moment that the guide shuts the doors, silence falls and the weight of the enclosed space envelops you; shut your eyes and you are immediately in the world of Francesco. The dark mysteries of the natural world are there to be discovered; imagine entering the dark space with a flaming lantern, light flickering over the luminescent, fleshy paintings on the cupboard doors and Giambologna’s bronze statues and immediately you are drawn into the natural philosopher’s world. Learning "must shine within Intelligence like a bright light, without which clouds of obscurity will prevail". 8 With precious items glinting in the light behind the classifying, allegorical paintings, it really must have seemed that something special was happening in this room. 

In the centre of the studiolo ceiling there is Francesco (il Poppi) Morandini’s Prometheus receiving jewels from Nature, completed in 1570. Prometheus, holding the illuminating flame in one hand reaches out with his other to accept a piece of rock crystal from a four breasted Nature.

From ancient times through to the Renaissance, Prometheus was given credit for the civilization of man. He not only gave man fire but also showed him how to build homes from brick and timber, yoke animals to pull wheeled carts, to build ships and also demonstrated the art of writing. 9 He is a figure of importance not only because he was a god who instructed humans in the rudiments of civilisation but also because Francesco was striving for more than simple association with that god. In the garden at Pratolino there does not appear to be any manifestations of Prometheus which is interesting and a little surprising for two reasons. Firstly he is pictured prominently in Francesco’s studiolo and secondly, for a divinity who divulges many of Nature’s secrets to man, one would expect to find him in some guise at Pratolino, a place dedicated to the manipulation of nature by artificial means.

Allegorically, it could be submitted that Prometheus was within the park whenever Francesco was there. He believed he was in direct contact with Nature when carrying out his experiments and when he was working with water, clay, chemicals, minerals or metals; he was the creating, civilising and divine Prometheus.

Certainly though neither the studiolo or the park were spontaneously generated, by striving to understand the mysteries of the divine and creating these worlds in Florence and at Pratolino, it fulfilled a desire within him to be a god; designing, constructing, understanding, and bringing forth life into his own cosmos. 10 After all this was the ultimate aim of the Renaissance natural philosopher – and the garden and by association the studiolo can really only be understood in this context. Francesco stood on the brink of an age of science, looking forward to the developments that were to follow during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, as Christopher MacIntosh says, the gardens of the sixteen and seventeenth centuries are written the new hopes, ideas and scientific theories of the age, mingled with older ideas and beliefs […] a mixture of tradition and progressive optimism. 11 
The future sciences would be built upon the foundations and attitudes that were being laid by natural philosophers like Francesco.

1. Findlen, P. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Berkeley, LA & London: University of California Press, 1994), p. 110. See also Whitaker, ‘The Culture of Curiosity’, in Cultures of Natural History ed. by N. Jardine et al., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 75-90. Also Godwin, ‘Private Microcosms’ in The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002), pp. 85-106.

2. Ibid., p. 174.

3. Chatfield, A Tour of Italian Gardens (London: Wardlock, 1988) p. 92.

4. Schaefer, The Studiolo of Francesco I de’Medici (PhD Thesis, Bryn Mawr College, 1976), p. 202

5. Heller, Renaissance Man, trans by R.E. Allen (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), p. 386

6. Tomasi-Tongiorgi, L ‘Projects for Botanical and Other Gardens: a Sixteenth Century Manual’, Journal of Garden History, 1:3 (1983), 1-34, p. 4

7. Leonardo da Vinci, via Heller, op.cit. p. 405

8. From Michael Maier Atalanta fugiens (1618) in The Golden Game: The Alchemical engravings of the seventeenth century vy Stanislas Klossowski de Rola. (Thames and Hudons, London, 1997) pp. 92, 102.

9. Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound. MIT Classics Accessed November 2011 link

10. Natural philosophers were intrigued by the idea of spontaneous creation of life; From Anaximander of Miletus in the sixth century BCE who ‘said that fish-like creatures were produced directly from the earth and water under the influence of the sun’s heat’ to near contemporaries such as Paracelsus in his De homunculis. From William Newman, Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2004). Of course mythology is laced with stories of spontaneous generation, e.g., Deucalion and Pyrrha from Ovid, Metamorphoses  I

11. MacIntosh, C. Gardens of the Gods: Myth, Magic and Meaning (London: Tauris, 2005), pp. 70-71.

Image notes : accessed December 2, 2011
Francesco I de' Medici sourced from Wikimedia commons link
Utens Pratolino lunette via Wikimedia commons link
Apennine Colossus via arttrav link
Prometheus via La Rocaille post on the studiolo link

Clare Brown became fascinated by the more esoteric areas of the Early Modern period whilst studying for an MA Renaissance Studies at Birkbeck College, London in 2003-2005. Since then, she has given the odd talk about Renaissance gardens, does guided tours of galleries for friends, carried on studying other areas of art history, and regularly attends lectures in London on all manner of arts and sciences. Follow @clareangela for a wide range of live tweeted talks.



I loved reading this post, as well your post on the studiolo. The studiolo is one of my favourite places in Florence. I absolutely loved the dissertation thesis on the subject by Schaefer and Luciano Berti's book 'Il principe dello studiolo'. I would have loved to have been a guest to the Villa Pratolino during the time of Bianca and Francesco, armed with an umbrella!

Unknown said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the post Freya! You're very lucky to be able to visit these delights at any time! When I was in Florence last year I did see the studiolo but did not make it to Pratolino. Hopefully next time.

Kind Regards

Joshua said...

I honestly think The studiolo is one of the best single rooms of mannerist painting, absolutely brilliant. Painting before caravaggio but after raphael/michelangelo has a very (undeservedly!) poor reputation unfortunately. Mannerism is seen as cold and affected - I even heard it described by one modernist scholar as bourgeois! One only needs to look at works like Alori's pearl fishermen in the studiolo ( to see that mannerism wasn't a rejection of classicism so much as an extension of it, one that began in Raphael himself (in his fresco work and the transfiguration). Funny how the same critics who praise michelangelo and Raphael heap disdain on the mannerists!

Edward Goldberg said...

Thank you, Clare! I enjoyed your article very much and I would like to share my thoughts on a few relatively minor points. “Pratolino” is singular, so it is “field/meadow”, not “fields/meadows”. In Tuscan usage, “-ino” could be a “vezzeggiativo” as well as a “diminutivo”, indicating “dear” or “sweet” or “beautiful meadow” as much as “small”—which is perhaps most relevant here. Your discussion of “macrocosm/microcosm”is valuable but I would hesitate to force the issue and describe the park as an “external studiolo”. There is the problem of scale. “Barco”, the historical cognate of “parco”, usually designated a large enclosed expanse of relatively natural terrain reserved for hunting. For example, the roughly contemporary “barco del Mugello” between Cafaggiolo and Trebbio. In the case of Pratolino, most of the “wonders” did indeed emerge from a pseudo-natural environment, which would perhaps have been seen as parklike (or barco-like). When Francesco visited Pratolino, he had a reduced court—but he did have a court—and presumably guests and visitors. I wonder how much time Francesco actually spent strictly on his own? (“Privacy” is a relatively recent and strikingly Anglo-Saxon value.) Do we have evidence that the Grand Duke wandered his park of marvels entirely without entourage (perhaps he did, but that would be remarkable). Even if Francesco was accompanied, I suspect that it would have been relatively easy for a gran signore who was used to having servants and attendants around to make his own mental space. I would be surprised if Francesco carried out his experiments without assistance, since alchemy was a messy and complicated business. (In Giovanni Stradano’s alchemical scene from the Studiolo, Francesco is indeed shown stirring glop of some kind over a fire, but he is not alone—although his expression is of brooding absorption.) And at Pratolino, I assume that many of the “wonders” required a large staff to operate them-so, the Grand Duke needed to send out a small army of servants to turn on the fountains and make the automata do their stuff, before he went out for his personal shiver of experience. I would be cautious in developing the Prometheus theme and the presumption that “absence implies presence” always makes me a bit uncomfortable. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm with me here in Florence (I did, but I made the mistake of lending it out!) so I can’t quote the relevant passage, but there is that hilariously funny business with the American academic who claims that Jane Austen’s novels are all about sex because no one ever talks about it… As you say, an important aspect of the Prometheus motif was “designing, constructing, understanding, and bringing forth life”. Or to phrase it another way, taking control of the natural world and establishing dominance. (Knowledge is power!) Gianbologna’s huge figure of Appenino, sculpted from the living rock might have been the promethean (small “p”) presence at Pratolino. Isn’t there a room inside? I wonder what went on there? In regard to the Studiolo in Palazzo Vecchio, you make a very important point—it was experienced by articial light. I think that this was the case in various other “treasure room” situations, an essential fact which art historians usually overlook. Once again, thanks and congratulations on your findings!

Edward Goldberg said...

A propos de nothing much (and nothing about Francesco dei Medici, for sure!): I have a nagging that "Jane Austen is all about sex..." is David Lodge, "Small World" (which I do have, in a cardboard box somewhere, since I recently moved house." In Stella Gibbons' "Cold Comfort Farm", the premise is that Branwell Bronte actually wrote all the works attributed to his sisters(as demonstrated by the fact that no one ever talks about him.)

Joshua: I am no longer surprised by the anachronistic idiocies that modernist scholars babble--but who (on God's Green Earth) said that mannerism is "bourgeois"?

Alberti's Window said...

Very interesting post! Your discussion of a studiolo (and cabinet of curiosities) in the context of gardens reminds me of a garden created in Brazil during the 17th century.

When the Dutch had a colony in Brazil in the 16th century, the governor Johan Maurits had a garden created for his Vrijberg Palace. Maurits' garden was seen to be a combination of both pleasure and scientific pursuits. This garden was supposed to be a "living" cabinet of curiosities, containing a vast combination of Brazilian (and non-native) flora and fauna. I wonder if Francesco had a similar interest in the comprehensiveness of his own garden? (Even if he wasn't interested in a comprehensive catalog of plants and animals, it seems like his "wonders" for the garden are quite varied.)

Nonetheless, Francesco fits within the humanistic vein of being a "learned" individual (to say the very least), and governor Johan Maurits was hoping to emphasize a similar concept through his garden. Although the Vrijberg garden was created during the 17th century, Maurits was heavily influenced by the humanist ideology of the Renaissance.

There is a great article on Johan Maurits' garden called "Collecting and Framing the Wilderness: The Garden of Johan Maurits (1604-79) in Brazil" (Maria Angélica da Silva and Melissa Mota Alcides, Garden History 30, no. 2, 2002): 153-176). I highly recommend it.

Unknown said...

Thank you to Clare for the fascinating post and to all for the amazing comments!

@Ed - thank you for the clarification on Pratolino, I have edited the text to suit. Intriguing to hear there is a room inside Giambologna's massive figure - I did not know that!

@Joshua - wonderful point. Some of the works produced during this period may have been over the top, but they are fascinating in an allegorical sense. A nice example that peristently occupies my mind is that disturbing face in Rosso Fiorentino's Deposition. image

@M - thank you for supplying the amazing parallels with Maurits and 17C Brazil - interesting again to see the great influence of humanism as it filtered across the world. That article looks a super read!

Kind Regards

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