The cultural elite: Laura Battiferrri and Lucrezia Panciatichi
A portrait of poetess Laura Battiferri degli Ammannati (1523-1589) is housed in Palazzo Vecchio, in Florence. She was the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman from Urbino, but she enjoyed a literary education and published several works. Although Battiferri was married in a second marriage to renowned architect and sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati (1511-1592), her fame was achieved solely by means of her literary talent (Fig. 1).
She was one of the few Renaissance women who wrote eclogues, a type of favola pastorale in verse that was popular at that time. One of them was dedicated to the Duke of Florence, Cosimo I, and his wife Eleonora, who were disguised under the names of Alpheus and Galatea, king and queen of shepherds. The story is set in an idyllic landscape tentatively identified by Victoria Kirkham either as the Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano, or as the Medici residence at Fiesole. Although the position of the sitter is the traditional three-quarter, half-length portrait, Battiferri does not face the viewer, but shows her hard-line profile, a clear reference to Dante’s portrait painted by Bronzino a couple of decades earlier (Fig. 2).
Similar to the allegorical portrait of Dante the supreme poet, where he pensively holds a book of his Commedia, also Battiferri clasps an open book in her hands. Contrary to Eleonora of Toledo’s portrait, where the sitter’s hand points towards the tassel at the end of her chain belt, Batttiferri’s holds open the pages of a book with the text of two sonnets by the humanist poet Petrarch (1304-1374), whose Rime were in vogue at the Medici court at the time. The reference to Petrarch in Battiferri’s portrait was deliberate: both Bronzino and Battiferri had exchanged sonnets with each other, and the name Laura lent itself to the literary comparison with Petrarch and his literary love, a woman who was also called Laura.
The plain, dark-grey background gives no suggestion of the environment where Battiferri is sitting, but the subdued tones of grey, black, white, and garnet red contrast with the rich and bold palette of ultramarine blue, gold and red used in Eleonora’s portraits, and confers a sad, almost mournful atmosphere to the painting. As observed by Carol Plazzotta, Battiferri’s portrait is a depiction of Bronzino’s description of the poetess in one of his sonnets, where he declares Battiferri to be “Tutta dentro di ferro e fuor di ghiaccio” (all inside is of iron and the outside is of ice”). Battiferri gravitated to the circle of historian Benedetto Varchi and the artists and scholars of the time that included Bronzino. Bronzino painted several portraits of female members of the Medici family and prominent women of the Florentine elite as models of virtuous behaviour and worthy representatives of family wealth and power. However, Battiferri’s image goes beyond the mere representation of female virtuous demeanour to focus on the sitter’s literary prowess. Bronzino had been rejected by the Accademia Fiorentina, but a change to the academy admission policy in 1549 meant that members could be readmitted on the basis of their publications, and Bronzino was re-admitted in 1566 following the presentation of a codex of lyrics including references to the portrait of Laura Battiferri.
Contemporary ideas on women maintained that their role in society was set within their household, and upheld strong views on the expectations on women’s conduct in the private and public domains. Renaissance humanist, artist and architect Leon Battista Alberti reflected contemporary views on women in his influential books “I Libri della Famiglia”, where he described a highly gendered society.
Lucrezia Panciatichi’s portrait responds to these ideas and ideals (Fig. 3).
The painting was likely commissioned by her husband, Bartolomeo Panciatichi, a diplomat and humanist at the court of Cosimo I that became a member of the Umidi faction within the Accademia Fiorentina, in 1541. Bartolomeo was born in France and had spent many years residing in Lyon prior to his marriage to Lucrezia Pucci thanks to his father’s position as the director of the most important Florentine bank in that city. Bartolomeo Panciatichi acquired his education in France and was said to have Huguenot sympathies during his early years in Lyon. Accused of possessing banned books, he was summoned by the Inquisition and imprisoned in 1551. Later released, he became a senator and the commissioner for the city of Pisa.
In line with contemporary views on women, Bronzino depicts his female sitters as icons of virtue. Both Laura Battiferrri and Lucrezia Panciatichi wear their nuptial ring. Lucrezia is a learned woman, but contrary to Battiferri, she is shown holding a book of prayers. The wealth and social position of the Panciatichi is clearly conveyed in the representation of Lucrezia’s jewellery: a pearl necklace with an elaborate medallion encased with a central ruby. Another necklace in gold chain bears the inscription “Sans fin amour dure” (Love lasts eternally), another indication of the sitter’s primary role as a faithful wife. A belt of agate buttons and golden beads similar to the one worn by Lucrezia in her portrait, was recorded in the inventory of Cosimo I among other items of jewellery. The belt in the Medici inventory was a wedding present for Camilla Martelli’s daughter Virginia. Camilla was Cosimo I’s second wife, a marriage that was celebrated a few years after the death of Eleonora of Toledo. Cosimo and Camilla had a daughter together, Virginia, who went on to marry Duke Cesare d’Este in 1585. This belt is a sophisticated piece of jewellery that could also be worn as a necklace or “collare” and was given as a wedding present from mother to daughter on that special occasion. The similarities in such a personal item of jewellery highlights the close relationship and shared taste that the Panciatichi enjoyed with the Medici family. The bond between Panciatichi and Cosimo I became even more important when the duke supported Panciatichi at the time when his power and prestige was over. It was in fact thanks to Cosimo’s intervention that Panciatichi was released from the clutches of the Inquisition.
Geraldine Johnson observed that by the 16th century, sculptural representation of women that suggested a stronger or prominent role were removed to display a more domesticated and powerless vision. Cosimo I’s cultural policy featured a predominance of “masculine” power, and the imagery that was produced at the time made explicit reference to manly strength, power and superiority with the aim of consolidating the position of Cosimo I as the ruler of the Florentine state, where the Medici family had seen fluctuating fortunes. Undeniably, Cosimo’s rise to power at the age of seventeen, further to the assassination of Alessandro de’ Medici by the hand of his cousin Lorenzaccio, was far from straightforward, and was opposed fervently by some of the traditional Medici supporters. Cosimo was conscious that in order to expand his dominion over the Tuscan region he had to craft his public image swiftly and carefully. This was put into practice through a variety of means, and art offered the perfect agency for the construction of Cosimo’s public persona. Portraiture, sculpture, and coinage with his effigy were an integral part of this masterplan. Portraits of women of the Medici household and their entourage should therefore be considered in this historical context.
Plazzotta, Carol, “Bronzino’s Laura”, The Burlington Magazine, 140 (1998), pp. 251-263.
Johnson, Geraldine, “Idol or ideal: The power and potency of female public sculpture” in Picturing women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, ed. G. Johnson and S. Grieco. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Kirkham, Victoria, “Cosimo and Eleonora in Sheperland” in The Cultural Politics of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, ed. K. Eisenbichler. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001 (2nd edit. Routledge 2016).
Zanrè, Domenico, “Ritual and Parody in Mid-Cinquecento Florence: Cosimo de’ Medici and the Accademia del Piano”, in The Cultural Politics of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, ed. K. Eisenbichler. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001 (2nd edit. Routledge 2016).