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Leopardi in Wall St. Journal

Posted on Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Liliana Leopardi, assistant professor of art and architecture, was quoted in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal for her well-rounded expertise in Renaissance art - particularly precious and semiprecious gemstones.

In the article, Leopardi offers insight pertaining to the Medici dynasty and discusses precious gems, carvings, sculptures and vases from the 15th century. She goes on to explain the history behind the fascinating art and what it symbolizes. The art can be seen on display at the Bowers Museum in Los Angeles, Calif., where Leopardi serves as a scholar.

Her work has been presented at the College Art Association (the national body of art historians and art practitioners); the Renaissance society of America; and the International Medieval Conference held in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Joining the HWS faculty in 2012, Leopardi helps students explore the connection between magic and material and visual culture. She is also the adviser to the HWS Art History Society. Leopardi previously taught at Chapman University, and recently completed a translation of Camillo Leonardi's "Speculum Lapidum." She received a B.A. from the University of Southern California, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

In the photo above, Leopardi teaches in a Houghton House classroom.

The full article follows.


Wall Street Journal
The Lure of Jewels

Arts & Entertainment
Arnie Cooper • May 15, 2013

Santa Ana, Calif.

If it seems odd that the term "double-entry bookkeeping" appears in this sentence along with master artists like Brunelleschi, Donatello and Michelangelo, you're probably unfamiliar with Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici (1360-1429). He founded the Medici Bank of Florence in 1397, which not only invented "limited liability" and the accounting practice mentioned above, but also made it possible for the family to finance the Italian Renaissance.

As the father of Cosimo the Elder (1388-1464) and Lorenzo (1395-1440), who spawned the two branches of the Medici dynasty, Giovanni di Bicci capitalized on the family's wealth from the wool trade and textiles to set in motion four centuries of unequalled support for writers, poets, philosophers, scientists and, of course, the most acclaimed artists of the time.

Never mind that the "godfathers of the Renaissance" poisoned their enemies (inside the family and out), frequently produced children out of wedlock and occasionally bribed their way into the papacy. According to Liliana Leopardi, an assistant professor of art history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and guest scholar for the Bowers, "what distinguishes the Medici is they systematically commissioned work and sponsored artists in a way no other family had done before in a duchy like Florence." A unique hundred-plus object sampling of the Medici's precious gems, carvings, sculptures and vases (including some ancient pieces) gathered from the Silver Museum, the Bargello and Archaeological Museums in Florence and the Archaeological Museum of Naples can now be seen at the Bowers Museum just south of Los Angeles.

Spanning five sections (from the 15th to early-18th centuries)-from the collection of Cosimo the Elder's grandson, Lorenzo (The Magnificent) de' Medici (1449-1492), through that of Cosimo I de' Medici (1519-1574) and his offspring, up until that of Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici (1667-1743)-the show begins with a wall-size backlighted image of the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici. (And to help put things in context, there's also a timeline chronicling the principal family members and historical events, along with two films-"The Medici Dynasty and Renaissance Florence" and one that details the process of engraving-and a series of wall texts that help visitors make sense of the show.)

Many of the cameos in the exhibition "were actually the prototypes for the images you find in the roundels of the palazzo. What's interesting is that the images found in gems on the cameos get transferred into sculpture, architecture and painting as well," says Ms. Leopardi. Consider, for example, the parallels between a first-century B.C. cameo of nicolo (a type of onyx carved to reveal a translucent gray, from the part of the collection started by Cosimo the Elder) and the depiction of Icarus in the accompanying Andrea del Sarto oil-on-panel work painted about 1506. Apart from the use of color in the painting, one notes a striking similarity in the composition of the two works, notably in the way Dedalus is holding on to Icarus' right arm.

A bolder form of intimacy is reflected in the stunning black-and-gold "Vase With Handles in the Form of Swans With Putti" (1689-93). "It's really interesting here, because the swan would've been seen as a masculine figure," Ms. Leopardi says.

But the tiny works are no less compelling in their own right. "Bust of Lorenzo de' Medici, known as the Magnificent," on loan from the Silver Museum, is a 16th-century agate-and-gold cameo celebrating his role as an art patron. It presents a highly idealized version of Lorenzo, who "happened to be a rather ugly man," says Ms. Leopardi. "It's unfortunate that back then external beauty was considered a sign of your internal disposition-of the beauty of the soul." Placed next to it is an ancient cameo "Bust of Minerva" from the late first century B.C. "Here, so cleverly, you have Lorenzo and his collection facing each other," she says. Perhaps more interesting is that this is not just the only gem remaining in Florence bearing Lorenzo's mark, "LAV.R.MED"-he had most of his gems engraved as such-but also that the "R" likely stands for Rex.

"Some scholars suggest that Lorenzo was styling himself as a king. It appears that as he's accumulating these objects what he's also doing-along with many of these dukes and princes who collected these gems-was styling himself in the manner of Roman emperors," Ms. Leopardi says.

One of the most famous gems of Lorenzo's collection-"Apollo, Marsyas and Olympos," a carving on carnelian dating from the first half of the first century, from the Archaeological Museum of Naples-bears those same initials. "It was probably executed by an artist who worked for the emperor Augustus. When Lorenzo bought it, he believed it to be the Emperor Nero's private, personal seal," Ms. Leopardi says.

And this illustrates another essential aspect of these pieces. Though we think of these gems today as purely oggetti d'arte, over time they've served various functions.

During the Renaissance, intaglios, like the carnelian-and-gold "Bust of Girolamo Savonarola," the Medici critic notorious for the "burning of the books, the bonfires of the vanities," embellished clothing and decorative objects. Cameos were also used as jewelry-sometimes after modifications were made. Pointing out a third-century onyx, gold, enamel and pearl cameo, "Dionysus and Ariadne on Naxos," Ms. Leopardi says it was most likely transformed into a hat pin or pendant in the 1500s after a gold mount was added.

In ancient times, however, such objects played a more significant role, with the intaglios used as seals (because these carvings were incised rather than raised) and the cameos employed as symbols of the state. "These gems and jewels become one way to promulgate your image as an emperor. Since there was no Internet, or even photography, how could you make sure everyone knew what you looked like? Put your image on a coin or on gems that you give as gifts."

Perhaps no one understood the concept of art as propaganda better than the Medici. "In the 15th century," says Ms. Leopardi, "their extensive political network allowed them to effectively rule the city of Florence, then a republic, and style themselves as benevolent dictators. By the end of their 'reign' in the 1700s, what was once propaganda became the nucleus of the artistic holdings of several Florentine museums."

 

 


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