State and courtly portraiture at the time of the Duchy of Florence (1) – by Sandra Cardarelli

The imagery of women in Bronzino’s paintings 1540-1560

  1. Eleonora of Toledo

Cosimo I (1519-1574) belonged to the powerful and wealthy Medici family, whose destiny was tightly intertwined with that of the city of Florence. He was the son of Giovanni dalle Bande Nere and Maria Salviati, from a side branch of the Medici family, and rose to power in 1537, inheriting the title of duke of Florence after the assassination of his cousin Alessandro, the first Medici to hold the hereditary title of duke. 

Cosimo was eager to continue his family’s longstanding tradition of patronage of the arts. As he tried to establish himself as the heir of a ruling dynasty, Cosimo I’s involvement in art patronage included subsidizing ambitious projects, and artists of his entourage included Vasari, Bronzino, and Pontormo, just to name a few.

Cosimo I’s marriage to Eleonora of Toledo (1519-1562), the second daughter of the viceroy of Naples, and third cousin of Emperor Charles V, constituted an important step in the consolidation of his power. The arrival of his future bride, Eleonora, in Tuscany upon her wedding to Cosimo, was at the Medici villa of Poggio a Caiano, where the couple rested and made the final arrangements for their triumphal entry into Florence through the Porta al Prato on 29 June 1539. (fig. 1) This image of Eleonora arriving at Poggio painted by Giovanni Stradano, who was an assistant to Vasari in the decoration of the Medici quarters in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, records this moment as symbolic of the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the family and the city of Florence. 

Fig. 1. Jan Van Der Straet, known as Giovanni Stradano, The arrival of Eleonora of Toledo at Poggio at Caiano in 1539, c. 1559, Florence, Palazzo Vecchio.

It is however in Bronzino’s paintings that the image of Eleonora as the duchess of Florence was carefully fashioned into the lasting image of the wealthy and refined woman that we can still admire today. One of the first acts of Duke Cosimo as an art patron after his marriage to Eleonora of Toledo, was to order a portrait of his bride. This first painting became part of a series of images depicting Eleonora, Cosimo, and their children. Married by proxy in 1539, Eleonora was presented with a beautiful square-cut diamond, inset within four golden lunettes by the duke’s representatives Jacopo de’ Medici and Luigi Ridolfi. (fig. 2) That ring is represented in this first portrait of Eleonora, painted by Agnolo Bronzino in 1543. Anxious to ensure a prolific progeny, Cosimo’s choice was not just dictated by dynastic reasons. After an earlier attempt to wed the previous duke’s widow, Charles V’s natural daughter Margaret, he seemed genuinely attracted by the beauty and exquisite elegance of Eleonora. 

Fig. 2. Agnolo Tori, known as Bronzino, Eleonora of Toledo, 1543, Prague, National Gallery.

Bronzino, by then court painter, portrayed Eleonora with a beautiful red velvet dress embroidered with golden thread. A net of golden lace woven with pearls covers the shoulders, and more pearls are shown in her head-dress and in the drop-earrings. The oval-shaped ring on her little finger is set with an ancient stone, which was probably of Roman origin, and the engravings are thought to display the symbols of fertility and fidelity indispensable to a good wife. Although red was one of the preferred colours for a young bride’s dress, the painting was made after a few years of marriage, when the succession had already been secured. 

Only a couple of years later, Bronzino painted another official portrait of Eleonora and her second son Giovanni, where a magnificent display of wealth is put on for the viewer. (fig. 3) Eleonora wears a typical sixteenth century dress, a ‘camora’ or ‘gamurra’ of Spanish influence, made with a richly embroidered fabric displaying an intricate pomegranate pattern, a symbol of fertility and prosperity that Bronzino had used already in the decoration of Eleonora’s chapel in Palazzo Vecchio. This dress was reproduced in other portraits of Eleonora by Bronzino, and is complemented by exquisite pieces of jewellery, such as the belt of gold chains with a terminal tassel of small pearls, probably designed by the court goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini. The top part of the tassel was usually worked in fretwork and could contain a “pasta odorifera”, a scented paste. Whether the dress was real, or was an imaginary depiction conceived by Bronzino to underscore Eleonora’s rank, has never been proved with certainty, although recent studies seem inclined to accept the latter option. These images were devised to impress the viewer and were certainly not meant only for private display. As the young heir of a side branch of the Medici family trying to establish himself and his offspring not only as the rulers of Florence, but of the region, state portraits were a powerful instrument of personal propaganda and self-assertion. Literature shows that it was customary to send portraits as a present to monarchs or members of other ruling families, and Eleonora, a devoted catholic, ordered a portrait of her son Giovanni as a gift for Pope Julius III. 

Fig. 3. Agnolo Tori, known as Bronzino, Eleonora of Toledo with her son Giovanni, c. 1545, Florence, Uffizi Gallery.

Eleonora’s coat of arms, with the peacock with six chicks and the motto “Cum Pudore Laeta Fecunditas” [Joyful fertility with modesty] points to her role as perpetuator of the dynasty. However, her role within the family and in wider society was far more nuanced. It has been observed that Eleonora acted as regent on at least two occasions, in 1541 and 1543 during Cosimo’s visits abroad. She also acted as an intermediary between Cosimo and Sienese diplomats at the time of the annexation of Siena in 1555, and this event is reproduced in a sculptural relief by Stoldo Lorenzi and entitled “Cosimo I as the victorious ruler of Florence and Siena”. This image reminded the viewer of Eleonora’s kinship to the Emperor and thus of the alliance that was crucial for Cosimo to annex Siena. 

Moreover, it is known that the decision to purchase Palazzo Pitti and transform it in the family residence was due to Eleonora, who was also responsible for the acquisition of much of the land that later became part of the estate and known as “Boboli Gardens”. Eleonora was part of a much more powerful family than the Medici. As the viceroy of Naples her father, Don Pedro, ruled over much of southern Italy. She must have felt that the Medici palace in Via Larga, and Palazzo Vecchio, were not adequate for a person of her rank and her children. Although Cosimo I was responsible for the commission of the decoration of Eleonora’s private chapel in Palazzo Vecchio from Bronzino, Eleonora’s tastes become apparent throughout the decoration scheme of the chapel. When the poet and courtesan Tullia d’Aragona moved to Florence and established a literary circle there, she rebelled against the rules imposed by Cosimo on prostitution. Obliged to cover her head with a yellow veil, she turned to Eleonora for help. The petition was in fact passed to Cosimo thanks to the duchess, who, in return for “her many great favours” had a volume of poetry dedicated to her.

While Bronzino’s portraits of Eleonora emphasize her role as a wife and mother, these were only the most visible of veneers, and his paintings of the duchess also underscore her rank, wealth, and importance in the construction of the Medici family image and in that of the duchy of Florence. Ultimately, these images contributed to the establishment of the role of the Medici family in international politics. 

Further reading:

Cox-Rearick, Janet, Bronzino’s chapel of Eleonora in the Palazzo Vecchio. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

D’Addario, Arnaldo, “Eleonora di Toledo Duchessa di Firenze e Siena”, in Franco Cardini et al. Donne di casa Medici. Florence: Arnaud, 2003, pp. 25-42.

I gioielli dei Medici dal vero e in ritratto, ed. by M. Sframeli. Florence: Sillabe, 2003.

Klapish-Zuber, Christiane, La famiglia e le donne nel Rinascimento a Firenze. Bari: Laterza, 1988.

The Cultural Politics of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, ed. by K. Eisenbichler. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2016. 

Valle, Francesca R., Eleonora de Toledo, Sposa amata di Cosimo I de’ Medici. Florence: Angelo Pontecorboli editore, 2018.

2 thoughts on “State and courtly portraiture at the time of the Duchy of Florence (1) – by Sandra Cardarelli”

  1. Such an interesting, informative and entertaining article Sandra…. I knew very little about Eleonora . I loved the Bronzino paintings of her … so sumptuous!

    Liked by 1 person

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