As visitors to the recent exhibition of Dutch art at the Royal Academy will know, emblems, once the province of antiquarians, are now of great interest to historians of art. For more than a decade scholars have argued that these combinations of a motto, a picture and an explanatory poem, pointing a simple moral lesson, provide a key to the understanding of Dutch painting of the 17th century. This is not just because in many cases emblems include imagery drawn from everyday life which is strikingly similar to that employed by the painters, but also because they supposedly indicate that the public of the period was accustomed to looking for moral meanings in such imagery, wherever it might appear. In much the same way it is now often believed that the Italian counterpart of the emblem, the impresa, provides evidence about the ways in which Italian art was interpreted, especially in the later 15th and the 16th century. Unlike emblems, imprese consisted only of an image and a motto, and by convention the image was non-human. Their function, too, was rather different. Instead of providing moral instruction, they were personal devices, akin to coats-of-arms, illustrating, in a veiled manner, the aspirations or character of their owner. In Renaissance Italy the ability to interpret an impresa was an essential courtly skill, requiring something of the gifts needed for a Times crossword – a wide knowledge of out-of-the-way literary texts and a taste for the playful association of ideas.
There are several reasons why imprese are thought to have some bearing on the interpretation of paintings and sculptures. First, the works of art themselves, and especially those commissioned by Italian rulers and noblemen, frequently include illustrations of such devices, especially as decorative motifs in frames and the like. Second, it is clear that in some of these works allusions to the patron were meant to be recognised. Third, there exists at least one well-known text, the Ragionamenti of Giorgio Vasari, which purports to explain the significance of a painted decorative cycle in terms very reminiscent of contemporary discussions of imprese. The cycle in question is a series of mythological frescoes by Vasari himself in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, each of which is paralleled – often in an extraordinarily contrived way – not just with the life and character of the patron, the Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, but also with earlier members of the Medici family.
Here the analogy with imprese extends beyond the elucidation of the imagery in terms of courtly panegyric. One of the characteristics of imprese was that even though they were devised to make a specific point about an individual, new readings, provided that these seemed apposite, might be regarded as equally valid. In exactly the same way – as Vasari himself implies at several points in his text, and as Elizabeth McGrath conclusively demonstrated at a conference several years ago, in a paper which is still to be published – many of the ‘meanings’ which the artist applied to his frescoes in Florence can’t have occurred to him or to his advisers when they chose the subjects. Otherwise, to take only one example, the paintings in the room dedicated to Juno, who is inevitably paralleled with Eleonora of Toledo, the beloved wife of Duke Cosimo, would surely not have been exclusively devoted to the adulterous affairs of Jupiter, who is of course associated with Cosimo himself. The flattering allusions which Vasari so ingeniously found in the frescoes were ex post facto inventions superimposed on a straightforward scheme of mythological decoration, which was devoted for the most part to the genealogy of the principal gods and to events in their lives and selected from the most convenient work of reference on mythology then available, Boccaccio’s Genealogy of the Gods.
In his text Vasari often made reference to Medici devices, and these play an equally important part in Professor Cox-Rearick’s book, which is principally concerned with slightly earlier Medici commissions, above all with the frescoes in the villa of Poggio a Caiano, a project initiated by Leo X. In order to understand the significance of these decorations, and especially of Pontormo’s famous lunette traditionally entitled Vertumnus and Pomona, the author has explored Medici imagery and Medici panegyric from the 15th century until the time of Cosimo I and his son Francesco. The range of material that she has studied is impressive, and her comments on the family’s imprese and the conceits which they inspired, in literary texts and works of applied art such as medals, are often very illuminating. She is constantly alive to the variety of associations that such imagery might draw on, to its amenability to extravagant and unexpected exegesis. But this approach is less convincing when she applies it to more substantial works of art such as easel paintings and frescoes, not least because her readings are often similar in character to those provided by Vasari in the Ragionamenti, a text which she knows well. This is not to say that they are necessarily anachronistic, in the sense that we can exclude the possibility that someone in the 16th century might have interpreted such imagery in much the same way; but rather that it is difficult to believe, as she appears to do, that such interpretations can have provided the rationale for the choice of themes and the way in which these were represented.
The principal room at Poggio a Caiano, for example, is decorated with four large frescoes of rather unusual scenes from Roman history. One shows the unprecedented subject of Cicero, after his return from exile, being given the title of Pater Patriae on the Capitol; and here there can be little doubt that a parallel was intended with Cosimo de’ Medici, the founder of the family’s fortune, who was also exiled and was likewise known as Pater Patriae. Another scene shows Caesar receiving a gift of exotic animals, including a giraffe; and this has always been taken as an allusion to Lorenzo il Magnifico, who was presented with a giraffe and other animals by the Sultan of Egypt in 1487. While not excluding this reading Cox-Rearick prefers to see this fresco as referring primarily to a gift of exotic animals to Leo X by the King of Portugal, because she believes that the cycle as a whole commemorates not just Cosimo and Lorenzo, as had previously been supposed, but all the major members of the Medici family up to that time. Leo, however, was not given a giraffe, but an elephant named Hanno, which became extremely famous. If the scholar who devised the programme, Paolo Giovio, had really wished to commemorate this event rather than the gift to Lorenzo, it is difficult to see why the elephant was omitted, especially as he himself had witnessed its arrival in Rome. If Cox-Rearick is right in her interpretation, we must either suppose that Giovio was incompetent, which he was not, or that he simply did not care if the contemporary allusions in the frescoes were understood or not, which would make her whole enterprise largely redundant.
Her reading of Pontormo’s Vertumnus and Pomona in the same room, which is in a way the centrepiece of the book, is even more implausible. The fresco itself shows four naked children and six adults in rustic dress, seated on and around a wall against the sky, as if they were outside the space of the room looking in. In his biography of Pontormo Vasari rather off-handedly says that the painting shows Vertumnus with some peasants and Pomona with Diana and other goddesses – a description that is certainly incorrect, since there are only three women represented; and Raffaello Borghini, a sophisticated man with a particular interest in art, writing in 1584, simply called the figures ‘peasants’. Cox-Rearick brusquely rejects this reading, even though it is certainly consistent with the visual evidence. The same cannot be said of her own interpretation, which is based on a series of hypotheses, each more far-fetched than the last. A fragmentary inscription, previously read as ‘utinam’, a perfectly good Latin expression, is interpreted as ‘utinat’, a word which seems to appear only in Medieval and later British and Irish texts, and which Giovio, a fastidious stylist, would certainly never have employed; the peasants become not just gods, but in some cases planetary gods, and they acquire multiple personalities, so that the supposed Vertumnus is also Janus, and one of the girls is not just Luna-Diana-Ceres, but also Astraea-Justizia; and the whole composition is regarded as alluding not only to the return of the golden age of Lorenzo il Magnifico, but also to certain features in the horoscope of Leo X, and, more important, in that of the young Cosimo, who was born shortly before Pontormo began work; and this in spite of the fact that the signs of the zodiac are missing, that only four of the figures are supposed to be planets, and that none of these have clear distinguishing attributes. Professor Cox-Rearick even speculates that the missing Mercury may be subsumed into the fully-clothed figure she identifies as Venus, on the grounds that Mercury, in an astrological context, is sometimes represented as a hermaphrodite, and ‘the unusual view of the goddess from the rear, which recalls the traditional hermaphrodite pose of ancient sculpture, may even have been intended as a clue to this reading.’ All this is posited on the assumption that the birth of Cosimo was an event of great family significance. But even if one accepts this last claim, which is totally contrary to the whole of Medici historiography, there remains the problem of why anyone wishing to commemorate such an event should have done so in a way which could surely never have been understood, and to have done this in a private villa where there could have been no possible motive for concealment.
Faced with hypotheses like this, it is difficult to see what Professor Cox-Rearick would regard as an implausible interpretation of a Medici work of art, except one that was straightforward, or at the very least lacking a direct application to the Medici family and their political aspirations. Thus a political meaning is given not only to Botticelli’s small altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi, which with good reason is not generally thought to be a Medici commission at all, but also to the Primavera, which was painted for a young and unimportant member of the family whose involvement in politics was marginal in the extreme. Again and again readings are proposed, in which glaring – and, one would think, conclusive – counter-evidence is simply disregarded. The same tendency is evident in the footnotes, where elaborate and to Professor Cox-Rearick convenient modern interpretations are invariably cited, and alternative readings overlooked.
The problem with her approach, as I have tried to show, is not that it has much in common with Vasari’s in the Ragionamenti, but that whereas he was well aware of the arbitrary and ephemeral nature of his interpretations, Professor Cox-Rearick is not. Her book is not without value, however. Her analysis of Medici imprese, in particular, is perceptive and useful. Nor is it necessarily wrong to apply the lessons which such imagery can provide to other types of works of art. But it is all too easy to forget that while imprese of their nature inevitably make personal allusions to the patron, paintings and sculptures do not. Personal glorification may of course be a factor in the choice and presentation of subject-matter, but other motives, such as a desire for clarity of meaning, appropriateness to the context, or even the wish to provide an opportunity for an artist to give of his best, may also be relevant. To assess the relative importance of such motives and the role they may have played in the art commissioned by the Medici would require something very different from this large, learned, but misleading book.