What do balls, goats, and turtles have in common?

…They’re all symbols of a powerful man. In 1570, Cosimo I de’ Medici opened the Laurentian Library in Florence, realizing a decades-long project to house and promote his family’s vast collection of scholarly manuscripts.[1] This drawing shows a design for one of the library’s stained glass windows, whose symbolic figures connote Medici might.

Dispensing with the religious imagery of his other stained-glass designs, Wouter Crabeth employs the iconography of secular power in this sketch for one half of a symmetrical pane. Curious creatures and plump putti frolic around the Medici crest. Its shield displays six red balls (palle) of disputed origin, which may refer to the family’s banking origins—in heraldry, balls could connote coinage, and they appeared in the insignia of Florentine moneylenders. But local lore has identified the balls as everything from medicinal pills and oranges to dents in a giant’s shield. Whatever their source, the balls became a ubiquitous symbol of Medici patronage in Florence, allegedly prompting one contemporary to lament that Cosimo had “emblazoned even the monks’ privies with his balls.”[2]

Stained-glass window after Crabeth's drawing, Reading room of the Laurentian Library, Florence

Stained-glass window after Crabeth’s drawing, Reading room of the Laurentian Library, Florence

Around the family’s coat of arms, Crabeth has arranged emblems of Cosimo’s singular strength. Crabeth may have been working after designs by Giorgio Vasari, who developed a lexicon of power in his many commissions for Cosimo.[3]  Vasari was one of several artists to depict him as the emperor Augustus—a comparison Cosimo was eager to emphasize. Like Augustus, Cosimo claimed Capricorn as his ascendant sign, and a fish-tailed goat in this drawing invokes the Roman ruler’s glory.[4]  Cosimo also adopted an Augustan motto, Festina lente (make haste slowly), illustrated here by a turtle whose shell is borne by a sail.[5]

Giorgio Vasari, Cosimo I de' Medici as Augustus, c. 1555–62, fresco in the Sala di Leone X, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Giorgio Vasari, Cosimo I de’ Medici as Augustus, c. 1555–62, fresco in the Sala di Leone X, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

An earlier fresco portrait of Cosimo as Augustus, painted by Vasari for the Palazzo Vecchio, includes this same iconography: both Capricorn and turtle appear on the shields at Cosimo’s feet. In their creations for Cosimo, artists and designers applied consistent imagery with constant variation. Liberated from the stricter conventions of portraiture, the Capricorn and turtle come to life in Crabeth’s stained glass design, mingling freely among unusual beasts and botany. Grotesque heads scowl and smile, birds flap and flowers bloom. Arranged within a sketched grid, these playful creatures form a carefully organized window composition, whose symmetrical structure suggests the balance and order of Cosimo’s reign. But this grid, representing the window’s lead cames, inadvertently recalls the gridiron on which the library’s namesake, St. Lawrence, was martyred.

This object and many more grotesques are included in the exhibition Fragile Beasts, which is on view at  Cooper Hewitt through January 16, 2016.

You can color your own creatures in the Fragile Beasts Coloring Book, available online at the Cooper Hewitt SHOP.

Virginia McBride is a Curatorial Assistant in Cooper Hewitt’s Department of Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design. 

[1] “Laurentian Library of the Medici,” in International Dictionary of Library Histories, ed. David H. Stam (New York: Routledge, 2001), 389.

[2] Quoted in Anne Dunlop, “’El Vostro Poeta:’ The First Florentine Printing of Dante’s Commedia,” Canadian Art Review 20, no. 1/2 (1993), 42.

[3] Wim de Groot, “The King’s Window of Gouda, A Prestigious Commission?” in The Seventh Window: The King’s Window donated by Phillip II and Mary Tudor to Sint Jansker in Gouda, ed. Wim de Groot (Hilversum: Verloren Publishers, 2005), 233.

[4] Henk Th. van Veen, Cosimo I de’ Medici and His Self-Representation in Florentine Art and Culture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 22.

[5] Jonathan Davies, Culture and Power: Tuscany and Its Universities 1537–1609 (Boston: Brill, 2009), 63-34.

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