The Sala del'Udienze of Cosimo I, Duke of Tuscany

by Raichel Le Goff

Trinity College, Oxford 1995 

I'd like to start with a quick biographical look at Salviati's development leading up to the time he received the commission for the Sala del'Udienze of the Palazzo Vecchio when he was 33 years of age. Salviati was born Francesco Rossi in Florence in 1510. Vasari, in his long 'vita' on Francesco, makes much of his own childhood friendship with him and their parallel careers as artists, giving the writer an opportunity to discuss many of his own works.

Originally apprenticed as a goldsmith, Francesco received his training in painting and drawing at a number of Florentine workshops including those of Bugiardini and Bandinelli. At the age of nineteen he finished off his training by joining the studio of Andrea del Sarto. By this time, he was attracting the notice of patrons and connoisseurs in Florence and when Cardinal Giovanni Salviati requested that a young Florentine painter be sent to Rome, Francesco was recommended.

After the death of del Sarto, he left for Rome in 1531 where he was to stay for eight years.

Vasari tells us that Francesco was delighted that Cardinal Salviati allowed him ample time to study Rome. Joining him there to work for the Cardinal Ippolito, Vasari wrote that "together they spent the winter with great profit, leaving nothing in Rome of importance which they did not copy". The two young artists gained admission to the Pope's private apartments where they studied the works of Raphael and no doubt, saw Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling. We are told that Francesco was then inspired to take classes in studying the nude from life which he did so devotedly, also making trips to the cemetery to examine corpses and study anatomy. As Cardinal Salviati's protege Francesco came to be known as Cecchino Salviati, and adopted the name as his own. (and from here onward I shall refer to him as Salviati)

His first large-scale work of a historical subject was a series of water-colour cartoons for tapestries showing the deeds of Alexander the Great, executed for Pier Luigi Farnese. It seems he would have been quite happy to continue his career in Rome according to Vasari, had not friends from Florence written to him suggesting that if he returned to his native city, Francesco should undoubtedly find favour with the new Duke, the 20 year old Cosimo de' Medici.

Francesco returned to Florence in 1539 and immediately took part in the artistic preparations for the wedding of Cosimo to Leonora of Toledo. Francesco seems to have been infected by a passion for travel as he soon left for Bologna and Venice where he stayed for some time and painted Aretino's portrait. Deciding to head back to Rome, he travelled via Verona in order to study the antiquities there and to Mantua to see the works of Giulio Romano.

In Rome he painted the basamento under Raphael's Fire in the Borgo fresco in the Stanza dell'Incendio and was kept busy with commissions but in under two years Salviati was back in Florence, ambitious to execute works for the Medici. Vasari tells us that he offered to paint the audience-chamber of what we now call the Palazzo Vecchio "without caring about payment" indicating that he was truly keen to win the young Duke's favour. Cosimo agreed and Francesco began designs for the stories of Furius Camillus, which are the focus of this discussion.

The frescoes were to decorate the Duke's audience chamber the Sala del'Udienze, which functioned as a formal reception room. Traditionally it had been the room where the Priori gave audience to the citizens of Florence, but now it was being converted to identify with the power of one individual and to serve the purposes of princely rule. (SLIDE - Triumph scene)

We must remember that the decoration of the Sala del'Udienze was carried out well before Vasari's enormous Sala dei Cinquecento, so at this stage in Cosimo's residence of the Palazzo, it would have been the most important newly decorated room in the Palace. Pierced with two doorways and five large windows, Salviati was obliged to work around the architecture. The spectacular ceiling executed by the Tasso brothers was elaborately carved and gilded, so fresco decoration was confined to the four walls.

There had been unexecuted plans at the end of the previous century for the room to be decorated by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Botticelli and Perugino - so it had always been considered a highly important chamber within the Palace complex. This commission to Salviati was the first to any artist from the Duke for the large-scale decoration of a major part of the Palace and was symbolic of the switch over of his new residence from a Palazzo dei Priori to the then called Palazzo della Signoria. Cosimo had begun to transform this old communal palace shortly after moving into it from the Palazzo Medici (Via Larga) in 1540.

The theme supplied to Salviati was the celebration of Cosimo's regime in the guise of the history of a great but strangely enough, not terribly popular antique tyrant, the Roman Consul Furius Camillus.

As people would be asked to wait here in the audience chamber perhaps for long periods of time before they saw the Duke, the intention was primarily to give the visitor an overwhelming impression of great power as the images provoked a psychological association between Cosimo and the ancient Roman hero. Cosimo and his deeds would be glorified through identification with Camillus. The extravagant and complex decoration of this room would impress the visitor as a display of Medici wealth and on a more practical level, would also entertain the viewer whilst he waited.

Having had time to dwell upon the "macho" images of the noble Roman crushing his enemy in battle and riding triumphant into Rome the visitor half-expected to meet Camillo's likeness in the man they were about to meet and this game of mind association was wholly intended.

Camillus had been hailed as a new Romulus for his triumph over the Gauls in 398 B.C. and Cosimo, after the death of the Duke Alessandro, was elected to govern Florence which has been called the "new Rome". Almost at the outset he was aided by good fortune: Cosimo's army defeated a gathering of patrician exiles at the battle of Montemurlo and Cosimo's new government was seen as firm and stable by a city anxious at last to put prosperity above politics. Like Camillus, Cosimo represented the temporal father-figure of an independent state and hoped to share by association the qualities of courage and loyalty attributed to Camillus. Even though he was seen as a military figure, Cosimo was also anxious to be seen as an inaugurator of Peace and Salviati has painted a large allegorical figure in grisaille of Peace burning the instruments of war, over the main doorway. (SLIDE - 'Pace')

This glorification of Cosimo as an antique hero was given solid form by Bandinelli's recently executed marble bust of Cosimo in the image of a Roman emperor. Cosimo himself owned an antique bust of Hadrian and Bandinelli modelled his portrait bust of Cosimo upon this. Just after Salviati had completed the Sala delle Udienze in 1545, Cellini followed Bandinelli's example with a large-than-life-sized bronze bust of Cosimo wearing an elaborate Roman cuirass, which had so greatly pleased the Duke that Celllini was given his own quarters inside the Palace to work on it. The portrayal of Cosimo de'Medici as a Roman hero continued with Vasari in other fresco paintings throughout the Palazzo and culminated, with the large equestrian statue by Giambologna erected posthumously outside the Palazzo in 1594. Even Bronzino's portrait of Cosimo in armour falls into this genre of military hero. With commissions to artists such as these official busts conceived in the high style of Roman sculptors and Vasari's and Bronzino's portraits among others, it is clear that Cosimo was eager to be seen as a kind of Furius Camillus character himself.

However, as palpable as the connection between a cinquecento Duke and a 4th century Roman may or may not be, the frescoes themselves have been called 'obscure' and 'difficult' to read.

Evidenced by surviving letters, the program was apparently proposed by a learned friend of Cosimo, Pier Francesco Riccio. The program was so remote to contemporary viewers, that Paolo Giovio wrote in a letter of 1545 to Allessandro Farnese that "Ceccho de Salviati had just finished a history of Scipione", confusing one Roman general with another, (although whether Giovio saw the frescoes for himself or was relying on hearsay, the letter does not state). Shearman comments on the problematic iconography when he writes : "the only painter whom Tasso is known to have admired was Salviati, whose artificial style is dense with visual figures of speech (contrapposti), hidden classical references, hyperbole, refinements, interlacing of forms, the unexpected, and departures from common usage. Certainly Salviati too, 'avoided that superfluous facility of being at once understood.' (quote from Tasso's funeral oration of 1595 delivered by Lorenzo Giacomini (Malespini). " (p.161-2)

(SLIDE of Triumph again)

Although anyone can look at the frescoes and state this is a battle scene and this is a Triumphal procession, it is true that the identity of the specific events and personages depicted is not immediately evident, not unless, you have read the Life of Camillus by Plutarch or Livy's account of the Sack of Veii.

Livy tells of the plundering of the Etrurian city of Veii after it had been captured by Camillus in 396 B.C. in which the main prize was the statue of the goddess Juno. The story is told that Camillus' men entered the temple and asked the statue "Do you want to go to Rome, Juno?" and to their surprise, she answered her consent. Juno was then transported to the Aventine hill in Rome where Camillus dedicated a temple to her. Livy also records how Camillus proved unpopular with his people as they accused him of taking too great a cut of the spoils including a magnificent set of bronze doors which he installed in his own house.

Salviati makes the statue of Juno a focus of his narrative in the Triumph of Camillus and has emphasised this fable of the statue being life-like and able to speak by representing her as an animated figure who seems to turn toward Camillus from their lofty positions above the crowds.

I only have slides of the two fresco scenes on the longest wall. On the left wall: Triumph of Camillus accompanied by soldiers, priests and prisoners and the city of Rome in the background; on the right (and this is a detail only SLLIDE): a scene where Camillus, indignant at the hard terms imposed on the Romans by Brennus King of the victorious Gauls, calls the soldiers once more to battle.

The marble doorway which you see in the slide with the Triumph, was sculpted by Benedetto and Giuliano da Maiano between 1476 and 1481: on the architrave is a statue of Justice seated, the broken arm once held a gilded sword; The doors themselves inlaid with figures of Dante and Petrarch are also by Giuliano da Maiano.

On the wall adjoining the Chapel, on the left : Camillus putting the Gauls to flight; and on the right the Roman Consul causes the school-master who had betrayed his country to be punished by his own pupils. On the wall in front, between the windows, Opportunity seizes hold of Fortune. The decoration is completed by a rich dado with festoons and allegorical figures.

Perhaps the most important scene in the room is the triumphal procession of Camillus returning with the spoils of war. The other scenes are simply events leading up to this successful climax. The Triumphal procession celebrates the conjunction of good fortune, charismatic power, divine favour, and leadership by a victorious commander.

Giovanpaolo Lomazzo observed in his Tratto della pittura (1585) that triumphs had long been a favourite subject of 'painters rich and copious in invention, their hands at the ready, as well as the connoisseurs, well informed about art.' "

Lomazzo's earliest Renaissance example is Mantegna's Triumphs of Caesar which no doubt Salviati saw when he visited Mantua just before he commenced work on Cosimo's audience-room. Lomazzo's list includes the Triumph of Bacchus by Giovanni Bellini in Venice, of Bacchus and Silenus by Titian in Ferrara, of Bacchus again by Daniele da Volterra in Rome, and not to forget 'the many facades painted with diverse pomp and triumph' in Rome. Another list cited artists famed for designing triumphal decorations such as trophies - Giulio Romano, Rosso Fiorentino and Perino del Vaga. (comparative SLIDES trophies of base of Trajan's Column and Mantegna Triumph detail)

The Florentine poet Grazzini writing in 1559 cited allegorical triumphs such as Piero di Cosimo's carnival procession of the Triumph of Death or Titian's engraving of the Triumph of Religion; he mentioned too the great triumphal programs honouring illustrious men - Albrecht Durer's engravings of a triumph for Emperor Maximilian I, for example, and the apparatus for the various entries into cities of Charles V, Francis I or even Duke Cosimo de'Medici.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, then, a whole repertoire of triumphal effects had been codified.

Salviati's narrative scenes accumulate the most learned and elaborate battery of archaeological reminiscence, as if for the edification of the Florentines who had not the advantage of a Roman education, and they are framed by allegories, no less learned, of almost hieroglyphic abstruseness. High-keyed in colour and polished to an extreme degree, the single forms in the narratives take on the three-dimensionality of sculpture, while the whole design, by a further act of antique recollection, approximates late classical relief.

This is where Salviati's long years in Rome studying the antique become evident. (SLIDES  specific examples: the festoons and the arch of Constantine medallions). However, Giulio Romano's precedent (i.e. the decoration of the Appartamento di Troia of the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua and in particular the Triumph of Titus, now in the Louvre), serves Salviati at least as much as antiquity itself. I would also cite the frescoes designed by Raphael in the Sala di Constantino of the Vatican palace, executed by Giulio Romano and Francesco Penni.

(Back to SLIDE of Triumph of Camillus)

But working everywhere upon this sculpture-like substance, insistently instilling it with life, is Salviati's own line. Line makes ornament upon the forms and makes ornament of them. Everything seems bent chiefly toward exploitation of the image's ornamental sense. Rosso and Pontormo had made their artifice of form responsive to narrative or dramatic values; here, however, intense feeling is an effect of the ornament alone. Violence and passion may be illustrated in his fresco of the Rout of the Volsci before Sutrius, but these emotions are not expressed. Forms crowd up toward the picture surface resulting in an accumulation of energy and density of ornament in a woven continuity across the picture plane.

Freedberg describes Salviati's fresco as "having the quality of a thing made by an incredible conjunction in the medium of paint, of the sculptor's, goldsmith's and lapidary's art."

The Sala del'Udienze was to act as a modello for Vasari when he took on the huge project of painting the Salone dei Cinquecento. Indeed, Vasari borrowed entire figures, symbols and motifs verbatim from Salviati which I find highly unoriginal since he was quoting designs only two rooms away.


With the Salone del Cinquecento, as with the Sala del'Udienze, the image of the public event was grafted onto a Palace interior and although the allegorical format was employed to celebrate historical figures it was ultimately to exalt living princes.

The triumphalist scenario was one way of making sense of the more than half a century of upheaval that Florence had endured. The Dukes of Florence were to insistently proclaim triumphs in all things and settled into the work of believing the images mirrored back to them in a high triumphalist mode. Thus, while the state was figured by triumphalist art, art making was the production of the tirumphalist state.

copyright © Raichel Le Goff
ISBN 960-85312-0-9
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