A Historical Interpretation of a Jovial Sculpture
By Angela Oberer
His real name was Braccio di Bartolo, but everybody called him Morgante. His physical particularity become his profession: he served as a court dwarf for Cosimo I.
The position of ‘court dwarf’ was one that was offered by all the important rulers in Europe, and the role implied sometimes coincided with that of the court jester. Dwarfs were owned, exploited, traded and delivered as gifts to fellow kings and queens. This, from a modern point of view, humiliating and repulsing fashion can partly be explained by the characteristics and capacities ascribed to markedly small people as being lucky charms or healers; not seldom they became objects of homoerotic desires. The interest in keeping company with dwarfs could also derive from a growing interest in extraordinary examples of humankind, such as extremely small or tall people, or cripples. Moreover they could represent the power and wealth of the ruler who collected human beings like any other exotic objects.
In this scene, Cosimo I was not an exception to the rule. He owned at least five dwarfs, one of whom, the most famous until today, was Morgante. His nickname was a satirical twist on the title character’s name in the anonymous late fifteenth-century Romantic epic by Luigi Pulci, in which Morgante is a giant who, ironically, will be killed by a bite from a crab. Cosimo I defined his Morgante, whose services are documented from the 1540s, as “the dwarf of our ducal palace and our most beloved servant.” A portrait of Morgante is now one of the most famous sculptures in the Boboli Gardens and shows the “beloved servant riding a tortoise.”
According to Giorgio Vasari, it was Valerio Cioli who got the commission for this work from Cosimo I between 1561 and 1564: “The Duke has also made the same Valerio do a nude statue of the dwarf Morgante in marble, which has proved so beautiful and so like the reality, that probably there has never been seen another monster so well wrought, nor one executed with each diligence, life-like and faithful nature.”
Valerio Cioli (1529/30–1599), born in Settignano, was a pupil of Niccolo Tribolo. In 1548-49 he worked in Rome with Raffaello da Montelupo before being summoned back to Florence by Cosimo I in order to undertake, together with his father, the restoration of the Duke’s collection of classical statuary.
The eye-catching sculpture of the “monster” has been part of the Fontana del Bacchino since 1579 and shows a naked, obese and ageing Morgante modeled on the real-life dwarf. The name of the fountain reminds us of the iconographic link to representations of the drunken Bacchus. Another reminder of antiquity is the fact that Morgante is riding with his right hand stretched out in a way that seems to turn the sculpture into a parody of the most famous equestrian monument of ancient Rome: Marcus Aurelius. Instead of proudly sitting on top of a majestic horse, though, Morgante is riding a tortoise, an animal well known for its sluggishness and slowness. Or is it a farcical version of Cosimo’s impresa of the tortoise with the sail?
The motto festina Iente (‘more haste, less speed’) attached to the tortoise with the sail was taken by Cosimo in reference to emperor Augustus. The Roman historian Suetonius tells us that Augustus deplored rashness. He thought that there was nothing less becoming in a well-trained leader than haste and rashness, and, accordingly, favorite sayings of this were: “More haste, less speed,” “Better a safe commander than a bold” and “That is done quickly enough which is done well enough.” Moreover, we know of gold coins that were minted for the emperor with a crab and a butterfly as an emblematic representation for his motto.
Could it be part of an intellectual riddle or joke as Morgante, who, according to Pulci, was killed by a crab bite, is shown like a riding emperor on Cosimo’s emblematic animal, linking the three figures in an ironic but at the same time cultivated way?
In this case once more Morgante would fulfill his task: to simply amuse the Medici family and their guests on a superficial level, through his grotesquely exposed naked form atop a tortoise, but he would entertain the sophisticated and cultured visitor as well, through the various historical allusions and diverse levels of meaning. The sculpture that nowadays can be found at the northeastern entrance to the Boboli Gardens is a copy, while Cioli’s original has found a new home in the Stanzonaccio.