JEFFREY BROWN: In 16th-century Florence, this was the very portrait of power: Cosimo I, grand duke of Tuscany, head of the Medici family. He and his successors gained fame as ruthless tyrants and patrons of some of the greatest art the world has seen.
An exhibition titled "The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence," currently at the Chicago Art Institute, displays 200 works mostly commissioned by the Medici family: Paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and pottery. Many have never before traveled outside Italy. Even the music playing in the galleries was composed for a Medici wedding. At every turn here is the beauty of the work, and the constant interplay between politics and art. Larry Feinberg is one of the exhibition's curators.
LARRY FEINBERG: Cosimo I was one of the first rulers to truly understand the power of images and use them to the fullest in creating a kind of what we would call "artistic propaganda," or a promotion of his family, his regime, and a promotion of this idea, which is to some degree a fiction, of a Medici dynasty.
JEFFREY BROWN: At the time, the Medici were just one of many families vying for power. When they grabbed it, they sought to keep and legitimize it. Look again, then, at Agnolo Bronzino's state portrait of Cosimo. The ruler wears not Italian armor, but formidable German armor, a reminder to potential rivals that Cosimo had the holy Roman emperor behind him.
LARRY FEINBERG: It is supposed to in every way acknowledge his power. Any Italian who saw that picture would have begun trembling.
JEFFREY BROWN: Symbols of power are evident as well in the portrait of Cosimo's wife, Eleonora, wearing a most remarkable dress.
LARRY FEINBERG: It's often said about that portrait that it's more a portrait of a dress than of a person. That dress functions in the same way that Cosimo's parade armor functions. It's a sign of social station, and indicative of the social obligations that she was bound to perform.
JEFFREY BROWN: Then there are these two models for a large statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa, by sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. The message here: Best not to mess with the grand duke. But Feinberg and his colleagues are also eager to show that the Medici had another side; that they genuinely loved art and ideas.
LARRY FEINBERG: They were incredibly tolerant of ideas. They were intellectually very tolerant. And it's the Medici, for two centuries, who really supported the philosophers, the poets, the quasi-scientists who were at odds very often with the church.
JEFFREY BROWN: How do you explain this tolerance for ideas? Was it self-interest?
LARRY FEINBERG: To some degree it's self- interest, but it almost seems to be an innate intellectual curiosity, and simply a sense of that if you're going to create a strong state, you need to bring in ideas, bring in the best and the brightest.
JEFFREY BROWN: If Cosimo I is the political star of the exhibition, its artistic star is Michelangelo, who even in his own day was known as "The Divine," renowned above all others. Among his works here, a recently discovered drawing of a candelabrum. And this small unfinished, but powerful, wooden crucifix, which scholars think Michelangelo was working on in the days just before he died at age 88; And a major sculpture-- only the second such ever to come to the United States-- believed to be either David just before facing Goliath, or the Greek god Apollo reaching for an arrow from his quiver. It, too, was never completed.
LARRY FEINBERG: And of course, it's wonderful that it's unfinished, because you get a sense that you're seeing Michelangelo's mind and hand more at work. We still see all the various chisel marks and rake marks that he used. You can see these crisscross lines, in fact, all over the work.
JEFFREY BROWN: And that's the chisel?
LARRY FEINBERG: That's the comb-like or claw chisel where Michelangelo worked it one way, and then turned it and worked it the other way.
JEFFREY BROWN: With its twisting pose, its muscular but refined forms, Michelangelo's work is the height of the Medici-era artistic vision of power and elegance. It's a vision they fostered in the works of many other artists as well. Like this sculpture of a young river god by Pierino da Vinci, nephew of Leonardo...
LARRY FEINBERG: You see this incredible kind of twisting, elegant, languorous pose. It's a pose of some difficulty, but made to seem absolutely effortless.
JEFFREY BROWN: ...Or the tremendous struggle in this mythological wrestling match between Hercules and Antaeus. It depicts the very moment when Hercules squeezes the life out of his opponent. The Medici as art patrons were also eager to remind people of the good life they provided: Festive entertainments. This painting shows an early soccer match-- a sense of security, represented here by fortresses in this painting of the holy family.
LARRY FEINBERG: There's just such a wonderful sense of quiet and tenderness here. The baby Jesus could fall asleep feeling perfectly protected and comfortable in this kind of an embracing family group.
JEFFREY BROWN: There's also the prosperity and abundance in the images of food and drink in this 18-foot tapestry. It depicts Joseph, the biblical hero who saved his people from starvation. Cosimo, in fact, developed the tapestry weaving industry in Italy, bringing great artisans from Brussels to Florence. The turkey seen here, by the way, was a recent import from the new world.
Cosimo's sons established another artistic industry that still flourishes, called pietra dura, or "hard stone." It was a new technique that used an inlay of semiprecious stones to decorate tabletops, wall plaques, and flooring. Court artists were permanently employed to paint family and friends, like Laura Battiferra, one of the leading poets of the day, or this unknown member of the court, Bronzino's "Young Man with a Lute."
LARRY FEINBERG: He combines all these qualities that we associate with the Medici court. There's this hyper-refined quality, almost what we would call neurotic quality. You have a kind of courtly evasiveness. You see, he turns away from us, he doesn't face us, half of his face is in shadow. It has this kind of strange nebulous, shifty quality about it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Medici rule would wind down in the 17th century. But what might be called "The Medici Paradox" lives on: ruthless, yet refined; autocratic, yet intellectually tolerant: The enlightened tyrants who left a legacy of beauty.
JIM LEHRER: The exhibition remains at Chicago's Art Institute through February 2 and moves next to the Detroit Institute of Arts.