This frieze — the largest glazed terracotta relief of the Italian Renaissance — adorned the facade of the villa at Poggio a Caiano, designed for Lorenzo de’ Medici by Giuliano da Sangallo in the 1480s. Its dating, authorship, and interpretation have been the subject of debate. The generally accepted attribution to Bertoldo as designer and primary executor of the frieze is supported by similarities between figures in the frieze and other sculptures by Bertoldo, as well as the report of Bertoldo’s stay in Poggio a Caiano, where he died in 1491. Conservators recently identified what appeared to be at least five different hands of varied levels of skill in modeling. Presumably, members of a specialist workshop in glazed terracotta (like that of Andrea della Robbia or Benedetto Buglioni) were also involved.
There is no consensus on the interpretation of the complex iconography, though scholars agree that the allegory celebrates the Medici and Lorenzo himself and that a humanist in Lorenzo’s circle, such as Angelo Poliziano, may have advised the artist on the mythological program. Two primary interpretations are generally proposed. In one, the relief represents an allegory of time — based on classical texts by Ovid, Claudian, and others — in which each section addresses smaller denominations of time, from the creation of eternity in the first section to that of the day in the last. In the other interpretation, the frieze represents an allegory of the soul, inspired by Plato’s Myth of Er, in which a dead warrior witnesses the treatment of souls of just and unjust persons in the afterlife. In this reading, the frieze illustrates souls choosing between a just and unjust life, the primordial origins of justice and injustice in the gods Jupiter and Saturn, the results of injustice (war) and justice (peaceful production), and punishment and reward. Both interpretations are cyclical allegories that cohere with Lorenzo’s personal motto, Le temps revient (The time comes again), and with the Medici motto, Semper (Always).
Photo: Gabinetto Fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi