Tuesday, 12 July 2016

A Suitable Piece of Furniture for Writing a Magnum Opus - By Sanne Roefs

Francesco di Piero Guicciardini (1478-1540), also known as Francesco ‘the historian’, is by far the most famous member of the Guicciardini family from Florence. Close friend of Niccolò Macchiavelli, important advisor of several popes in Rome, a leading force in the election of Duke Cosimo I as the successor of the murdered Duke Alessandro in 1537, but most notable of all, the writer of the Storia d’Italia: a series of twenty books describing the – then – modern history of the Italian peninsula. It was published posthumously for the first time in 1561 by his nephew Agnolo di Girolamo Guicciardini (1525-1581) and it was to be this publication that gave him an everlasting fame as a historian and political thinker. 

Frontispiece of the first edition of the Storia,
printed in Florence by Torrentino in 1561

(for picture credits see below)
After the installment of Cosimo I as duke in 1537, Francesco retreated to a recently acquired villa in Arcetri, in the hills on the south of Florence. Since he had been at the heart of so many important political decisions taken in the last decades in Rome and in Tuscany he decided to write his book on the history of Italy. It is generally assumed that Francesco penned down most of his Storia in the villa in Arcetri, looking over the Pian dei Giullari. A reliable piece of furniture at which he could spend many hours writing down his version of Italian events was thus of the utmost importance.

South side of Villa la Bugia in Arcetri, Florence

North side of Villa la Bugia in Arcetri, Florence
Luckily, the historian owned just that. His political wanderings had led him on several occasions to Bologna as governor or commissioner. Vasari informs us that during his stay in that city in 1534 he met the artist Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-1573). This artist had joined forces with the woodworker Fra Damiano da Bergamo (1490-1549). Giacomo designed the works of art and Damiano made them and inlaid them. According to Vasari, Francesco Guicciardini ordered several wooden works of art by the two artists. At least one of them is still in the possession of the Guicciardini family today; it is a heavy octagonal table with a large leg decorated with lions’ claws and bronze plaiting. Its top was inlaid with a frivolous design of floral motives and geometric shapes. The Guicciardini and the Salviati coat of arms (Francesco was married to Maria d’Alamanno Salviati) feature prominently on the large leg. 

Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola and fra Damiano da Bergamo,
Guicciardini Table, c. 1534, Palazzo Guicciardini, Florence
The table was transported from Bologna to Florence and it was praised by later Guicciardini generations. When Francesco died without male heirs in 1540, his property passed to his brothers and nephews. The wooden table ended up in the possession of Agnolo Guicciardini (who also saw to it that the Storia was printed for the first time). In a little booklet Agnolo wrote down in great detail all of his possessions in Florence and the Tuscan countryside. The only work of art to which he made a reference was the table by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, attesting to the fact that he valued the piece of furniture very much. He wrote: ‘lasciò di più il detto messer Francesco in particolare a Girolamo mio padre il bello ottangulo di commessure che hoggi posseggo’ (‘furthermore, the said mister Francesco left to Girolamo, my father, the beautiful inlaid octagonal that I own today’).   

Vasari, furthermore, informs us that while writing his book Francesco ordered the famous painter Giuliano Bugiardini (1475-1555) to paint his portrait. Also this work of art stayed in the family possession for centuries, and was sold only in the middle of the twentieth century. Nowadays, it is preserved in the Yale University Art Gallery in the United States. The historian is portrayed at three-quarter length, seated at a wooden table before a luxurious cloth background. He is dressed in a rich velvet coat and an ermine piece of fur and wears a cap. In his left hand he holds a pair of gloves and in his right a quill with which he just wrote the first sentences of his Storia, as is attested by the words on the piece of paper on the table: ‘Io ho deliberato di scrivere le cose accadute alla memoria nostra in Italia’ (‘I have decided to write about the things that happened in our time in Italy’). Rather than looking proud, the historian is portrayed with quite a haughty gaze. It is as if the beholder disturbed Francesco in the act of writing his magnum opus. The historian, thus, wanted to be represented by the painter while he was writing his important manifest. Furthermore, he ordered the artist to portray him seated at a special piece of furniture. If one takes a closer look at the table covered by a rich dark green cloth, one notices that it is not a normal rectangular one, but an octagonal version. This can only be the table made by Giacomo da Vignola and Fra Damiano! In this way the historian was immortalized not only in the act of writing his Storia, but also seated at his beloved wooden table. 

Giuliano Bugiardini, Francesco Guicciardini, c. 1538,
 Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven
 (gift of Hannah D. and Louis M. Rabinowitz in 1959)
This little (hi)story is part of my Research Master’s thesis that I wrote in the framework of the Patrician Patronage Project (PPP).  During the research for my thesis on the patronage of the Guicciardini I spent many months in Florence unravelling the important history of this family’s maecenatism bit by bit. This blog has been the first of many peculiar, funny, incredible and beautiful stories about the Guicciardini and their patronage that I would like to share with you via this blog. The value of the research conducted by the PPP is proven once more by this story; by investigating the patronage of Florentine families in its broadest sense new light can be shed on, and unexpected connections can be made between, the works of art that these patrician families commissioned.  

Picture credits:

Frontispiece Storia: http://www.alai.it/uploads/tx_gorillary/107_image1_105_Guicciardini.jpg
South side Villa la Bugia: https://curiositasufirenze.wordpress.com/2012/12/20/villa-della-bugia-firenze-buggerata-dopo-lassedio/
North side Villa la Bugia: author
Guicciardini Table: John Morley, The History of Furniture: Twenty-five Centuries of Style and Design in the Western Tradition (Boston 1999), p. 109.
Portrait of Francesco Guicciardini: http://artgallery.yale.edu/ collections/objects/43513 


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Jacob van den Elshout

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