Florence shows ivory glory of European courts

'Ethereal Passions' spans centuries of mercantile prowess

Florence shows ivory glory of European courts

(By Christopher Livesay) Rome, July 18 - The Medici family's famed collection of ivory sculptures, carvings and assorted artworks have been put together for the first time in a sprawling exhibit at the palace once owned by Florence's most powerful dynasty. On through November 3 at Palazzo Pitti, 'Ethereal Passions' includes some 150 works, offering a candid glimpse of the mercantile giants' breadth of acquisitions that stretched as far as Africa and Asia throughout and beyond the Renaissance. The show also includes ivories from the various courts of Europe, on loan from major museums around the world. Ferdinando I de' Medici (1549-1609), Grand Duke of Tuscany, is credited with starting one of Europe's most spectacular ivory collections that continued to be enriched into the several hundreds until the decline and eventual fall of the dynasty in the 18th century. Like most Florentine collectors, the Medicis were known for their interest in ivories of past eras, especially those from medieval France. In terms of quality, quantity and historical significance, the Medici collection is matched only by those of the imperial court in Vienna and the principalities of Dresden and Monaco, examples of which are also on show at Palazzo Pitti, inside the Museo dell'Argento. The exhibition features objects of various type, from cups and reliefs, mythological compositions and genre scenes, to saints, portraits of princesses and even ornamental towers. Sections cover the 15th century, when the art of ivory captured the attention of Lorenzo the Magnificent, then move on to the High Renaissance and the explosion of the Baroque with works by Flanders' and Germany's most famous sculptors of the period, such as Leonhard Kern Francois du Quesnoy, Georg Petel and Balthasar Permoser. In its entirety, the show illustrates how, from the 16th century to the 18th, ivory carving was considered one of the highest forms of artistic expression, sought-after by virtually all families of distinction. The most important sculptors of the period, in Italy, elsewhere in Europe as well as in Spanish and Portuguese colonies, took on the difficult medium. Italy, which was not a unified country at the time, played a key role in facilitating the import of elephant tusks to Europe through its large port cities such as Venice, Genoa and Naples. Rome quickly became the main center for working in the exotic material, prized for its likeness to human flesh. Emperors and grand dukes, popes and princes, high prelates and rich bankers contended for these works, creating marvelous collections in the process, perhaps none more precious than what is currently on show in Florence.

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