State and courtly portraiture at the time of the Duchy of Florence (2) – by Sandra Cardarelli

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

2. The fanciulle of the Medici household: Bia and Maria

Bia de’ Medici was the illegitimate daughter of Cosimo I as she was born from a relationship that Cosimo had prior to his marriage to Eleonora of Toledo in 1539. Bia was allegedly the fruit of Cosimo’s liaison with a Florentine “gentildonna”, as this appears in the correspondence of Simone di Filippo d’Albizzo, an agent of the Duke of Urbino at the Medici court. Sadly, Bia died in infancy after a short illness in 1542, and she was buried in the church of San Lorenzo, the parish church of the Medici and the place where previous generations of the family were laid to rest. 

Fig. 1. Agnolo Tori, known as Bronzino, Portrait of Bia de’ Medici, c. 1542, Florence, Uffizi Gallery.

Giorgio Vasari recalled that Bronzino had painted a portrait of Bia, and inventories of the Medici household from 1553 to 1568 list a portrait of Cosimo’s first daughter. (fig. 1) Some scholars hypothesized that the cold colours of the palette indicated that Bronzino had painted this image after Bia’s death, and likely around the early 1540s, as the style of the dress reminds the viewer of another portrait painted by Bronzino, that of Lucrezia Panciatichi. The white colour of her dress is a clear allusion to the girl’s full name: Bianca. It was suggested that Bia’s portrait might have been depicted after her death and that Bronzino copied her features from her death mask. We will probably never be certain of this, but contrary to the portraits of the other members of the family, Bia’s portrait is the lasting and poignant memory of Cosimo’s first child. When we observe this portrait, we have the perception that the boundary between the state and family portrait is somewhat tenuous. Like in Eleonora’s portrait, Bia’s character and emotions appear concealed by her aristocratic poise. Bia was deeply loved by Cosimo and his wife Eleonora, who cared for her as if she were her own child, and her portrait is a testimony of her position within the family. The girl enjoyed the same treatment as her siblings, and the jewels that she wears in the painting underscore her privileged position despite being born out of wedlock. The background of ultramarine blue made with expensive lapis lazuli, similarly to Eleonora’s portrait, complement the elegant dress and exquisite jewellery. 

Cosimo I and Eleonora of Toledo commissioned their children’s portraits for private display, but also to be sent abroad as gifts. Documents show that Cosimo and Eleonora gave explicit instructions to Bronzino regarding the attire that Eleonora and the children should wear in their portraits. On one such occasion for example, Eleonora advised that her son Francesco had to be depicted in a similar suit to the one that he wore during a visit to Genoa to meet Felipe II of Spain. Francesco’s portrait was meant as a gift to Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, who was an advisor to Charles V and later to his natural daughter, Margaret of Parma, Governor of the Netherlands. Bia, like Eleonora, wears expensive jewellery: a pearl necklace, hoop earrings with teardrop diamonds and pearls, and a belt of gold chain ending in a fretwork tassel with pomander. There were doubts over the identity of the sitter of this painting, although it is now generally accepted that the girl in the portrait is indeed Bia. The gold chain necklace with a pendant showing the profile image of a young, beardless Cosimo appears to be a reminder of his juvenile paternity and the explicit recognition of Bia as his daughter. While portraits could represent the prelude of an alliance, help to expedite a marriage arrangement, or guarantee a future ecclesiastical career, Bronzino’s painting of Bia remains as the testimony of a much-loved daughter and stepdaughter. 

Fig. 2. Agnolo Tori, known as Bronzino, Maria of Cosimo I de’ Medici, 1551, Florence, Uffizi Gallery.

Maria de’ Medici was the first daughter of Cosimo I and his wife Eleonora, and she was said to be beautiful as well as very bright. She impressed her contemporaries for being bilingual, as she could speak both Italian and Spanish fluently, and was able to read Latin by the age of eight. In 1545, Caterina de’ Medici, Queen of France, requested a portrait of the two princes, Cosimo’s sons Francesco and Giovanni, and of the young princess, Maria. Giorgio Vasari talks about Duchess Eleonora’s commission for these portraits from Bronzino, emphasizing young Maria’s beauty. (fig. 2) Correspondence shows that in the same year Cosimo summoned Bronzino to join the court at Pietrasanta to execute the portraits of Maria and his other two children: Francesco and Isabella. Portraits of Cosimo’s children were also ordered from Bronzino during Cosimo’s sojourn in Volterra, to be carried out on their return to Florence. 

In this painting now in the Uffizi gallery, Maria is represented with an elaborate dress of velvet with a rich embroidery of pearls. On her head Maria wears a “grillanda” a head-dress made of pearls and precious stones held in place by a gold thread. This elaborate and precious ornament was complemented by similarly elaborate teardrop-earrings, and a double-row pearl necklace. This image of Maria is recorded in an inventory of 1553 and shows her more as a miniature version of her parents, than as a child. Her elaborate attire and jewellery highlights Maria’s rank, family wealth and beauty, the impeccable image of the ruler’s daughter. As was the case for the portraits of her mother Eleonora and of her siblings, Maria’s image was an important component in Cosimo’s strategy for the consolidation of his power and the strengthening of important dynastic alliances. Unfortunately, Maria died only six years later, in 1557, before her marriage to Alfonso d’Este, the son of the Duke of Ferrara Ercole II, took place. Alfonso went on to marry Maria’s sister Lucrezia, who died shortly afterwards of tuberculosis, although rumours arose that she was poisoned on the orders of her husband. However, in these images the descriptive ability of Bronzino’s brush goes beyond the mere representation of his aristocratic sitters and their opulent outfits to render Bia’s gentle and loveable little face and Maria’s melancholic gaze in the most exquisite manner. 

Further Reading:

Falciani, Carlo and Natali, Antonio, Bronzino: artist and poet at the court of the Medici, Florence: Mandragora & Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, 2010.

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

Langdon, Gabrielle, Medici Women: Portraits of Power, Love and Betrayal from the Court of Duke Cosimo I, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2006.

Vasari, Giorgio, Le vite dei più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architetti (1568 ed.), Florence: Giunti, 2002.

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.

Orkney’s Italian Chapel – an online success!

Thank you very much to all the people who tuned in to follow our first Zoom event with author Philip Paris last night and listened to the fascinating story of the Italian Chapel in Orkney. We had an amazing time and we had viewers from many other branches of the Società Dante Alighieri in Italy and the UK. Our audience extended from Aberdeen, to Siena to Toronto and beyond. The Aberdeen Italian Circle is going global! We are looking forward to welcoming you to the next event on November 11.

A recording of this event is now available on our YouTube Channel

Thank you Philip Paris for an entertaining and informative evening.

Have you been to Jerusalem in Tuscany? – by David Dryer

Situated at 450m above sea level in the Montaione region, between Florence and Siena, can be found the Holy Mount of San Vivaldo.

In 1260 Vivaldo Stricchi, was born in San Gimignano to a well-off family. He lived his early life in luxury in Siena until he started to associate with a priest, Bartolo of Picchiena, and changed his lifestyle to that of a Christian. In later life he chose the area of Montaione to undertake a life of fast and penance “for the love of Jesus Christ”. Today the chestnut wood where he lived is recognised as a national monument.

In 1325 a chapel was built and dedicated to Vivaldo at the spot where he was found dead under a chestnut tree in 1320. The Church of San Vivaldo was added together with the Franciscan monastery as the site grew. After 1500 the Franciscan friars started to build a complex of chapels and churches reproducing the topography of the holy places in Jerusalem – hence the name, the Jerusalem of Tuscany. The main purpose in building the complex was to offer local people the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage without actually going to Jerusalem, which was at that time under Turkish control, and without an excessive cost.

The 25 chapels of the Holy Mount still preserve their terracotta statuary groups which represent different episodes of the life and passion of Jesus Christ. The statues were created by unknown local artisanal followers of the Della Robbia family.

Over the years the chapels fell into a state of neglect and were damaged by landslides, but today they are under the supervision of the “Monuments and Fine Arts Office of Florence” who have overseen their restoration and care.

If you are in the area of San Gimignano a visit to Jerusalem in Tuscany is highly recommended.