In 1616, the symbol of the devotion of the grand duchesses of Tuscany and of the last grand dukes of the Medici family, known as the ‘Chapel of the Relics’, was consecrated in Palazzo Pitti with a solemn ceremony. Cosimo I had built this octagonal-plan chapel in the 1560s but it was in 1610 that the archduchess of Austria and grand duchess of Tuscany Maria Maddalena d’Asburgo, wife of Cosimo II de’ Medici, had it embellished to house the precious reliquaries that formed an important part of her collections.
A very religious woman, Maria Maddalena devoted herself to acquiring relics from her arrival in Florence in 1608. In pursuing her objective, she availed herself of illustrious correspondents including the archbishop of Siena, Camillo Borghese, the nuncio to Naples, Paolo Emilio Filonardi, the archbishop of Genoa, Domenico Marini and cardinal Scipione Caffarelli Borghese. Equally decisive was the role of Cristina of Lorraine, Maria Maddalena’s mother-in-law, who assembled the first, substantial nucleus of relics that at her death entered the collection of her daughter-in-law.
In the span of a few years, Maria Maddalena assembled an extraordinary collection of items in the ‘Chapel of the Relics’, which was further enriched by grand duchess Vittoria della Rovere and her son, grand duke Cosimo III, becoming one of the vastest sacred treasures in Europe.
Painstaking archive study has enabled the exhibition to reconstruct an image of these very precious collections, tokens of the grand-ducal family’s profound devotion and, at the same time, a symbol of prestige and magnificence, source of wealth and object of cultural identity.
The first section of the exhibition will be dedicated to Maria Maddalena of Austria and will present a selection of works from the more than four-hundred pieces described in the chapel’s oldest inventory, compiled in 1616 and updated until 1635. Studying this important document has made it possible to identify the reliquaries that belonged to the archduchess. It has also brought the realisation that the sumptuous chapel looked like a veritable devotional Wunderkammer, practically an antithesis of the ‘profane’ Tribune of the Uffizi. Its cabinets, decorated with paintings by Giovanni Bilivert, Filippo Tarchiani, Fabrizio Boschi and Matteo Rosselli, contained precious cases for sacred remains, as well as liturgical objects and profane artefacts made of rare and valuable materials: from coral to multicoloured semiprecious stones, from Baltic amber to exotic ebony and ivory. Alongside these works, the exhibition will also present several works that Maria Maddalena and Cosimo II commissioned and gifted to important places of worship.
The following sections of the show will focus on the figure of Vittoria della Rovere and her son Cosimo III who was particularly devoted to collecting relics, especially items that had belonged to personages from distant places. For his collection, he commissioned extraordinary cases from expert sculptors and master goldsmiths working in the court workshops, including Massimiliano Soldani Benzi, Cosimo Merlini the Younger and Giuseppe Antonio Torricelli assisted by Giovan Battista Foggini, the versatile designer of sumptuous reliquaries with elegant forms.
The treasure of the ‘Chapel of the Relics’ remained practically unaltered in Palazzo Pitti until 1785 when grand duke Pietro Leopoldo of Lorraine ordered more than one-hundred relics delivered to the Basilica of San Lorenzo in exchange for eighteen vases in semiprecious stones that had belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent, which he wanted for the Regia Galleria degli Uffizi. This event constituted the harbinger of the disintegration of the collection of relics that had belonged to the Medici grand dukes. Shortly thereafter, the most precious objects were taken apart to recover the gold, silver and precious stones used to make them. The few items that were spared destruction wound up in the new Cappella Palatina, while others were given to the archbishop of Florence Antonio Martini for him to distribute to the parishes and churches of the dioceses. The research carried out in the preparatory phase of the exhibition has permitted us to recognise a substantial number of these reliquaries that after more than two hundred and twenty years will return to Palazzo Pitti for this show.
The exhibition intends to offer a reconstruction of the extraordinary collection of relics and reliquaries that belonged to the Medici, originally held in Palazzo Pitti and successively broken up by Pietro Leopoldo of Lorraine beginning in the mid 1780s. The surviving pieces of this sacred treasure are in part held in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, the Museo degli Argenti and in various parishes and churches of the dioceses of Florence. The exhibition itinerary is expected to present important works that belonged to Maria Maddalena of Austria, wife of Cosimo II de’ Medici and founder of the collection. The archduchess also promoted the renovation of what would become the ‘Chapel of the Relics’ in her apartment situated in the wing of the palace today known as ‘Volterrano’ on the main floor of Palazzo Pitti. Great attention will also be devoted to the figure of Cosimo III de’ Medici, an untiring and munificent buyer of elaborate cases for the relics, commissioned from the expert goldsmiths, cabinet-makers and cutters of semiprecious stones employed in the Medici Gallery.