Lia Markey. Imagining the Americas in Medici Florence. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016. xvii, 241 p., ill. ISBN 9780271071152. $79.95 (hardcover).
The reader, upon opening this book, is greeted by a stunning array of 110 colour and black-and-white images, including many details, which exhibit the depth and breadth of primarily Florentine representations of the Americas during the first few decades of Euro-American contact. Organized into a series a nine case studies, each of which focuses on specific works of art and material culture that formed part of the collections created for or viewed by Cosimo de’ Medici’s sons (specifically from the onset of the ruler’s reign in 1537 to the end of his son’s reign in 1609), the book is framed by a brief introduction. The book thusly not only explores these artifacts originating from or made to represent the Americas, but it also meditates on the practices of collecting as well as the ways through which collections are encountered in this same cultural and historical moment.
The context for these collections requires some overview. With the development of transatlantic connections for trade and expansion, previously-established networks that converged on the Mediterranean were no longer as relevant as those that were being cultivated across the Atlantic. Italian states also did not participate directly in the project of American conquest and colonization. The development of these collections comes at a moment in which Florence and its elite were realizing their decreasing relevance in a global context that was becoming increasingly vaster. On its side, however, was Italy’s dominance of the printing industry, which allowed Italian states to answer widespread demand for information about the Americas. More than just information, this material also allowed Florentines such as the Medici to engage with this new world through its things and images of them.
This material also informed how the Medici’s environment became structured whenever renovations to the family’s properties were undertaken. As the author explores in chapter two, Cosimo’s wife Eleonora – who was in charge of overseeing the family’s agricultural interests – decided to plant American corn (maize, which they call “grano indiano”) in the fields around Florence and Pisa (21). It is in this way that the author indulges in material for which we have no visualization and that has been described in textual form. Markey uses these textual sources as a means of then exploring art, illustration, and material artefacts that reflect that context. For the example of maize, she meditates on its appearance in frescoes produced during the same period in which Eleonora was attempting its cultivation in Florence. Wider-spread exposure of new-world exotica inseminated artists working for the Medici family with knowledge about the Americas that they attempted to visualize in various medial forms. This intersection of collection and display with the development of artistic practices can be traced at different moments in this book, and composes one of its greatest contributions. Documentation such as this provides important points of entry into material culture studies. One of my favourite observations relates to Markey’s analysis of the influence of the Florentine Codex on the paintings found in one of the rooms comprising the Galleria degli Uffizi’s Armeria in Florence (96-100).
This last compliment will lead to my first criticism. Often the author acknowledges that an object described in a textual source has yet to be identified in physical form or she has not been able to confirm if it became part of the Medici collections, and thus if they interacted with it. This disconnection between textual and material sources should be addressed rather than be allowed to disrupt scholarly endeavour. One possibility is to provide a lengthier introduction that deals directly with this issue and develops a useful paradigm within which to work on textually-described material culture. We need scholarship that addresses this problem. That being said, the book overall does rely on an adequate foundation of archival sources pulled from all of the most relevant repositories, from the Archivo General de Indias in Seville to the national and state archives and libraries of Italy and France, and of course ones that relate to the Medici family itself. The author also acknowledges in the book’s conclusion the need to study documentation so that “a more precise cultural context and reception of New World artifacts can be written” (159).
In conjunction with the generous visual component of this book, the textual component offers some important analysis of the works that are discussed. The prose does lack coherence in parts and left this reader with the impression that some chapters kept returning to the same works or ideas without deepening the analysis or making new observations or conclusions. I concluded the work craving a reworked organization that addressed new-world flora and fauna, Indigenous bodies, Indigenous cultural practices, so-called artifacts from the Americas, and perhaps a chapter or two dealing with collections and with methods of viewing and display.
A rather persnickety peeve about this book, and one that is likely a matter decided by the publisher, is its physical organization because it impairs the scholar’s engagement with the author’s sources. By using endnotes positioned at the end of the book, and then using a Chicago Style of documentation with bibliography, the reader is forced to follow an endnote in the chapter to the back of the book, locate a note that contains only part of the bibliographic information sought, and then search in a third place – the bibliography – in order to understand a source attached to an endnote located earlier in the book.
These defects aside, which are minor or major depending on the preferences of the reader, the book accomplishes its objectives and clearly contributes to scholarship in a relatively new way. It also exposes some of this rare material in published form, which makes this book an important resource for scholars of art history, material culture, print culture, and transatlantic studies.
Mount Allison University