Gems and Jewellery of the Medici

Perhaps more aptly titled Tokyo Love : Part II, because I made it back!  I didn’t realise how much I missed Japan until I was in the throes of it – from checking out Star Wars merch in Akiba, seeing the country whizz by from the window of the Shinkansen, to trying to get to the other side of the intersection at Shibuya Crossing.  Speaking of that famous crossing, a fun fact I learned from a Tokyoite friend is apparently the number of people that traverse Shibuya Crossing daily is about equal to the population of Auckland.  Mind blown.

Unfortunately unlike my previous excursion, I wasn’t able to experience as much contemporary art or revisit wonderful galleries such as Misako and Rosen and SCAI The Bathhouse.  A case of too much to see and not enough time!  I have felt like that both times I have been to Japan, as my ‘To Visit’ list long outstrips my ‘Been There’ list 😛

I did, however, catch an exhibition called Gems and Jewellery of the Medici at Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum in Meguro.  The Medici Family made their fortune in banking and commerce, then rose to political power in the 15th Century, where they effectively were the rulers of Florence for about three centuries.  The family produced three Popes (Leo X, Clement VII and Leo XI), two Queen Regents of France (Catherine de’ Medici and Marie de’ Medici) and heavily patronized a number of artists, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Rubens to name a few, during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Thus their gems and jewels reflect their immense power and wealth.  Many of the pieces depict classical, mythological or Biblical figures and scenes which were more than likely used for self-promotion, symbolically asserting their political control and near god-like dominance.

This display of about 70 pieces is from the Palazzo Pitti’s Silver Museum a.k.a. the Medici Treasury.  Cameos, earrings, brooches, rings and all kinds of trinkets are interspersed with portraits of Medici family members, such as Lorenzo (‘the Magnificent’) and Isabella de’ Medici.  There are innumerable diamonds, pearls, rubies, emeralds, carnelians; it is both bedazzling and bewildering.

A particular highlight was a diamond engraved with the Medici family coat of arms.  I am not sure how you would go about engraving a diamond as it is the hardest mineral, let alone achieve it without the use of modern technology some 500 odd years ago!  Another was an intricate gold carriage with, what looked like from a distance, a pile of mashed potatoes inside.  In fact, it was a number of pearls sewn together to form a sleeping baby under a blanket, complete with a detailed baby’s face.  Lastly, a fabulous pendant dragon with an elaborate, multi-coloured cloisonné back which harbours a pearl for a belly.  A number of the items astonish from first sight, and then astound when you circle around the glass cases and realise there is more – so much more!  It is a level of wealth that in some ways is hard to comprehend, and to think that it is only a portion of the Medici collection is stupefying.

Click on the link below and scroll to the bottom for images.  The page is in Japanese and can be translated through your browser, as for some reason the images don’t appear on their English page:

A riveting exhibition which will leave you with stars in your eyes, what was of equal, or greater, fascination was the stunning and sumptuous building that housed it.  The Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum was built in 1933 and was the former residence of Prince and Princess Asaka.  The Prince and Princess had lived for a period in Paris and visited the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriel Modernes (now abbreviated to Art Deco) in 1925.  So influenced by what they saw, they commissioned their residence in Japan to be done in the style.  The rooms were designed by Henri Rapin with decorative contributions from René Lalique, and the project was overseen by Yōkichi Gondō from the Construction Bureau of the Imperial Household Ministry.  After WWII, it became the official residence for prime ministers, and then was a state guesthouse.  In 1983, it was converted into a museum.

As noted in Art Deco in the Former Prince Asaka Residence, the residence ‘represents a rare fusion of Japanese and French design… …but may also reflect the fact that at the time, disparate cultures throughout the world were embracing a similar aesthetic.’  Patterns which are similar to those seen in traditional Japanese design such as the seigaiha (concentric circular wave design) are also visible in many other cultures, and are part of the international Art Deco vocabulary.[1]

There are a boundless number of beautiful things to see in this building, but a distinct favourite was the glass relief doors by René Lalique in the front entrance hall.  They depict female figures with large outstretched wings that curve upwards to resemble haloing suns; a friend noted he was getting serious Wayne Manor vibes off them 😀  Another exquisite marvel by Lalique are the glass relief ceiling lights in the great dining hall, designed to look like pineapples and pomegranates.  Upstairs, the circular roomed study and the adjoining library were both designed by Rapin, and are honestly the rooms of my dreams.  I suspect I was a bit more captivated by the building than the exhibition!

Gems and Jewellery of the Medici is on until Tuesday 5th July 2016 at Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum.  If you wear pearls (artificial is ok) you can take ¥100 off your ticket price 🙂  And if you are a fan of Art Deco, I highly recommend checking this place out – the grounds are also delightful.  It is only about a 5 minute walk from Meguro Station East exit.

Thanks for visiting!


[1] Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture/Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, Art Deco in the Former Prince Asaka Residence (Tokyo: Koeisha Co., Ltd, 2014), p. 9.