THE POLITICAL POWER of the Medici was underpinned by their vast territorial possessions. And many of their villas survive to demonstrate their predilection for rural life. Among these Poggio a Caiano is the most remarkable The sprawling town is not perhaps prepossessing.
But we are in a different sphere once through the gate to the villa Giuliano da Sangallo devised for Lorenzo il Magnifico This crests a low eminence.
The elegance of its line, with open loggias and on the first floor a wide portico in antis crowned by a stretched pediment, is not diminished by the later belfry and the innovative layout of the square structure can still be appreciated despite subsequent interventions, of which those of the Savoys were particularly unsympathetic.
The villa was still unfinished on Lorenzo’s death, and work was interrupted when his son Piero was banished in 1494.
After the Medici returned in 1512, the project was revived, and it was given an added impetus by the election of Lorenzo’s son Giovanni as Pope Leo X a year later. The huge central hall was intended to celebrate the Medici, as the emblems on the barrel vault remind us, and the pope’s friend Paolo Giovio devised the iconographic programme for the decoration of the room. Andrea del Sarto and Franciabigio were entrusted with the decoration of the two longer walls, while the much narrower lateral ones were allotted to Pontormo.
At the time of the pope’s death in 1521, Pontormo had supplied his remarkable mural of Vertumnus and Pomona in the upper part of the right-hand wall, while Franciabigio had completed the lower part of his Return of Caesar from Exile, and Sarto had realized much of the Tribute to Caesar diagonally opposite. There are beautiful passages in both narratives, but neither has the magic of Pontormo’s fresco, which is among the masterpieces of secular decoration of the time.
Alessandro de’ Medici, who regained his inheritance in 1531, attempted to revive the scheme, but this was only completed after Alessandro Allori was enlisted in 1578. Allori did his best to respect what he found, for he was well aware that his own uncle and mentor, Bronzino, had been a pupil of Pontormo.
For a contrasting view of Pontormo’s genius, go on to the little town of Carmignano, some five kilometres to the west. On the right wall of the parish church is his altarpiece of the Visitation, touching, as the iconography demands, charged with emotion and characteristically inventive in colour. Only the wayward nature of the artist can explain why the panel was not borne off by the Medici or Napoleon’s agents.
A few kilometres to the south, high on a ridge, is Artiminio, the substantial villa devised for Grand Duke Ferdinando I in 1594 by Bernardo Buontalenti. The architect evidently took Poggio a Caiano as his model, and, at least from a distance, his façade floats majestically above the olive groves.
At Artiminio even more than at Poggio a Caiano the Medici could escape from the machinery that ensured their rule, and it cannot be wholly coincidental that the most interesting of the interiors is the small bathroom decorated by Bernardino Poccetti.