The Modern’s Untitled (Medici Boy), 1953, by Joseph Cornell is a small wooden box with a front glass pane tinted blue. As you bend over to look inside, you see the image of a wide-eyed young boy dressed in aristocratic Renaissance-era clothes. The child is not playfully cavorting, though, but standing tall and somber with a sword at his side, gloves in his hand, and a sleeping dog at his feet. Having just been promoted to the title of a nobleman, the nine-year-old Massimiliano Stampa poses in his new rank as artist Sofonisba Anguissola marks the occasion.
The image Cornell included in this work is appropriated from Anguissola’s painting from 1557, entitled Portrait of Marchese Massimiliano Stampa. Cornell juxtaposes the image of the young boy with other references to childhood, including the wooden box itself, the blocks placed on the bottom of the interior, and the etched lines on the blue glass. These elements, however, are not indicative of the Renaissance, but rather the penny arcades of Cornell’s youth, which featured prizes lined up on shelves, shooting games for target practice, and moving pictures housed in small cabinets that you peered into and activated with a crank.
The Anguissola painting and Cornell’s box show the young Stampa (once erroneously thought to be a member of the Medici family) making the transition from the carefree frivolity of childhood to the sobering responsibilities of adulthood. The toy "prizes" laid out before him are inaccessible. The delightful novelty of moving pictures is subverted by his static image and Stampa is not shooting a toy gun, but stands with the crosshairs aimed directly at him. The realization that his premature promotion is due to the untimely death of his father adds another layer of solemn reality to the boy’s state.
Cornell coined the word "eterniday" to describe that which is both ordinary and timeless. In this carefully arranged assemblage, the artist combines imagery and references to vastly different time periods, but speaks to the evolution that all children must undergo in leaving behind the games of youth to enter adulthood. Although the circumstances of Renaissance nobility are quite different from those experienced by most American children today, the transition is a shared, elemental human experience.