Masters of the Universe 

Wonders' tribute to Florence is wonderful.

Virtually every piece of promotional material describes "Masters of Florence: Glory and Genius at the Court of the Medici" as the "most important exhibition" in the history of Memphis' Wonders series. If understatement is a virtue, someone should paint a halo around The Pyramid.

When the Dark Ages got a little too dark, the Tuscan city of Florence switched on the lights. This is the city of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Galileo; the city of Titian, Donatello, Rubens, and Botticelli. It's the city where every artist was a scientist and every scientist was an architect. It is the city where the Renaissance was born. No photograph can do it justice. No film can capture its spirit. And no exhibit can take it on the road. In producing "Masters of Florence," the Wonders series has bitten off more than anyone could ever chew. But if they have failed -- as any attempt to take Florence outside of Florence surely must -- they have more than lived up to their name.

"Masters of Florence" is a massive exhibit including painting, sculpture, textiles, tools, clothing, furniture, and innumerable artifacts. But if there is a single piece that defines the spirit of Florence, it's Donatello's Madonna with Child. The polychrome ceramic shows the Blessed Virgin struggling with her fussy (yes, fussy!) child. To calm him, she offers an apple, the very icon of original sin. The traditional interpretation is that Mary wants to protect her son from his predestined fate by keeping him safe inside the family, but the defiant child knows that safety isn't an option. Fifteenth-century Florence, caught between the rock of the Catholic Church and the hard place of scientific discovery, embraced the piece immediately.

If there is a single piece that defines the opulence of Florence, it is a cabinet -- a safe of sorts -- decorated top to bottom with pietre dure landscapes carved in semiprecious stones. As furniture goes, it is positively palatial.

Giambologna's heaven-bound Mercury, which marks the beginning of mannerism, is on display, as is Titian's Venus and Cupid. Titian's reclining nude inspired artists for centuries, becoming one of the most widely appropriated images of all time. Filippo Brunelleschi's original wooden models for the dome of Florence's cathedral, the dominant figure of the Florentine skyline, is also on display. Botticelli's celebrated Madonna della Loggia was restored just for this exhibit, and 500 years after the fact, Leonardo's Girl with Tousled Hair is still captivating, even in its relative tininess. But in spite of this crush of incredible art, it's the artifacts that really dominate the exhibit: Michelangelo's slippers and his compass set; a piece of bloody fabric ripped from the shirt of an unfortunate Medici; the tools and brick molds used to build the dome. Because the Florentine artists are so well known, and the story of Florence so often told, these more intimate items -- never on display in art history books -- provide both personality and perspective to the era.

"Masters of Florence" also includes a marble relief of Alexander the Great by Andrea del Verrocchio, which has not been displayed in public for 400 years. Verrocchio was Leonardo's teacher who, upon seeing the work of his pupil, abandoned the arts altogether, claiming he could do no better. The relief depicts Alexander as a fair-faced warrior-prince wearing a winged helmet that would look right at home in the art nouveau posters of Alphonse Mucha.

If there is a single display that captures the heart of Florence, it is a small, easily overlooked case containing gold and silver florins. The florin, though minted in Tuscany, became the preferred currency of Europe, and during the Renaissance, the Medici family became bankers to the world, amassing the kind of wealth any king might envy. Rather than hoarding their wealth, the Medicis, immortalized in portrait upon portrait in every medium imaginable, spent their riches freely, transforming the city of Florence into a palace for its citizens. When they became too wealthy and powerful to be considered mere noblemen, the Medicis became popes and grand dukes. "Masters of Florence" tells the Medici story in great detail. Their story is the story of Florence, after all.

Memphis is this exhaustive exhibit's only North American stop. While it may fall short of capturing the experience of Florence (not a fountain to be seen), it goes a long way toward showing how this sparkling city became the jewel of Italy and the creative epicenter of the entire western world.

Through October 3rd

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