The Medici Madonna
Benedetto Pagni, Italian 1504-1578
SN 34, oil on wood panel

by Robert Anderson.

Benedetto Pagni, the little known Tuscan painter, came from Pescia and was trained in the Raphael Studio. He assisted Giulio Romano in Rome and went with him in 1524 to Mantua to work on the decorations of the Palazzo del Te.

Following the death of Romano in 1546, Pagni moved to Florence seeking employment. He had some highly placed relatives in Florence and hoped to work for Cosimo di Medici. Not leaving his fate entirely in the hands of others, he painted a picture as a sample of his work and sent it for approval to Cosimo and his advisors. It is that painting which now hangs in the Ringling Museum.

The gift or bribe of the painting was helpful in obtaining employment and Pagni started work in Cosimo's employ in 1547. He worked on cartoons in the ducal tapestry works and painted at least one other picture during his tenure at the Medici court. Despite the efforts of his relatives Pagni did not survive very long the competitive Florentine environment and his last known work for the Duke was in 1553.

In his declining years he painted at the court of the Gonzaga in Mantua where he passed away in 1578 at the age of seventy-four.

The painting is a personification of Florence offering to the Virgin the symbols of the grandeur of the House of Medici. It is likely that one of the Pagni cousins advised him on the imagery for this presentation painting as the unusual symbolism has a political content consistant with other works created for Cosimo.

Benedetto has created an atypical votive image in which the City of Florence in the guise of the Roman goddess Flora, offers thanks to the Virgin for the glories she has bestowed upon the Medici and especially on Duke Cosimo I. The Virgin Mary was one of the primary saintly protectors of Florence.

The symbols offered to the Virgin are: the six balls (coat-of-arms of the Medici); a genealogical tree and two Papal tiaras (the Medici Popes Leo X (1513-21) and Clement (1523-34); a crown (the Duchy of Tuscany); the diadem of pearls encircling a sheaf of Valois lilies (Catherine de'Medici and Henri d'Orleans married in 1533).

The Virgin is shown as an aristocratic figure - a symbol of the Medici family power and wealth. The City of Florence is depicted as Flora, Roman goddess of spring flowers, to suggest the state of peace and prosperity under Medici rule.

Mannerism was described as the extreme elongation of the body. It tended to concentrate on style rather than on content This Madonna is painted in somewhat of a Manneristic style with a long neck and sloping lap. The Child looks to be rather elongated and to be sliding from her enormous lap. This long neck and torso was in a Florentine Manneristic style - the dominant painting style between 1500 and 1520.

This is a large painting of the Madonna and Child, who lies passively in her lap, and a fantastically adorned female figure who is holding a plate filled to overflowing with the emblems whose meaning can easily be explained (balls, tiaras, lilies etc.).

The painting was purchased by John Ringling in 1927 at Christies in London.

Historical Context:
Cosimo de'Medici returned to Florence in 1434 after a brief exile in Venice and began his covert political career as a behind the scenes manipulator of the public machinery of republicanism.

It was not surprising that Cosimo d'Medici was pleased to receive a painting which extolled the achievements of the Medici and their "special" relationship to the Virgin, the saintly protector of Florence. There were many in Florence who made anti-Medicean prophecies and who were politically active adherents of Savonarola. These groups aimed at persuading the populace that Divine Providence would support the downfall of every Medici tyrant trying to assume exclusive authority over Florence.

It is not surprising that the theme of the Virgin should be turned to advantage in Medici iconography. One of the fundamental ideas in political rhetoric under Duke Cosimo I was that God had foredained Medici rule over the city, especially Cosimo's ascent to power.

Any painter desirous of pleasing Cosimo I de'Medici could hardly have gone wrong with a picture illustrating the Virgin Mary's benevolence and protection toward himself and his forebears.