Cover image for Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence By Lia Markey

Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence

Lia Markey


$99.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07115-2

Available as an e-book

264 pages
9" × 10"
68 color/58 b&w illustrations

Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence

Lia Markey

“Lucidly written and beautifully illustrated. . . . Just as Medicean artists and their patrons cast their city as heir to the legacy of ancient Rome, Markey shows the myriad ways in which they were able to reimagine Florence as the discoverer and the master of the New World through the power of representation.”


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The first full-length study of the impact of the discovery of the Americas on Italian Renaissance art and culture, Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence demonstrates that the Medici grand dukes of Florence were not only great patrons of artists but also early conservators of American culture.

In collecting New World objects such as featherwork, codices, turquoise, and live plants and animals, the Medici grand dukes undertook a “vicarious conquest” of the Americas. As a result of their efforts, Renaissance Florence boasted one of the largest collections of objects from the New World as well as representations of the Americas in a variety of media. Through a close examination of archival sources, including inventories and Medici letters, Lia Markey uncovers the provenance, history, and meaning of goods from and images of the Americas in Medici collections, and she shows how these novelties were incorporated into the culture of the Florentine court.

More than just a study of the discoveries themselves, this volume is a vivid exploration of the New World as it existed in the minds of the Medici and their contemporaries. Scholars of Italian and American art history will especially welcome and benefit from Markey’s insight.

“Lucidly written and beautifully illustrated. . . . Just as Medicean artists and their patrons cast their city as heir to the legacy of ancient Rome, Markey shows the myriad ways in which they were able to reimagine Florence as the discoverer and the master of the New World through the power of representation.”
“An important resource for scholars of art history, material culture, print culture, and transatlantic studies.”
“The book’s scholarly apparatus and color illustrations make it a valuable resource. . . . Highly recommended.”
“Lia Markey’s Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence represents the best in Renaissance global studies. If the art of Florence enjoys canonical status, the Medici collection of artifacts and images of the New World has been more peripheral, the subject of pioneering but outdated studies by Detlef Heikamp and Hugh Honour. Revising the work of these predecessors, Markey shows how collectors and artists alike drew inspiration from a flood of new knowledge produced in the wake of discovery and colonization.”
“The Medici participated in the New World discoveries secondhand, by avidly collecting artifacts and turning these materials into images. Rather than telling the story of the discoveries, Lia Markey’s lively book tells us a story about world-making—how new information traveled and was shaped by artists, patrons, and scholars into theaters of the imagination.”
“Lia Markey’s book is pathbreaking. For too long Italian Renaissance art-history studies have been introspective and provincial. The author insists upon what Shakespeare already knew: that the Mediterranean world had opened to new places and people. Her study reveals that the Medici of Florence not only received images from and about the New World but also incorporated these distant forms and iconographies into their own visual vocabulary. Markey demonstrates that Italian artists worked not to exoticize but to familiarize the new and, in doing so, engaged with America in complex and contradictory ways.”
“Lia Markey’s new book will prove a further important resource and corrective for scholarship as it forms a bridge between traditional Italo-centric studies of the Renaissance and those of the New World, the like of which has not been attempted since Hugh Honour’s book, European Images of America (1975). Markey’s work should also be of particular interest to readers of this journal since it is one of the first books to address in detail the collecting and display of works from the Americas in an Italian context, specifically that of Florence.”

Lia Markey has taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, and she has held fellowships at Harvard University’s Villa I Tatti and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


List of Illustrations



1 The New World and Italy in the Early Sixteenth Century

2 A Turkey in a Medici Tapestry

3 The Americas in the Guardaroba Nuova

4 Francesco’s Exchange and Documentation of American Nature

5 The Stanzino and the Representation of the New World

6 Between Ethnography and Fantasy in Ferdinando’s New World

7 The Florentine Codex and Buti’s Frescoes of Amerindians

8 Stradano’s Invention of the Americas

9 The Americas Both Real and Imagined

Conclusion: Vicarious Conquest





In 1500 Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci wrote from Lisbon to his former patron Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici in Florence about his second voyage along the coast of “the Indies.” Vespucci emphasized the abundance and novelty of this New World, describing its boundless land, the infinite number of people speaking a multitude of tongues, the many wild animals, the different kinds of birds, and the precious stones he brought back on his ship. Lorenzo, most famous for his patronage of Botticelli’s Primavera, was one of the first to read of Vespucci’s discoveries, but he lacked the funds to support these early ventures to the New World. It would not be until the late sixteenth century that the Medici family would attempt to make their own incursions in the Americas.

The Medici were not the only Italians who failed to travel to the New World after Vespucci. The Spanish and Portuguese instituted laws that made it impossible for Italians, except under special proxy, to take voyages there. Accordingly, when Duke Cosimo de’ Medici (1519–1574), Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco’s great-grandson, came to power in Florence in 1537, he had no one like Vespucci to tell him of firsthand experiences of the New World. Reports of these new lands, peoples, plants, animals, and precious materials fascinated Cosimo and his sons, the future dukes Francesco (1541–1587) and Ferdinando (1549–1609). They initially acquired information about the Americas from less direct sources and obtained New World objects via ambassadors or family members at other courts who had more contact with the Americas. Despite this lack of direct ties, these Medici grand dukes acquired a great number of objects from the New World, such as masks, featherwork, and codices—more than most other contemporary European rulers, collectors, and scientists in the sixteenth century. And unlike other European princes and dukes of the sixteenth century, they also commissioned drawings, frescoes, panel paintings, and tapestries representing the Americas. This study concentrates on the rich material and visual culture of the Americas in Florence and thereby builds a case for the Medici’s engagement with the New World.

Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence examines the Medici engagement with the Americas from the first years of Cosimo’s reign, beginning in 1537, to the end of Ferdinando’s reign, in 1609. It tracks the phases of the acculturation of the New World, from the organization of the collection under Cosimo to the documentation of America’s natural world under Francesco and finally to a more politicized display under Ferdinando. This is not a mere study of collecting but rather an exploration of the intersections between collection, representation, and acquisition of knowledge about the Americas, using archival documents, such as letters and inventories, and contemporary sources about the New World. This book therefore illuminates the reciprocal relationship between collection and art production in the early modern period. Collecting interests inspired and even fueled images of the Americas in Florence.

Moreover, a paradoxical transformation occurred in the sixteenth-century response to the Americas in Florence: as the Medici gained knowledge of the New World and began to make tangible incursions in the Americas, representations of the Americas became less ethnographically plausible or naturalistic and more improbable or imaginative. For instance, in the 1570s Francesco de’ Medici commissioned court artist Jacopo Ligozzi to create naturalistic works on paper to document the plants and animals from the New World entering the court. Just a decade later, however, Medici court artist Giovanni Stradano, having read new publications about the nature of the New World, contrarily designed engravings representing the Americas symbolically as a land replete with fantastical cannibalistic Indians. During this period Medici court artists began to create more inventive and sometimes allegorical depictions of the Americas, but this practice reached its apogee at the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth century. In the same years that Grand Duke Ferdinando sent ships to Brazil from the Medici’s newly developed port of Livorno, the Americas and Vespucci in particular were celebrated in a wondrous Medici court spectacle for the wedding of Cosimo II. The shift in the representation of the Americas in Florence demonstrates that it was through inventive allegorical imagery that the New World became integrated into Florentine culture as a political reality and even as a subject of patriotism.

In the only full-length art-historical survey to examine European representations of the Americas, Hugh Honour more than four decades ago wrote that “no hunters after curiosa were more avid collectors of Mexican objects than the Medici in Florence.” Honour’s source for this assertion was Detlef Heikamp’s 1972 Mexico and the Medici, a pioneering text that first brought to light the many Mexican objects in the Medici collection. Indeed, the Medici collection includes the largest corpus of extant objects from and images of the Americas in Europe but has never been the topic of a full-length art-historical study. Although the Medici also collected and represented other parts of the world, such as Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and although comparisons with these other cultural interactions necessarily enter into this study, this book focuses on the Americas and shows how the novelty of the New World discoveries provoked a new drive to catalogue, document, and represent the world at the Medici court. More importantly, this study changes Heikamp’s basic picture of the Medici and the New World by demonstrating that the Medici and their artists were incredibly knowledgeable about the Americas. Letters from Spain and the Americas as well as both published and unpublished accounts informed the Medici about the land and people of the New World. The Medici court’s collection and representation of the Americas were driven by this new knowledge and a desire to contribute to it.

This study also endeavors to explain why Medici rulers, who were never physically involved in the conquest or colonization of the Americas, so avidly collected and represented the New World. Anthropologist Christian Feest has pointed out that actual participation in the conquest of the Americas did not necessarily imply an interest in goods from the New World—in fact, the most avid collectors were late sixteenth-century European rulers who were not participating in colonization, such as the Bavarian dukes in Munich, the Austrian Habsburgs, and especially the Medici grand dukes. This study proposes that rulers were trying to compensate for their lack of colonial activity by acquiring things from and producing images of the Americas.

It may be impossible to know the motivations of an early modern collector or patron, but this book proposes many reasons why Medici rulers and their artists sought to represent the New World and demonstrates the complex ways in which they chose to display the Americas in various media. The multiple—and at times conflicting or overlapping—modes of inventing and imagining the New World in Europe therefore permeate this study of the Medici and their fascination with the Americas. Several scholars have argued that the initial response to the New World represented Europe’s conception of its own identity more than any reality of the Americas themselves. Stephen Greenblatt most famously wrote of the European response to the Americas as the “colonization of the marvelous,” whereas Sabine MacCormack and Anthony Grafton have demonstrated the many ways that Europeans compared the New World to antiquity. Antonello Gerbi, among others, on the other hand, has shown in various ways that naturalists and princes alike catalogued plants, animals, and new objects from the Americas in order to integrate them into or update previous studies. Recently, scholars have explored the ethnographic interests of Europeans in relation to early images of the Americas, often pointing out the hybrid or fanciful manner Europeans used to depict indigenous peoples. New World objects and images of the Americas in Florence could at once act as symbols of Europe’s past, evoke the marvelous, appear comparable to the antique, serve as a subject of naturalist and ethnographic study, and inspire the fantastical.

The initial adjustment to the so-called discovery of the New World took time and occurred in phases. For most of Europe’s population, who did not travel to the New World or participate in its violent conquest, the Americas had to be imagined at home. In the words of Edmundo O’Gorman, the New World was not just “discovered” but also “invented.” O’Gorman’s well-known proposal called for study of the “idea” of the discovery of the Americas rather than simply the evidence of it as a means to decipher the European perception of the New World after 1492. John Elliot also famously claimed that following the discovery Europe was unable to comprehend the magnitude of the event and as a consequence developed its responses gradually. Michael T. Ryan built on the work of Elliot and others by explaining that it was not necessarily the discovery of the New World that took time to assimilate in the sixteenth century but the very idea of novelty itself. He argued that the first phase of the integration of novelty was the establishment of “commonality” between the old and the new. Anthony Pagden, also following Elliot’s “blunted impact” theory, similarly created a model of acculturation by delineating phases of encounter and then possession. The present study similarly charts stages of Medici engagement with the Americas. It demonstrates that transformations ensued as more information reached Florence but also makes clear that the process of integrating the novelty of the Americas was not consistent.

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Although little evidence of engagement with the New World in Florence exists until after Cosimo came to power in 1537, this book begins in the early sixteenth century in order to set up the context for the chapters about the Medici that follow. Chapter 1 therefore defines the initial response to the Americas on the Italian peninsula and introduces the reader to the most important textual sources about the New World that the Medici studied and that subsequently pervade this study. It then traces the path of the first objects from the Americas in Europe and their reception and dispersal among Habsburg circles. Finally, this first chapter turns to Rome and demonstrates how and why Medici popes were some of the first Italians to collect and represent the Americas.

The book is then organized according to the reigns of the three dukes, and chapters are devoted to specific objects, collecting spaces, or relations between the two. The next two chapters therefore explore the collection and representation of the Americas under Cosimo and his wife Eleonora di Toledo. In chapter 2 a tapestry representing dovizia (abundance) designed by court artist Agnolo Bronzino elucidates the gradual integration of the Americas into the Medici idea of prosperity and conquest. Chapter 3 demonstrates how Cosimo and Eleonora acquired novelties and conquered new territories virtually by amassing American objects and by constructing Cosimo’s Guardaroba Nuova, a new collection space for these precious goods organized according to geographic provenance.

Cosimo’s son Grand Duke Francesco preoccupied himself with the conquest of New World naturalia through gift giving and visual documentation. Chapter 4 compares Francesco’s more politically motivated gifting of New World treasures with his exchange with Bolognese collector Ulisse Aldrovandi and in the light of that comparison considers their study of the natural commodities of the New World, demonstrating Francesco’s multiple reasons for exchange and the important role of drawings by Jacopo Ligozzi. Chapter 5 then turns to Francesco’s stanzino, a room created to house his treasures, where paintings by Jacopo Zucchi and Alessandro Allori reference the global economic exchange of novelties from the Americas.

By the mid-1580s the excitement over the novelty of the New World in Europe was beginning to dissipate. In spite of this, Ferdinando de’ Medici collected Mexican featherwork and codices and commissioned paintings representing the New World. Chapter 6, by examining Ferdinando’s art and collecting, explores his engagement with the New World as a cardinal in Rome and during his first years as duke in Florence. The chapter reveals the first signs of a paradoxical turn: Jacopo Zucchi’s studiolo painting entitled Allegory of the Americas coincides with the duke’s ethnographic interests in the Americas and reflects his knowledge of the New World but at the same time exhibits an imaginative view of that world. The following chapter then examines Ferdinando’s first years as Grand Duke of Tuscany. It uncovers the history and reception of Bernardino de Sahagún’s famed History of New Spain, known as the Florentine Codex, and questions the celebratory depiction of Native Americans in the Armeria of the Uffizi.

In later years as grand duke, Ferdinando sought to develop real economic ties to the Americas by fostering commercial relations with Brazil. But at the same time that the New World was becoming a profitable reality for the Medici, representations of the Americas in Florence became more fantastical. The final two chapters of the book explore how Medici court artist Giovanni Stradano assimilated the New World by representing it allegorically in the medium of print and how other Medici artists and advisors similarly celebrated the Americas in courtly ephemera. A century after the Florentine explorer Vespucci made his journey, Florentine artists and writers promoted Florence’s role in the discovery, turning it into public spectacle with the navigator as its hero. Through these imaginative artistic endeavors the Medici and their collaborators brought the New World home to Italy and made its new lands, its natural settings, its peoples, and its art accessible within their own sphere.

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In his article in Fredi Chiappelli’s seminal 1976 volume, First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, Donald Robertson tried to answer the fundamental question, “But what influence, if any, did the discovery of America and pre-conquest art have on European art?” He concluded that there was, in fact, little impact. In a 1969 essay, Nicole Dacos similarly questioned the New World’s influence specifically on Italian art. While Dacos refuted the notion that Aztec art had any effect on Renaissance art, she simultaneously indicated that American inspiration did exist, observing that Raphael studied and depicted the exotic New World animals that had been brought to the papal court when he produced frescoes in the papal apartments. This study presents further evidence that the New World did have an impact on the iconography of Italian Renaissance art. More importantly, it shows how the idea of the Americas changed collectors’ and artists’ very conceptions of art, collection and display, gift giving, and allegory. It makes evident that news and goods from the Americas played a considerable role in the visuality of sixteenth-century Italy. Featherwork and Aztec masks shared the same space as precious jewels and painted masterpieces, Vasari’s Lives was shelved in the same library as illustrated histories of Mexico, and Florentines costumed as Indians marched in public pageants alongside those dressed as mythological heroes.

Ultimately and most broadly, this is a study of what Walter Mignolo terms the “colonization of space.” Mignolo views the Renaissance as a double self-fashioning of the colonization of space and time. While scholarship of the Italian Renaissance tends to focus on the “colonization of time,” or the way in which early modern culture conquered antiquity and the medieval period, a colonization of space occurred as well; Florence looked beyond Europe, and the Medici engagement with the Americas precipitated an expansive system of representation in sixteenth-century Italy that significantly impacted the visual and cultural reception of the New World. This study therefore aims to reevaluate the Hegelian Eurocentric model of history and the Burkhardtian emphasis on the importance to the Renaissance of the revival of antiquity. Furthermore, sixteenth-century Medici Florence was as much a receiver, conservator, and documenter of culture as it was a producer and donor.