Piero della Francesca and the art of the Italian Renaissance court

Introduction and outline

The Renaissance court of the Italian city states is the archetypal cauldron where one can examine art and history in partnership. They were unique and vibrant places, populated by extraordinary characters whose lives and stories are akin to some of our most popular and dramatic television spectaculars. The Medici in Florence, the Gonzaga in Mantua, the Visconti, succeeded by the Sforza, in Milan, the house of Aragon in Naples, the d’Este in Ferrara; all have histories worthy of study. In this article, I shall look at two princes of the quattrocento – Sigismondo Malatesta in Rimini and Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino, whose individual lives as well as the lingering feud which existed between them illustrate the colourful history of this period. It also allows me to introduce to you one of my favourite artists, Piero della Francesca, perhaps lesser known than some of the Renaissance greats but more than worthy of our attention.

This is a story of princely magnificence and devious scheming, of battles – lost and won – of the construction of lavish palaces decorated with beautiful artworks. We see the best and worst of human nature, how it can be, almost simultaneously, gracious and cruel. At the heart of the story is the overriding desire, which to an extent I think we all share, to leave a legacy and be remembered as significant.

We begin with some introductory remarks about the general ethos and structure of a typical Renaissance court and then explore some of the types of court artist which were employed there, as well as the characteristics demanded of them. Next we meet the two main protagonists of our story – Sigismondo Malatesta in Rimini and his bitter rival, Federico of Montefeltro, ruler of Urbino. We study their lives and careers as military generals for hire, condottiere, as well as the reasons behind, and manifestations of, their fierce enmity.

As well as general remarks about the court which each ruler developed, we examine in detail the most significant building in each; the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini and the Ducal Palace in Urbino.

The artist who executed some of his finest works for each ruler, especially in Urbino, was Piero della Francesca and, after a brief introductory biography, we examine six of his masterpieces in the historical context of their creation.

My trip to Urbino was some twenty five years ago, but I remember it vividly. The Ducal Palace is one of the most magnificent constructions I have ever visited, redolent of history and the maiestate which Federico sought to install therein. I also remember travelling far and wide, often to small and remote locations, to view the art of Piero della Francesca, which continues to exert a strange fascination over me. As always, it is enlightening to seek an understanding of the creative processes in operation, but as we do so I encourage you to pause to study the unconventional beauty which infuses his work.

The Renaissance court 

For the Renaissance ruler, image was everything. Money lavished on art and architecture was money spent honourably. This display of wealth came to be seen as a public statement of economic and political power, indicative of a time of peace dedicated to glory and security. Extravagance was not only encouraged but expected, defined by propagandists as magnificentia. Humanists like Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo Bruni quoted Aristotle – wealth was a prerequisite of virtue in the public arena. A number of treatises described the princely notions of decorum and dignity; along with the traditional virtues – piety, justice, fortitude, prudence, temperance, magnanimity and liberality – two qualities were given particular weight – clemency and majesty (maiestate), the outward display of inner dignity. In a world where political machinations were always centre stage, at the same time as projecting these qualities, the aim was for subjects and rivals to be so awestruck that overpowering the ruler seemed impossible.

The courts of the Italian city states were both secular and religious. Public buildings emphasised a ruler’s civic duty whilst religious projects bore witness to unstinting piety. Courts grew and accrued heft over the years. Rulers sought dynastic continuity, the longing for a male heir providing a constant momentum to the ruler’s existence, and this desire for unbroken lineage established a trend to employ local artists who had worked for previous regimes and to complete projects which had already been embarked on. Although frequent feuding could interrupt the process of building a court, the Peace of Lodi in 1454 brought a new political stability, allowing whole cities to be redesigned around the court of their ruler.

As with many aspects of Renaissance Italy, there was a conscious choice to emulate the magnificence of the Roman Empire. Leon Battista Alberti, in his De Re Aedificatoria of 1450, wrote “and is it not true to say that the whole of Italy is fixed by a kind of rivalry in renewing the old?” And yet, in parallel, the developments which grew out of the burgeoning Renaissance also informed artistic output in the courts.

Although each court had a unique individual character, there existed a complex network of marital relationships, ensuring that links and rivalries were established among the families of the northern courts, in particular the Este, Gonzaga and Sforza. Occasions such as weddings, coronations, funerals and state visits were arenas for particularly ostentatious display. Gifts were exchanged in attempts to curry favour with rivals and build alliances. Many courts shared common values, derived from French and English chivalric literature. Art was commissioned on a variety of scales, from the large (decoration of entire rooms) to the small (portable paintings, cameos and medals). Many artists were peripatetic, working between different courts, often being recommended one to another.

Whether or not engaged in this manner at the time, all artists were expected to keep up to date with trends in other courts and cities and were sometimes sponsored by their patron to travel to do so.

The court artist

The qualities sought in a court artist included technical merit (drawing, use of perspective, ability with colours), style, organisational ability, speed, industriousness and imagination. There was a constant balance between the artist’s individuality and the requirement to work within the recognised style, maniera, of the court. For the artist, the benefit of a guaranteed salary was offset by the restrictions on their freedom to travel and accept commissions (although some princes did allow this). There were no fixed salary scales; remuneration was completely at the discretion of the prince and often subject to cash-flow limitations and cost-cutting exercises.

The established visual language, well into the fifteenth century, was the International Gothic style, gradually modified by new Florentine ideas. Maiestate, the outward display of inner dignity, became central to courtly art, reflected in the dress, gestures and poses of the painted figures as well as the temperate manner in which the painter shows his skills in composition and the use of colour. This clarity, order and decorum is seen in the art of three famous court artists – Andrea Mantegna, Piero della Francesca and Leon Battista Alberti.

Gentile da Fabriano ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (1423) Uffizi Gallery, Florence – an example of the International Gothic style

In painting, achieving the desired heights required employing the most celebrated artists and using the highest quality of materials, in particular ultramarine (the most expensive pigment) along with gold and silver leaf. Painters functioned beyond the primary role of applying paint on canvas or panel, serving as interior designers, supplied with a team of craftsmen such as stucco artists, wood carvers, embroiderers and goldsmiths, to translate their designs into furnishings. In a similar manner, the architect at court tended to fulfil the role of artistic director, military and civil engineer, supervising the building of fortresses, churches and palaces as head of a team of hundreds of craftsmen.

In architecture, the discovery in 1414 of Vitruvius’s Latin treatise De Architectura, written in the first century BCE, resulted in a return to the Vitruvian order of columns – Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Alberti’s treatise of 1450 also incorporated features such as classical temple fronts and triumphal arches into facades, such as the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini. In buildings, imported stone was more expensive and prestigious than local stone, with Carrara marble being particularly valued.

Rules for decorum also applied to decoration in the form of sculpture and internal frescoes. Sculptors tended to live outside the palace due to the dirty, noisy nature of their work. Historical subjects were preferred for the public rooms of city palaces, while private rooms were decorated more informally, with depictions of subjects such as hunting, hawking and games. Many palaces included a studiolo, an intimate room decorated with favourite paintings, marquetry and objets d’art which served both as an intimate haven of quiet for the prince and an important showpiece for visiting dignitaries. We examine the magnificent studiolo of Federico da Montefeltro when we tour the Ducal Palce in Urbino.

Portraits were presented as diplomatic gifts and to facilitate marriage arrangements. Portrait busts were a common form of dynastic memorial. As the portraitists spent much time with their subjects, they were expected and required to possess social graces appropriate to a courtier. 

Malatesta and Rimini – The life of Sigismondo Malatesta

Image of Sigismondo taken from Benozzo Gozzoli ‘Adoration of the Magi’ fresco in Medici Palace, Florence


Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (19 June 1417 – 7 October 1468) was an Italian condottiero (a captain in charge of a mercenary unit) and nobleman, a member of the House of Malatesta, lord of Rimini and Fano from 1432. He was widely considered by his contemporaries to be one of the most daring military leaders of his era and commanded a wide range of forces from his childhood to the end of his life. Ever a redoubtable foe, he was regarded by many as the foremost captain in all Italy. We shall consider his military career in some detail shortly.

But Sigismondo was also a great patron of the arts and made Rimini into a vibrant centre of Renaissance culture, one of the greatest Renaissance courts of its time. He exemplified many of the essential qualities of the Renaissance prince, that heady mix of ruthless warrior and proponent of the arts and humanities which typified the courts of northern Italy.  

The Malatesta ruled Rimini from 1280 and over the following century extended their influence down the Adriatic coast, including the cities of Pesaro and Cesena. By 1400 the dynasty was divided between different branches of the family; at the age of just fifteen, Sigismondo was lord of one of the richest provinces of the state of the Church, whose dominions extended to Romagna, from Rimini to Montefeltro, and in the northern Marche, from Fano to Senigallia.

Birth to age 15

Sigismondo was born in Brescia, northern Italy, the elder of two illegitimate sons of Pandolfo III Malatesta and Antonia da Barignani, a Lombard noblewoman. His father, already lord of Fano, became lord of Brescia and Bergamo in 1404 thanks to services rendered in favour of the Visconti, the powerful dukes of Milan. However, he lost the lordship of Brescia and Bergamo in 1421. Sigismondo’s younger brother Domenico, known as Malatesta Novello, was born in Brescia on 5 August 1418. An elder (and also illegitimate) half-brother, Galeotto Roberto Malatesta, born in 1411, was the issue of the relationship of their father Pandolfo III with Allegra de’ Mori.

After their father’s death in 1427, the three brothers were entrusted to their uncle Carlo Malatesta, lord of Rimini, who had no children. At his death in 1429, the Malatesta seigniory, including Rimini, Fano and many other cities of the Marches and Romagna, was entrusted to Galeotto Roberto. But two years later, in 1431, he died, and the lordship passed to the two young brothers Sigismondo and Domenico.
Following the family’s tradition, Sigismondo after the death of his father debuted as man-at-arms at the age of 13 against his relative Carlo II Malatesta, lord of Pesaro and Pope Martin V’s ally, who aimed to annex Rimini, Cesena and Fano to his territories. After his victory, Sigismondo obtained, together with his brothers Galeotto Roberto and Domenico, the title of Papal vicar for those cities. In 1431, though having inferior forces, he repelled another invasion by the Malatestas of Pesaro. His outstanding military leadership was already in evidence.

First two wives

In 1434 Sigismondo married his niece Ginevra d’Este, Niccolò III’s legitimate daughter by his second wife Parisina Malatesta, first cousin of Sigismondo; they had one son, Galeotto Roberto Novello, who died as an infant, in 1438. On 12 October 1440 Ginevra died, and rumours spread that she had been poisoned by Sigismondo. Two years later he married Polissena Sforza, Francesco I’s illegitimate daughter; they had two children: a son, Galeotto, born in 1442, who only lived a few months, and a daughter, Giovanna, born in 1444 and later Duchess of Camerino by marriage.

Early years as condottiero

In 1432 Sigismondo accepted the command of the papal corps, defeating the Spanish condottiero Sante Cirillo and thwarting Antonio I Ordelaffi’s attempt to capture Forli (1435–36). However, the following year Sigismondo occupied the papal city of Cervia and was excommunicated; he was soon pardoned and again created commander of the papal army. Later he fought in Romagna and the Marche alongside Francesco Sforza.

He was appointed captain-general of Pope Eugene IV’s army in 1435, signed a condotta with Venice in 1437 and by 1439 had seized eight castles from the Montefeltro family, a dynasty with whom, as we shall see, a lifelong enmity had been born.

In this period he fought several times against another condottiero, Niccolo Piccinino, firstly in 1437, as a Venetian commander when he was defeated at Calcinara sull’Oglio. Later, while defending his lands from the papal invasion army led by Piccinino, Federico da Montefeltro and Malatesta Novello, he crushed them at Monteluro, managing to obtain some territories of Pesaro, although the latter was successfully defeated by Federico’s forces.

One can now see the immense complexity of the power struggle in the Italian city states at this time, as allegiances fluctuated and territories exchanged hands. Just how complex can be seen in events over the next couple of years.

Fluctating alliances

In early 1444, Sigismondo embarked on an attack to oust his cousin Galeazzo Malatesta, whose forces were led by Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, from Pesaro and Fossombrone. The battle was deadlocked and, as was often the case in those days, both parties withdrew and signed lucrative new contracts, Sigismondo once more as captain-general of Pope Eugene IV’s armies and Montefeltro with Francesco Sforza, who was fighting the pope and Alfonso of Aragon. 

To outwit Sigismondo, Galeazzo sold the fiefs – Fossombrone to Montefeltro for 13,000 ducats and Pesaro to Francesco Sforza for 20,000 ducats. We must remember that Sigismondo was the son-in-law of Sforza, having married his daughter Polissena in 1442. He stored resentment for future unleashing.  

Soon afterwards Sigismondo reneged on a condotto signed with Alfonso of Aragon and refused to return the advance of 32,400 ducats he had received. Instead, he signed a contract with Florence against Alfonso, during which he won perhaps his greatest victory at Piombino, forcing the Neapolitans to raise their siege. 

Rivalry with Federico da Montefeltro

Sigismondo’s relationship with Urbino was complex. The ruler, Oddantonio, had been assassinated without an heir. Sigismondo claimed the throne for his brother, Domenico, married to Oddantonio’s sister Violanta. But Federico seized power, claiming to be Oddantonio’s illegitimate half-brother. The ensuing rivalry between Sigismondo and Federico would be bitter.

A fierce verbal and written quarrel ensued, with each decrying the other in the vilest manner. Pope Eugene IV, whose forces Sigismondo commanded, excommunicated Federico for the purchase of the papal fief of Fossombrone but then died on 23 February 1447. His successor Nicholas V took a very different position, lifted the excommunication and accepted 12,000 ducats to recognise Federico as lord of Urbino and Fossombrone.


During his two marriages, Sigismondo had numerous mistresses, but only two were well known: Vannetta dei Toschi, who bore him a son, Roberto, in 1441, and Isotta degli Atti, daughter of a local wool merchant. She and her family gained places at court, to the displeasure of his wife Polissena and her father Francesco Sforza. Isotta bore him four children: Giovanni (who died in infancy), Margherita (later wife of Carlo di Fortebraccio), Sallustio and Antonia (later the first wife of Rodolfo Gonzaga, Lord of Castiglione delle Stiviere, who beheaded her in 1483 when she was discovered in adultery).

In 1449 Sigismondo’s second wife Polissena died under mysterious circumstances. Francesco Sforza claimed that Sigismondo had her drowned by one of his servants, but this has remained unconfirmed. 

In 1456 Sigismondo married Isotta, an unusual occurrence for the times, and Pope Nicholas V legitimised their three surviving children; their only son, Sallustio, was declared his heir. 

Battles around 1450s

After 1449 Malatesta served variously under Venice, Florence, Siena, Naples and Sforza himself. The Peace of Lodi (1454), from which he was excluded, pushed the major Italian powers against him and thereafter his territories were repeatedly invaded by Aragonese, Venetian and Papal troops.

Excommunication to Hell

In 1458 Sigismondo became embroiled in a long quarrel over tithes and territory with Pope Pius II (ruled 1458–1464). An ally of both Alfonso I and Federico da Montefeltro, Pius confiscated Senigallia, Mondavia and Mondolfo from Sigismondo and gave them to his own family. 

Pius wrote and circulated a lengthy invective in which he condemned Sigismondo for unbridled lust and rape, blasphemy, atheism (epicureanism), paganism, and deification of his longtime consort and third wife Isotta degli Atti. Pius also accused Sigismondo of murdering his first two wives, Ginevra d’Este by poison and Polissena Sforza by strangulation. He formalised a list of crimes in a papal consistory in 1460 and on 25 December a famous trial in absentia was held in Rome against Sigismondo. Pius, who considered Sigismondo guilty of treachery towards Siena arising from his long-running feud with Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, excommunicated him, declaring him a heretic and attributing to Sigismondo a further series of sins (incest, sodomy with his son Roberto and others) which smeared his reputation for centuries. In a unique ceremony, Sigismondo was canonised into Hell with the curse, “No mortal heretofore has descended into Hell with the ceremony of canonisation. Sigi shall be the first deemed worthy of such honour.” 

Battles with papal troops

His possessions were declared forfeit to the church and Malatesta’s image was publicly burnt in Rome. A de facto crusade was then launched against him, in a league including the pope, the king of Naples, the Duke of Milan and Federico da Montefeltro. Sigismondo defeated the first contingent of Papal troops, led by Napoleone Orsini on 2 July 1461 at Castellone di Suasa.

In 1462 he was able to take Senigallia, but was forced to flee to Fano after the arrival of Federico da Montefeltro. The latter followed and severely crushed him on 12 August 1462 near Senigallia at the mouth of the Cesano. Sigismondo sought alliances with the pope’s enemies, even sending an envoy to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, sworn enemy of Christendom, but to no avail. The war ended in 1463, due to the intervention of Venice, with the loss of all Sigismondo’s territories apart from Rimini and a territory of some eight kilometers around it: both, however, were assigned to return to the Papal States after his death.

He then sought greater fortune as a general for Venice in its war against the Ottomans, as a field commander in the Peloponnesus (1464–1466). The Venetians granted him a contingent of 150 men to defend Rimini and his other lands during his absence. After some initial success, Sigismondo was forced to abandon the crusade and returned to Rimini.

The defeat of Sigismondo started the triumphant career of Federico, lord of Urbino, who became the undisputed lord of Montefeltro and the greatest of the Italian leaders. 

Feud with Pope Paul II

Pius’ successor, Pope Paul II (1464–1471), was wary of Sigismondo and kept him as a virtual prisoner in Rome, demanding he exchange Rimini for Spoleto and Camerino. During this time Sigismondo reportedly made plans to murder the pope with a hidden dagger and may have been involved in the so-called humanist conspiracy against the pope in February 1468. 

In 1468, having returned to Rimini, Sigismondo died in Castel Sismondo: he was 51 years old. 

Humanist court

Sigismondo revived the culture of Ancient Rome, creating one of the most sophisticated courts of the period, where he was surrounded by humanists and artists who celebrated Malatesta glory in prose, poetry and art. He was extolled as an avid student of classical literature, especially Homer’s epics, and among the several humanists in his court were Basinio of Parma (who exalted Sigismondo in an epic poem ‘Hesperis’ (early 1450s) inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid), Tobia del Borgo, Roberto Orsi, Pandone de’ Pandoni (Porcellio), Pietro Parleo, and Roberto Valturio. He hosted debates on learned subjects in his castle, which was praised as a “wonder of the age” for its innovative defensive design. 


Sigismondo commissioned a medal to commemorate the building of Castel Sigismondo , the first Renaissance medal to commemorate an edifice rather than a person. He was an avid patron of portrait medals, following the example set by Leonelle d’Este. His favourite artists were Pisanello and his pupil Matteo de’Pasti. Among the first medals struck was one of Isotta. Another commemorated Sigismondo’s appointment as Eugene IV’s captain-general in 1445.

Matteo de’Pasti ‘Portrait Medal of Isotta degli Atti (1446), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Matteo de’Pasti ‘Sigismondo Malatesta’ (1446), Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Tempio Malatestiano

We shall study this building in more detail in a separate section. 

Castel Sisimond

Sigismondo’s first building project was a military one, the remodelling of the old Malatesta family castle. Sigismondo built a notable series of fortifications in his Romagna possessions, including the Rocche (“Castles”) of Rimini and Fano.

Castel Sismondo, Rimini (1437-52)


Sigismondo can be seen as the victim of the intrigues of two unscrupulous rulers, Pius II and Federico da Montefeltro; however, he certainly did himself few  favours, lacking prudence, patience and tolerance, qualities which might have improved his lot. 

Malatesta’s reputation was largely based on Pius II’s perception of him as a violent character, ‘the bilge of every vice’, although in addition numerous contemporary chronicles described him as a tyrant and a womaniser, who delved in ‘rape, adultery, and incest’. Italian Renaissance historian Francesco Guicciardini defined him as ‘enemy of every peace and well-living’. His deeds and political manoeuvres were characterised by all the typical play of violence, intrigues and subtleties typical of Renaissance Italy; however, Sigismondo was well aware of his sins, and tried to justify them in a series of love sonnets dedicated to Isotta.

But other historians, driven by pity towards someone they view as an unfortunate prince, offer evidence from his cultural legacy of many signs of his intelligence. They have tried to reduce the amount of accusations turned on him, to look past the clichés, the exaggerations and instead reveal the entirety of the man of his time, with his passions, abilities, ingenuity, errors and loves. 

It is fascinating to consider that this is a reverse route to the one often afforded Federico da Montefeltro, who despite the murder of his brother, has always been portrayed as the essence of fidelity, temperance and other virtues. Perhaps Federico must be brought back to earth from the paradise of perfection in which he has been placed by his first biographers and in the same way Sigismondo must also be brought back to earth by lifting him from the hell into which the anathemas of an irascible pope threw him. 

Federico da Montefeltro  

Birth and early life

Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, is an archetypal Renaissance prince, demonstrating the dual nature evidenced by so many of his kind. Soldier of fortune and yet consummate aesthete, ruthless conspirator and yet educated intellectual, he is most celebrated in a double portrait by Piero della Francesca in which he is shown with his wife, Battista Sforza; we shall examine this work later. Federico’s patronage of the arts contributed enormously to Urbino’s status as the ideal Renaissance court. In 1510, the humanist Paolo Cortese described Federico and Cosimo de’Medici as the two greatest artistic patrons of the fifteenth century. Early in life, Federico achieved the wealth and stability that allowed him to devote the latter half of his reign to the pursuit of his princely ambitions; the civilising arts of peace made possible through the prudent conduct of war. 

From a young age he was seen as a wise and resolute condottiero; indeed, Federico was the most successful condottiero of his age. He gained experience under the famous Niccolò Piccinino, abilities which allowed him to amass a huge fortune which he would lavish on establishing and enriching his court; it is estimated that he spent more on the arts than any other Renaissance prince.

Peter Paul Rubens copy of ‘The Battle of Anghieri’ by Leonardo da Vinci; reportedly, Niccolò Piccinino is the second figure from the left

Federico’s crowning glory is his palace, built in the style of a ‘city in the form of a palace’, the merits of which, under the rule of Federico’s son Guidobaldo, Baldassare Castiglione extolled in the book Il Cortegiano, published in 1528. The Ducal Palace in Urbino is the first example in Italy of a complex closely tied to its natural surroundings and we shall, of course, closely examine this magnificent building.

The Montefeltro family were of Germanic origin and descendants of the Counts of Carpegna. After centuries of conflict with the papacy, the church entrusted custody of Urbino to the family in 1355. 

Oddantonio ascended to power age 16 on the death of his father, Guidantonio, in 1443. He was immediately unpopular as a result of his debauched lifestyle and the high taxes he imposed upon his subjects in order to fund them, and it was no surprise that he died at their hands in an uprising within a year of his ascension, leaving the way clear for Federico to come to power. 

Federico was born in Gubbio in 1422, said to be the son of Guidantonio and therefore half-brother of Oddantonio, through which he claimed succession. However, doubts about his parentage persisted and would cause considerable difficulties during the early phase of his reign. He was raised by the widow of Bartolommeo Brancaleoni, one Giovanni Alidosi, whose daughter Gentile became his first wife in 1437. 

At age 11, Federico became a hostage in the city state of Venice, when Venice intervened in a dispute between Pope Eugene IV and Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan, with whom Federico’s father was allied. Life, they say, is what you make it and from what for many might have been traumatic circumstances, Federico flourished: for fifteen months he frequented the highest ranks of Venetian society, no doubt learning much which he would use to his advantage in later life. From there he spent two years in Mantua, where he was schooled in a broad humanist curriculum – Latin, astronomy, music, mathematics, geometry – alongside young members of the Gonzaga family. Here he also learned the virtues of self-discipline and restraint which served him well throughout his life. 

Rise to power – 1440s

Oddantonio became papal vicar of Urbino on his father’s death on 21 February 1443. That April he was created Duke of Urbino at age sixteen. Within a year, through his debauched lifestyle and imposition of heavy taxes, he was universally hated and murdered by his own subjects, leaving Federico, his half-brother, to come to power on 23 July 1444 aged 22, although he was only allowed access to the city when he acquiesced to conditions imposed by the people. Rumours persisted that Federico had been responsible for the death and that he was not, in fact, the son of Count Guidantonio da Montefeltro but rather that of the commander of his army and, partly as a result of this, discontent was never far from the surface and the first years of Federico’s rule were met with opposition from family, neighbouring states and Rome. However, aided by policies such as low taxation (funded by his income as a mercenary), establishing ecclesiastical foundations and portraying his magnificence through the arts, Federico eventually secured his popularity. 

Federico had already, by this time in his life, proved himself formidable on the battlefield, having signed his first condotta with Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan when he was sixteen. As a shrewd politician he always had a talent for choosing the correct allegiances, such a vital part of succeeding in the always changing political world of the Italian city states. His overarching objective was to secure Urbino from the clutches of his ambitious rival, Sigismondo Malatesta, with whom, as we have seen, he had a long and bitter enmity. 

After several seasons fighting for Milan, Federico changed allegiance to Alfonso V of Aragon and Naples in October 1442. Already low in funds, he was penalised for the sale of the papal vicariate of Pesaro, being excommunicated by Pope Eugene IV in 1446. He was reinstated and made Count of Urbino by Nicholas V in 1447; however, Nicholas refused to grant Federico the dynastic right to pass the state to his legitimate sons. 

In 1446, Federico signed a condotta with Francesco Sforza. Together, they finally conquered Milan, which had been leaderless and riven by infighting after the death of Filippo Maria Visconti in 1450. Sforza established himself as Duke of Milan. From this time on Federico built a stable rule through a series of alliances with courts and republics throughout the peninsula. 

Feud with Sigismondo

The lifelong bitter feud between Federico da Montefeltro and Sigismondo Malatesta came into being immediately upon Federico’s claim upon the territory of Urbino and as a result of Sigismondo voicing loud and long the doubts about Federico’s parentage. In retaliation, Federico launched a lengthy and colourful invective accusing Sigismondo of a catalogue of heinous crimes.

Although initially Federico’s claims were dismissed for what the probably were – bitterness and revenge – subsequently with the intervention of Pius II, as we shall see, these accusations against Sigismondo would stick and indeed be amplified.

The two princes were very different in temperament. In distinction to Sigismondo’s hot-headed impetuosity, Federico was controlled and prudent in his manner. 

In 1446 a plot was uncovered to provide supporters of Sigismondo Malatesta access to Urbino and, predictably, Federico took swift and decisive action, executing those accused of treason.  

It was the favour of Pius II in the 1460s that transformed Federico’s fortunes. Now firmly in papal favour, Federico was urged to ‘conquer, destroy and consume this accursed Sigismondo and in him neutralise the poison of Italy’. He was more than willing and able to agree to the Holy Father’s behest. One by one, Malatesta fortresses were conquered – over fifty in all – generating a profit for Urbino of up to a million ducats between 1451 and 1482. 

Briefly, in mid conflict, Federico had actually sided with Sigismondo, who presented him with a deluxe copy of Valturio’s military treatise De Re Militari, which promoted Sigismondo as the exemplary modern prince and general! 

Setting up court – 1450s

It was during a joust in celebration of his victory over Milan in 1450 that Federico sustained the injury in which his right eye was forced out of his socket. This explains the remarkable profile that we shall see in his most renowned portraits. Some historians claim that he then had the upper part of his nose removed to improve his visual field from his left eye although the evidence for this is not universally accepted. Federico always saw his jousting accident as punishment from God for him placing an oak sprig in his open visor as a token of love for a young mistress whom he had seduced in the ruins of an oak tree. 

In 1451 he sided once more with Alfonso V; ever the shrewd negotiator, Federico had secured, in addition to financial gain, a promise of military aid in the event of any attack on Urbino. This contract expired with the Peace of Lodi in 1454 and he was rewarded with a pension from Alfonso of 6000 ducats a year. Federico remained a loyal ally of Naples for the rest of his life, as opposed to most condottiere who frequently switched sides. 

Utilising this period of political and military stability wisely, Federico set up a court at Urbino to display his rank and ambitions. He did not, unlike other princes, surround himself with humanists and apparently had plain tastes in food and did not drink wine. By comparison with others, the Urbino court was relatively modest, with four hundred courtiers and staff. By all accounts, Federico was a fastidious man, imposing strict rules on his household and detailing the structure and duties of his household in a written document (Ordini et offici). 

Undoubtedly the one blight on this otherwise happy and prosperous time in Federico’s life was when his first wife, Gentile Brancaleoni, died childless in 1457. 

Marriage and a family – 1460s

In 1460, Federico married Battista Sforza, the fourteen year old daughter of his neighbour Alessandro, lord of Pesaro and niece of the Duke of Milan. The couple are depicted in Piero della Francesca’s rightly celebrated magnificent double portrait, now on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. 

Their marriage was a happy one and they were described by a contemporary, Baldi, as “two souls in one body”. Federico called Battista “the delight of both my public and my private hours.” Moreover, he spoke with her about political issues and she accompanied him to almost all official events outside of Urbino. Perhaps the one frustration that Federico may have experienced was that each and every one of the first six pregnancies with which the couple were endowed ended with the birth of a daughter. In these times, the birth of a healthy male heir was the overriding aim of a union such as their’s. Carrying on the Sforza family’s tradition of humanist education for women, Battista educated her daughters in a similar manner to the education she had received from her aunt Bianca Maria.  

Shortly, after the wedding, in a move which clearly heightened Federico’s sense of joy, Pope Pius II granted him the right to pass his title to his legitimate sons. 

An heir, a Dukedom but tragedy too – 1470s

1472 was a triumphant year for Federico. In battle, in June, he conquered Volterra, regarded as one of his finest military triumphs. He was rewarded with a triumphal entry into Florence and a gilded silver helmet cast by Antonio Pollaiulo. On 17 January, his son and heir Guidobaldo was born but sadly Battista never recovered from the pregnancy and birth and died in July that year. Federico commissioned the double portrait by Piero della Francesca, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. We shall look at that work on the section about Piero in Urbino. 

Federico made an alliance with Pope Sixtus IV in 1473 when he was in Rome as a guest of Cardinal Giuliano delle Rovere. On 21 August he was installed as Duke of Urbino in Saint Peter’s basilica and his daughter was betrothed to the pope’s nephew (they married in 1478). In September 1473 he was installed as a Knight of the Ermine by Ferrante I in Naples and as a Knight of the Garter by Edward IV of England. Then in 1474 in Rome he was named Knight of Saint Peter and Gonfalonier of the Church. 

In response to finally being recognised by the pope, Federico ostentatiously emblazoned FE DUX (Federico, Duke) around the windows in the courtyard of his palace and on the mantelpieces of his fireplaces He also began to commission portraits, most notably one of him with his son, Guidobaldo, the authorship of which is disputed between Pedro Berruguete and Joos van Ghent.

Interior of Ducal Palace showing prominence of FE DUX
Pedro Berruguete or Joos van Gent (1475), Gallerie Nazionale delle Marche

Federico wears full armour, sword at his side, with a helmet laid on the ground beside him. Proudly displayed are the chain and ermine-lined scarlet robe of the Order of Ermine and the badge of the Order of Garter at his left knee. He reads from a leather-bound manuscript, emphasising his learned nature. The pearl-encrusted hat above the lectern may have been a gift from the ambassador of the Shah of Persia. His son holds the ducal sceptre given to Federico by Sixtus IV, inscribed ‘Pontifex’, lest we forget the longevity of his power. 

Closer to home, in 1474 Italy’s political situation was destabilising, largely in response to a feud between Pope Sixtus IV and Lorenzo de’Medici. Sixtus allied with Naples, under Ferrante I, and with Federico, whilst Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza sided with Lorenzo and with Venice. Federico became captain-general of the papal army. One consequence of this divide was the murder of Giuliano de’Medici in the Pazzi conspiracy of 26 April 1478 (in which Sixtus was almost certainly a knowing participant), retaliatory killings of churchmen in Florence by Lorenzo and armies led by Federico and Alfonso of Calabria marching on Florence.  

Federico saw this conflict as his chance to achieve the fame, wealth, social status and political power which Renaissance princes craved. The feud became drawn out, lingering until 1478. In the interim, Lorenzo de’Medici had been excommunicated for the execution of the clergy for their role in the Pazzi conspiracy. The aim had become that of forcing a regime change on Florence but, before this could be achieved, Lorenzo subsequently negotiated a peace treaty with Naples and Ludovico Sforza, the Triple Alliance, to the fury of Sixtus IV. Once again we see the immensely complex and ever changing world of political allegiances in the Italian peninsula at this time.

Death – 1480s

To further demonstrate the fluidity of allegiances, the Triple Alliance appointed Federico as captain-general in 1482 and marched on the Papal States, whose forces Federico had previously commanded. Alliance troops were routed at the Battle of Campo by Venetian allies of the pope led by Roberto Malatesta, but at this point Federico was absent, ill with malaria in Ferrara. On hearing of the defeat, he started for home but his condition deteriorated and Federico died, having returned to Ferrara on 10 September. 

Guidobaldo’s succession was peaceful and his descendants ruled into the seventeenth century. In tribute, Guidobaldo built the church of San Bernardino as his father’s burial place. 

Artistic legacy

Like other rulers , Federico’s lavish spending on the arts had several aims: 

  • Asserting the legitimacy of his succession  
  • Promoting himself as a prince of incorruptible Christian virtue 
  • Advertising his military prowess and securing further employment  
  • Propagating his image as a just and benevolent ruler 
  • Celebration of the Montefeltro dynasty 
  • Winning esteem amongst kings and princes at home and abroad 

The art he commissioned is characterised by clarity, order and dignity. Artists he employed include:

  • Piero della Francesca (c. 1410/20-1492) 
  • Luciano Laurana (1420/25-1479) 
  • Melozza da Forli (1438-1494) 

Federico also employed a northern artist, Joos van Ghent, active in Urbino from 1460 to 1475, who also worked in oil, and was the only Italian leader to do so. In 1472, van Ghent painted ‘The Communion of the Apostles’ for the Corpus Domini Confraternity. A strange mixture of Italian and Flemish styles, techniques and imagery, it depicts the Last Supper as an enactment of the sacrament of the Eucharist . It includes portraits of Federico, the late Battista and baby Guidobaldo.

Joos van Gent ‘Communion of the Apostles’, Gallerie Nazionale delle Marche, Ducal Palace, Urbino

Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini

Sigismondo Malatesta was not a religious man, and his Tempio Malatestiano, also known as San Francesco, built in Rimini by Leon Battista Alberti and decorated by artists including Piero della Francesca, the medal-caster Matteo de’ Pasti and Agostino di Duccio, was essentially a lay monument to Isotta degli Atti, his lover and third wife. It was a landmark Renaissance building, being the first church to use the Roman triumphal arch based on the Arch of Augustus (27 BCE) in Rimini, as part of its structure. Three arches are flanked by fluted Composite columns supporting a classical entablature; Sigismondo’s role as patron is written in the frieze. The planned dome, based on that of the Parthenon, was never completed.

In 1447, plans were drawn to remodel two of the chapels, one dedicated to Saint Sigismund for his own tomb and one dedicated to Saint Michael for that of Isotta. The chapels were lavishly decorated. The entrance arch to Sigismondo’s chapel rests on elegant Composite piers set on on pairs of elephants carved in black marble. Inside, Piero della Francesca’s votive fresco (1451) shows Sigismondo kneeling before St Sigismund with a roundel depicting Castel Sismondo and a pair of greyhounds.

In 1454, Sigismondo rebuilt the interior, cladding the walls with marble – red from Verona and white from Carrara. Several new chapels were built, including ones for his wives Ginevra and Polissena and the Chapel of the Planets, dedicated to Saint Jerome, ornamented with reliefs of the planets and signs of the zodiac. Along the sides was a series of niches holding the tombs of humanists and courtiers.

Agostino di Duccio ‘Aquarius’, Chapel of the Planets, Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini

The classical detail of the building infuriated Pope Pius II who described it as a ‘temple of heathen devil worshippers’.

The Ducal palace in Urbino

In keeping with his status as a Renaissance prince, Federico built palaces and upgraded fortresses and castles in his subject towns. In Urbino he built a cathedral, churches and convents, but undoubtedly most ambitious project was the Ducal Palace, begun in 1468, which cost 200,000 ducats. The Duke also spent lavishly on furnishing his Palace; a set of tapestries depicting the Trojan War, woven by Jean Grenier of Tournai, cost 2557 ducats.

The Ducal Palace of Urbino is one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in Italy, a Unesco World Heritage site since 1998. As expected for a project of this magnitude, the building has several different periods of construction, resulting in a lack of stylistic continuity. The palace is built on steeply sloping ground, necessitating several changes in height but simultaneously allowing integration of the building between the city and the natural environment. It is a synthesis of fortress and palace, with two contrasting facades.

From the country to the south, best seen from the road approaching from the Bocca Trabaria mountains, the walls, ramparts and turrets suggest a fortified citadel, while the city façade, opening onto the piazza opposite the cathedral, is elegant and open. I liked this description of the aspects of his rule which the Duke expressed through his palace, which I found in a travel blog. ‘The first facade, looming over the hills of the Marche and the lands of the Montefeltro from this heftily fortified, but elegant, acropolis, is that of homo ferox; Federico presents himself to potential invaders as a man of war. Looking towards the city this facade is altogether less forbidding; here Federico shows himself as homo emptor, a ruler attuned to the needs of his subjects and the importance of commerce’.

City facade

The first architect of the palace was a Florentine, Maso di Bartolommeo, a pupil of Michelozzo. In 1465, Federico brought the Dalmatian architect Luciano Laurana from the court of Alessandro Sforza in Pesaro. Laurana was given complete charge and, between 1466 and 1472, developed the areas around the courtyard and then the wing stretching out towards the façade of the twin turrets.

Federico possessed a fascination with architectural space and was actively involved in the design of his buildings. The palace’s interior is unusual in its use of natural light, admitted through a series of wide windows. Laurana brought together the pre-existing medieval buildings on the East side around an elegant arcaded courtyard, fortified the exterior of the palace and created some exquisite interiors: the Scalone d’Onore (monumental staircase), the Library, which is one the largest and most sumptuous in Italy, second only to the Vatican’s, the Salone del Trono (Hall of the Throne), the Sala degli Angeli (Angels’ Hall), and Sala delle Udienze (Hall of the Hearings). 

In 1472, Laurana departed for Naples and was replaced by Francesco di Giorgio from Siena who completed the structure and undertook both external and internal decoration. In addition to his work on the Palace, due to his skills as an engineer, Francesco made Urbino into the leading centre for the architecture of defence. Federico spent 600,000 ducats on a series of forts throughout his territory (eg. Rocca San Leo) under the leadership of di Giorgio. 

The entrance to the Ducal Palace is from a small piazza facing the cathedral and consists of a wide portal of travertine stone. The building is mainly constructed of brick with additional use of this white travertine stone whose brilliance renders it akin to marble. One immediately enters a central courtyard, surrounded by arcades of round arches supported on Composite columns with Corinthian pilasters flanking the windows on the first floor, the two levels separated by a trabeation bearing an inscribed frieze which extols the virtues of Federico. The alternation between red brick and white stone along with the exact ratio of its proportions gives the space lightness and elegance. (The two upper portions, which to an extent remove some of the airiness, are 16th century additions).

The wide staircase, which is the first monumental staircase of Italian civic architecture, ascends from the courtyard. On the piano nobile were all the audience rooms and Federico’s suite of private rooms, connected to the studiolo, the chapel, a garden and an airy loggia with views over the countryside.

The interior was, and indeed remains, magnificent with grand reception halls and audience chambers, private apartments for family and guests, a chapel, gardens, loggias, stables, kitchens, storerooms and cellars. The interior decoration and marquetry furnishings have been attributed to Lombard, Venetian and Florentine masters, including the Tuscan Domenico Rosselli and the Venetian sculptor Ambrogio Barocci. A sense of balance is achieved through gently alternating chromatic chords and pure geometric relationships. Much of the internal space is now taken over by the Gallerie Nazionale delle Marche. 

The studiolo was begun around 1475 and at 11.5 feet square is one of the jewels of the Renaissance.

Its gilded coffered ceiling is studded with Federico’s devices.

The walls are covered in intarsia panels by the bottega of the Florentine Baccio Pontelli, employing over forty different types of wood, creating a fictive study with latticed cupboards, piles of books, musical instruments, an astrolabe, a basket of fruits, a parrot, a chessboard and a squirrel with a nut.

In one panel, Federico is portrayed as a humanist and harbinger of peace, with down-pointing spear, his armour laid aside.

Also represented are the Theological Virtues, drawn by Botticelli.

Above is a series of twenty-eight portraits of famous men, including Moses, Solomon, Plato, Aristotle, Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine, Dante, Federico’s tutor in Mantua, Vittorino da Feltre, and the popes Pius II and Sixtus IV. The portraits are the work of both Pedro Berruguete and Joos van Ghent; many of these are now reproductions with the originals in a variety of galleries.

This space served a dual purpose, as a place for Federico to relax and enjoy his scholarly pursuits and as a place to exhibit his ‘magnificence’ and moral authority to friends and rivals alike. He could similarly utilise his library, which contained eleven hundred volumes, from rare works on agriculture and mathematics to more conventional texts on history and poetry. These were all manuscripts, beautifully illustrated, some in Latin, some in Greek, a few in Arabic and Hebrew, many of which were supplied by the Florentine Vespasiano da Bisticci, for whom Federico represented the Christian ideal of the active and contemplative life. Teams of scribes and illuminators were housed in court. Specific texts included in the library were a lavishly illustrated bible bound in gold brocade, a deluxe Dante’s Divine Comedy, a treatise by Francesco di Giorgio and Piero della Francesca’s ‘On The Perspective of Painting’, although Federico’s personal preference was for military treatises and ancient military history, as well as scientific and philosophical studies. 

The collection has been retained intact in the Vatican museums and the main feature of the library now is its ceiling which is decorated with a medallion containing at its centre a black stone eagle, emblem of the Montefeltros, surrounded by a ring of cherubs and a halo.

The Salone d’Onore is the most imposing and beautiful room in the palace, traditionally referred to as the throne room. In the Sala degli Angeli there is a splendid fireplace with an architrave showing a frieze of angles dancing and playing instruments . It is the finest work of the sculptor Domenico Rosselli, as are the lunettes above the doors; the use of gold on an azure background is exceptional.

The Salle delle Udienze, with its large fireplace, crowned with a carved chimneypiece, contains two paintings by Piero della Francesca, the ‘Flagellation’ and the ‘Madonna di Senigallia’. These works are studied in the section on Piero’s life in this article. The Porta della Guerra was the work of Ambrogio Barocci and contains the symbol of the Order of the Garter, dating it to after 1474.

There are two small adjoining chapels – the Chapel of Forgiveness (Capella del Perdono) and the Temple of the Muses – similar in decoration, one dedicated to the Holy Ghost, the other to Apollo, Pallas and the Muses. Each has a classical order of columns framing an altar niche.

Brief biography of Piero della Francesca

Piero was born Piero di Benedetto in the town of Borgo San Sepolcro, modern-day Tuscany to Benedetto de’ Franceschi, a tradesman, and Romana di Perino da Monterchi, members of the Florentine and Tuscan Franceschi noble family. His father died before his birth, and he was called Piero della Francesca after his mother, who was referred to as “la Francesca” due to her marriage into the Franceschi family. Romana supported his education in mathematics and art. He was apprenticed to the local painter Antonio di Giovanni d’Anghiari and took notice of the work of some of the Sienese artists active in San Sepolcro during his youth, such as Sassetti.

When one views any of Piero’s works, his style is instantly recognised. Indeed, his style did not significantly develop over the years, making dating of Piero’s undocumented work difficult. It was not because of lack of exposure to different artistic approaches, however. He spent years in the most influential centre of the Renaissance, Florence, where, in 1439 he received, together with Domenico Veneziano, payments for work on frescoes for the church of Sant’Egidio in Florence, now lost. He must also have met leading masters like Fra Angelico, Luca della Robbia, Donatello, and Brunelleschi. As with many of his contemporaries , the classicism of Masaccio’s frescoes and his majestic figures in Santa Maria del Carmine were for him an important source of inspiration.

Piero returned to his hometown in 1442 and was elected to the City Council of Sansepolcro. Three years later, he received his first commission there, to paint the ‘Madonna della Misericordia’ for the church of the same name, which was completed in the early 1460s. In 1449 he executed several frescoes in the Castello Estense and the church of Sant’Andrea of Ferrara, now also lost.

The Baptism of Christ, now in the National Gallery in London, was completed in about 1450 for the high altar of the church of the Priory of S. Giovanni Battista at Sansepolcro. Other notable works are the frescoes of ‘The Resurrection’ in Sansepolcro, and the ‘Madonna del Parto’ in Monterchi, near Sansepolcro.

In 1457, summoned by Pope Nicholas V, he moved to Rome, where he executed frescoes in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, of which only fragments remain. Two years later he was again in the Papal capital, painting frescoes in the Vatican palace, which have since been destroyed

In 1452, Piero was called to Arezzo to replace Bicci di Lorenzo in painting the frescoes of the basilica of San Francesco. The work was finished in 1464. The ‘History of the True Cross’ cycle of frescoes is generally considered among his masterworks and those of Renaissance painting in general.

In his later years, painters such as Perugino and Luca Signorelli frequently visited his workshop. He completed the treatise ‘On Perspective in Painting’ in the mid-1470s to 1480s. By 1480, his vision began to deteriorate, but he continued writing treatises such as ‘Short Book on the Five Regular Solids’ in 1485. Piero made his will in 1487 and he died five years later, on 12 October 1492, in his own house in San Sepolcro.

Piero in Rimini 

The artistic life of Piero della Francesca was deeply influenced by the attendance of the humanistic courts of Urbino, Ferrara and Rimini. After his work in Ferrara, Sigismondo Malatesta in Rimini entrusted Piero with the production of his portraits and this can be seen in his fresco of ‘Sigismondo Malatesta before Saint Sigismund’ of 1451. The pilasters in the background are fluted with five grooves rather than the six we are familiar with in works such as Masaccio’s ‘Holy Trinity’ and the buildings of Brunelleschi. The space is framed by architectural elements adorned with flowers, the upper edge of which is carried by the pilasters. In this way, the composition places Malatesta at the centre of what is otherwise an asymmetrical composition.  

Along with the portrait of Sigismondo now in the Louvre (1451-60) the profile is based on a medal created by Matteo de’Pasti.

Piero in Urbino


Piero worked for Federico da Montefeltro at various points during his career. The exact times during which he was employed there remain uncertain but the works which remain date from later in his tenure, as we shall see when we examine the individual works. Piero’s learned application of the new perspective technique and his ability in creating architectural settings were encouraged at court in Urbino. By this point in his career, had also mastered Piero mastered the newly defined oil techniques of the 1460s. 

The works we shall consider are: 

  • The ‘Diptych Portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and of his Wife, Battitista Sforza’ 
  • ‘The Madonna and Child, Angels, Saints and Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino’ (also known as the ‘Pala Montefeltro’ and the ‘Brera altarpiece’ 
  • The ‘Madonna di Senigallia’ 
  • The ‘Flagellation’ 

Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza

General introduction

The ‘Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza’ is two separate panels now on display in the Uffizi gallery in Florence. In perfect tune with the fifteenth-century tradition, the Diptych depicts the eventual Duke of Urbino: Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482) and his wife Battista Sforza (1446-1472). The artwork dates from the time when Piero della Francesca was serving in the court of Urbino. The diptych came to Florence in 1637 through the marriage of Ferdinando II de’ Medici and Vittoria della Rovere, who was the inheritor of the Duke of Urbino’s estate since 1631. No longer a diptych, the work is instead displayed in a rigid modern frame, allowing visitors to view both sides of the work.

One of the most famous works by Piero della Francesca, the double portrait is representative of the relationship between the painter and the Count and Countess of Montefeltro. (It is important to point out that the couple were Count and Countess when this work was commissioned ; the Uffizi Gallery website erroneously refers to them as the “duke and duchess of Urbino.” Since Battista died two years before Federico was elevated to the dukedom, she never became duchess of Urbino.) Federico made possible the rise of Urbino, from an economically depressed territory to one of the most celebrated courts in existence and Piero was a frequent guest at their court, finding himself in a cultured and refined atmosphere which would soon become one of the most important cultural and artistic hearts of Italy.

Accord and harmony, deemed as essential for the validation of the prestige of a fifteenth-century Italian court such as Urbino, are clearly the central themes of Piero’s Diptych executed c.1472-1474. These concepts were only attainable through the presence of a proficient consort in a court ruled by a condottiere(mercenary soldier). This acceptance is perfectly captured in Piero’s Diptych. Each element of the work was carefully chosen to promote and propagate the image of the ideal court and the magnificence of those who ruled it.  

Creation – when and why

Painted between 1465 and 1472, the portraits of Federico and Battista represent  one of Piero della Francesca’s greatest works and one of the most famous portraits from the Italian Renaissance. 

Art historians in general believe that Piero began the Duke’s commissioned portrait as early as 1465. The 26-year-old Battista Sforza died of acute pneumonia brought on by childbirth on July 7, 1472. The common agreement is that her pale skin is not, therefore, a sign of her status, but more the pallor of death; that is, Battista was painted posthumously. The artist may have used Sforza’s death mask for reference.

Commissions bearing the iconographic typology seen on the reverse of the portraits were very common around the middle of the 15th century and were promoted on the occasion of marriages of high social standing. The marriage of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza was celebrated in January 1460, leading some to suggest a date as early as this for the work’s production. 

Other’s suggest that the commission was made some years later – between 1462 and 1463 – following a period of particularly intense military activity for the count. This iconographical reading is borne out by a series of stylistic considerations mainly concerning Piero’s relationship with the Flemish painting then known about in Italy. 

Federico was on many occasions a victorious commander famed for his excellence, and was honoured with a live triumph by the city of Florence in the summer of 1472 to celebrate his defeat of Volterra on behalf of the Medici rulers of Florence. Piero’s painting may well allude to that event.

In more recent studies, critics have dated Piero’s entire work to after the year 1472. These historians claim that the ‘diptych’ is considered to be contemporary with the great San Bernardino votive altarpiece at Urbino, today at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan (1472-74).  

Creation – who commissioned the painting?

Despite the diptych’s artistic quality and distinctive content, no documents have as yet shed light on its genesis. Since Federico was a highly erudite patron of the arts, and Piero is known to have spent time in Urbino during the period leading up to the likely date of the diptych, it has generally been assumed that Federico commissioned the work himself, soon after Battista’s death, to have a sweet memory for himself, wishing to be forever tied to his young wife, who died aged just twenty-six. To compound the tragedy, it was reported that Battista had prayed for a son and heir worthy of her noble husband, offering her own life in return—a pledge she had now fulfilled. The assumption that Federico commissioned the work in memoria has been questioned on the basis that the inscriptions’ emphasis on Federico’s deeds and virtues would have been inconsistent with his profound grief at the loss of his wife. 

The alternative scenario is that the diptych was commissioned by someone else (perhaps Lorenzo de’Mdici) as a gift both to honour Federico for his triumphant military campaign at Volterra and to console him for the loss of his beloved young wife, who had become ill in his absence and died so soon after his return.

About Battista Sforza

Battista – Federico’s second wife – was a scion of the powerful Sforza dynasty centred in Milan. Classically educated and schooled in the formal duties of court life from an early age, she was a remarkably fit consort for Federico, though twenty-four years his junior. Not yet fourteen when they married, she bore him no fewer than seven children and capably managed their domain during his frequent absences in the pursuit of military campaigns.

As in the case of Eleanora de Toledo, whose life I explored in a previous article in this series, Battista possessed a double persona; she had to fulfil her biological function as a woman as well as her domestic obligations while simultaneously performing her civic duties as a consort. Although Battista had successfully given birth to numerous daughters, her son’s birth was essential to secure her familial and political position, confirming her acceptance by the citizens of Urbino as a suitable and capable ruler in Federico’s frequent absences. 

What is a diptych?

Diptych literally means ‘two fold’. The term comes from the ancient Greek and was traditionally used to indicate a pair of wooden panels (sometimes ivory) joined by a hinge, or two separate paintings enclosed in double frames. The purpose was commemorative and the subjects most represented were high officials, saints or the list of high ecclesiastical dignitaries. 

Describing the painting


Overall appearance

In the tradition of the fourteenth century, inspired by the design of ancient coins, the two figures are shown in profile, an angle that ensured a good likeness and a faithful representation of facial details without allowing their sentiments to show through: indeed, the Duke and Duchess of Urbino appear unaffected by turmoil and emotions. Both Federico and Battista were widely praised in their day for their virtuous qualities and their benevolence as rulers and Piero’s depiction of them amply reflects such nobility of character. The couple are facing each other, etched against the rolling landscape in the background, which represents the area of the Marches over which they ruled. On the back of the panels, the couple are featured being carried triumphantly on ancient wagons, accompanied by the Christian virtues; the Latin inscriptions pay tribute to the couple’s moral values. The presence of the images on the reverse side suggests that the two paintings, now set in a modern frame, would once have been part of a diptych.

Significantly, the pairing of such profile portraits with allegorical scenes on their reverse is unique among extant paintings. It was characteristic of commemorative medals dating back to antiquity, however, and thus endows the work with a decidedly monumental quality.

The portraits

In keeping with the Roman numismatic tradition, the woman is depicted on the left and the man on the right. The Duke of Urbino was actually always represented on his right side for reasons of decorum, since he had lost his right eye in 1450; it was essential for a Renaissance ruler to hide any flaw from the painting’s audience. The couple are poised high above the landscape in the background, as if they are atop a tower. Thus, they have a bird’s eye view over their sprawling domain, speaking not only to Urbino’s hilltop position, but also to the pair’s high status. 

The chromatic contrast between the Federico’s bronze skin tones and the fine blond hair and porcelain complexion of Battista is striking. The pallor of the Duchess not merely respects the aesthetic conventions which were fashionable during the Renaissance, but could also allude to her early death. Her finery, in both costume and coiffure, contrasts with his sober red attire. 

Battista’s inclusion in the more honourable position to the left would also have been deemed appropriate and acceptable due to her death. Her privileged placement can be read as an attempt to promote her virtuous nature, emphasised further by the presence of the symbolically-charged pearl on her body. The allusion to her chastity and its significance to the Montefeltro and the future of the court permitted her to be placed in this most distinguished site as the person who preserved the balanced nature of rule. 

The Allegories

The back of the portraits are painted with scenes of allegories of triumphs. Latin inscriptions – painted as if they had been carved on marble barriers – celebrate both Federico, who is equated to the great military leader of ancient times, and Battista, who was always accompanied by modesty.  

The allegorical scenes on the back of the portraits are especially rich, both stylistically and iconographically, iconography which draws on a long and complex tradition harking back to Roman triumphs in celebration of major military victories. The symbolism was also directly inspired by Petrarch’s ‘Trionfi’. The celebration of the two lords of Montefeltro on horse-drawn carts can easily be interpreted as the Triumph of Fame and the Triumph of Chastity, upon which Petrarch’s poems dwell. 

The scene depicts the Count and Countess approaching each other, each riding an antique wagon. Gleaming in glorious armour, he is pulled by a team of white horses. Dressed in finery, she is pulled by unicorns. Joining the couple on their carts are characters meant as the physical embodiments of Virtues. Justice, Wisdom, Valour and Moderation flank Federico, while Faith, Hope and Charity ride with Battista. 


The couple’s positioning before the expansive and continuous landscape underlines their joint control as their large scale portraits dominate their surroundings just as the power of these rulers presided over their territories. The inclusion of such a vista demonstrates the importance of territory to the quattrocento prince as, without land, he had no legitimacy or authority. The countryside in the diptych appears to be far more placid and earthly than the reality of the Urbino landscape. The modification of the landscape can be interpreted as visual evidence of how it was tamed and maintained by its benevolent rulers and the effects of harmonious administration. 

The figures are boldly placed against this detailed background landscape; if the landscapes on the front and rear of the diptych are joined together the result is a broad landscape panorama corresponding to that which can be seen today from the west tower of the Ducal Palace. 

Portrait of Federico

Federico is depicted wearing a simple red giubbone (jacket) and the cylindrical red berretta often worn by condottiere princes. The austere appearance of the prince is furthered by the omission of any ostentatious display of jewellery or ornament on his person. Traditionally the subjects of profile portraits face the right. But we know that because of Federico’s deformities, this wasn’t an option. One effect of him facing left is that it locks his eyes with his lady, suggesting they share a bond that transcends death.

The painter seems to say, in his simplicity of depiction, that the value of the person does not lie in the appearance, but lies in his own essence. And yet, this is a regal portrait of a silent, proud, dignified idol standing on the view of his lands. This portrait of Federico would become a model for medalists and illuminators throughout Federico’s reign. Humanist courts of the quattrocento were very fond of collecting coins of ancient Rome. On these, great men were rendered in stark profile, a tradition that has carried through to currency all over the world. 

Portrait of Battista

The countess is represented as the ideal court lady magnificently dressed (magnifica pompa) in contemporary costume, adorned with her most precious jewels, her hair in an elaborate coiffure with the small facial features and a high forehead considered fashionable at this time; ladies would dedicatedly pluck away at their hairlines to achieve this coveted look. The intricate hairstyle was used not only to express the sitter’s rank, it also gave weight and majesty to her head. The gold chain around her neck of the Duchess is hung a large pendant with a ruby in the centre. The abundance of pearls – her favoured gemstone – other precious stones and the costly brocade dress in her portrait signified the wealth of her husband and of their court (pearls were also seen as symbols of chastity and virtue – important traits for a Renaissance woman to possess).

Allegory of Federico

Federico’s triumphal car is drawn by a team of white horses, as was traditional for victorious commanders in antiquity. In the scene of the Triumph of Fame, Federico, dressed in his suit of armour and reminiscent of a Roman general seated upon the field stool used on the battlefield, is crowned with laurel by a winged personification of Victory and accompanied by allegorical figures of the four cardinal virtues – Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance – the attributes of a good leader.  

His inscription can be translated as follows: 

‘The famous one is drawn in glorious triumph Whom, equal to the supreme age-old captains, The fame of his excellence fitly celebrates, As he holds his sceptre’. 

Allegory of Battista

Battista’s triumphal car is drawn by unicorns, symbolic of chastity, and carries the three theological virtues – Faith, Hope, and Charity (love) – and a mysterious fourth figure clad in grey. Battista, mirroring the pose of her husband, is seated upon a chair holding a small book. The chariot is driven by Cupid.

A translation of her inscription reads: 

‘She who retained modesty in good fortune 
Now flies through all the mouths of men 
Adorned with the praise of her great husband’s deeds’. 

The fact that this celebration of her praises has the verb in the past, is likely to mean that, at the time of the painting, the Duchess had already died. 

Meaning of allegorical scenes

The decision to represent these specific Triumphs reflects the overall image Federico carefully constructed of his court and of his family.  The ruling couple are represented as conforming to societal ideals regarding their prescribed positions, leading to the success of the court under their rule. The balance and symmetry created by these two scenes replicates the central theme of unity and harmony on the front panels of the diptych, in this case a product of their respective achievements in their socially defined roles. 

Clearly the scene of the Triumph of Fame is intended to exhibit Federico’s prowess as a condottiero, attested to by his recent victory at the Battle of Volterra on the behalf of Florence, presumably the premise for the commissioning of the scene on the reverse of his portrait. Federico’s inscription clearly alludes, in the present tense, to his greatness as a commander.

The representation of Battista in the scene depicting the Triumph of Modesty (Pudicità) opposite that of her husband portrays a complementary image of a loyal and capable consort, accompanied by four female figures, including the three Theological Virtues of Faith, Charity and Hope., mythical creatures renowned for permitting themselves only to be caught by a chaste woman. Their presence emphasises the purity of the deceased, vital for the preservation of the Montefeltro lineage. The virtues associated with the countess within this work were seen as the indispensable requirements for the model Renaissance woman and consort. These were also mentioned in all of the panegyrics and orations written in her honour both before and after her death. 

Most important is the figure of Charity, who sits at the forefront of the car holding a pelican. That attribute has particular significance, as it was not generally employed in secular contexts. Because the pelican was believed to pierce its breast to feed its young with its own blood, it had come to symbolise Christ’s sacrifice for mankind. Only a few months prior to her death, Battista had finally borne Federico a son and heir; the allusion here is other ultimate sacrifice in so doing.

Next to Charity is the personification of Faith, holding a chalice and a cross. Standing behind Battista and facing toward the viewer is the figure of Hope. The other standing figure, garbed in gray with her back turned to us, may represent a nun of the Clarissan order, with which Battista had close personal ties; she is buried in the nuns’ common tomb in Santa Chiara.

Dressed in a grey costume and headdress, the traditional colour of Time, the figure may also be interpreted as the symbol of Eternity. When the two Triumphs of Fame and Modesty are read together, they can be interpreted as a Triumph over Death, signifying the eternal fame the couple have successfully achieved. Influenced by Petrarch’s Trionfi, Piero’s images follow the sequence of Triumphs which Petrarch established in his poem in an symbolic manner. In the work of Piero as well as that of Petrarch: ‘Chastity triumphs over Love, Death over Chastity, Fame over Death, Time over Fame, to be conquered only by Eternity.’ 

How and where would the painting have been used?

The two portraits, oil painted on two small wooden panels (47 x 33 cm each panel), are now separated from each other, but the fact that they were originally joined by hinges that allowed the panels to open and close like a book, suggests an intimate and private function, rather than public display, although it was common practice to display important artistic pieces to visiting dignitaries.

Given the duality of its design, the work is capable of fulfilling more than one function. When closed, the allegorical representations of the couple’s virtues depicted on the reverse acted as a ‘shield’, protecting the ruler portraits within. The diptych was therefore designed so that the visualisation of the sitters’ values was visible when portable, promoting the ideal behaviour expected of the ruler and his consort. The front panels represented a more authentic view of the couple as co-rulers of their domain. In this capacity, the diptych was a highly valued object to Federico and would have been in the count’s personal possession along with his other treasured items such as his medals and gems.  

A precise location within the Palace for the work has not been established, although a number of hypotheses have been made. It is likely a key role for the painting would have been as a keepsake for private reflection. Some argue that it was likely to have occupied a prominent position within the palace such as the Throne Room so that it could be put on display not only for the immediate family’s viewing but also so that it could be seen by esteemed visitors. It has also been suggested that the work was either placed upon a table in order for both sides to be visible or put on permanent exhibition in a space in the wall between the audience room and another space made into a chapel. The work may have been stored within the private space of Federico’s studiolo.

What does this work tell us about Piero?

One of Piero della Francesca’s most famous works, the double portrait is representative of the relationship between the painter and the rulers of Montefeltro; Piero was a frequent guest at their court, which would soon become one of the most important cultural and artistic hearts of Italy. The master painter marries the strict approach to perspective learned during his Florentine education with the lenticular representation more characteristic of Flemish painting, achieving extraordinary results and unmatched originality. The perspective view is perceived thanks to the progressive loss of details and obtaining the sfumato just with colour.

Federico – a noble warrior who combined military ability with a high consideration of culture – is painted by Piero with a raw sense of reality, which could almost appear irreverent. The olive complexion of his face, the growths of the skin, the wrinkles, the damaged nose due to an accident during a tournament, the raised eyebrow as a sign of disbelief; nothing is spared the Duke. Battista wears a precious dress and jewels, depicted with meticulous attention to detail – unequivocal proof of the painter’s proximity to Flemish art. The alignment of the sitters’ facial features and their positioning to face one another allowed the artist to depict their fixed gaze upon each other, reinforcing the promotion of their unified rule to the viewer. Piero’s use of complimentary colours in the couple’s portraits enhances this display of symmetry with an identical shade of red employed for the costume of Federico, his berretta, the touch of colour on Battista’s lips and the red brooch she wears. The red brooch depicted against Battista’s dress appears to reach towards the redness of Federico’s coat.

The landscape behind Battista is in shadow, that behind Federico bathed in early morning light. It is painted by Piero with Flemish precision, in the manner of Van Eyck. Piero did not include a balustrade or any other form of device to separate the sitters from the scene behind them, signifying that the landscape and those who ruled over it were unified; the couple integral to the preservation of the landscape and vice versa. His painterly technique masterfully reminds us of this. Formal parallels can be drawn between the patterns found on Battista’s brocaded sleeve and the diamond-shaped necklace she wears and those repeated in the ploughed field, while the single strand of pearls replicates the diagonal and whiteness of the distant city walls. Federico’s facial moles and their light-dark pattern is replicated by the design of the distant fields, the shaded area under his chin is repeated in the triangular hills while the white of his collar is echoed by the sails of the boats on the river.  

The reverse of the diptych celebrates the personal achievements of Battista and her husband and it is within these panels that the prescribed roles of the ruler and his consort are most clearly adhered to. Piero’s work is the earliest example of a diptych with scenes on the reverse. Image and text work together here to provide the viewer with an insight into the accomplishments of the sitters. The theme of unity is underlined in a similar manner to the front panels by the placement of the figures facing one another before a continuous landscape and the presence of the parapet underneath carrying Latin inscriptions proclaiming the virtues of the sitters. In these scenes, Federico regains the position of honour with Battista assuming the place traditionally assigned to women. 

Influence on Seurat

George’s Seurat ‘Bathers at Asnières’ (1884) National Gallery, London and ‘A Sunday on the Isle of La Grande Jatte’ (1884-6) Art Institute, Chicago

Art historians who’ve studied the work of the French post-Impressionist artist George Seurat, in particular his paintings ‘Bathers at Asnières’ and ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’ and argue that there is a connection between the painter and Piero. They believe the nineteenth century French painter’s predilection for profile subjects and simple forms shaped by use of light was inspired by Piero’s signature style.

Pala Montefeltro

The ‘Madonna and Child, Angels, Saints and Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino’ (also known as the Brera Madonna, the Pala di Brera, the Montefeltro Altarpiece and the Brera Altarpiece) is a painting by Piero della Francesca, executed in 1472–1474. It is housed in the Pinacoteca di Brera of Milan, where it was deposited by Napoleon in 1811 having previously been in the church of San Bernardino In Urbino. It is in the style of a Sacra Conversazione (Mary surrounded by saints). Its subject matter combines the private history of Federico with religious devotion and the public – and therefore political – purpose for which it was conceived, resulting in a complex set of connotations.

The work was probably commissioned by Federico to celebrate the birth of Federico’s son,Guidobaldo, in 1472. According to this hypothesis, the Child could represent Guidobaldo, while the Virgin may have the appearance of Battista Sforza, Federico’s wife, who died in the same year and was buried at San Bernardino. Other suggested origins are that is was painted for the Duke’s tomb in San Bernardino, after a commission by Guidobaldo, or to celebrate military victory for the Duke either in the Maremma or Volterra.

Work certainly started before 1474, as Federico lacks the Order of the Garter which was bestowed upon him then. Piero worked on the painting for a number of years as was often his wont, before it was completed around 1484 by Pedro Berruguete. 

Federico is depicted in the traditional manner as a donor, with all his insignias of power. He kneels, before his patron Saint, John the Evangelist, in shining armour, his sword at his side, his helmet, gauntlets and baton of command on the floor beside him, leaving his hands free to pray. Opposite stands Battista’s patron Saint, John the Baptist, Saint Jerome, Saint Francis, Saint Peter Martyr and Saint Bernardino. The saints all bear the wounds of their martyrdom. Jerome was the protector of Humanists. Francis would be present as the painting was intended for the Franciscan church of San Bernardino, where Federico was later buried.

The Virgin sits on a central dais with the Child in her lap, wearing a necklace of deep red coral beads, a colour which alludes to blood, a symbol of life and death, but also to the redemption brought by Christ. Coral was also used for teething, and often worn by babies. Mary’s rich brocade robe and veil have echoes of the Diptych portrait of Battista Sforza. The angels are also bedecked in jewels.

The Madonna is enthroned in the crossing amidst a complex and majestic architectural background, one which is fictional rather than representing a real interior but is clearly derived from designs very similar to the ones followed by Alberti in his construction of the church of Sant’Andrea in Mantua and is rendered in such meticulous perspective that the feigned depth of the coffer-vaulted apse at the rear can be calculated. Yet, at the same time, the architecture anticipates certain ‘classical’ elements which will be used by the young Bramante – another extraordinary artist from Urbino.

The work has been cut down on both sides, as shown by the portions of entablatures barely visible in the upper corners. Recent studies have shown that the artist intended the architecture to be more spacious and airy, with the figures gathered under the huge lantern of a dome.

The apse ends with a shell semi-dome from which an ostrich egg is hanging. Such an egg often hangs over alters dedicated to the Virgin. This has been the subject of entire theses regarding its significance and symbolism. From a purely technical viewpoint, the egg demonstrates Piero’s delight in contrasting reflective and non-reflective surfaces; the highlight on the egg’s surface brings it optically into the foreground of the painting.

The ostrich was a personal emblem of Federico and the Montefeltro family and can be applied here to Guidobaldo’s birth. It was believed that the ostrich let her egg hatch in the sunlight without intervention, and thus became a symbol of virgin birth. Also, the ostrich is here an absent mother, a symbol of the deceased Battista. The symbolism has roots in classical mythology; in classical Laconia, at the centre of which was Sparta, hung the egg of Leda, the wife of the Spartan king Tyndareos, a forerunner of Mary. 

In Christian imagery, the egg is a complex symbol for the Immaculate Conception, emblem alike of Mary’s fecundity and the promise of regeneration and immortality. According to another hypothesis, the egg would be a pearl, and the shell would refer to the miracle of the virginal conception (the shell generates the pearl without any male intervention).  

This work became the model for numerous altarpieces in northern and central Italy in the following years. Piero’s invention of an architectural apse echoed below by another apse, consisting in the figures of the saints gathered around the Madonna, was taken up time and again by artists working at the end of the 15th century and at the beginning of the 16th, particularly in Venice, starting with the almost contemporary paintings of Antonello da Messina and Giovanni Bellini.The other aspect of this painting that must not be underestimated is its similarity with the new developments of Florentine painting, visible primarily in the work of Verrocchio and some of his young pupils. The angels’ garments are decorated with jewels and with huge precious brooches, their hair is held back by elegant diadems: these elements, and even their melancholy expression, are certainly influenced by the recent developments in Florentine art. In the same way, the bony limbs of Saints John the Baptist and Jerome, emaciated by deprivations in the wilderness, recall some of Verrocchio’s studies, whilst the sleeping Child, in his extraordinary contorted position, anticipates some of the young Leonardo’s drawings of putti

In this painting, too, the artist’s mastery of proportions is remarkable; it is almost symbolized by the large ostrich egg hanging from the shell in the apse. The shape of this symbolic element is echoed by the near perfect oval of the Madonna’s head, placed in the absolute centre of the composition. In this painting Piero places his vanishing point at an unusually high level, more or less at the same height as the figures’ hands, with the result that his sacred characters, placed in a semicircle, appear less monumental. 

Modern cleaning has revealed the great detail in characters’ clothes, the angels’ jewels, Federico’s reflective armor and the oriental carpet beneath the feet of the Virgin, reflecting the influence of Early Netherlandish painting.

Madonna di Senigallia

Madonna di Senigallia (1474), Gallerie Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino

The Madonna of Senigallia is a work that stands out for its solemn religiosity, typical of Piero’s style, especially evident in the figure of the Child Jesus, seated on his mother’s left arm, with a coral around his neck (a symbol of protection but also a reminder of the blood shed on the cross) and clutching a white rose in one hand (a reference to the rosary), addresses the gesture of blessing toward the viewer. All figures are shown as half-length, bringing them very close to us. The Madonna has a more intimate character: she has been represented as a contemporary of the painter, rather than a woman of Biblical times.

It is a work that is only apparently simple: in fact, all the objects that appear in it, even those related to the most mundane everyday life, are loaded with meanings that refer to themes related to faith and religion. The objects we observe are few in number, but they all have their own well-defined role. Thus, the decoration on the niche behind the figures would depict an Easter candle, at the same time a symbol of death and rebirth, since Christ sacrificed himself to redeem humanity and, on Easter Day, by rising again defeated death. The box that appears on the top shelf would be a Pyxis, the container for the consecrated host – a clear reference to the sacrament of the Eucharist, instituted by Jesus the day before he was crucified. On the lowest shelf we see a wicker basket containing some veils: they would allude to Jesus’ burial. The door that opens onto the room in which we see the window through which light penetrates (one of the most striking pieces in the work) would be a reference to Our Lady: one of her attributes was in factPorta Coeli, or “gate of heaven.” And the light itself alludes to the virginal conception of Jesus.

On either side of the two main protagonists appear two figures identified by some as portraits of the lord of Senigallia Giovanni delle Rovere of the last member of the dynasty of the dukes of Urbino, Giovanna da Montefeltro, who, by marrying Giovanni, had guaranteed dynastic continuity to the duchy of Urbino, which after the death of her brother Guidobaldo da Montefeltro passed to Francesco I Maria della Rovere, the couple’s son. In this scenario, the work was commissioned as a gift from Federico to his daughter Giovanna on the occasion of her marriage to Giovanni della Rovere, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, confirmed in 1474 and celebrated in 1478. Others argue that the figures are simply two angels without more specific connotations, as they are quite similar to those who had already appeared in the Montefeltro Altarpiece.

The work was painted some time around 1474, probably as a work of private devotion, and was placed in the church of the Observant Franciscan convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, built in 1491 to a design by Baccio Pontelli. Forgotten and neglected for many years, the painting was noticed in 1822, still in the church just outside Senigallia, a town wrested from Sigismondo Malatesta by Federico da Montefeltro. Following its rediscovery the painting was taken to the Ducal Palace, Urbino. At that time, the painting was in a decidedly precarious condition of legibility: probably the dirt that had accumulated on the pictorial surface over the centuries had dulled its quality, to the point that little attention was paid to the work. It took a further thirty years, until 1854, before anyone postulated the name of Piero della Francesca as artist. The studies that ascribed the work to Piero della Francesca multiplied after further cleaning in 1892. Following restoration conducted in 1953 by the Central Institute for Restoration in Rome, the Madonna of Senigallia unanimously assigned to Piero’s catalogue.

The Madonna of Senigallia has been stolen twice. On the night of October 27-28, 1873, a citizen of Senigallia, Antonio Pesaresi, and a citizen of Jesi, Antonio Bincio, stole the work in order to sell it to an English collector who was evidently unscrupulous. The plan was foiled and the work was recovered a few days later in Rome. A hundred years later, between February 5 and 6, 1975, the masterpiece (which in the meantime, in 1917, had been moved for security reasons to the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino, where it is still located today) was stolen, along with Raphael’s Flagellation and Muta one of the most sensational art thefts in recent history (the works were fortunately found the following year in Locarno).

The work again demonstrates Piero’s Flemish influences. The luministic effects (such as the light that admirably brings out the dust near the window), the minutely described interior with its objects of daily use, the research into the technique of oil painting (the softness of the veil, the shining curves of the pearls, the sculptural highlights on folds of material); all these elements show that Piero was familiar with Flemish painting. The Madonna of Senigallia has been repeatedly likened to Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of the Arnolfini couple, for all the qualities mentioned above, and – according to Giorgio Vasari – there was a painting by Jan van Eyck at the court of Urbino. It is equally likely that Piero’s familiarity with Flemish art should not have come to him only from his stay in Urbino: a passion for Northern European art was spreading throughout several Italian courts in the mid-15th century, and it is therefore safe to assume that the occasions Piero had to frequent Flemish art were not so sporadic.

Jan van Eyck ‘Portrof the Arnolfini Couple’ (1434), National Gallery, London

But several touches are signature to Piero: the light that glides over the jambs and rummages through the basket of clothes, the splendid display of the four angelic figures aligned in the foreground and almost frontal, the mathematics of perspective used to achieve an effect of suspended atmosphere.

The Flagellation of Christ


I thought it would be interesting to take an in depth look at one piece of art in this article. Previous articles have considered the oeuvre of individual artists on a broad basis, but studying Piero’s ‘Flagellation’ in detail allows us to gain an insight into the extraordinary lengths to which art historians will go when unraveling the mysteries of a work of art. Because, no doubt this is a painting shrouded in mystery; perhaps unsurprisingly for centuries those looking at and writing about this enigmatic small painting have been quick to fill the lacunae of knowledge which exist – dating, provenance, meaning – with theories of their own.

The ‘Flagellation’ continues to foment a stream of interpretations, at least forty-five on a moderately thorough search. They focus mainly on the identity of the three figures in the foreground, who seem detached from the Flagellation in the background, but there are many ways to divine possibilities into this painting. I am not intending to give weight to any of the interpretations that follow. My aim is to illustrate just how fascinating and detailed art history can be and also, as is a running theme of these articles, to show how studying art and history in parallel can widen and deepen the enjoyment of each discipline.

The study of this painting is not a new phenomenon. Kept in the old sacristy of the cathedral of Urbino, the panel is recorded as attracting the attention of the Vicar Capitular, Canon Simon Francesco Ciccarini in the mid eighteenth century; he apparently treasured it above all other works in his keep. The frame that Ciccarini had made for the painting was probably the third in the history of the Flagellation, possibly have been the fully gilt frame (‘cornige tutta dorata’) with which the painting was listed in an inventory of the sacristy in 1753.

This dual theme of fascination and application of merit continues to this day; the art historian Kenneth Clark in the 1950s named it ‘the greatest small painting in the world’. This personalising view continues to colour interpretations of the ‘Flagellation’ and probably explains the myriad of interpretations which have been applied. While some have pointed out that it is too easy to disregard the recurrent facial types in Piero’s œuvre and the conventions of pictorial narrative in the fifteenth century, others insist that the key to unlocking the ‘meaning’ is in seeing the ‘Flagellation’ as a mirror of fifteenth-century historical events and a portrayal of specific people.

Leaving the esteemed Baron Clark aside, I shall not name each adherent alongside their theory. I seek rather to illustrate the extraordinary breadth of interpretations available and, where my interest was piqued, to explore the rationale in a little more depth.


One of the most immediate pieces of information normally given to a work of art is the date of its production. The ‘Flagellation’ has been dated, with admirable certainty, at various points between the mid-1450s and the mid-1470s.

Reasons for the uncertainty include the fact that it remains unclear who commissioned the work (more later) and, despite the fact that it is widely accepted that Piero painted it in Urbino, the exact dates when he was active in the region are uncertain. It is, however, possible to use a few generally accepted historical facts to narrow down this twenty year window.

We shall look at the representation of architecture in the painting in detail, but for now suffice to say it utilises Albertian principles . Leon Battista Alberti published his seminal work De Re Aedificatoria in 1452. The preceding year saw both Alberti and Piero employed on the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini, when they presumably discussed each other’s ideas. This makes 1451 the earliest possible date for work on the ‘Flagellation’ to have begun.

The most widely held belief is that the work was commissioned by Federico da Montefeltro when Piero was working in Urbino. Two dates are possible for this transaction  – when Piero was resident and employed in Urbino in 1469 or when Federico visited Sansepolcro in 1470.

Previous representation of the theme

The ‘Flagellation’ is an uncommon thematic choice in quattrocento art; the only other time it formed the main part of a painting was in a work by Luca Signorelli, a pupil of Piero’s (1475-80, Pinacoteca, Milan).

Images of the scouring were seen prior to this, in the trecento and early quattrocento, examples being:

Duccio di Buoninsegna (on back of Maesta) – Siena, 1308-11

Pietro Lorenzetti (lower basilica of San Francesco) – Assisi, circa 1320

Ghiberti (the north doors of baptistery of San Giovanni) – Florence, 1403-1424

Description of the work

What we see

Sometimes when we get involved in trying to understand a work of art, we can forget to look at it and appreciate its aesthetic qualities. Take a moment now to study the painting, either from the reproduction here or, more satisfyingly, on a large screen or high quality art book.

Now, let’s describe what we actually see. The work clearly falls into left and right halves and is divided between the foreground and the background. Although this might see obvious, as I shall describe it is central to understanding the work.

Look first at the ‘Flagellation’ taking part to the left in the background, in the Praetorium of Pilate. Christ is tied against the column, his hands bound behind him; despite being whipped he appears unblemished. The column to which he is bound is Ionic, compared with the others which are Corinthian, is freestanding and has a gold statue on top. Pilate, seated at the left, takes no active role, sitting in silence, his hands in his lap. Piero has signed the work on Pilate’s throne. The floor has an elaborate geometric marble inlay.

Now look at the figures in the right foreground, a piazza in front of buildings. These larger figures in theory could be either a demonstration of the newly discovered principles of perspective, a method of highlighting their importance, or indeed both. Often at this period in art, figures in the foreground served the role of commentators, witnesses and mediators between the viewer and the events in the background, something we will consider in more detail shortly.

Piero’s work differs from previous representations of the subject in its use of perspectival space, reflecting the principles of contemporary and Vitruvian architecture, architecture which functions to give a scale to the proportions. Again there is a clear left-right divide; the architecture in the Praetorium is Albertian, whilst the buildings on the right are typical of existing contemporary urban domestic dwellings.

I have looked at this painting many times, most recently when writing this article, and have also seen it in Urbino, but there is one fascinating and important detail which I had never noticed before reading about it in an article. Each of the three figures in the foreground stands in front of a distinct and different section of the background. As I shall show, this is unlikely to be a coincidence and is therefore, likely to play a role in interpreting the work’s meaning.

One final request for your perusal if I may. The manner in which light is handled in this painting is complex; indeed it occupies several pages of one detailed discussion of the work. To summarise and simplify, if one assumes that the light in the piazza to the right is ‘of our world’, its flow from left to right indicates that left is south as we look. The light in the Praetorium is coming from the opposite side, is therefore unnatural and is intended to create the effect of a mystical radiance emanating from Christ.

Perhaps you might think of this work now as combining two spaces, as a Praetorium, being a mystical space and a right sided piazza representing the ‘real world’. The evidence is there in the way Piero painted the work and it places us in a useful position from which to consider possible meanings.

Perspective and mathematics

Much complex mathematics and geometry has been applied to the painting by minds much better suited than mine to the task. Roberto Longhi wrote of Piero: “the perfect union between architecture and painting that emerges should be understood as a mysterious combination of mathematics and painting”. Piero is a great painter, but Piero was also a great mathematician, recognised as such in his own lifetime.

Spatial analysis of the painting is both lengthy and complex, requiring considerable knowledge of and interest in mathematics and geometry. It includes analysis of scale, line and angles of light. I don’t intend to include this aspect here but recommend that those of you who are interested can find the details with a simple Google search.

Role of architecture

As established, the architecture of the Praetorium is completely Albertian, distinguishing it from the contemporary buildings on the right. The Praetorium resembles Alberti’s San Pancrazio Capella Rucellai, in Florence, which was based on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Essentially, Piero has used Alberti’s structures to get as close as possible to the architecture of the Biblical Praetorium and has succeeded with some style. He also has established a distinction between the ancient world of Pilate’s time and the present day inhabitants and buildings to the right of the painting.

Rucellai chapel, San Pancrazio, Florence

Interpreting the whole work

How to interpret this painting? Having established the basis of the pictorial narrative and acknowledged the technical brilliance of the artist, with particular regard to his use of architecture in establishing perspective, it is time to attempt to unravel the possible meaning behind the work.

I shall offer two possible scenarios which treat the picture in its entirety as the source of its intended meaning. Then we shall take a closer look at the three figures front right and their relationship to the scene back left, asking if there is a connection and, if so, what that may be.

Church suffering at the hands of the Turks

Constantinople had finally, after a long siege, been taken by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. It has been suggested that this painting is a reference to a holy crusade with the Flagellation as an allegory of the church’s suffering at the hands of the Turks.

According to another variant of this view, the figure in the centre foreground would represent an angel, flanked by the Latin (Catholic) and the Greek (Orthodox) Churches, whose division created strife in the whole of Christendom. The seated man on the far left watching the flagellation would be the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palailogos, as identified by his clothing, particularly the unusual red hat with upturned brims. In the variant of this interpretation, the painting would be in fact an invitation by Cardinal Bessarionpo and the humanist Giovanni Bacci to Federico da Montefeltro to take part in the crusade.

Pope Nicholas

Another interpretation examines an aspect of Jerusalem imagery in the years surrounding Pope Nicholas V’s jubilee in 1450 and considers the picture in the context of contemporary papal ideology.

The Roman Emperor Titus is recorded as bringing the scouring whip and the door of Pilate’s palace from Jerusalem to Rome following his conquest of the city. The door appeared for the first time in contemporary art this work, seen hanging in the Praetorium. The steps rising to Christ’s left, behind Pilate, represent the Scala Sancta Christi, at the time of painting, as it remains today, near the church of San Giovanni in Laterano, and recorded as being brought from Jerusalem to Rome in the eight century.

Pope Nicholas V used these ‘Spoils’ as an argument for papal primacy, conveying upon the papacy Old Testament authority emanating from the Holy Land during the Petrine period. Thus the painting can be interpreted as a statement of papal authority.

Nicholas’s main claim to fame during his reign was uniting previously warring Italian city states in an ‘Italic league’, with the five regional states of Venice, Milan, Florence, Papal Rome and Naples joined by the smaller city states, including Urbino, as secondary members. As part of this drive for unity, Flávio Biondo wrote his Italia illustrata in which he set out legal and archaeological bases for unity and established typologies for town planning and for civic and ecclesiastical architecture which Federico utilised in developing Urbino.

Interpreting the three foreground figures

Interpreting the foreground figures as historical figures

Convenerunt in unum

In 1839 the painter and art historian Johann David Passavant (1787–1861) first recorded a text inscribed on the work as ‘convenerunt in unum’. Around the same time, a friend of Passavant, the artist and collector Johann Anton Ramboux (1790–1866), made a tracing of the three foreground figures, in the margin of which he transcribed the inscription as ‘tres convenerunt in unum’. Since the text was recorded as being close to the scene at the right, and since there is no technical evidence that it was inscribed on the painting’s surface, which is intact, it was presumably on the frame. By 1864 it had disappeared. The record of the early eighteenth-century reframing confirms that the inscription as it appeared in the nineteenth century was not Piero’s doing.

The words of the inscription can be translated as ‘the rulers take counsel together’ orthree met together as one’ and refer to Psalm 2:2, repeated in Acts of the Apostles 4:26. They represent a passage that occurs in the Book of Hours and in the Good Friday liturgy and is related to the conspiracy against Christ. The significance of this inscription hinges on whether or not it was deliberately placed near the three figures of the foreground as a method of identifying and explaining them. Not all historians subscribe to this theory, but let us play out the various scenarios tenable if this was indeed the intention and consider the three figures in this context.

Firstly, let us return to the possible reference to the Turkish invasion of Constantinople. Under this theory, the three figures become the princes of Italy, gathered in order to oppose the threat to Christianity posed by the Turks. By 1470, the princes had indeed ‘taken counsel’ and formed a new league of alliances; using this interpretation, the picture probably dates to around this time.

Among possible biblical meanings are that the figures represent Herod, Pilate and the prophet David, third king of Israel, that they are three High Priests who have gathered for the trial of Christ but who are unwilling or afraid to enter the Praetorium, or that the group is part of the disputation recorded in the liturgy of Holy Week. In a quattrocento play by the Benedictine monk Eustache Marcadé the three figures are cast as Jewish elders conspiring against Jesus and one interpretation of the painting has been that it reminds us that Christ’s enemies are never far away.

Another postulated meaning for the group is that it is a representation of a second biblical scene, such as a Roman official releasing Barabbas to a Jew, or the betrayal of Christ by Judas. Here the glaringly obvious omission is the thirty pieces of silver, almost always included in pictorial representations of this event.

These interpretations are perhaps rather vague and simplistic when one considers, as we shall now do, the much more detailed possibilities postulated. It seems likely that Piero extended his very precise and purposeful technical approach to the composition of this painting to the area of its meaning.

Interpreting the foreground figures as contemporary portraits

Thus far we have assumed that the figures are representations of historical figures who belong to the time at which the events of the Flagellation were occurring. But it is equally possible that Piero was representing people who existed at the time of the work’s production, as many art historians believe and have set out to prove.

Some, with a disappointing lack of imagination, believe the three are simply ‘contemporaries of Piero’. Again, I believe that the idea that he constructed such a thoroughly worked out physical environment to then populate it with people who have no significance is untenable.

Moving to the next level of specificity, from 1839 with the discovery of conventum in unum the figures were identified as three ‘princely enemies’ of Duke Federico da Montefeltro, but were not more clearly identified. One could imagine this as a warning to potential opponents to Federico’s rule or even a sort of medieval ‘wanted’ poster!

The figures are Montefeltros

From the rediscovery of the painting until the mid twentieth century the three figures were considered to be portraits. Some historians maintain that the figures represent members or friends of the Montefeltro family, and that they relate to the assassination or early death of one of them. The most widely encountered interpretation is that the central foreground figure is Oddantonio da Montefeltro.

By 1717 Ciccarini thought that the whole foreground group represented unspecified rulers of Urbino. In 1725 Giovanni Tommaso Maria Marelli, Archbishop of Urbino from 1716 to 1739, gave them the names of Guidobaldo, Federico and Oddantonio da Montefeltro; when the chronological impossibility of this was acknowledged, some substituted Guidantonio, father of Federico and Oddantonio, for Guidobaldo. The interpretation was taken from a biographical to a topical level when Passavant in 1839 and James Dennistoun in 1851 related the foreground scene to the conspiracy leading up to the murder in 1444 of Oddantonio together with his two counsellors, Manfredo dei Pio and Tommaso di Guido dell’Agnello, who were taken to be the figures with which Piero represented him. Another possibility is that they are Serafini and Ricciarelli, citizens of Urbino, who allegedly murdered Oddantonio together with his two bad advisors. 

There are two obvious problems with these ideas. Firstly, none of the figures resemble Federico da Montefeltro, whose famous (and instantly recognisable) profile we have already encountered.

Secondly, the right sided three figures are not painted in any manner alluding to intrigue, violence or political machinations, devices which Piero might reasonably been expected to include in the symbolism of his composition were this their intended purpose.

Figures are Ludovico Gonzaga and Ottaviano Ubaldini

Another interpretation is that the two lateral figures are contemporary persons, the left one involved in explaining to the right the meaning of a shared experience. This requires that the central figure be an allegorical representation, pertinent to this experience. But what is this foreground ‘experience’, the answer to which would lie in identifying the figures?

The most complex of all the theories about this painting that I encountered employs the following logic. Personally, I consider it stretches credibility to its limits and makes one too many leaps of faith, but it is, at the same time, a fascinating insight into the processes which art historians utilise when seeking meaning within a work of art.

The right figure, an aristocrat by his dress, resembles Ludovico III Gonzaga, Marquis of Manua, based upon a bust, medals by Pisanello and by Pietto da Fana and a portrait by Andrea Mantegna. The background against which he is placed, that of a domestic palace, identifies him as a wealthy citizen.

Ludovico was a close friend of Federico’s nephew and close companion Ottaviano Ubaldini, postulated as the bearded figure standing in the left foreground. Ottaviano was counsellor, treasurer and occasional stand in governor (in Federico’s absence) of Urbino and also stood regent between Federico’s death in 1482 and Guidobaldo’s coming of age in 1487. He met Ludovico when he and Federico were schooled in Mantua and again whilst studying military arts under Filippo Maria Visconti in Milan.

 Ottaviano was both patron of the arts and an astrologer. In the ‘Flagellation’, he is likened to his only portrait, a marble relief medallion in the church of San Francesco in Mercatello sul Metauro. His background in Piero’s painting is the corner column between the piazza and Praetorium, suggesting that he has some access to the inner sanctum. Both men lost sons to illness, the plague in Ottaviano’s case, an undefined illness in that of Ludovico. This theory has them discussing this shared experience across a representation of the ‘ideal son’, the blond haired youth depicted centre left. His background is foliage, akin to laurel, which is symbolic of eternal glory and making the theme of the painting the triumph of Christian Glory over the tribulations of this world.

This theory leads to a conclusion that the work was commissioned by Ottaviano, rather than by Federico.


I sincerely hope you have enjoyed reading this article as much as I enjoyed writing it. This is, for me, a perfect example of how art and history combine to enrich the study of the sister discipline. A return to Urbino is now included in my travel wish list!

Bernini and Borromini – the battle for the Baroque


Most of my knowledge of the art and history of Italy focuses around Florence in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For this article, I am delighted to move away to the city of Rome in the seventeenth century. The inspiration for this work was a Sky Arts documentary entitled ‘The Dark Baroque’, focusing on the life and work of Francesco Borromini, a man about whom I knew virtually nothing. After watching the programme several times, I was drawn to a number of aspects of his story, around which this article crystallises.

He co-existed, and I choose that word carefully, with Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of the greats of the baroque art movement, whose work as a sculptor was familiar to me. What I did not realise was the huge impact he had on the urban fabric of Rome as it exists today. I am a tad ashamed to admit I have never properly visited Rome and therefore have not seen with my own eyes the sights I will shortly begin to describe. I write these articles for many reasons; this one will serve as a travel guide when I eventually scratch this particular itch and immerse myself in the splendour of the Italian capital.

Bernini and Borromini, to be euphemistic, had a tricky co-existence and their rivalry is fascinating. It leads us to an examination of the psyche of Borromini, who seems a perfect example of a species to which I am always drawn – the troubled genius. Borromini is not the only character with a forceful ego in our story, however, which leads to a huge area of Italian political history which I was keen to explore – the papacy. Florence gave us the Medici but, in Rome, almost without interruption, the power source was the leader of the Holy Roman Empire. We shall meet three successive popes who influenced the architecture of Baroque Rome and whose fluctuating favours impacted upon the relative successes of Bernini and Borromini.

As with previous articles, I shall now outline the contents of the material I will present to you, allowing those who do not want to progress in a linear fashion to proceed directly to what it is that you find most of interest. To begin with, I shall present biographies of both Bernini and Borromini. These focus on the patronage they received, with particular regard to how successive popes conferred favour on one or other of the architects. We shall consider the list of works they have left us and examine how their styles developed as individuals whilst diverging one from the other. With Borromini, we learn how, particularly in the latter stages of his career, the toll taken on his mental health had an increasingly destructive influence on his output.

Now it is time to introduce the three popes involved in our story – Urban VIII, Innocent X and Alexander VII. We learn the path that took each to the highest ecclesiastical office, examine their political and artistic legacy and focus on the favour and commissions they bestowed upon one or other of our architects.

We then pause to take an overview of the Roman Baroque, a style essentially invented by our two proponents, and to consider where the Roman style fits into the wider picture of the Baroque as an art movement.

Next, we examine the rivalry that existed between Bernini and Borromini, trying to discover why it began, what sustained and indeed deepened the schism and the ways in which their competitive natures were manifest. It becomes clear as we do so that their architectural styles were clearly distinct from one another and to illustrate this we take an in depth look at two buildings only a few hundred metres apart which exemplify this – San Carlo alle Quattro Fontana, Borromini’s first major commission, and Sant’Andrea al Quirinale a masterpiece by Bernini.

But the two did have periods during which they worked alongside each other. We consider two of these projects in more detail; the Palazzo Barberini and the Baldacchino in the basilica of Saint Peter’s. The latter project is best understood in the context of the overall programme to modernise the greatest building in Christendom, a project overseen by Bernini for fifty years, beginning in 1629 and encompassing the rule of six popes. There is no example in history of such continuous and continually innovative creativity, on such a scale, on a single project, over such a long period, by a single artist; unsurprisingly, we shall conclude our studies here.

I hope you enjoy reading about, and looking at, a series of stunning architectural works, created under fascinating circumstances by two very different individuals whose impact can still be seen at every turn in the Eternal City.

Biography of Bernini

Self portrait 1623, Galleria Borghese, Rome

Gian Lorenzo (or Gianlorenzo) Bernini (7 December 1598 – 28 November 1680) was both a major figure in the world of architecture and the leading sculptor of his age, credited with creating the Baroque style of sculpture. As one scholar has commented, “What Shakespeare is to drama, Bernini may be to sculpture: the first pan-European sculptor whose name is instantaneously identifiable with a particular manner and vision, and whose influence was inordinately powerful …” In addition, he was a painter (mostly small canvases in oil) and a man of the theatre: he wrote, directed and acted in plays for which he designed stage sets and theatrical machinery. He also produced designs for a wide variety of decorative art objects, including lamps, tables and mirrors.

As an architect and city planner, he designed secular buildings, churches, chapels, and public squares, as well as massive works combining both architecture and sculpture, especially elaborate public fountains and funerary monuments and a whole series of temporary structures (in stucco and wood) for funerals and festivals. His broad technical versatility, boundless compositional inventiveness and sheer skill in manipulating marble ensured that he would be considered a worthy successor of Michaelangelo, far outshining other sculptors of his generation. His talent extended beyond the confines of sculpture to a consideration of the setting in which it would be situated; his ability to synthesise sculpture, painting, and architecture into a coherent conceptual and visual whole has been termed by art historians the “unity of the visual arts”.

Bernini was born on 7 December 1598 in Naples to Angelica Galante, a Neapolitan, and Mannerist sculptor Pietro Bernini, originally from Florence. He was the sixth of their thirteen children and was recognised as a prodigy when he was only eight years old by his father, who was a constant encouragement to him. In 1606 his father received a papal commission to contribute a marble relief in the Cappella Paulina of Santa Maria Maggiore and moved from Naples to Rome, taking his entire family with him and continuing in earnest the training of his son Gian Lorenzo.

Several extant works are, by general scholarly consensus, collaborative efforts by both father and son: they include the Faun Teased by Putti (c. 1615, Metropolitan Museum, New York), and Boy with a Dragon (c. 1616–17, Getty Museum, Los Angeles). Sometime after the arrival of the Bernini family in Rome, word about the great talent of the boy Gian Lorenzo got around and he soon caught the attention of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew to the reigning pope, Paul V, who spoke of the boy genius to his uncle. Bernini was therefore presented before Pope Paul V, curious to see if the stories about Gian Lorenzo’s talent were true. The boy improvised a sketch of Saint Paul for the marvelling pope, and this was the beginning of the pope’s attention on this young talent.

Boy with a Dragon (c1617)

It was in this world of 17th-century Rome and the international religious-political power which resided there that Bernini created his greatest works. Bernini’s works are therefore often characterised as perfect expressions of the spirit of the assertive, triumphal but self-defensive Counter-Reformation Roman Catholic Church.

Partnership with Scipione Borghese. Under the patronage of the extravagantly wealthy and most powerful Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the young Bernini rapidly rose to prominence as a sculptor. Adapting the classical grandeur of Renaissance sculpture and the dynamic energy of the Mannerist period, Bernini forged a new, distinctly Baroque conception for religious and historical sculpture, powerfully imbued with dramatic realism, stirring emotion and dynamic, theatrical compositions. In addition, he possessed the ability to depict highly dramatic narratives with characters showing intense psychological states, but also to organise large-scale sculptural works that convey a magnificent grandeur.

His reputation was definitively established by four masterpieces, executed between 1619 and 1625, all now displayed in the Galleria Borghese in Rome:—

Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius (1619)

The Rape of Proserpina (1621-22)

Apollo and Daphne (1622-1625)

David (1623-24)

By common agreement, these works inaugurated a new era in the history of European sculpture.

Papal artist – the pontificate of Urban VIII. In 1621, Pope Paul V Borghese was succeeded on the throne of St. Peter by another admiring friend of Bernini’s, Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi, who became Pope Gregory XV. It was he who bestowed upon Bernini the honorific rank of ‘Cavaliere,’ the title with which for the rest of his life the artist was habitually referred. In 1623 came the ascent to the papal throne of Cardinal Maffeo Barberini as Pope Urban VIII, and henceforth (until Urban’s death in 1644) Bernini enjoyed near monopolistic patronage from the Barberini pope and family; Urban saw Bernini as a reincarnation of Michaelangelo. Although he did not fare as well during the reign (1644–55) of Innocent X, under Innocent’s successor, Alexander VII (1655–67), Bernini once again gained pre-eminent artistic domination and continued in the successive pontificate to be held in high regard by Clement IX during his short reign (1667–69).

Under Urban VIII’s patronage, Bernini’s horizons rapidly and widely broadened: he was not just producing sculpture for private residences, but playing the most significant artistic (and engineering) role on the city stage, as sculptor, architect, and urban planner. His official appointments also testify to this – curator of the papal art collection, director of the papal foundry at Castel Sant’Angelo, commissioner of the fountains of Piazza Navona. Such positions gave Bernini the opportunity to demonstrate his versatile skills throughout the city. To great protest from older, experienced master architects, he, with virtually no architectural training to his name, was appointed Chief Architect of St Peter’s in 1629, upon the death of Carlo Maderno. From then on, Bernini’s work and artistic vision would be placed at the symbolic heart of Rome.

Bernini’s artistic pre-eminence under Urban VIII and Alexander VII meant he was able to secure the most important commissions in the Rome of his day, namely, the various massive embellishment projects of the newly finished Saint Peter’s basilica, completed under Pope Paul V with the addition of Maderno’s nave and facade and finally re-consecrated by Pope Urban VIII on 18 November 1626, after 100 years of planning and building. Within the basilica he was responsible for the Baldacchino, the decoration of the four piers under the cupola, the Cathedra Petri in the apse, the tomb monument of Matilda of Tuscany, the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in the right nave, and the decoration (floor, walls and arches) of the new nave. We shall look closely at his role in Saint Peter’s later in this article. Despite this busy engagement with large works of public architecture, Bernini was still able to devote himself to his sculpture, especially portraits in marble, but also large statues such as the life-size Saint Bibiana (1624, Church of Santa Bibiana, Rome). Bernini’s portraits show his ever increasing ability to capture the utterly distinctive personal characteristics of his sitters, as well as his ability to achieve in cold white marble almost painterly-like effects that render with convincing realism the various surfaces involved: human flesh, hair, fabric of varying type, metal, etc. These portraits included a number of busts of Urban VIII himself, the family bust of Francesco Barberini and most notably, the busts of Scipione Borghese – the second of which had been rapidly created by Bernini once a flaw had been found in the marble of the first.

Santa Bibiana
Urban VIII (1637) Palazzo Barberini
Francesco Barberini (1623) National Gallery of Art, Washington
Two busts of Scipione Borghese (1632) Galleria Borghese

Beginning in the late 1630s, now known in Europe as one of the most accomplished portraitists in marble, Bernini also began to receive royal commissions from outside Rome, for subjects such as Cardinal Richelieu of France, Francesco I d’Este, the powerful Duke of Modena, Charles I of England and his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. The sculpture of Charles I was produced in Rome from a triple portrait executed by Van Dyck, that survives today in the British Royal Collection. The bust of Charles was lost in the Whitehall Palace fire of 1698 (though its design is known through contemporary copies and drawings) and that of Henrietta Maria was not undertaken due to the outbreak of the English Civil War.

Temporary eclipse and resurgence under Innocent X. In 1644, with the death of Pope Urban with whom Bernini had been so intimately connected and the ascent to power of the fierce Barberini-enemy Pope Innocent X Pamphili, Bernini’s career suffered a major, unprecedented eclipse, which was to last four years. This had not only to do with Innocent’s anti-Barberini politics but also to Bernini’s role in the disastrous project of the new bell towers for Saint Peter’s basilica, designed and supervised entirely by Bernini.

Although he received no personal commissions from Innocent or the Pamphili family in the early years of the new papacy, Bernini did not lose his former positions granted to him by previous popes. Innocent X maintained Bernini in all of the official roles given to him by Urban, including that of chief Architect of Saint Peter’s. It is not without reason that Pope Alexander VII once quipped, “If one were to remove from Saint Peter’s everything that had been made by the Cavalier Bernini, that temple would be stripped bare.”

When, in 1648, Bernini won, in controversial circumstances, the Pamphili commission for a prestigious fountain in Piazza Navona, this marked the end of his disgrace and the beginning of yet another glorious chapter in his life, ushered in by the unqualified success of the marvellously delightful and technically ingenious Four Rivers Fountain, featuring a heavy ancient obelisk placed over a void created by a cavelike rock formation placed in the centre of an ocean of exotic sea creatures.

Four rivers fountain, designed 1651, Piazza Navona

Bernini’s boundless creativity continued as before, seeing the creation of new types of funerary monument were designed, such as, in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, with the seemingly floating medallion, hovering in the air for the deceased nun Maria Raggi.

Memorial to Maria Raggi (1647-1653), Santa Maria sopra Minerva

One of the most accomplished and celebrated works in this period was the Cornaro Family Chapel in the small Carmelite church of Santa Maria della Vittoria showcasing Bernini’s ability to integrate sculpture, architecture, fresco, stucco, and lighting into “a marvellous whole”. The central focus of the Chapel is the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa depicting the so-called “transverberation” of Spanish nun and saint-mystic, Teresa of Avila. Bernini presents the spectator with a theatrically vivid portrait, in gleaming white marble, of the swooning Teresa and the quietly smiling angel, who delicately grips the arrow piercing the saint’s heart. On either side of the chapel the artist places (in what can only strike the viewer as theatre boxes), portraits in relief of various members of the Cornaro family – the Venetian family memorialised in the chapel, including Cardinal Federico Cornaro who commissioned the chapel from Bernini – who are in animated conversation among themselves, presumably about the event taking place before them. The result is a complex but subtly orchestrated architectural environment providing the spiritual context (a heavenly setting with a hidden source of light) that suggests to viewers the ultimate nature of this miraculous event.

Cornaro chapel (1647-52)

Nonetheless, during Bernini’s lifetime and in the centuries following until this very day, Bernini’s Saint Teresa has been accused of crossing a line of decency by sexualising the visual depiction of the saint’s experience, to a degree that no artist, before or after Bernini, dared to do: in depicting her at an impossibly young chronological age, as an idealised delicate beauty, in a semi-prostrate position with her mouth open and her legs splayed-apart, her wimple coming undone, with prominently displayed bare feet (Discalced Carmelites, for modesty, always wore sandals with heavy stockings) and with the seraph “undressing” her by (unnecessarily) parting her mantle to penetrate her heart with his arrow. Matters of decorum aside, Bernini’s Teresa was still an artistic tour de force that incorporates all of the multiple forms of visual art and technique that Bernini had at his disposal, including hidden lighting, thin gilded beams, recessive architectural space, secret lens, and over twenty diverse types of coloured marble: these all combine to create the final artwork—”a perfected, highly dramatic and deeply satisfying seamless ensemble”.

Embellishment of Rome under Alexander VII. Upon his accession to the Chair of Saint Peter, Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1655–1667) began to implement his extremely ambitious plan to transform Rome into a magnificent world capital by means of systematic, bold (and costly) urban planning. In so doing, he brought to fruition the long, slow recreation of the urban glory of Rome – the “renovatio Romae” – that had begun in the fifteenth century under the Renaissance popes. Over the course of his pontificate, Alexander commissioned many large-scale architectural changes in the city – indeed, some of the most significant ones in the city’s recent history and for years to come – choosing Bernini as his principal collaborator (though other architects, especially Pietro da Cortona, were also involved). Thus commenced another extraordinarily prolific and successful chapter in Bernini’s career. Bernini’s major commissions during this period include the piazza in front of Saint Peter’s basilica and, within the basilica and the Vatican, systematic rearrangements and majestic embellishment of either empty or aesthetically undistinguished space that exist as he designed them to the present day and have become indelible icons of the splendour of the papal precincts.

Not all works during this era were on such a large scale. Indeed, the commission Bernini received to build the church of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale for the Jesuits was relatively modest in physical size (though great in its interior chromatic splendour), a commission which Bernini executed completely free of charge. Sant’Andrea shared with the Saint Peter’s piazza – unlike the complex geometries of his rival Borromini – a focus on basic geometric shapes, circles and ovals to create spiritually intense buildings. Equally, Bernini moderated the presence of colour and decoration within these buildings, focussing visitors’ attention on these simple forms that underpinned the building.

Sant’Andrea al Quirinale (1658-70)

Visit to France and service to King Louis XIV. At the end of April 1665, and still considered the most important artist in Rome, if indeed not in all of Europe, Bernini was forced by political pressure (from both the French court and Pope Alexander VII) to travel to Paris to work for King Louis XIV, who required an architect to complete work on the royal palace of the Louvre. Bernini would remain in Paris until mid-October.

But things soon turned sour. Bernini presented finished designs for the façade, which were rejected on the level of physical security and comfort (such as the location of the latrines). It is also indisputable that there was an interpersonal conflict between Bernini and the young French king, each one feeling insufficiently respected by the other. Bernini failed to forge significant friendships at the French court. His frequent negative comments on various aspects of French culture, especially its art and architecture, did not go down well, particularly in juxtaposition to his praise for the art and architecture of Italy (especially Rome); he said that a painting by Guido Reni, the Annunciation altarpiece (then in the Carmelite convent, now the Louvre Museum), was “alone worth half of Paris.”

Guido Reni ‘Annunciation’ (1629), Louvre, Paris

Later years and death. Bernini remained physically and mentally vigorous and active in his profession until just two weeks before his death, which came as a result of a stroke. The pontificate of his old friend, Clement IX, was too short (barely two years) to accomplish more than the dramatic refurbishment by Bernini of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, while the artist’s elaborate plan, under Clement, for a new apse for the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore came to an unpleasant end in the midst of public uproar over its cost and the destruction of ancient mosaics that it entailed. The last two popes of Bernini’s life, Clement X and Innocent XI, were both not especially close or sympathetic to Bernini and not particularly interested in financing works of art and architecture, especially given the disastrous conditions of the papal treasury.

In  his last two years, Bernini supervised the restoration of the historic Palazzo della Cancelleria, a direct commission from Pope Innocent XI. The latter commission is outstanding confirmation of both Bernini’s continuing professional reputation and good health of mind and body even in advanced old age, inasmuch as the pope had chosen him over any number of talented younger architects plentiful in Rome.

Shortly after the completion of this final project, Bernini died in his home on 28 November 1680 and was buried, with little public fanfare, in the simple, unadorned Bernini family vault, along with his parents, in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Though an elaborate funerary monument had once been planned, it was never built and Bernini remained with no permanent public acknowledgement of his life and career in Rome until 1898 when, on the anniversary of his birth, a simple plaque and small bust was affixed to the face of his home on the Via della Mercede, proclaiming “Here lived and died Gianlorenzo Bernini, a sovereign of art, before whom reverently bowed popes, princes, and a multitude of peoples.”

Architecture. Bernini’s architectural works include sacred and secular buildings and sometimes their urban settings and interiors. He made adjustments to existing buildings and designed new constructions. Among his most well known works are:

  • Santa Bibiana (1624-26)
  • Piazza San Pietro (1656–67) – the piazza and colonnades in front of Saint Peter’s
  • Interior decoration of the basilica.
  • Palazzo Barberini (from 1630) on which he worked with Borromini
  • Palazzo Ludovisi (now Palazzo Montecitorio, started 1650)
  • Palazzo Chigi (started 1664)
  • Sant’Andrea al Quirinale (from 1658)

Fountains. True to the decorative dynamism of Baroque which loved the aesthetic pleasure and emotional delight afforded by the sight and sound of water in motion, among Bernini’s most gifted and applauded creations were his Roman fountains, which were both utilitarian public works and personal monuments to their patrons, papal or otherwise.

These include:

  • The ‘Barcaccia’ (commissioned in 1627, finished 1629) at the foot of the Spanish Steps
  • Fontana del Tritone
  • Fontana delle Api for the Barberini (sometimes attributed to Borromini)
  • Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona
Barcaccia Fountain

Tomb monuments and other works. Another major category of Bernini’s activity was that of the tomb monument, a genre on which his distinctive new style exercised a decisive and long-enduring influence.

Included in this category are his tombs for:

  • Popes Urban VIII and Alexander VII (both in St. Peter’s Basilica)
  • Matilda of Canossa (St. Peter’s Basilica)
  • Cardinal Domenico Pimental (Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome, design only)

Among his smaller commissions, the Elephant and Obelisk is a sculpture located near the Pantheon, in the Piazza della Minerva, in front of the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Pope Alexander VII decided that he wanted a small ancient Egyptian obelisk (that was discovered beneath the piazza) to be erected on the same site, and in 1665 he commissioned Bernini to create a sculpture to support the obelisk. A popular anecdote concerns the elephant’s smile. To find out why it is smiling, legend has it, the viewer must examine the rear end of the animal and notice that its muscles are tensed and its tail is shifted to the left as if it were defecating. The animal’s rear is pointed directly at one of the headquarters of the Dominican Order, housing the offices of its Inquisitors as well as the office of Father Giuseppe Paglia, a Dominican Friar, who was one of the main antagonists of Bernini, as a final salute and last word.

Paintings and drawings. Bernini would have studied painting as a normal part of his artistic training begun in early adolescence under the guidance of his father, Pietro, in addition to some further training in the studio of the Florentine painter, Cigoli. His earliest activity as a painter was probably no more than a sporadic diversion practiced mainly in his youth, until the mid-1620s, that is, the beginning of the pontificate of Pope Urban VIII (reigned 1623–1644) who ordered Bernini to study painting in greater earnest because the pontiff wanted him to decorate the Benediction Loggia of Saint Peter’s. The latter commission was never executed most likely because the required large-scale narrative compositions were simply beyond Bernini’s ability as a painter. According to his early biographers, Baldinucci and Domenico Bernini, Bernini completed at least 150 canvases, mostly in the decades of the 1620s and 30s, but currently there are no more than 35–40 surviving paintings that can be confidently attributed to his hand. The extant, securely attributed works are mostly portraits, seen close up and set against an empty background, employing a confident, indeed brilliant, painterly brushstroke (similar to that of his Spanish contemporary Velasquez), free from any trace of pedantry, and a very limited palette of mostly warm, subdued colours with deep chiaroscuro. His work was immediately sought after by major collectors. Most noteworthy among these extant works are several, vividly penetrating self portraits (all dating to the mid 1620s – early 1630s), especially that in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, purchased during Bernini’s lifetime by Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici. Bernini’s Apostles Andrew and Thomas in London’s National Gallery is the sole canvas by the artist whose attribution, approximate date of execution (circa 1625) and provenance (the Barberini Collection, Rome) are securely known.

As for Bernini’s drawings, about 350 still exist; but this represents a minuscule percentage of the drawings he would have created in his lifetime; these include rapid sketches relating to major sculptural or architectural commissions, presentation drawings given as gifts to his patrons and aristocratic friends, and exquisite, fully finished portraits, such as that of Scipione Borghese.

Red chalk drawing (1632) Morgan Library, New York

Rivals. Bernini’s rivals in architecture were, above all, Francesco Borromini and Pietro da Cortona. Early in their careers they had all worked at the same time at the Palazzo Barberini, initially under Carlo Maderno and, following his death, under Bernini. Later on, however, they were in competition for commissions, and fierce rivalries developed, particularly between Bernini and Borromini.

Biography of Borromini

Francesco Borromini, born Francesco Castelli (25 September 1599 – 2 August 1667) was an Italian architect from the modern Swiss canton of Ticono who, with his contemporaries Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Pietro da Cortona was a leading figure in the emergence of Roman Baroque architecture. Later, after he had established himself in Rome, he called himself Borromini, which was a name used in his mother’s family, but which may also have been in deference to Saint Carlo Borromeo and his nephew Cardinal Federico.

A keen student of the architecture of Michaelangelo and the ruins of Antiquity, Borromini developed an inventive and distinctive, if somewhat idiosyncratic, architecture employing manipulations of Classical architectural forms, geometrical rationales in his plans and symbolic meanings in his buildings. He seems to have had a sound understanding of structures, which perhaps Bernini and Cortona, who were principally trained in other areas of the visual arts, lacked. His soft lead drawings are particularly distinctive. He appears to have been a self-taught scholar, amassing a large library by the end of his life. He lived in a house which he filled with a thousand books and all kinds of curiosities, like snail shells, mice, sea shells, a horse’s head. These would shape his architecture, which sprang from nature, employing curves rather than straight lines.

Borromini was related to Domenico Fontana and Carlo Maderno, both of whom had moved to Rome and established themselves as the most successful papal architects of the last decades of the sixteenth and the first of the seventeenth centuries, working for Sixtus V (1585-90) and for Paul V (1605-21) respectively. He was trained as a stone mason in the Milan cathedral, for ten years, under the supervision of Andrea Biffi. In 1619, he went to Rome, where he worked first in Saint Peter’s workshop headed by Maderno. After Maderno’s death, Bernini became architect of Saint Peter’s and, while Borromini worked for a time under Bernini, they soon became rivals.

Borromini spent the last years of his life in completing some unfinished building projects:

  • Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza
  • The interior of San Giovanni in Laterano
  • San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Early training and architectural development. Borromini reached Rome at the end of a period during which Roman architecture had been almost dormant. Arriving in 1619, Rome had a major impact on Borromini. His plan from the beginning was to be an architect. This in itself was a challenge but Borromini aimed higher, to convince others that his vision was the one. However, it was as a decorative sculptor rather than as a stonemason or a builder that he first obtained work as an assistant to a relative, Leone Garovo, who was engaged in the decoration of the portico of Saint Peter’s under Maderno, for whom he worked till the older architect’s death in 1629 and through whom he established his reputation, first as a decorative sculptor and then as an architect.

At Saint Peter’s he was engaged in ironwork, and the wrought-iron gates to the Cappella del Santissima Sacramento are from his designs. The most remarkable work of sculpture with which he was connected at this time is the Fontana delle Api in the Palazzo Barberini, which has also been attributed to Bernini.

In the same years he developed his astonishing ability as an architectural draughtsman, becoming Maderno’s most important assistant. Maderno, who was old and in bad health, began to allow him to design details himself and to make contributions to his plans. In 1623, as a culmination to this development, he was allowed by Maderno to design the lantern on the dome of Sant’Andrea della Valle.

Borromini had been 15 years in Rome without securing major patronage and decided to go independent. This is now when he branded himself as Borromini and set out to be different from Bernini in style, architecturally and personally through his appearance and personality. He sought another kind of patronage – small religious orders trying to spread the message of the Catholic church and looking for architects. To curry favour, he worked for them for free at times. The freedom allowed him to express himself; it became his manifesto.

In the last years of Maderno’s life, Borromini was responsible for directing the work on the major commission on which he was engaged, the building of the Palazzo Barberini for the newly elected pope, and here also he made positive contributions, as did Bernini.

In 1637, eight years after Maderno’s death, Borromini was called in to complete the decoration of the church of Santa Lucia in Selci, which Maderno had rebuilt between 1605 and 1619. His work there shows a few personal touches, such as the cornice in which the eggs of the egg-and-tongue motif are replaced by cherubs’ heads, a trick which he was to use many years later on the outside of Sant’Ivo della Sapienza.

He quarrelled with many of his patrons and on several occasions threw up commissions, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes because he was threatened with dismissal. On one occasion in 1649 he caused his workmen to beat up a man whom he found tampering with the stonework of San Giovanni in Laterano, to such effect that the man died, and it was only owing to the intervention of the pope that the architect was saved from severe punishment. He was so frightened that other architects would steal his ideas that just before his death he destroyed a great part of his unexecuted designs.

Borromini’s mind became unsettled towards the end of his life and it can have been no surprise to his few friends when he finally took his own life. But this intensely strained and nervous side of his character was accompanied by a passionate and total devotion to his art. He cared nothing for the things of the world and, according to his early biographers, often refused to take money in order to keep complete freedom in directing the buildings of which he was in charge.

Borromini began with a simple plan and gradually elaborated it by introducing variations, replacing straight lines with curves, and then making those curves more complex till the final refinement of movement and space was attained. We can trace his steps along this path in his designs for San Carlo and the Palazzo Carpegna.

The contrast between Bernini and Borromini appears clearly if we examine the patrons for whom they worked. Bernini began as the infant prodigy discovered by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Soon after the election of urban VIII in 1623 he was commissioned with important papal works and his favour continued unabated till the pope’s death in 1644. During this pontificate Borromini received a single public appointment, and that not directly from the pope: he was made architect to the university of the Sapienza, building the church of Sant’Ivo.

For the most part, he worked for religious orders, including the Oratorians, to whom he was introduced by a priest, Virgilio Spada, who was to help him more than any other patron in his career. When Urban VIII died in 1644, Spada became artistic adviser to his successor, Innocent X (Pamphili). As we shall see, Innocent was determined to reverse the policy of his predecessor in all fields, including the arts, and as a result Bernini found himself pushed aside, and Spada was able to bring his favourite to the notice of the pope. Through his agency Borromini received the most important commission of his career, to restore and remodel the interior of San Giovanni in Laterano. At about the same time, he was made Architect of the College of Propaganda Fide, a post which Bernini had previously held. However, within a few years Bernini gradually recaptured the favour of the pope, partly because of Borromini’s constitutional inability to play the courtier, and, with the election of Alexander VII (Chigi) in 1655, he was fully reinstated. Borromini was allowed to complete the works that he had in hand – Sant’Ivo, Propaganda Fide and the Lateran – but he never received any major commissions from Alexander.

Patrons were well satisfied by Borromini’s approach to architecture, which despite the originality and complexity of his buildings, was both practical and economical. His works included:

  • The church and monastery of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, for a Spanish Order of Trinitarians
  • Santa Lucia in Selci and Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori for the Augustinian nuns
  • The dome and campanile of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte for the Minims
  • The church of San Giovanni di Dio or San Giovanni Calabita (never executed) for the Padri Benefratelli who ran a hospital on the Isola Teverina
  • The Oratory built for the order founded by San Philip Neri
  • The private patrons who commissioned him to build palaces or villas were distinguished – the Spada, the Carpegna, the Falconieri, the Giustiniani, the del Bufalo. With the exception, for a short time, of the Pamphili, he was spurned by the much richer and more powerful papal families.

Borromini worked on a small scale, usually in brick and stucco, but some times in travertine; he never used colour, and all the interiors of his churches are painted white; if he introduces sculpture, it is incorporated in the decoration of the building; and the light is used to emphasise the space, not to create dramatic contrasts. He attains his effects by purely architectural means, employing the utmost inventiveness. His spaces flow into one another; walls are curved or articulated in depth by columns and niches; he uses novel forms of arches, sometimes twisting them in three dimensions, and he invents fantastic forms for his domes, belfries and lanterns. The result is an architecture in which the essentially Baroque feature of movement is given its most brilliant expression, undisturbed by the distractions of colour, richness of materials or drama. Whilst one looks at Bernini’s buildings with the eyes; one feels Borromini’s with the whole body.

Borromini’s works in Rome

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontaine. We look closely at this building in a later section.

Oratory of the Chiesa Nuova. In the late sixteenth century, the Congregation of the Filippini (also known as the Oratorians) rebuilt the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (known as the Chiesa Nuova) in central Rome. In the 1620s, on a site adjacent to the church, the Fathers commissioned designs for their own residence and for an oratory in which to hold their spiritual exercises.

The sacristy was begun in 1629 and was in use by 1635. After a substantial benefaction in January 1637, Borromini was appointed as architect. By 1640, the oratory was in use, a taller and richer clock tower was accepted, and by 1643, the relocated library was complete. The striking brick curved facade adjacent to the church entrance has an unusual pediment and does not entirely correspond to the oratory room behind it.

The Oratory was created by Neri as a safe place for orphans to play and learn music and Borromini elected to reflect this in his design of the façade, intended to represent a central chest and two outstretched welcoming arms. Borromini’s desire to change the way peopled lived through his architecture is a little studied and important aspect of his work. This desire to change people through his designs was thwarted, ironically, by the fact that he was controlled by his patrons. Sadly, most of his projects were never fully realised in the ways he wanted.

The white oratory interior resembles a box with round edges, simple yet complex. Borromini’s interest in music is reflected in him designing spaces dedicated to musicians and singers. The nave has a ribbed vault and a complex wall arrangement of engaged pilasters along with freestanding columns supporting first level balconies. The altar wall was substantially reworked at a later date.

Borromini’s relations with the Oratorians were often fraught; there were heated arguments over the design and the selection of building materials. By 1650, the situation came to a head and in 1652 the Oratorians appointed another architect. As we shall now see, Virgilio Spada leapt to Borromini’s defence.

Spada’s defence of Borromini. Under Innocent X , Virgilio Spada was one of the most powerful men in Rome. He retained part of that power under Alexander VII. He supervised the reconstruction of San Giovanni in Laterano under Innocent X and was involved in the commission to investigate flaws in Bernini’s campanile of Saint Peter’s. Perhaps he did more to shape the physical fabric of Baroque Rome than any other single patron of his generation. Spada gained his expertise as a patron and critic on Borromini’s Oratory and was a vocal supporter of the architect, leading me to ask the question– why didn’t Borromini gain more by his support?

In 1657, Spada failed, unusually for him, to persuade his fellow Oratorians to take Borromini back to finish the Casa dei Filippini after 13 years of service. Borromini and Spada wrote a monograph on the building, the Opus Architectonicum, (1646-7). It shows a stormy relationship between architect and patron, one in which only Spada could mediate. But when Spada left the Oratorians to live in the Vatican in service of Innocent X, trouble began and Borromini was eventually replaced by Camillo Arcucci in 1652.

The Oratorians essentially refused to acknowledge that Borromini was the better architect. While admitting it is not easy to define a ‘good’ architect, Spada came to Borromini’s defence, advising that one look first at an architect’s origins, next his ability to solve problems in plan, then his knowledge on calculating costs and, finally, the recommendations of the best practitioners in the field.

Perhaps perilously, given the purported rivalry between the two, Spada quoted Bernini: ‘Bernini himself said to me many years ago, before the altar of Saint Peter’s, that Borromini alone understood the profession but that he was never satisfied, that he wanted to enclose one thing inside another, and that inside another, with never an end.’ As the exact date of this quote is disputed, it is hard to know how much of Borromini’s work Bernini had seen and to what aspect of it he was referring – critics have applied his comments to the technical aspects of the Baldacchino or to Borromini’s technique of layering drawings on transparencies to obtain a three-dimensional model effect.

Spada is quoted as saying – ‘Cardinal Barberini told me a few days ago that the Palazzo Barberini alle Quattro Fontane was, in great part, the work of Borromini’. Borromini had also spoken of his significant role at this time and in the margins of Martinelli’s guide wrote that the palazzo was the work of many people, not just Bernini. Baldinucci, is biographer, meantime, continued to attribute the palazzo to Bernini.

Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. A similar reading emerges with regards to the church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. La Sapienza was originally founded in 1303 by Pope Boniface VIII. The block was torn down and the new building constructed with a church dedicated to St. Yves (1253–1303), the patron saint of lawyers. Somewhat unexpectedly, it was Bernini who recommended Borromini as architect, after which Borromini designed the building, over ten years from 1640, as if it were fitted into an older structure by using the institutional spaces as part of the “frame” for the church, which sits at the back of a long courtyard piazza, seemingly embedded within the fabric of the building. It was a very awkward space in which to plan such a building.

The church was designed in plan as two intersecting triangles, with circles added at the perimeter to add or subtract space. The result is a space that is centralised and yet axial. Its simplicity is ingenious. As at San Carlo, the facade and the space of the church just barely intersect. In fact, the church has no actual facade in the traditional Renaissance sense, since it is here nothing more than an elaboration of the courtyard’s facade. The church has a high drum on which the dome is placed. The dome is surmounted by an ornate cupola with an unique spiralling top, inspired by the helical geometry of the shells Borromini collected and studied.

The interior of Sant’Ivo presents another complex fusion of architectural forms. Though the central space is essentially circular, it is composed of six bays, three of which are semi circular, and three others of an irregular shape. The geometry of the structure is a symmetric six-pointed star; from the centre of the floor, the cornice looks like a two equilateral triangles forming a hexagon, but three of the points are clover-like, while the other three are concavely clipped. The wall surfaces are articulated by a series of niches and a string course serving to divide the wall into two sections. Instead of columns, we find pilasters, distributed in a complex rhythm, which are in turn combined with a series of broken pilasters, creating a similar sense of spatial disorientation as that found at San Carlo.

In Borromini’s architecture, geometry is not necessarily meant to only generate form, but becomes a sort of hidden dimension, disguised by a profusion of structural and decorative manipulations. The fusion of feverish and dynamic baroque excesses with a rationalistic geometry is an excellent match for a church in a papal institution of higher learning.

It is an architecture which reaches upwards, free from the weight of gravity. The complicated shape reveals itself when one looks up – a complexity which at ground level is very difficult to comprehend is replaced, above, by the perfect circle of the dome.

Borromini’s other works

San Giovanni in Laterano. Innocent X, largely on the recommendation of Spada, gave Borromini his only big papal project, the renovation of San Giovanni in Laterano, which was structurally compromised, the nave tilted to forty degrees from perpendicular. The timetable was tight, for completion by the jubilee year of 1650. As his work progressed, much of which was reparation, Borromini still found the time and the will to play with admitting, guiding and reflecting light. His sculpture in the building – cherubs, palm fronds, stars – is part of the architecture, not decoration like Bernini. Despite this, Innocent asked Spada to stop Borromini decorating and covering the nave with his planned ribbed vault, which was deemed ahead of its time. Borromini was frustrated at being misunderstood and under appreciated and left the site, his pride stung.

Sometime later, having found a young man damaging his marble, Borromini ordered his workmen to beat him up; he died of his injuries. The pope intervened to prevent Borromini from serious consequences.

San Giovanni dei Fiorentino. It is the Florentines’ church in Rome. Pope Leo X, of the Medici Family, gave the commission to build it to various architects including Michelangelo and Raphael; it was, however, Jacopo Sansovino who began it in 1519. The work was continued by others and completed towards the end of the century by Giacomo Della Porta. The High Altar is the result of the work of two great Baroque protagonists, Borromini and the artist and architect, Pietro da Cortona. The dome is by Carlo Maderno while the façade is from the 18th century. The interior of the church, in the shape of a Latin cross with side aisles divided by pillars, houses sculptures by Gianlorenzo Bernini and Alessandro Algardi and paintings by Lanfranco. The funeral monuments of the Falconieri on the sidewalls of the presbytery were begun by Borromini and completed by Ciro Ferri.

The Falconieri family crypt is under the high altar, and is reached by way of a small staircase placed behind the altar itself. Borromini designed this room. It is oval with a lowered vault and a run of ribs which, starting from the wooden frame, converge on an oval enclosing a stucco relief with two palm branches, ribbon and garland. The frame juts out linking the eight-half columns which frame the four doors which in turn have oval windows above them. Despite the small size, the design of the whole emits a sense of great energy and lightness. The entire chapel has recently been restored and painted white.

Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori. The church, planned by Borromini, is enclosed by the convent, built in various periods between 1643 and 1667. The façade with its brick curtain is bordered by two projecting wings that emphasise the angularity of the frontage. The architect seems to search for an effect of enclosure, almost alluding to the secluded life of the nuns. The main door opens onto a vestibule, the shape of which reveals knowledge and study of classic architecture. The church, parallel to the façade, is rectangular with a very dynamic interior. The pairs of columns, in fact, with a high cornice, emphasise the side chapels and the high altar. The interior was completely repainted in 1845, altering Borromini’s wishes to keep it white. The original floor, in brickwork, where smooth bricks alternated rose-coloured and clear, has been lost. The construction of the church was not completed by the architect because of the pressing commitments for the jubilee restoration of the Lateran Basilica.

Spada Palace. The palace was built and decorated with splendid paintings and stuccoes halfway through the 16th century by Cardinal Girolamo Capodiferro. Purchased in 1632 by Cardinal Bernadino Spada, the building was immediately transformed to house the residence of the important prelate. Borromini began work on the restoration of the Spada Palace around 1635. He transformed the grand interior staircase and built the two spiral staircases in the façade facing the garden. The most important work, however, was the surprising Gallery in Perspective, the wish of Cardinal Bernadino Spada, impassioned by those baroque virtuosities. The gallery was built in a year, from 1652 to 1653, in collaboration with the Augustinian mathematician, Giovanni Maria da Bitonto. The virtual depth of the gallery is about 35 metres, but the real measurement is 8.82 metres! The optical illusion was made through the convergence of the planes of the colonnade towards the vanishing point and the upward slope of the mosaic floor.

The Re Magi Chapel of the Propaganda Fide. The College of the Propagation of the Faith or Propaganda Fide in Rome includes the Re Magi Chapel by Borromini, generally considered by architectural historians to be one of his most spatially unified architectural interiors. The chapel replaced a small oval chapel designs by his rival Bernini and was a late work in Borromini’s career; he was appointed as architect in 1648 but it was not until 1660 that construction of the chapel began and although the main body of work was completed by 1665, some of the decoration was finished after his death.

His façade to the Via di Propaganda Fide comprises seven bays articulated by giant pilasters. The central bay is a concave curve and accommodates the main entry into the college courtyard and complex, with the entrance to the chapel to the left and to the college to the right.

Sant’Andrea delle Fratte. In 1626, a Spanish priest, Juan Baptiste Vives, gave the ex-Ferratini palace to the Congregation. An early work on the building, in 1634, is down to Bernini, who planned an internal chapel, dedicated to the Three Kings, with an independent entrance from the street. Later, the congregation decided to acquire the whole block (1644) and the façade in the square was built. In 1646, Francesco Borromini was commissioned to plan the new wing in Via della Mercede. At first, the architect thought of adapting the existing chapel to the interior of the new building, but later (1650), he decided to rebuild, making it bigger, causing contrasts with Bernini. The rectangular plan of the room was lightened thanks to the many sources of light and the great dynamism suggested by the design, with interlaced arched in the vault and large windows in the walls

Rebuilt at the beginning of the 1600s, the church has a taste of the late 1500s. The interior has a single nave with barrel vaulting and three chapels on each side. There are also two of the famous marble angels by Bernini for the St. Angelo bridge, donated by the nephew of Clement XI in 1729).

In 1653, Borromini was commissioned by the Marquis Paolo del Bufalo to complete the church, at that time still without the choir and the transept. After having suggested an oval dome, refused by the client, Borromini designed another but set in a high square tambour with rounded corners. The design of the campanile is bizarre and spectacular. It is square, taken from the tambour, culminating with cherubs with folded wings to act as herms and with the four scrolls supporting the emblems of the saint and of the family.

Sant’Agnese in Agone. Borromini was one of several architects involved in the building of the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone in Rome. Not only were some of his design intentions changed by succeeding architects but the net result is a building which reflects, rather unhappily, a mix of different approaches. The decision to rebuild of the church was taken in 1652 as part of Pope Innocent X’s project to enhance the Piazza Navona, the urban space onto which his family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili, faced. The first plans for a Greek Cross church were drawn up by Girolamo Rainaldi and his son Carlo who relocated the main entrance to the Piazza Navona. The foundations were laid and much of the lower level walls had been constructed when the Rainaldis were dismissed due to criticisms of the design and Borromini was appointed in their stead.

Borromini began a much more innovative approach to the facade which was expanded to include parts of the adjacent Palazzo Pamphili and gain space for his two bell towers. Construction of the façade proceeded up to the cornice level and the dome completed as far as the lantern. On the interior, he placed columns against the piers of the lower order which was mainly completed.

In 1655, Innocent X died and the project lost momentum. In 1657, Borromini was dropped from the project by Alexander VII, as we shall see next, and Carlo Rainaldi was recalled who made a number of significant changes to Borromini’s design. Further alterations were made by Bernini including the façade pediment. In 1668, Carlo Rainaldi returned as architect and Ciro Ferri received the commission to fresco the dome interior which it is highly unlikely that Borromini intended. Further large scale statuary and coloured marbling were also added; again, these are not part of Borromini’s design repertoire which was orientated to white stucco architectural and symbolic motifs.

Fallout from Borromini’s suspension

In 1657 Borromini was dropped from Sant’Agnese by Alexander VII, for a list of structural and administrative shortcomings but also with reference to his difficult and inflexible character. As if to prove the point, it must be admitted, Borromini retaliated by refusing to complete the installation of a set of bronze doors at the Lateran but Alexander simply removed from him the commission for the altar there.

At the same time, Borromini also refused to supervise work at the palace of Virgilio’s brother, Bernardino Spada. Despite this, Spada continued his heroic attempts to defend Borromini, depicting him as a man with a sense of honour and loyalty, expecting the same in return, sensitive and defenceless in the face of conflict. This pattern was familiar; it had been seen in 1647, when Innocent X passed a commission for the fountain in Piazza Navona to Bernini, following which Borromini had a series of angry interviews with the pope and handed work at the Lateran over to another architect.

Death and epitaph

Borromini seems to have been poorly equipped for a world of intrigue and favouritism, a world where, to his mind, nonentities with good manners rose meteorically while geniuses were shuffled off.

Living in solitude he drew obsessively, designing ever more outlandish projects on a huge scale that would never be created – a massive harbour near the Lateran, an entire city in the Lazio region, a huge tower with waterways and a giant aviary and zoo. At least he could still think like an architect. He was recognised as ill and treated by doctors but we do not recognise their disease classification – ‘hypochondria’, a ‘sickness of the soul’, ‘melancholia’; this might suggest our modern day depression but features of his symptoms suggest a more serious psychopathology.

Borromini knew he was ill and was afraid. He became socially isolated and burned many of his drawings which are beautiful works of art in their own right.This was out of fear that he would be misunderstood or turned into something other than his vision, or to stop those who came after stealing his ideas. He was always a controlling architect and had nowhere to go. Perhaps inevitably he took his own life, running himself through with a sword. At that time, suicide was a sin and he could not have been buried in church but Borromini was absolved of his sins and laid to rest in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini.

Three Popes who were patrons of the Baroque

Urban VIII (6 August 1623 – 29 July 1644). He was born Maffeo Vincenzo Barberini at Barbarino Val d’Elsa in April 1568. When his father died aged three, his mother brought him to Rome. An intelligent and keen scholar, he received a doctorate of law from the University of Pisa in 1589. A career in ecclesiastical politics beckoned and under Clement VIII he was made papal legate to King Henry IV of France in 1601 and Archbishop of Nazareth in 1604. He was raised to cardinal and papal legate of Bologna by Paul V in 1606.

When his uncle died he became rich by inheritance and built himself a luxurious Renaissance palazzo, the Palazzo Barberini, where we shall examine the relative inputs of the three Baroque architects, as it was one of the few projects on which they would collaborate.

Barberini was elected Pope at the age of 56 on the death of Gregory XV, choosing as his title Urban VIII. From the outset, his mission was to recreate, in the spirit of his great High Renaissance predecessors, an image of the unified, universal church centred on the tomb of the apostles, while affirming the Counter-Reformatory image of the church as the ultimate goal of the Christian’s spiritual pilgrimage. As always, the role of Pope involved him in not only religious affairs but also in politics and the arts.

Politics. Despite his stated objectives, rather than restoring Catholicism in Europe, he favoured adjusting the balance of power in Italy in his own favour. Without delay, he set out to extend the papal territories by a combination of force of arms and clever politics. In 1626, he incorporated the duchy of Urbino as new papal territories and influenced the succession in Mantua against his enemies, the Catholic Hapsburgs. He excommunicated the Duke of Parma and Piacenza, overcoming them in the Wars of Castro and again incorporating their territories. But this all came, quite literally, at a cost, significantly – and quickly – depleting the papal coffers. Huge debts accrued in the Wars of Castro significantly weakened successive papacies, resulting in waning political and military influence throughout Italy and beyond.

Relationships with other organisations. Urban was a reformer of church missions. Educated by Jesuits, he favoured their growth and development and, among those he canonised was the founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius of Loyola.

Opposed to Copernicanism, he summoned Gallileo to Rome to recant in 1633 and, unhappy with what he heard, ordered his subsequent trial.

Echoing many of his predecessors , and indeed those who would follow, Urban was a proponent of nepotism, elevating his brother and his two nephews to cardinals. He also made a cardinal of Giovanni Battista Pamphili, who would succeed him as Pope Innocent X.

Arts. He funded various substantial works by Bernini, including ‘Boy with a Dragon’, busts of himself and his family, work on Palazzo Barberini, the College of Propaganda Fide, Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barberini and works in Saint Peter’s basilica.

He also patronised Poussin, Claude Lorraine and Pietro da Cortona , who painted ‘Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power’ in Palazzo Barberini.

He bought the ‘Barberini vase’ found at the mausoleum of Roman Emperor Severus Alexander, now known as the ‘Portland Vase’ and in the British Museum.


Innocent X (15 September 1644 – 7 January 1655). Born in Rome as Giovanni Battista Pamphili on 6 May 1574, his family was descended from Pope Alexander VI. A career in church politics beckoned and he duly trained as a lawyer at the Collegio Romano, shortly thereafter succeeding his uncle as auditor of the Roman Rota, the ecclesiastical appellate tribunal. Having attained positions as cardinal-priest of Sant’Eusebio and as papal diplomat, Giovanni was sent to Naples in 1623 by Gregory XV.

Following his papal succession, Urban VIII sent him to accompany his nephew Francesco Barberini to France then to Spain in 1625. In May 1626 he was made nuncio to the court of Philip IV of Spain; his lifelong association with the Spanish would be decisive in securing him the papacy in the conclave of 1644 after Urban’s death.

One of the most politically shrewd pontiffs of the era, Innocent greatly increased the power of the papacy, despite inheriting financial difficulties. On his election, he immediately initiated legal action against the Barberini for misappropriation of public funds, confiscating the property of the brothers Francesco, Antonio and Taddeo.

His great antipathy towards his predecessor predates his accession to the papacy however; indeed, his rivalry with Urban VIII began when he was part of the College of Cardinals, along with the pope’s brother, Antonio. Antonio commissioned Guido Reni to paint ‘Archangel Michael Trampling Satan Underfoot’, where Satan has the features of the future Innocent X. Reni is said to have been insulted by rumours he thought were circulated by Cardinal Pamphili, but the future Innocent’s ire was directed not at the artist but at the family he accused of defaming his character. Innocent would spend considerable time undoing the projects of Urban, which would in turn impact on both Bernini and Borromini.

Guido Reni ‘Archangel Michael Trampling Satan Underfoot’ (1635), Santa Maria delle Concezione de Cappucini, Rome

In politics, he was involved with the English Civil War, supporting the independent Confederate Ireland in their attempts to found a Catholic-ruled country, but Cromwell succeeded in restoring Ireland to Parlimentarian rule. Troubles closer to home saw Innocent reengage with Parma over ongoing hostilities in the Wars of Castro, the city which he finally destroyed on 2 September 1649.

His artistic patronage centred latterly around the year 1650, a Jubilee, when Innocent ordered inlaid floors and a bas-relief in Saint Peter’s, erected Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona and ordered construction of the Palazzo Nuovo at the Campidoglio.


Alexander VII (7 April 1655 – 22 May 1667). Born Fabio Chigi on 13 February 1599 in Siena, he began his ecclesiastical career as papal legate to Ferrara in 1627. Ordained a a priest in 1635, he immediately was elected Bishop of Nardo and then Bishop of Imola in 1652. In between, he had been named papal nuncio to Cologne in 1639.

Made Secretary of State by Innocent X in 1651 and cardinal-priest of Santa Maria del Popolo in 1652, his upward trajectory was unremitting as he moved towards the highest position of all. Election to Pope as Alexander VII duly arrived on the death of Innocent X in January 1655 after a conclave lasting eighty days.

Initially opposed to nepotism, he even forbade his relations to visit Rome, but from 1656 his position reverted to the more typical nepotism seen in the office and his nephew was elected cardinal.

Politically, he was less abrasive than his predecessor and supported the Jesuits in retaking Venetian territories from which they had been expelled in 1606. However, strained relations with France, in particular Cardinal Mazarin, adviser to Louis XIV (1643-1715) resulted in the loss of Avignon and his forced acceptance of the Treaty of Pisa in 1664.

Quietly studious, he wrote on heliocentrism and the Immaculate Conception.

In distinction to his predecessor, Alexander had an intense interest in the arts and his main artistic interest was architecture, in which he had some training. He supported various urban projects in Rome, diverse in scope and scale, from Santa Maria della Pace and its piazza on a small scale to Piazza San Pietro on a grand scale, during which he demonstrated a consistent planning and architectural vision for the imposition of order and decorum. Central to his ideas was urban theatre, grand settings or showpieces appropriate to the dignity of Rome and the papacy.

His preferred architect was, as we shall see, Bernini but he also patronised Pietro da Cortona. Borromini fared less well; Alexander thought his architectural forms wilful and found him difficult. He did give him Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza as a project however, on the recommendation of Bernini.

A look at the list of projects undertaken during his tenure confirms how he stamped his mark on Rome:

  • Santa Maria della Pace and piazza
  • Via del Corso
  • Piazza Colonna
  • Porta del Popolo
  • Santa Maria del Popolo and piazza
  • Piazza San Pietro
  • Scalia Regia and interior embellishments at St Peter’s
  • Sant’Andrea al Quirinale
  • Palazzo della Quirinale
  • Piazza della Minerva
  • Palazzo Chigi


The Roman Baroque

Rome at the end of the sixteenth century was a city where architecture had been almost dormant. Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana were two most successful Roman architects in the preceding decades. One reason for this stagnation was that only one architect seemed to understand the revolutionary discoveries incorporated in Michelangelo’s last work, the Porta Pia and the Sforza Chapel – Giacomo del Duca, who in some ways acted as a sort of intermediary between Michelangelo and the Baroque.

Both Borromini and Bernini lived at the moment when the Baroque was being born in Rome and both contributed to the invention of the new style in architecture (indeed with Pietro da Cortona they could be said to have created it) but their contributions could hardly have been more different.

The Baroque style emerged in Rome essentially as a counter-statement to the Reformation. In the Baroque, art needs to be noticed, to bring people into the church. It must persuade, convert, act as propaganda.

Though we commonly use the label Baroque to describe the architecture of the 16th and 17th centuries, this designation was formulated only in the late 19th century. Nonetheless, the word is valuable for pinpointing certain important changes in attitude about art and architecture during this period. In this article I aim to describe a style that developed as a medium for propaganda during the Counter-Reformation, spanning the decades between 1620 and 1670.

The works generally recognised as heralding the Roman Baroque were:

Santa Bibiana, Bernini (1624)

Santi Luca e Martina, Cortona (1634)

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Borromini (1634)

Although I shall restrict my comments to Roman Baroque, it would be useful to place this in the wider context of  European Baroque. Baroque Rome waned after 1648 under Pope Alexander VII, from which time forward the papacy was no longer a major power in European architecture. With the ascendancy of France and Austria, the Baroque style began to change, assuming a more urban form and, as it was now also applied to châteaux and princes’ castles, acquiring elements such as public parks and waterworks. Approaches often extended far into the landscape with elongated perspectives.

In France it is exemplified by the Place Vendôme in Paris and the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte by André Le Nôtre (1656–61); in Austria, by the Schönbrunn Palace (1695). Eventually the Baroque became associated with the architecture of the late 17th-century European capitals – Rome, Paris, London, and Vienna – giving to these cities a profile that remains very much part of their identities today. At the same time, many buildings of the Middle Ages were given new Baroque facades or makeovers, their interiors upgraded to conform to the “modernising” trend of the Baroque.

Place Vendôme, circa 1900
Schönbrunn Palace

Baroque architects preferred curves and ovals to straight lines, deploying niches, walls, pilasters, and attached columns in a seamless way that made architecture seem pliant and rubbery – not framing the liturgical but part of İt. They also had an appreciation of rhythmic movement through space and intensified visual dynamics by using painting as well as sculptural putti, which often inhabit the higher reaches of the space, sitting on ledges and entablatures. While in medieval cathedrals stained glass modulated the light, Baroque churches had plain glass devoid of tracery. Yet the windows were often unseen, designed to create a mysterious and diffuse light. One often finds a Baroque church quite luminous upon entering – without first noticing any windows at all.

Baroque architects did not hesitate to go from one medium to the other when asked to fulfil the Counter-Reformation’s call to expound the mysteries of the faith and extol the virtues of the martyrs. Though treatment of walls and pilasters varied a good deal, careful thought was given to the effects of colour and lighting. Italians preferred rose and pink marble highlighted by shades of white and black. They made use of gilded and coffered domes illuminated from a cupola. South Germans preferred a white or cream coloured background accentuated with gilding, against which the furnishings were meant to stand out. Painters created elaborate ceiling frescoes portraying visions of the Church Triumphant.

There was also a tendency to intensify colour in the upward direction. The Baroque architect was an exponent of the theatrical, setting his stage with sculptures and paintings that were given just as much importance as the architecture itself. It was, however, not all show and no substance. Bernini and Borromini were both worldly and learned and well-acquainted with classical architecture, using it in a deliberately new way to bring the articulation of space up-to-date with recent developments in mathematics and geometry.

The rivalry

Both Borromini and Bernini lived at the moment when the Baroque movement was being born in Rome, fuelled by the expression of new feelings of optimism and aggression in the Roman Catholic Church after the austere years of the Counter-Reformation and both contributed to the invention of the new style in architecture. Borromini was born in 1598,  Bernini in 1599. One was a child genius, the other a slow starter and eventually a genius. Their styles and temperaments were wildly divergent. Was there space in Baroque Rome for two such talents, two such egos?

Borromini first came into contact with Bernini in 1624, when the latter was commissioned by Urban VIII to undertake the decoration of the crossing at Saint Peter’s and the construction of the Baldacchino, and he was also his subordinate when Bernini took over the construction of the Palazzo Barberini, which was only just begun when Carlo Maderno died in 1629. Bernini, who was only twenty-six when he was called in to work on Saint Peter’s, had made a sensational start as a sculptor, a field in which he showed unparalleled virtuosity and inventiveness, but he had no training or experience as an architect, and it seems possible that he relied on Borromini’s talent and technical skill to solve the many structural problems which arose in both commissions. In fact, there may be some substance in Borromini’s accusation, made later in life after he had finally quarrelled with Bernini, that the latter exploited him and took the credit for his inventions.

When Bernini and Borromini were jointly engaged in a project, what degree of cooperation existed between the two? Some commentators allude to ‘artistic discussions’ between the two, while others regards Borromini as a subordinate to Bernini’s guidance and control. For many, Borromini begins to emerge as inventive, even if from a subordinate position. We shall look at the evidence for their joint working on Palazzo Barberini and the Baldacchino of Saint Peter’s in more detail later.

But for now, we have two sublime talents, leaders in their fields, trailblazing a new dynamic style at the centre of the Catholic world, working for perhaps the most influential patron in Europe, the Pope. Was this a recipe for harmony or for division and acrimony?

Let us consider three questions, in the context of the unique factors which existed and impacted the relationship between these two Baroque masters:

  • Was there a rivalry between Bernini and Borromini?
  • If so why?
  • If so, what form did it take?

When we meet new colleagues, time is taken sizing each other up. Some collaborations come easily and harmoniously, others take time and effort. A few are doomed to be constantly difficult and draining, no matter how hard we try. For Bernini and Borromini, the die were cast. Their personalities were fundamentally different, making a clash of personalities almost inevitable.

Bernini was a consummate social animal, charming potential patrons, ingratiating himself effortlessly into society. Borromini, on the other hand, lacked all the social graces. He was melancholy, volatile, cantankerous, nervous and uncompromising, traits which soon turned into a neurotic fear of all human contacts and a suspicion of people, which almost reached the stage of paranoia. His deliberate, painstaking, laborious methods must have frustrated Bernini who was known to be quick, impulsive and elegant. Indeed, Bernini referred to himself as a ‘bad Catholic’, but that this was preferable to Borromini who was a ‘good heretic’.

There is nothing unique about artistic rivalries, particularly when commissions are restricted. An artist stands or falls by the number of commissions he can secure. Papal coffers appeared bottomless at times, but were significantly drained by the Wars of Castro under Urban VIII. The contrast in fortunes between Bernini and Borromini appears clearly if we examine the patrons for whom they worked. Bernini began as the infant prodigy discovered by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V. Soon after the election of Urban VIII in 1623 he was commissioned with the decoration of the crossing of Saint Peter’s, the building of the Palazzo Barberini, the designing of Urban’s tomb and other important papal works, and his favour continued unabated until the pope’s death in 1644. During this pontificate Borromini received but a single public appointment, and that not directly from the pope: he was made architect to the university of the Sapienza, a post which enabled him to build one of his masterpieces, the church of Sant’Ivo.

When Urban VIII died in 1644, Virgilio Spada became artistic adviser to his successor, Innocent X. As we shall see, Innocent was determined to reverse the policy of his predecessor in all fields, including the arts, and as a result Bernini found himself pushed aside, and Spada was able to bring his favourite, Borromini, to the notice of the pope. However, within a few years Bernini gradually recaptured the favour of the pope, partly because of Borromini’s constitutional inability to play the courtier, and, with the election of Alexander VII in 1655, he was fully reinstated. He became even more completely dictator of the arts than he had been under Urban VIII and was able to work on an even grander scale. This neglect undoubtedly embittered Borromini, who found himself working for the modest patrons by whom he was employed rather than on the great papal commissions.

If we remember their origins, Bernini came to Rome from Naples when he was eight and therefore only knew styles based around Roman models, whereas Borromini was twenty and trained in Northern Italian stonemasonry techniques when he arrived from Milan. The two widely different developmental pathways must have created cultural tensions, between North Italian and Roman methodologies and between architecture and sculpture, Bernini’s prime medium of expression.

We shall look at the difference between their architectural approaches in the next section.

So we have two great talents with very different temperaments and architectural styles, upon whom papal favour was bestowed in an undulating fashion, but always significantly loaded in favour of one above the other. In which ways did the inevitable rivalry thus engendered make itself apparent?

In 1636, eager to finally finish the exterior of Saint Peter’s, Pope Urban had ordered Bernini to design and build the two, long-intended bell towers for its facade: the foundations of the two towers had already been designed and constructed decades earlier. Once the first tower was finished in 1641, cracks began to appear in the facade but, curiously enough, work nonetheless continued on the second tower and the first storey was completed. Despite the presence of the cracks, work only stopped in July 1642 once the papal treasury had been exhausted by the disastrous War of Castro.

Innocent summoned Bernini to Saint Peter’s to explain himself; as we know, there was considerable animosity between the pope and the architect. A commission was ordered, consisting of cardinals, Bernini and Borromini, charged with getting to the bottom of the problem. Taking their brief literally, the commission demanded the façade be excavated to a depth of thirty metres, finding water eroding the foundations. They were instructed by the pope to write a report for the congregation, in which seven separate solutions were proposed. Borromini stated his opinion that the tower had to be demolished, placing the blame entirely on Bernini. The subsequent investigations, in fact, revealed the cause of the cracks as Maderno’s defective foundations and not Bernini’s elaborate design, an exoneration later confirmed by the meticulous investigation conducted in 1680 under Pope Innocent XI. Nonetheless, Bernini’s opponents in Rome had succeeded in seriously damaging the reputation of Urban’s artist and in persuading Pope Innocent to order (in February 1646) the complete demolition of both towers, to Bernini’s great humiliation and indeed financial detriment (in the form of a substantial fine for the failure of the work). After this, one of the rare failures of his career, Bernini retreated into himself: according to his son, Domenico. his subsequent unfinished statue of 1647, Truth Unveiled by Time, was intended to be his self-consoling commentary on this affair, expressing his faith that eventually Time would reveal the actual Truth behind the story and exonerate him fully, as indeed did occur. In the meantime, however, Borromini had won a moral and practical victory.

Truth Unveiled by Time (1645-52) Galleria Borghese

Several years later, in 1651, Bernini would have his revenge. To glorify his name, Innocent wanted to utilise Piazza Navona, the seat of Pamphili power, to build a fountain. Borromini came up with the idea of a fountain of four rivers and, receiving a positive response, was next charged with the task of bringing water up to the Piazza. Meanwhile Bernini, having designed a magnificent fountain along the lines required, made a silver model of it, which he presented to Olimpia Maidalchini, Innocent’s sister-in-law, a formidable woman who filtered all commissions between artist and patron. Innocent was struck by its beauty when shown the model and changed horses, offering the commission for the fountain to Bernini over Borromini. This was a crushing blow to Borromini who angrily demanded a meeting with the pontiff, who predictably stood his ground. Innocent recorded his concern that Borromini might throw himself in the Tiber thereafter.

The most significant result of the schism between the two architects was that Borromini, frozen out of the papal commissions, secured smaller commissions from independent religious groups, thriving in a Rome emerging from the Counter-Reformation, which allowed him free reign to express his unique architectural vision. We have seen how he was a man ahead of his time, driven by a vision of how he wanted his creations to look, but had he co-existed peacefully alongside Bernini, sharing the papal commissions which were inherently less adventurous and more strictly defined, there is no doubt his genius would have been fettered.

Until the end of his life Borromini continued to have a deep respect and affection for his first master, Carlo Maderno, to the point of asking in his will he should be buried beside him. This was no doubt partly inspired out of respect to the fact that Maderno had been generous in allowing him a free hand and in encouraging his genius, but it may also be partly due to a desire on Borromini’s part to emphasise the difference between Maderno and the artist under whom he found himself working on the death of the older master, one Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

One obvious curiosity about the rivalry is the fact that it was Bernini who handed Borromini his first major commission, that for Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza. Some see in this proof that Bernini on some level respected Borromini and, of course, this is possible, but I’m inclined to the notion that Bernini was trying to get Borromini out of the way with a difficult commission.

Comparison of architectural styles

We can see the differences between the styles of Borromini and Bernini if we study two churches 200 metres apart in the Quirinale district in Rome.

Borromini – San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane . San Carlo was dedicated to another newly created saint (canonised 1601) of the Counter-Reformation, Carlo Borromeo, (1538–84), who had been archbishop of Milan and papal secretary of state under Pius IV. Borromini was given the commission in 1634. The church is located at an intersection known for its four fountains – hence its name – situated on the Quirinal Hill.

The complex was designed for the Spanish Trinitarians, a religious order. The monastic buildings and the cloister were completed first after which construction of the church took place during the period 1638-1641; in 1646 it was dedicated to San Carlo Borromeo. The church is considered by many to be an exemplary masterpiece of Roman Baroque architecture. San Carlo is remarkably small given its significance to Baroque architecture; it has been noted that the whole building would fit into one of the dome piers of Saint Peter’s.

The body of the church is nestled in an L formed by the entrance to the compound on the left of the church and a back wing of rooms. The site was not an easy one; it was a corner site and the space was limited. Borromini positioned the church on the corner of two intersecting roads. Only the front facade of the church is visible, as the church engages the street at its narrowest. Though relatively flat, the numerous segmented curves of the bases and entablatures creates a dynamic tension between the columns and walls. Borromini designed the facade to fit within a set of other facades that, though purposefully less remarkable, are all part of a single unit. To the right of the church facade, Borromini designed the monastery courtyard so that it ties in with the neighbouring structure on its right. The two-story entrance courtyard to the monastery is a play of geometrical inversions, but in keeping with the ideology of austerity, all its elements are plain white, giving the whole a strikingly modern aspect.

The design of the interior is an equally ingenious compromise between form and pragmatism. It is based on the prototype of a dome and four apses, but the apses have been flattened. The walls are composed of shallow and deep curved bays all linked by straight horizontal elements. The whole interior surface is articulated by columns set into walls, while the surfaces themselves are pierced by a series of niches of varying sizes, adding yet another rhythmic dimension. The inner surface of the oval dome is coffered with interlacing octagons, crosses, and lozenges. The first impression of the interior is of a flowing, almost dizzying, sense of movement, reflecting the intentions of the architect – to confuse and destabilise one’s sense of spatial orientation. Borromini devised the complex ground plan of the church from interlocking geometrical configurations, a typical Borromini device for constructing plans. The resulting effect is that the interior lower walls appear to weave in and out, partly alluding to a cross form.

In essence, the upper half of the church represents a synopsis of the lower half. The dome space, which contains the same geometric figures as the floor plan, is clearly meant to be understood as a metaphorical representation of the heavenly realm, which is explicitly shown in the lantern where we find the symbol of the Holy Spirit and behind it a series of rays depicting the spiritual light of revelation. This light is complemented by the natural light that emanates from the windows at the base of the dome, making this area the most brightly lit space in the whole church and, consequently, reinforcing the notion of a progression from temporal reality towards the perfection of the heavenly sphere, through the process of spiritual revelation.

San Carlo was a new kind of architecture, ahead of its time. Completed by the 1640s, it won instant fame and notoriety for Borromini – sadly most people just didn’t get it and complained Borromini was bizarre. He, on the other hand, thought he deserved glory and success. There was a sense that he believed in what he is doing rather than doing it to win plaudits or applause or medals. Unlike Bernini, Borromini did not seek, or need, the approval of others.

Bernini – Sant’Andrea al Quirinale. Bernini considered the church one of his most perfect works; his son, Domenico, recalled that in his later years, Bernini spent hours sitting inside it, appreciating what he had achieved. He received the commission in 1658 and the church was constructed by 1661, although the interior decoration was not finished until 1670. Commissioned by former Cardinal Camillo Francesco Maria Pamphili, with the approval of Pope Alexander VII, Sant’Andrea was the third Jesuit church constructed in Rome, after the Church of the Gesu and Sant’Ignazio.

The main façade of the church faces onto the Via del Quirinale, as does San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. Unlike San Carlo, Sant’Andrea is set back from the street and the space outside the church is enclosed by low curved quadrant walls. An oval cylinder encases the dome, and large volutes transfer the lateral thrust. The main façade to the street has an aedicular pedimented frame at the center of which a semicircular porch with two Ionic columns marks the main entrance. Above the porch entablature is the heraldic coat of arms of the Pamphili patron.

Inside, the main entrance is located on the short axis of the church and directly faces the high altar. The oval form of the main congregational space of the church is defined by the wall, pilasters and entablature, which frame the side chapels, and the golden dome above. Large paired columns supporting a curved pediment differentiate the recessed space of the high altar from the congregational space. In distinction to the complex geometry of Borromini, the ground plan here is basically an oval with two small additions at the entrance and high altar.

In contrast to the dark side chapels, the high altar niche is well lit from a hidden source and becomes the main visual focus of the lower part of the interior. As a result, the congregation effectively become ‘witnesses’ to the theatrical narrative of Saint Andrew which begins in the High Altar chapel and culminates in the dome. 

Stucco cherubim heads cluster around the opening to the lantern and the lantern vault with the Dove of the Holy Ghost. This dramatic visual narrative is sustained not only upwards through the space of the church but employs different artistic modes. Bernini combined painting, sculpture and architecture into a synthesis to create visually the idea of the apotheosis of St Andrew in this spiritual theatre. All the work is in the theatre of the building , relying on marble and money. It is theatrical and exciting but not moving spiritually. He used a similar synthesis of artistic modes in his design of the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Victoria. This synthesis has been referred to as the ‘unity of the visual arts’.


The rivalry between Borromini and Bernini embodied, indeed may have been created by, distinctions between artistic styles. Bernini used the weapons of scale, dramatic light effects, the fusion of the three arts of painting, sculpture and architecture into a single whole, dramatic extension of the action across the whole space of a church, and the use of rich materials, coloured marbles and gilding; but his architectural forms were simple, sometimes even rudimentary. Borromini worked on a small scale, usually in brick and stucco, but some times in travertine; he never used colour, and all the interiors of his churches are painted white; if he introduces sculpture, it is incorporated as decoration of the building and his light is used to emphasise the space, not to create dramatic contrasts. Though there is much that links these two great artists, Borromini clearly worked unremittingly with the language of geometry. Bernini was also certainly most interested in geometry, but in many respects, he was more the classicist. It is Borromini who brings the classical orders and requirements into alignment with an almost medieval fascination with geometric complexity. If Bernini was attracted to the historical symbolism of Rome, Borromini was attracted to the symbolic potential of space itself. He attains his effects by purely architectural means, and in devising these he showed the utmost inventiveness. His spaces flow into one another; walls are curved or articulated in depth by columns and niches, he uses novel forms of arches, sometimes twisting them in three dimensions, and he invents fantastic forms for his domes, belfries and lanterns. The result is an architecture in which the essentially Baroque feature of movement is given its most brilliant expression, undisturbed by the distractions of colour, richness of materials or drama. One looks at Bernini’s buildings with the eyes; one feels Borromini’s with the whole body.

Working together

Palazzo Barberini. The Villa Sforza had been bought from the Sforza family in 1625, two years after Maffeo Barberini ascended to the papacy as Urban VIII. Three great architects worked to create the Palazzo, each contributing his own style and character to the building; the design quickly evolved into a precedent-setting combination of an urban seat of princely power combined with a garden front that had the nature of a suburban villa with a semi-enclosed garden.

To build their new palace, the Barberini hired papal architect Carlo Maderno, who by now was in his seventies, with a long and illustrious career behind him. Though he died only a month after construction began on the palace, he is credited with much of the design, which is typical of his style as it is shown in his earlier palaces, such as the Palazzo Mattei di Giove. Maderno employed his nephew, Borromini, to work alongside him.

The palazzo is disposed around a with an extended wing dominating the piazza, which lies on a lower level. At the rear, a long wing protected the garden from the piazza below, above which it rose from a rusticated basement that was slightly battered like a military bastion.

The palace itself was shaped like an H, with wings on the north (the old Sforza palace) and south, connected by a forecourt centred on Bernini’s grand two-storey hall backed by an oval salone. The southern wing was entirely new, and this side was for the ecclesiastical side of the family, namely Cardinal Francesco. The salone is where Pietro da Cortona painted his masterpiece. The ceiling at that time was surpassed in size only by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, emphasising the Barberinis’ role as pioneers in secular palace decoration and establishing their position through opulence.

Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power (1633-9)

The main block presents three tiers of great arch-headed windows, like glazed arcades, a formula that was more Venetian than Roman. On the uppermost floor, Borromini’s windows are set in a false perspective that suggests extra depth, a feature that has been copied into the 20th century.

Flanking the hall, two sets of stairs lead to the piano nobile, a large squared staircase by Bernini to the left and a smaller oval staircase by Borromini to the right.


The controversy about ‘who did what’ and the relative merits of each is perhaps less bitter than it was at Saint Peter’s but still bears consideration. In his letter supporting Borromini around the time of his split with the Oratorians in 1657, Spada is quoted as saying – ‘Cardinal Barberini told me a few days ago that the Palazzo Barberini alle Quattro Fontane was, in great part, the work of Borromini’. Borromini had also spoken of his significant role at this time and in the margins of Martinelli’s guide to the sights of Rome, Borromini wrote that the palazzo was the work of many people, not just Bernini. Baldinucci, meantime, continued to attribute the palazzo to Bernini.

On the death of Maderno (1629), Bernini became manager of the building site; he continued to use the help of Borromini until 1632. Bernini, who at that time was renowned as a sculptor, had done very little architectural work; this was to be his first large architectural commission. Based on his inexperience, and on the architectural plans that survive, we can see that Bernini followed quite closely to Maderno’s original design, with the help of Borromini. The changes we do see are mostly in the details, for example, the introduction of sculpted figures or addition of reliefs on the façade. These show the influence of a sculptor, and it is quite likely that these revisions were Bernini’s changes. The six smaller doors in the saloon of the palace are basically from Borromini’s design and most of the existing drawings for them are by him. Borromini must also have played an important part in the execution of the central pavilion of the garden front, in which the brick work is of a delicacy only paralleled in his facade of the Oratory of San Filippo Neri, built a few years later.

Borromini was certainly responsible for the oval spiral staircase in the right wing, elegant, balanced and harmonious. In one of the preliminary drawings the steps are shaped in very elongated S-curves, a form which Borromini was frequently to use later, but the architect abandoned this idea and, as built, the steps are straight. Borromini was also responsible for some of the particularly revolutionary details. The doors to the main room (even if limited by the Bernini plan), the side windows next to the gallery in the façade (important in the development of the baroque style in Rome and copied from those of his uncle in the façade of St. Peter’s) and those on the opposite side clearly influenced by Michelangelo but with a bizarre anthropomorphic connotation which make them look like masks, can be attributed to Borromini. Most remarkable are the windows opening on the top floor of the loggia on the west front, which are set in false perspective arches, and the two in the bay flanking the loggia, which foreshadow many features of Borromini’s later designs.

Saint Peter’s. The Baldacchino was envisaged as the focal point of a newly coherent and unified architectural and ideological concept of Saint Peter’s. This was indeed the principle Bernini followed through the entire process of designing the crossing of Saint Peter’s and I have no doubt that it was indeed a sympathetic response to the pope’s own ideology and ambitions. While absolutely saturated with references to tradition, the monument also broke with tradition in fundamental ways and inaugurated a new epoch in the history of art. Is it architectural sculpture or sculptural architecture? The project created a chimeric marriage between two distinct and traditionally mutually exclusive forms of symbolic markers of sacral distinction, one commemorative, monumental, and stationary – the architectural ciborium; the other ritual, ephemeral, and mobile – the processional canopy carried on staves. It is important to bear in mind that what became the final solution was not reached only at the end, as is often assumed, but was repeatedly considered from the very beginning.

There are a range of opinions expressed by expert commentators regarding the relative contributions made by Bernini and Borromini to the design of the Baldacchino:-

  • Artistic discussions between the two generated jointly the Baldacchino’s design. This is the most widely cited position, one which allows for the genius of both to shine through while, at the same time, recognising the enormous differences between the two creative processes
  • Borromini served as an assistant to Bernini, acting solely on his instruction
  • Bernini generated the design and structure as a solo practitioner

It is not my intention to provide a definitive answer to this question; it may not even be possible to do so. As is often the case, one could select from the available body of ‘evidence’ those parts which support one’s viewpoint. You may well be thinking – ‘does it even matter?’. To me, I think of this question in terms of the consequences of its resolution. The issue speaks to the relationship between the two great architects and, given the facts (largely accepted) that each was a key player in the Roman Baroque, the style which shaped much of the civic architecture of the Rome we see today, and that each had his own distinctive style, it seems a sine qua non that the relative contributions of each to the overall urban plan would materially alter the appearance of Rome today. The urban fabric of Rome is largely dependent on the churches and palazzos which enrich its streets. Many of these are by Bernini and Borromini. Two facts determine the ratio of each – the patronage bestowed upon each by the papacy and the professional relationship between the two men. Therefore, the question seems to me to be worthy of further consideration.

In trying to distinguish between the possibilities, there are three areas which might be called the ‘hard evidence’, the contemporary evidence in its three forms:

  • Payment for work done
  • Drawings that testify to the contributions of each artist
  • Reference to the subject in literary sources

Payments. The work on Saint Peter’s, especially during the reign of Urban VIII, is one of the best documented projects in the entire history of art. The minute financial records kept by the papal paymasters and accountants are preserved virtually intact. The documents make it clear that Borromini was employed at Saint Peter’s throughout the reign of Urban VIII under Bernini’s direction, on a great variety of projects: he is mentioned no less than 37 times, working as stone mason, marble and wood carver, wax modeller, and as a draughtsman, but never as architect. Only two sets of payments to him concern the baldachin, very distinctly separate both in time and in character.

Between January 10, 1627, and April 4, 1628, Borromini was paid for work as a mason (scarpellino) and carver on the the foundations of the columns.

Payments to Bernini confirm his completion of the architrave and frieze on the altar stairs, and on the models of the pedestals of the bronze columns. There follows a gap of three years, until he was paid between April 12, and January 22  for work on the crown of the baldachin, designing and carrying out the beaten copper ornaments that cover the superstructure; that is, large scale drawings and carvings in wax and drawings on copper for the carpenters and copper workers (beaters), drawings for all the arches, plants, cornices and other carvings that go inside the ribs and mouldings and for tracing them on the copper.

This evidence supports Bernini as the designer of the Baldacchino and supports his position as one who physically worked on its materials.

Drawings. Borromini’s drawings of the baldacchino are neatly divided into two completely contrasting groups. The earlier group consists of three amazing perspective views of the baldachin, to serve in judging the scale and proportions of the monument and its relation to the surrounding architecture. They were made during the design phase of the crown, including full-scale models, and while they show details that appear in the final work there is nothing to suggest that Borromini was trying out new ideas of his own in these contextual renderings. Unlike many, indeed the majority of Borromini’s drawings, none of those for the baldacchino show the slightest graphic suggestion of trial, error or experimentation. We know from Borromini’s perspective drawings and especially from the documents, which record a whole series of models ranging up to full scale that were actually erected in situ, that an unprecedented effort was expended to study the problem.

The second Borromini group consists of three very large wash drawings for details of the ornament. These elaborate and delicately finished sheets were clearly made as demonstration models, perhaps even to be copied as templates for transfer to the sheets of copper that the workmen were then to hammer into conformity with the moulds.

Borromini, Royal Collection Trust

In contrast to Borromini, experimentation is precisely what takes place in a series of sketches by Bernini in which he studies a variety designs for the crown intended to diminish its weight, raise its centre of gravity, and ensure the stability of the structure. A crucial step further is then taken in the sketch by Bernini that returns to the cornice-lappets solution with the undulating curvature of the ribs and the angels standing on the columns.

Albertina, Vienna

Above all, the evidence of the drawings is consistent with the idea that Borromini was completely extraneous to the design process of the Baldacchino and that his drawings function as a go-between converting Bernini’s design into its structure.

Literary references. If we start at ‘the horses mouth’ various sources report Borromini saying of Bernini at Saint Peter’s – ‘what galls me is not that he had the money, but that he enjoys the honour of my efforts’.

In 1685, Bernardo Castelli-Borromini, his nephew, wrote a biography of his uncle. He attacked Bernini viciously for his arrogance and unscrupulous exploitation of others, especially Borromini. He claims Bernini left all the architectural work at Saint Peter’s to Borromini while taking the credit and the payments. But he does not make any claim for him designing the Baldacchino; instead he emphasises Borromini’s talent for making highly accomplished drawings, claiming that this was what first motivated Maderno to employ his young relative and protege: “he attended to drawing with great diligence and perfection, and realising this his relative Carlo Maderno gave him work and had him make finished drawings for him.”

Bernini’s biographer, Baldinucci and the artist’s son Domenico, make it clear thar Bernini’s own concern was not with the design of the Baldacchino, but with the problem of determining its scale and proportions in the vastness of Saint Peter’s. Borromini’s scale drawings which generated models up to full scale which were installed in situ played a key role; imagine his reaction to Bernini’s claim that the project succeeded ‘by chance’.

Urban VIII biographer Cesare D’Onofrio is unequivocal in his assessment: ‘The artist was Bernini, who acquired great applause and fame, but the thought and idea was of Urban himself.’

Virgilio Spada, a friend and patron of Borromini, defended his friend in a monologue of 1657 (Opus Architectonicum): ‘Bernini himself said to me many years ago, before the altar of Saint Peter’s, that Borromini alone understood the profession but that he was never satisfied, that he wanted to enclose one thing inside another, and that inside another, with never an end.’

In this same monologue, Spada quotes Pietro da Cortona as expressing high regard for Borromini’s worth and knowledge.

In a guide to the artistic monuments of Rome, written between 1660 and 1663 by a friend, Martinelli, Borromini wrote a number of comments in the margins. He was critical of several aspects of the Baldacchino design: many argue that this proves he did not make the design – if he had, he would have sought praise for the work instead.

The history of Saint Peter’s basilica

We shall examine the contributions made by Bernini and Borromini to the fabric of Saint Peter’s as it exists today in more detail shortly. But, before this, it might help to briefly outline the history and current design of the basilica. Of course, this is, by necessity, a very concise summary of a building with a huge, complex history and further reading is recommended.

The Old Saint Peter’s Basilica was begun by the Emperor Constantine the Great between 319 and 333 AD. It was of typical basilica form. By the end of the 15th century, having been neglected during the period of the Avignon Papacy, the old basilica had fallen into disrepair. It appears that the first pope to consider rebuilding or at least making radical changes was Pope Nicholas V (1447–1455) who commissioned work on the old building from Leon Battista Alberti and Bernardo Rossellino who were asked to design a plan for an entirely new basilica, or an extreme modification of the old one. When Nicholas died, little had been achieved. He had, however, ordered the demolition of the Colloseum and by the time of his death, 2,522 cartloads of stone had been transported for use in the new building. The foundations were completed for a new transept and choir to form a domed Latin cross with the preserved nave and side aisles of the old basilica. Some walls for the choir had also been built.

In 1505, Pope Julius II made a decision to demolish the ancient basilica and replace it with a monumental structure to house his enormous tomb. A competition was held, and a number of the designs have survived at the Uffizi in Florence. It was the design of Donato Bramante that was selected, for which the foundation stone was laid in 1506. This plan was in the form of an enormous Greek cross with a dome inspired by that of the huge circular Roman temple, the Pantheon.

When Pope Julius died in 1513, Bramante was replaced with Giuliano da Sangallo and Fra Giocondo, who both died in 1515. Raphael was confirmed as the next architect of Saint Peter’s on 1 August 1514. The main change in his plan was a nave of five bays, with a row of complex apsidal chapels off the aisles on either side. Raphael’s plan for the chancel and transepts made the squareness of the exterior walls more definite by reducing the size of the towers, and the semi-circular apses more clearly defined by encircling each with an ambulatory.

In 1520 Raphael also died, aged 37, and his successor Baldassare Peruzzi maintained changes that Raphael had proposed to the internal arrangement of the three main apses, but otherwise reverted to the Greek Cross plan and other features of Bramante. This plan did not go ahead because of various difficulties of both Church and state; in 1527 Rome was sacked and plundered by Emperor Charles V.

Next, Antonio da Sangallo the younger submitted a plan which combined features of Peruzzi, Raphael and Bramante in its design and extended the building into a short nave with a wide façade and portico of dynamic projection. His proposal for the dome was much more elaborate of both structure and decoration than that of Bramante and included ribs on the exterior. Like Bramante, Sangallo proposed that the dome be surmounted by a lantern which he redesigned to a larger and much more elaborate form. Sangallo’s main practical contribution was to strengthen Bramante’s piers which had begun to crack.

On 1 January 1547 in the reign of Pope Paul III, Michelangelo, then in his seventies, succeeded Sangallo the Younger as “Capomaestro”, the superintendent of the building program at Saint Peter’s. He is responsible for a large part of the building as it stands today. Even though the work had progressed only a little in forty years, Michelangelo did not simply dismiss the ideas of the previous architects. Above all, Michelangelo recognised the essential quality of Bramante’s original design and reverted to the Greek Cross.

The dome of Saint Peter’s rises to a total height of 136.57 metres from the floor of the basilica to the top of the external cross. It is the tallest dome in the world while its internal diameter of 41.47 metres is slightly smaller than two of the three other huge domes that preceded it, those of the Pantheon, 43.3 metres, and Florence cathedral, 45.5m.

Bramante’s plan for the dome of Saint Peter’s (1506) follows that of the Pantheon very closely with the exception of the lantern that surmounts it. The profile is very similar, except that in this case, the supporting wall becomes a drum raised high above ground level on four massive piers. The solid wall is lightened by Bramante piercing it with windows and encircling it with a peristyle.

Michelangelo redesigned the dome in 1547, taking into account all that had gone before. His dome, like that of Florence, is constructed of two shells of brick, the outer one having sixteen stone ribs, twice the number at Florence but far fewer than in Sangallo’s design. As with the designs of Bramante and Sangallo, the dome is raised from the piers on a drum. The encircling peristyle of Bramante and the arcade of Sangallo are reduced to 16 pairs of Corinthian columns, each of 15 metres high which stand proud of the building, connected by an arch. 

Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana brought the dome to completion in 1590, the last year of the reign of Sixtus V. His successor, Gregory XIV, saw Fontana complete the lantern and had an inscription to the honour of Sixtus V placed around its inner opening. The next pope, Clement VIII, had the cross raised into place and appointed Carlo Maderno in 1602.

On 18 February 1606, under Pope Paul V the dismantling of the remaining parts of the Constantinian basilica began.  The building of the nave began on 7 May 1607; to the single bay of Michelangelo’s Greek Cross, Maderno added a further three bays. He made the dimensions slightly different from Michelangelo’s bay, thus defining where the two architectural works meet. In December 1614 the final touches were added to the decoration of the vault and early in 1615 the partition wall between the two sections of the nave was pulled down.

The façade, begun in 1608 and designed by Maderno, is 114.69 metres wide and 45.55 metres high and is built of travertine stone, with a giant order of Corinthian columns and a central pediment rising in front of a tall attic surmounted by thirteen statues: Christ flanked by eleven of the Apostles (except Saint Peter, whose statue is left of the stairs) and John the Baptist.

As it stands today then, Saint Peter’s has been extended with a nave by Maderno. It is the chancel end with its huge centrally placed dome that is the work of Michelangelo.

The decision to add a longitudinal nave was not due to a failure of the Bramante/Michaelangelo plan but a result of a profound change in values which radically altered the relative importance attached to the building’s functions, in particular those which allowed the ceremonial processions now deemed important in ecclesiastical devotions and celebrations.

Urban VIII strongly opposed the demolition of the old church. He was now faced with the challenge of a hybrid structure which needed to combine two complementary but contradictory ideological and functional traditions, reconciling the merger of centralised and longitudinal building types.

Let’s look in more detail at some of the key areas of the basilica as it developed going forward. The work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini is considered in detail in the next section of this article.

Apse and crossing. The first areas to be attended to when the longitudinal nave was added were the high altar and choir. The solution chosen involved installing two altars, the isolated high altar dedicated to Peter and Paul over their subterranean burial space, and a second altar placed towards the apse for papal functions involving the cardinals, associated with a choir. In fact, no solution for a permanent choir was ever achieved: to this day, when required, temporary wooden structures are installed.

Baldachins and ciboria. The solution in favour of two altars was taken in the reign of Paul V, around 1605. Thereafter, continuing under Gregory XIV, the two altars were given contrasting forms of covering to reflect their different functions.  The high altar in the apse was covered by a traditional ciborium surmounted by a cupola. The altar over the tomb was marked by a series of temporary baldachins supported on four staves carried by standing or kneeling angels. The open design thereof permitted maximum visibility towards the apse and fulfilled the Counter-Reformation decree that the Sacrament be on display in every church.

The Baldacchino (1624-35). Urban VIII and Gian Lorenzo Bernini made two monumental decisions ; to return the high altar to the tomb and to mark it with a structure melding the baldachin and ciborium. We shall look closely at the history of this project shortly.

The Tomb of Urban VIII (1627-47). Designed by Bernini.

Crossing piers. The plan was to integrate the choir, crossing and nave in one comprehensive programme. A decision was made in June 1627 to treat all four crossing piers in the same way, devoting each niche to a Saint whose relic was preserved in the basilica, the overriding concern being the display of the relics and the figures associated with each. The ideology of the crossing was as a unified sacred place devoted to the Christian process of salvation achieve through the sacrifice of Christ.

Tomb of Countess Matilda of Tuscany (1633-44). Another Bernini funerary monument.

Nave decoration (1647-8). Urban was succeeded by the Pamphilj pope Innocent X. Under his reign came the concept of devoting the longitudinal axis to the history of the church.

The piazza and colonnades. Commissioned by Alexander VII, bringing to completion the longitudinal extension of the basilica and again entrusted to Bernini.

Cathedra Petri. The piazza, colonnades and Cathedra Petri were simultaneous and interrelated projects under Alexander VII and entrusted to Bernini, who designed the throne as a reliquary to contain the very chair Peter was supposed to have used.

The Constantine and Scala Regia (1662-70). This project created a crucial juncture between the corridor from the north colonnade, the portico of the basilica extended by a vestibule and a stairway connecting with the Vatican palace. Here, an equestrian monument honouring Constantine the Great was placed by Bernini. It depicts the spiritual nature of Constantine’s historical role including his baptism and construction of the first St Peter’s.

Scala Regia

Carved from a single piece of stone it is a magnificent feat. As it is attached to the rear wall, the rearing horse needs no artificial support and appears to leap both to the side and forwards. A large sweep of drapery and light streaming from a large window intensify the sense of movement.

The Vision of Constantine

Tomb of Alexander VII (1671-8). Alexander ordered Bernini to prepare a design for his tomb months after his election to the papal throne. It was, in fact, only executed long after his death, in a niche in the outer wall of the south aisle of the choir.

The Altar of the Holy Sacrament. Begun under Urban VIII, taken up again under Alexander VII and completed under Clement X, Bernini worked intermittently on this work for decades.

Bernini at St Peter’s

I have chosen here to order the sections initially according to an approximate geographical progression through the building, from the altar to the piazza, before looking at some of the less central projects which Bernini undertook. By necessity, this is at the cost of a linear timescale for the works.

The Baldacchino (1624-35). Urban VIII and Bernini made two monumental decisions; to return the high altar to the tomb of Peter and Paul and to mark it with a structure melding the baldachin and ciborium. Bernini was a polymath, truly gifted in several artistic spheres. He believed that, for the architect, the challenge was to make disadvantages appear to have been invented on purpose and to ‘surpass the rules without breaking them’. His complex and ingenious design ensures that the baldachin and ciborium truly merge while retaining the essential integrity of both in a single structure which reconciles the conflicting values of minimal structure and open visibility with the need for architectural permanence and monumentality. Massive in scale and ponderous in proportions, the Baldacchino manages yet to writhe in powerful paroxysms of movement and energy.

Bernini’s Baldacchino is a perfect, inextricable and indissoluble fusion of the immediacy of the processional baldachin, the animated suspense of the hanging canopy and the monumental stability of the ciborium, a new art form never replicated to this day. Similar superlatives are frequently used when describing the architecture of Borromini so, inevitably, the question arises – did Borromini have an input into the design of the Baldacchino?

That both were involved in some way is not in dispute. Borromini produced detailed perspectival drawings, unlike anything seen before, which visualised the relationship between the proposed Baldacchino and the church itself. Three dimensional models in various sizes, up to full scale, were created from these drawings and installed in situ. Borromini had obsessively precise draftsmanship and a brilliant grasp of perspective and spatial relationships so was the ideal man for the job; his drawings on the Baldacchino are fully developed working drawings. And yet, they were designed to visualise, not to create, ideas, to serve as models for artisans or to aid in judging the projected work in situ. On the other hand, all known drawings by Bernini, for any of his projects, are rapid sketches of ideas in which he experiments and tries out various solutions to problems. Bernini never made detailed architectural drawings; he left these to his assistants.

The rivalry between Bernini and Borromini is legendary. Borromini is recorded as having felt that Bernini, architecturally inexperienced and insecure, had exploited his professional expertise here. And yet Bernini, who lacked neither ambition nor self-confidence, was the one charged by Urban VIII with the task of creating the Baldacchino whilst Borromini was employed by the pope at St Peter’s in a secondary capacity, as a carver of minor works in wood and marble and to make large detailed drawings as templates for other artists to follow. Therefore, there appears to be no convincing evidence that Borromini played any role in the design of the Baldacchino.

Some time after it’s completion, in a guide to the artistic monuments of Rome, written by a friend, Borromini wrote comments in the margins. He was critical of several aspects of the Baldacchino: surely this proves he did not make the design – if he had, he would have sought praise for the work instead.

It is fascinating to imagine these two brilliant, egotistical minds at work on the same project and yet, somehow, completely failing to engage in any meaningful synergism. One can only wonder what might have transpired had the two united their creative imaginations.

The crossing. Under Urban VIII and Bernini, the sacrifice of Christ was the focus of the ideology of the crossing and the subject of papal succession was the focus of the building’s longitudinal axis. The plan was to integrate the choir, crossing and nave in one comprehensive programme. The papal altar crowned with the Baldacchino was surrounded in the crossing piers with relics and images of saints evoking Christ’s passion.

A decision was made in June 1627 to treat all four crossing piers in the same way, devoting each niche to a Saint whose relic was preserved in the basilica, the overriding concern being the display of the relics and the figures associated with each. To allow this, it was necessary first to move the tomb of Paul III and pair it with that of Urban VIII in the niches flanking the altar in the apse. Bernini reinstalled Paul’s tomb, retaining the figures of Justice and Prudence and conceived the monument to Urban as a matching partner, with Justice and Charity as sculptures. The paired tombs evoke the basic typology established by Michaelangelo at the Medici monuments in the New Sacristy in San Lorenzo.

Returning to the crossing , the four relics were:

  • The kerchief of Veronica, imprinted with the face of Christ
  • The lance of Longinus, which pierced the side of Christ at the crucifixion
  • The head of Saint Andrew
  • A portion of the True Cross, obtained from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

The ideology of the crossing was as a unified sacred place devoted to the Christian process of salvation achieved through the sacrifice of Christ. Bernini provided the basic designs for the four figures and remained in overall charge. The figures express a variety of psychological states and together create a space charged with powerful emotions into which the spectator is ineluctably drawn. The majestic St. Loginus was executed by Bernini himself, whilst the other three are by other contemporary sculptors François Duquesnoy, Francesco Mochi, and Bernini’s disciple, Andrea Bolgi.

Saint Loginus

The structures used for the relics are akin to the three-level free-standing tabernacles of Old St Peter’s. Lowermost is a fully developed chapel in the grotto beneath the piers, with wall frescoes depicting the lives of the saints and altarpieces referring to their martyrdom. Above this stands the figure. The uppermost compartment is now a niche transformed by Bernini into a tabernacle where angels and putti carry aloft the relics, partly rendered in three-dimensions.

Crossing with pier tomb of True Cross

Nave decoration (1647-8). Urban VIII was succeeded by the Pamphili pope, Innocent X. Under his reign came the concept of devoting the longitudinal axis to the history of the church. The theme is history in action. The story begins in the atrium above the main portal to the basilica with a grandiose relief depicting the theme ‘Feed my Sheep’ (Bernini, 1633-46). This work illustrates Christ assigning to Peter the task of nurturing his flock, taken as the divine sanctity for Christianity and the authority of the popes.

In the nave itself, Bernini undertook a programme of redecoration, replacing the abstracts designs of flat, multicoloured marble revetments on the pillars with a simple, articulated structured voice. The white marble sculpted portraits of the popes are arranged not in a linear fashion but in a zigzag back and forth across the nave, a pattern adopted from the Sistine Chapel. Only those popes who were sainted were represented. The medallions are borne aloft, along with the papal tiara and keys, by pairs of winged putti.

In the spandrels of the arches, huge female personifications of the virtues recline.

The piazza and colonnades. When I think of Saint Peter’s (I have actually never been there!), I think of the basilica and the piazza which lies before it as a unified space. This, in fact, is exactly what Bernini intended. He famously wrote (and sketched) of the piazza and colonnades being the arms of the church, reaching out to embrace the faithful. The development was commissioned by Alexander VII as a means of bringing to completion the longitudinal extension of the basilica. Once again, the driving force was the functioning of the religious order of the Catholic church; this would facilitate the annual procession of Corpus Domini, when the pope paraded the Sacrament through the nearby streets.

However, the piazza faced the same problem as the church building itself had – reconciling centrally and longitudinally organised forms and functions. The undertaking was to provide work for the indigent unemployed of Rome, especially after the plague of 1656.

The area was also subject to territorial restrictions, being fixed by the Vatican palace and the Leonine wall to the north, thus requiring a trapezoid shape be created. Bernini approached the problem with his typical mixture of attention to detail and flair. Sixtus V had erected an obelisk in the centre of the piazza, which Bernini saw formed a point of intersection between two axes – one longitudinal to the centre of the church facade and one oblique, parallel to the façade. A third axis ran from the north end of the church façade along the palace façade to the front of the Castel Sant’Angelo, determining the arc of the colonnades so as to provide maximum views of the church from the Borgo Nuovo, the main thoroughfare from the centre of Rome.

Bernini designed the ellipsoidal space using the oval shape, defined by intersecting circles, in adherence to the tradition of Pythagorean geometry. The whole has a complex appearance which changes and simplifies as one walks around the piazza. The columns of the colonnades are aligned in concentric circles behind one another so that the centres of the lateral circles serve as vanishing points from which the columns seem simple regular and stable, the outer one hidden by the inner. Viewers instinctively move towards these points, which are in fact physically marked on the pavements today.

The columns themselves have a surprisingly simple Doric order, not the elaborate Baroque design one might expect from Bernini. This is a conscious decision which he made to emphasise by contrast the height (even without bell-towers) and magnificence of the church façade. It also has echoes of Bramante’s tempietto which, marking as it does the spot of Peter’s martyrdom, is the second most important Petrine building in Rome.

Tempietto by Bramante

The entrances to the colonnades are stepped and pedimented with horizontal entablatures. The vaults are simple raised semicircles with flat wings.

Statues of saints surmount the balustrades, appearing to stand directly on the columns.

Four plaques with inscriptions chosen by Alexander VII himself were placed at the outer and inner extremities of the arms of the colonnades. They are passages of scripture which exhort the viewer to follow the pope’s example.

Cathedra Petri. Contemporary and planned in concert with the piazza was the decision finally to resolve the problem of the choir of St. Peter’s – foreseen “providentially” by Annibale Carracci at the beginning of Bernini’s career. The solution was found in an idea that would celebrate, liturgically and visually, the legitimacy and authority of the Church as a divinely ordained institution. This claim was vested in the form and concept of the Cathedra Petri, the chair or throne of office, from ancient times the symbol of the legitimate supreme authority conveyed to Peter by Christ, along with the responsibility to ‘feed my sheep’.

The piazza colonnades and Cathedra Petri were simultaneous and interrelated projects under Alexander VII

Bernini designed the throne as a reliquary to contain the very chair Peter was supposed to have used. It consists of four distinct yet interconnected elements:

The altar proper

The ‘altarpiece’ in the form of the chair

A concave platform on which stand four Doctors of the Church – two Latin in front (Ambrose and Augustine) and two Greek behind (Athanasius and John Chrystostom)

At the rear, in gilded stucco, a glory of the heavenly hierarchy, at its centre the window with the dove of the Holy Spirit

The ideology is the singularity and unity of the church under the papacy.

The Constantine and Scala Regia (1662-70). This project created a crucial juncture between the corridor from the north colonnade, the portico of the basilica extended by a vestibule and a stairway connecting with the Vatican palace. Here, an equestrian monument honouring Constantine the Great was placed. It depicts the spiritual nature of Constantine’s historical role including his baptism and construction of the first Saint Peter’s.

Carved from a single piece of stone, it is a magnificent feat. As it is attached to the rear wall, the rearing horse needs no artificial support and appears to leap both to the side and forwards. A large sweep of drapery and light streaming from a large window intensify the sense of movement.

Tomb of Countess Matilda of Tuscany (1633-44). Matilda was a staunch supporter of the papacy in its power struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor, donating to the church her lands in south Italy.

Urban removed her body from Lombardy for reburial in Saint Peter’s in a tomb in the north side aisle.

Bernini represented her as a grandly regal Roman matron above her sarcophagus. She stands in a double niche, the outer shell of which consists of panels diminishing in perspective to a vanishing point at the centre of the figure.

Tomb of Urban VIII (1627-47). Modelled on papal portraits in Sala di Costantino of the Vatican, frescoed by Giulio Romano, Urban’s pose refers to Giulio’s image of Saint Peter himself. Bernini’s allegories stand beside the sarcophagus illustrating the roles played by those divine virtues, Charity and Justice, acting through the pope in the process of salvation. The two offer a counterpoint of psychological and moral states, active and passive, that illustrate the divine origin and earthward dispensation of God’s grace. Bernini combines one of the cardinal virtues, Justice, with one of the theological, Charity, denoting the role of the papacy in the execution of God’s wish that man be made just and redeemed from original sin.

Death in the form of the reaper seems to rise from the sarcophagus itself, writing the name and title of Urban VIII in the black book of death .

The tomb swarms with Barberini bees and they are also seen on the coat of arms attached to the face of the arch at the apex of the niche.

Tomb of Alexander VII (1671-8). Alexander ordered Bernini to prepare a design for his tomb months after his election to the papal throne. It was, in fact, only executed long after his death, in a niche in the outer wall of the south aisle of the choir. It is in pyramidal form with a raised kneeling effigy flanked by pairs of allegories (Chastity, Justice, Prudence and Truth). This echoes the structures honouring Paul III and Urban VIII.

A shroud envelopes the door at the rear of the niche, beneath which emerges death wielding his hourglass. A huge pair of wings carry the papal coat of arms at the apex of the niche. Overall, the concept is of the power of faith to overcome death.

Funerary monuments had become a genre for which Bernini remains famous and upon which his influence left an enduring mark, often copied by subsequent artists. Indeed, this, his most original tomb monument, represents the very pinnacle of European funerary art, whose creative inventiveness subsequent artists could not hope to surpass.

The Altar of the Holy Sacrament (1673-5). A bronze tabernacle in the form of a tempietto flanked by two kneeling angels, this work was begun under Urban VIII, taken up again under Alexander VII and completed under Clement X.

In 1638, a temporary version to a different drawing was erected in the New Sacristy. It remained in situ for decades but under Alexander grew in size and importance, raising the tabernacle to show the Host according to current Eucharistic devotions.

A final design saw the tabernacle elongated with a drum and cupola and angels replace figures of Peter and Paul at the extremities.


This has been a lengthy article and I hope one in which you have found something of interest. The fact that I have included certain aspects of the story of this period in more than one section, illustrates to me that the relationship between Bernini, Borromini and their patrons, in particular the three popes of their time, was complex and fluctuating.

As I have carried out the research for this article, my desire to travel to Rome and see these wonderful buildings has grown exponentially. I envy those of you familiar with the splendour of Baroque Rome and hope I may have awakened in a few others the same desire with which I am filled.
















































Eleonora di Toledo and the art of Bronzino


The main subject of this article is the life of Eleonora di Toledo, wife of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici I of Florence and Tuscany. I first encountered Eleonora when I chose her as a character for a work of fiction I was writing and eventually self published, called ‘Hope Restored in Florence’. As a keen reader of historical fiction, I wanted to delineate some of the events of her remarkable life in parallel to events unfolding in the life of the female protagonist in my story, who was caught up in a mystery involving art fraud in contemporary Florence.

I became fascinated by Eleonora’s story, mainly because my knowledge of the culture and history of Florence at this time had not introduced me to any female characters and now, suddenly, here was a virtuous, successful woman rising to power despite having the odds somewhat stacked against her. Such is the multi-faceted appeal of her life story that I shall be writing this article from multiple viewpoints – art history, political history, social history, literature, religion – and endeavouring to form a coherent whole which does justice to Eleonora’s memory and, hopefully, ignites in you a similar admiration for her.

There shall, of course be other participants in the story. Cosimo de’ Medici became leader of Florence and subsequently, under the protection of Emperor Charles V, Grand Duke on the assassination of Alessandro de’ Medici in 1537. Alessandro had died without a male heir of age and Cosimo, from a different lineage of the great family, stepped in to secure continuance of the Medici dynasty and its hold over power. To this end, marriage and the production of male heirs was an early imperative for the new ruler of Tuscany and he chose Eleonora.

Cosimo was an educated pious man who commissioned many artworks and architectural constructions and we shall, of course, discuss some of the artworks which he and Eleonora have left for us to marvel at. Bronzino was their favourite painter, court artist from their wedding in 1539 until the 1550s, when he was superseded by Giorgio Vasari, justifiably more famous for his landmark work ‘Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects’ than the quality of his own art. We shall briefly encounter other artists active at Cosimo’s court, including Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio and Jacopo da Pontormo.

But the shining light of this article deserves to be Eleonora and we shall look at her life from many angles. As in previous lengthy articles in this series, I shall now outline the structure of its contents, for those who may wish to pick and choose rather than progress in a linear manner.

We begin with a biography of Eleonora, including her childhood and marriage, which brings us to an assessment of the roles which would define her place at Cosimo’s side.

We then look at the many children she bore and touch on their place in the lives of the Duke and Duchess.

We next meet Bronzino and learn how his early career led to him being adopted as court artist by Cosimo and Eleonora before delving into an analysis of his work as a portrait artist and, in particular, his role in the history of state portraiture.

Our next port of call is the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, which became the seat of the Ducal family from 1539. We shall study the decorative phases of the project to create a suite of rooms suitable for Eleonora’s role as Duchess, and at times regent, of Tuscany. The artistic programme in these rooms continues to enchant today, in particular the exquisite, jewel-box that is the Chapel of Eleonora.

As we progress through the enfilade of rooms we shall see how the iconography of Eleonora, so pivotal in defining her role, subtly changed as she became older and we shall wonder at whose instigation those changes took place.

Finally, we shall return to Bronzino to study some of his later works and to attempt to answer the question; why did this successful court artist suffer such a decline in reputation, which began even during his lifetime and accelerated rapidly in the years following his death.

Biography of Eleonora de Toledo

Eleonora was born in Salamanca in Spain on 11 Jan 1522. Her father was Don Pedro de Toledo and her mother Doña Maria Osario Pimentel. Don Pedro was made Viceroy of Naples by Emperor Charles V in 1532. Two years later, in May 1534, Eleonora, her mother and her siblings joined her father at court in Italy.

Don Pedro de Toledo (anonymous artist)

Cosimo and his cousin Alessandro, then Duke of Florence, must have seen Eleonora during a visit to the Neapolitan court in 1535. In 1538, having been declined by the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V, Margaret of Austria, Cosimo was offered instead the hand of Eleonora’s sister, Isabella, but declined and asked to marry Eleonora instead. Her father gave his blessing to the union. Immediately, Eleonora began learning Italian so that she could read Cosimo’s correspondence, which from the outset appears to have been warm and affectionate, setting the tone for their future relationship.

On 22 June 1539, aged 17, Eleonora landed at Livorno on the Tuscan coast on her way to Florence to marry Cosimo. He met her on the road to Pisa and they began to enjoy each other’s company en route to Florence, stopping for a few days at the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano. They entered Florence separately on the 29 June 1539 and were married that day. Of note, and unusually for that time in history, their marriage was long and seems to have been happy and loving. They remained mutually faithful all their lives. I cannot help but contrast this with Henry VIII of England, who ruled contemporaneously, from 1509 to 1547, and whose ideas regarding love, marital happiness and fidelity were diametrically opposed to the Tuscan couple.

Cosimo and Eleonora had eleven children together, restoring a family tree which had been imperilled following its severance by the assassination of Alessandro on 6 January 1537.

  • Maria (3 April 1540 – 19 November 1557): Engaged to Alfonso II d’Este, but died before the marriage.
  • Francesco (25 March 1541 – 19 October 1587): Succeeded his father as Grand Duke of Tuscany.
  • Isabella (31 August 1542 – 16 July 1576): Married, Paolo Giordano I Orsini, Duke of Bracciano.
  • Giovanni (28 September 1543 – 20 November 1562): Became Bishop of Pisa and cardinal.
  • Lucrezia (7 June 1545 – 21 April 1561): Married Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara and Modena.
  • Pietro (10 August 1546 – 10 June 1547): Known as “Pedricco”. Died in infancy.
  • Garcia (5 July 1547 – 12 December 1562): Died of malaria at the age of 15.
  • Antonio (1 July 1548 – July 1548): Died in infancy.
  • Ferdinando (30 July 1549 – 17 February 1609): Succeeded his brother as Grand Duke of Tuscany.
  • Anna (19 March 1553 – 6 August 1553): Died in infancy.
  • Pietro (3 June 1554 – 25 April 1604): Murdered his wife and cousin, Eleonora di Garcia di Toledo.

Tragically, as we can see, two children died of malaria within weeks of each other on a family trip in 1562 – Cardinal Giovanni, age 19, and Don Garcia, age 15. Five days later, on the same trip and weakened by tuberculosis, Eleonora also died of malaria on 17 December 1562.

We shall learn much more about this remarkable woman during the course of this article. In summary, for now, she was a beautiful woman, a dedicated wife and a loving mother but also a hard-headed individual who would leave some of the most important legacies of sixteenth century Medici rule in Florence – political, cultural and religious. She commissioned many innovative artists, brought the Jesuits to Florence and produced many heirs, importantly male ones, for what had been a failing line.

Eleonora’s roles after her marriage

Eleonora seems to have been determined from the outset to be much more than a passive figurehead to the people of Florence. Clearly, the most pressing obligation was to provide living heirs, preferably male, to reinvigorate and sustain the Medici dynasty. As we have seen, Eleonora succeeded magnificently in this role. Her fecundity became the focus of her iconography, as we shall see in more detail at a later point. She also recognised that her place was by Cosimo’s side and did not attempt to subvert or overrule him in any way.

However, this was not a woman content with simply producing offspring. She actively pursued her interests in a number of areas, no doubt aided by an understanding husband who was happy to indulge his wife, whom he clearly adored, but whom I also believe he soon recognised as capable of being an active and useful participant in matters of state.

In addition to being in control of the household finances, Eleonora took charge of the extensive personal farming properties in the Medici portfolio, turning a large profit in terms of grain supplies. As we shall see, such was the importance of this to her that the first physical reconstruction of her suite of rooms in the Palazzo Vecchio was centred around the genesis of accommodation from which to run this aspect of the family business.

Eleonora soon proved herself to be a trusted political advisor to Cosimo, something not common in the Italian city states of this time, where power was usually jealousy held close and not infrequently usurped. Indeed, over the years there were many occasions when Cosimo was either absent from the city, on diplomatic missions or military campaigns, or was indisposed by illness, when Eleonora acted as regent on his behalf, apparently establishing a reputation as a strong but fair ruler in her own right.

She developed a reputation as a generous but demanding patron of the arts. Reading between the lines of correspondence between Vasari and Cosimo it seems likely that Eleonora was prepared to call the shots regarding proposed artworks and that Cosimo was happy to oblige her, often to Vasari’s chagrin. We shall look more closely at many of the works associated with Eleonora’s life and, in particular, the iconography with which she became surrounded.

Eleonora would also become a constant intercessor to Cosimo on behalf of the Jesuits, who had been trying for a number of years to win approval and, more importantly funding, to secure a college in Florence. Eleonora had early and difficult dealings with the Jesuit Juan de Polanco, sent by Ignatius of Loyola to Pistoia, who approached her in 1547, but whom she refused to meet. He subsequently put his request in writing and his efforts were followed up by Diego Laínez; eventually they were successful and the college was established. Eleonora regularly confessed her sins to and took counsel from a series of Jesuit confidants, particularly as she recognised her death was approaching.

Bronzino biography

‘Agnolo Bronzino’ by Alessandro Allori

We now turn to the main artist of this article. Born Agnolo di Cosimo in 1503 in Monticelli, a suburb of Florence, to humble parents, he subsequently acquired ‘Bronzino’ as a nickname due to his ruddy complexion and auburn hair. He became a pupil of Jacopo da Pontormo sometime between 1515 and 1518 and the two developed a personal and professional affinity which lasted for four decades until Pontormo’s death in 1557. Bronzino was such a faithful imitator of his master that it was often impossible to tell who had painted what.

The two frescoed episodes from the Passion of Christ in the Certosa di Galluzo just outside Florence, fleeing there in 1522 to escape the plague. In 1525 they returned to Florence and began to decorate the Capponi chapel in Santa Felicita. 1525-30 saw him paint his first devotional works and portraits, including those of Lorenzo Lenzi; the elegant calligraphy depicted informs us that Bronzino was by now involved with the Florentine literati.

Bronzino himself composed both satirical and lyrical poetry, second in output only to Michaelangelo, and was well versed in classical literature, including Dante and Petrarch. Always deemed wise and intellectual, he became a member of the Accademia Fiorentina, founded by Cosimo, on its inception on 1 November 1540. This organisation promoted a revival of Petrarchan ideas and its leading light was Benedetto Varchi.

In late 1530, Bronzino joined the court of Francesco Maria della Rovere, duke of Urbino, in Pesaro, returning after just over a year to take a commission to complete frescoes at the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano. His portraiture developed during the 1530s, resulting in this magnificent portrait of Bartolommeo Panciatichi.

‘Portrait of Bartolommeo Panciatichi’ (1540), Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Bronzino had developed a courtly style through working for Duke Francesco in Urbino and his familiarity with ‘Il Libro del Cortegiano’ by Baldassare Castiglione. This meant that Cosimo was attracted to his refined, elegant style. His career as a court artist was launched when he contributed to the wedding decorations for Cosimo and Eleonora in 1539. He painted two scenes depicting Medici history for the wedding banquet and designs for the arch on the Porta a Prato, where the couple entered the city, and for the triumphal wedding procession.

Bronzino was to remain the Ducal couple’s favourite painter from their wedding until the 1550s, although at court he competed with Jacopo da Pontormo, Francesco Salviati, Ridolofo Ghirlandaio and Giorgio Vasari. As we shall see, the latter came to hold a grudge against Bronzino and this would impact upon his later career and reputation.

His portrait style reached its maturity with this elegant work in 1552.

‘Portrait of Laura Battiferra’ (1552), Museo di Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

Vasari in his ‘Lives…’ described him as mild mannered, polite, loving and highly respected, but the amount of respect present in his biography is widely regarded as being far less than an artist of his ability and reputation would have expected and deserved. A decade after his death, writers influenced by the Counter Reformation were deriding his works as lacking devotion and filled with contorted figures, as well as replicating the negative aspects of Michaelangelo’s style. In the mid twentieth century he enjoyed something of a reassessment, his work being perceived as elegant, complex, intellectual and occasionally witty.

His most notable commissions from the Medici court were:

  • The Chapel of Eleonora
  • Tapestries of St Joseph
  • Semi-private portraiture depicting the Medici dynasty
  • Allegory with Venus and Cupid

We shall study his paintings in much more detail as they fit into the unfolding narrative of this article. Here, I shall briefly touch upon his poetry, in regard to how it materially affected his philosophy of portraiture, and his work designing tapestries for Cosimo.


Canons of beauty woven through Petrarch’s poems were highly influential in portrayals of women in the early cinquecento. A Renaissance portrait of a beautiful woman became an essay on womanly perfection, an example being Botticelli’s ‘Simonetta Vespucci’ (1480).

Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main

Bronzino’s ‘Lorenzo Lenzi’ (1530) holds open a Petrarchan sonnet, advising us of Bronzino’s familiarity with the fourteenth century humanist writer. Bronzino’s own poetry lampoons and skewers Petrarch in a ribald way; to be capable of doing so one surmises that he must have had a mastery and understanding of the Petrarchan idiom. Indeed, his own love poetry is laced with entire lines and key words from Petrarch.

Sforza Castle, Milan

We shall see how this mindset helped shape the very nature of his portraits of Eleonora, widely accepted to be a landmark moment in the history of state portraiture.


Cosimo established Florence’s first tapestry workshops in 1545. The Duke dreamt of having a tapestry cycle which would rival that of any European prince. His weavers, Jan Rost and Nicholas Karcher were Flemish whilst his main designers were Bronzino, Bachiacca, Jacopo da Pontormo and Francesco Salviati. The first three series were completed by 1553.

Cosimo planned a twenty piece series depicting the Old Testament life of Joseph. Bronzino, assisted by Raffaellino del Colle and Alessandro Allori worked on the cartoons for eight years, initially with support from Pontormo and Salviati. As a ‘test piece’, Bronzino designed the ‘Great Abundance’ or ‘Dovizia’, one of the first tapestries woven in Florence. He adopted a largely Northern European visual language but, sadly, Cosimo was dissatisfied with the end result.

His next pieces, ‘Primavera’ and ‘Justice Liberating Innocence’ filled the fields with larger figures more akin to his mature Florentine paintings and were more favourably received.

Justice Liberating Innocence

The Joseph series

‘Joseph Fleeing Potiphar’s Wife’ was designed in 1548 and woven by Rost in 1549. It highlights Bronzino’s fully-developed figures style. Cosimo regarded it as the most beautiful and best woven thus far.

Pontormo designed cartoons for three pieces in this series, but it was felt that his designs did not come out well when woven and he was not invited to contribute further.

The rest of the programme continued to be highly influenced by northern European models; Cosimo purchased tapestries made in Flanders and, as we have seen, hired foreign weavers.


Bronzino and portraiture

Before we look more closely at some of Bronzino’s portraits of Cosimo and other members of the Medici line, I would like to make some introductory comments regarding the history of portraiture and what it was that Bronzino brought to the genre.

Previously, Classicist and Renaissance artists saw the subjects of their paintings as idealised men or women, irrespective of the situation, time or place in which they were depicted. High Renaissance artists took the emotional expressiveness to a much higher level – Mary in Michaelangelo’s ‘Pietà’, Raphael’s ‘Christ Falling on the way to Calvary’, although Michelangelo had, in part, returned to the classical style with his figures and their enormously detailed musculature.

Mannerist artists introduced ambiguity in their art, firstly between figures and backgrounds or between figures themselves and then in the images of figures who appear disconnected within themselves, whose physical appearance does not reflect their internal state of mind. Indeed, in his own early work depicting the ‘Holy Family’ (1527-8), National Gallery of Art, Washington, Bronzino produced a strangely emotionless work, with blank expressions on the faces of the Holy Family.

But within a few years, it became clear that Bronzino had introduced psychology to his portraiture, which we will first study in his male portraits of Cosimo and his antecedents. Bronzino managed to communicate the inner side of masculinity, firstly through the technical details of his works, such as the style of line and rendering, partly through the expression he assigned to his figures and finally through the reactions they exhibit. He brought a new dimension to the representation of masculinity, one whose vulnerability and inner control form a symbiotic integral part of a man’s psyche.

‘Cosimo as Orpheus’ (1537-9)

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Cosimo aimed to emulate Alexander the Great, who had only one artist, Apelles, to paint his portrait; Bronzino was his artist of choice.

Duke Cosimo is shown as the mythological musician and poet Orpheus after having calmed Cerberus, the doglike guardian to Hades from which Orpheus wished to retrieve his wife, Eurydice.

We see some of the inherent ambiguity common in Mannerist paintings. The darkness of the background contrasts with the light illuminating Cosimo’s naked body. His hair blends in with the background. His head is disproportionate his body and turned unnaturally with regard to the rest of his body. His body has a well developed masculine physique yet his facial features are very delicate.

The highly sensual portrait of the naked young duke may have several meanings: the peaceful age that the new generation of Medici wished to usher in, the duke’s patronage of the arts and literature, or his marriage to Eleonora in 1539. It depicts his vulnerability – his youth (he was 20 when this portrait was painted), his recent marriage, the pressure of his dukedom. Cosimo’s nudity can also be interpreted within the milieu of the Accademia Fiorentina, where the painting’s eroticism suggested to court literati that the duke had achieved the highest state of Platonic spirituality, known as “erotic furore.”

This painting was likely made in conjunction with ceremonies celebrating the wedding and is clearly a private work; no copies were made. This is the work which assured Bronzino his place at court for the next two decades.

Cosimo in Armour’ (1545)

‘Cosimo in Armour’ (1545) Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Numerous versions of this painting, at least 25, exist, attesting to its popularity. Here I present an image of the work I recently encountered in Sydney. Some are by Bronzino and his workshop, others by contemporaries. Many claim to be the the primary work. The reason for this situation is that paintings such as this were given as diplomatic gifts to politicians, noblemen, even popes.

Bronzino’s portraits are characterised by an intense concentration and an almost unnerving clarity – none more so than this portrait of Cosimo in armour. If the duke’s diverted gaze reveals a sense of anxiety in the still-youthful ruler, his steely reserve is cleverly accentuated by his forbidding armour. Yet again, an inherent conflict and ambiguity. Rendered with reflections, highlights and shadows, as well as a rich red velvet lining, Cosimo’s armour is an article of transfixing interest.

If we remember, Cosimo belonged to a secondary branch of the Medici family and succeeded to the dukedom in 1537 when the main Medici line, that of Alessandro, was extinguished. The sitter’s helmet rests on the Medici broncone – a laurel tree stump with a vigorous leafy side shoot. Its presence suggests that Cosimo was a true heir of the Medici patriarchy and represented an alternative, but forceful, new growth in the family tree.

In a later portrait, Cosimo is depicted at age 40 in satin blouse and fur – a more mature man, no longer needing to show his military might. Again this work duplicated at least thirty times for political use; among others, Cosimo sent it as a gift to Duke Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy.

Galleria Sabauda, Musei Reali, Turin (1566)

Medici portraits

Cosimo commissioned past family members, painted as small works on tin:

Cosimo the Elder (1565-9) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Lorenzo the Magnificent (1560) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Pope Leo X (1560) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Alessandro de’ Medici (1560) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Pope Clement VII (1565-9) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Once again, all these faces show something of the inner psyche and affect of the sitter.


Bronzino’s state portraits of Eleonora

The most famous portrait of Eleonora and, indeed, a favourite portrait of many art lovers, myself included, is the 1545 depiction with Giovanni.

Bronzino’s portrait of Eleonora and Giovanni in the Uffizi is a landmark in state portraiture. Bronzino’s Petrarchism and Medici cultural and political agendas here merge to spectacular effect, producing what is actually a ‘Laura’ for Cosimo.

We have seen how Bronzino was well acquainted with the Petrarchan idiom and what this represented with regard to female beauty. His Eleonora demonstrates an aloofness, a distillation from Petrarch’s ever-inscrutable Laura; iconic lack of responsiveness by Laura to his yearnings is the underlying theme in Petrarch’s addresses to his remote beloved.

In this Petrarchan tradition, with her poised, heavenly beauty and immaculate chastity, Eleonora is unresponsive to earthly carnal passions: instead, their love is pure and heavenly. But it is easy to misinterpret this gaze; is she aloof and icy? Showing arrogance and Hispanic disdain? Certainly not everyone warmed to this Spanish princess, who was sometimes accused of being in a clique with her Spanish entourage. To me, it speaks volumes for her character that Eleonora clearly was able to adapt and fit in to a foreign culture, to thrive, become successful and popular with the people of Florence, despite some of the prejudices she faced.

To follow Petrarchan principles, a depiction like this must promote chastity. To achieve this, the rigid bodice suppresses her breasts and the arabesque patterns of the dress visually restrain the spectator from direct access to the beautiful face. The ivory white hand, pale and ringless, emphasises her purity. Her gold-braided, pearl-studded fichu (shawl) and matching hair net alludes to the ‘graceful net of gold and pearls’ from a Petrarchan sonnet.

Bronzino’s famed portraits of Eleonora all represent her as static, regal and detached. None represent her engaged in any activities other than being a mother; she is shown with a fan, a child, a vase but never with a book, a work of art, a musical or scientific instrument. His message could be ‘the dynasty is established and its continuance ensured’.

An early work catches the beauty and shyness of the seventeen year old painted around the time of her marriage.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1539

A very similar work in another gallery, painted (reportedly) the following year, confirms that these works were often sent as diplomatic gifts.

Narodni Gallery, Prague, 1540

She was depicted with Francesco in 1549.

Palazzo Reale, Pisa

Alone near her death, in 1560, Eleonora is captured in these hugely moving and poignant images, the ravages of tuberculosis all too evident in her emaciated face and the handkerchief in her gloved hand.

National Gallery of Art, Washington
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

He also painted the children:

Bia (1542) is a posthumous portrait. Note the halo-like effect and the medallion with her father’s face

Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Giovanni (1545) is holding a goldfinch, symbol of Christ’s passion.

Uffizi Gallery, Florence


Between 1550 and 1551:


Uffizi Gallery, Florence


Uffizi Gallery, Florence


Museo Nacional del Prado


Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


Ferdinando (1559)

Decorative programme for Palazzo Vecchio

The court moved from Palazzo Medici to Palazzo Vecchio in 1540. Eleonora was to be provided with a suite of rooms suited to her high aristocratic rank. From the outset, Cosimo and Eleonora had separate apartments on separate floors, joined by a spiral staircase.

There were two distinct phases to the process. Firstly, between 1539 and 1545, under the supervision of Battista di Marco del Tasso, Eleonora’s rooms were physically restructured then decorated in fresco. Secondly, between 1559 and 1564, under the supervision of Vasari, the larger rooms were redecorated, updating the fresco cycles and installing large ceiling paintings on canvas.

Before we examine the details of each stage, I’d like to introduce the idea that the decorative scheme is best appreciated and understood as a way of representing Eleonora to the people granted access to see the paintings, who would have included not only her household but important visiting diplomats and rulers. My reading has led me to believe that Eleonora was actively involved in planning the decoration and was an active political presence in Florence.

We shall examine her iconography in more detail later, but I suggest the following possible  interpretations as we move from the first to second programmes.

  • Eleonora was reshaping her public persona away from her fecundity towards a new set of regal virtues – wisdom, valour, chastity and prudence.
  • The first set of decorations exemplified Eleonora as a genetrix (mother figure) for the Medici family, whilst the later set exemplified her as a living exemplum virtutis for women in general.
  • She evolves to the point of portraying herself as the Tuscan duchess who has stood firm at her husband’s side as together they invigorated what had been a declining state.

Scrittoio and Camera Verde

The first requirement was a physical restructuring of the rooms themselves. Battista del Tasso arranged the rooms into an enfilade suite known as the Quartiere di Eleonora. An existing hall was subdivided into three spaces:

  • The Camera Verde
  • The Chapel of Eleonora
  • The Scrittoio

The alterations to create the Camera Verde must have taken place between late 1539 and early 1542. The construction on the chapel was completed by 1541.

The Camera Verde was used as an audience chamber and setting for Eleonora’s role as manager of household accounts and the Medici estates, as well as, when Cosimo was absent or unwell, her role as acting head of state. Her decision to prioritise the creation of this space attests to the importance she placed upon this aspect of her role.

The small adjacent Scrittoio was where she sat, painstakingly transcribing the financial records of the family and the Medici businesses, no doubt using the double entry bookkeeping system developed by the Medici bank itself.

Ceiling of Scrittoio

Decorative scheme

The name ‘Camera Verde’ comes from the original rich, verdant landscape frescoes (now lost) of Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, who also used heraldic devices and grotesques linked to Eleonora’s Neapolitan heritage. Propaganda contained in his grotesques focused on both her newly acquired Florentine persona as Cosimo’s consort and her important Hispano-Neapolitan birth. Grotesques were considered appropriate decorations for patrons who wished to emulate the example of the ancients and also allowed artists great freedom in subject matter. Those on the ceiling here allude to events from Medici history and to Eleonora’s fertility.

The central motif of the surviving ceiling fresco is a large Medici-Toledo coat of arms embraced by a Hapsburg eagle, the insignia of Emperor Charles V.

Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio had been among the first artists to secure Medici patronage when they were restored to power, and contributed much to the scheme of ephemeral decoration for Medici events, such as the entry of Pope Leo X into Florence and the marriages of Lorenzo duke of Urbino and Cosimo and Eleonora.

Terrazza di Giunone

The terrace of Giunone (Juno), completed in 1557, was conceived as part of the Quartiere degli Elementi, a complex of guest rooms built between 1551 and 1555 by Battista del Tasso. Today it appears as a room of modest dimensions, but it is so called because it was originally a loggia with columns that overlooked the north-eastern side of the city, designed to accommodate, in the centre, a fountain and, on the inside, a statue of the goddess. Juno is one of the most complex of the Roman deities; the multiplicity and complexity of her personality have given rise to various and sometimes irreconcilable interpretations among modern scholars. Juno is certainly the divine protectress of the community, who shows both a sovereign and a fertility character, often associated with a military one. One can clearly see why her iconography lent itself instantly to the virtues which Eleonora wished to project.

The terrace was built by Battista del Tasso between 1551 and 1555, but was immediately modified by Giorgio Vasari. Vasari and his workshop created the beautiful painted wooden panels, the stuccos, and the frescoes that embellish the rooms of the Quartiere with mythological scenes. Today, the Juno Terrace, which was completed in 1557 as an open loggia with columns facing the north-east side of Florence, is a moderately sized room, enclosed in the eighteenth century. Although the fountain was never built, it is depicted in the centre of the fresco on the lower register, where we see a mock niche with a graceful winged putto balanced on a dolphin as he pours water into a round basin.


The aim of the second phase of decoration of the Quartiere di Eleonora, most of which took place between 1561 and 1562 was to turn the Palazzo into a place which could reflect for Italian and foreign rulers those ideals of power and nobilita which had begun to inspire the court life of the Medici. To achieve this, the principle suites were decorated with istorie (history paintings).

The majority of the work was carried out by Vasari who added large oil on canvas paintings to the ceilings of larger rooms and tapestries to the walls.

Famous Women’ cycle (1551-2) Giorgio Vasari, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

By this point in time, Eleonora had fulfilled her dynastic duties by giving birth to several male children. It was desirable that her iconography be changed to highlight female virtues that promote excellent relations between the sexes. But, who chose the actual iconographic programme? If you read the correspondence between Vasari and Cosimo and then take Vasari at his word, it would appear it was chosen by Vasari, not by Eleonora, and represented ‘stories of those regal women who, with their deeds, matched the virtue of men, or even surpassed it’ (Vasari). However, anyone familiar with ‘The Lives…’ or modern commentaries thereupon, may feel, as I do, that taking Vasari literally can be fraught with danger. After all, this was a campaign to reshape Eleonora’s public image by adding allegorical representations of her as wise, valiant, chaste and productive and we know that she was indubitably a strong willed woman. If one extends one’s reading and opinions beyond Vasari’s self-value, it is easy, and I believe logical, to conclude that Eleonora was an active participant and consultant in that campaign.

Each of the four rooms was dedicated to a specific heroine and age:

  • Biblical Queen Esther and the age of the old covenant
  • Sabine Ersilia and Roman antiquity
  • Penelope and Greek antiquity
  • The Florence maiden Gualdrada and the history of Florence

Before we look at the decoration in each room more closely, a few general comments if I may. The rooms have political content and create an image of Eleonora as an active political presence in Florence; as we know, she was regent in Cosimo’s absence and an active patron of the arts. The rooms praise Eleonora’s past and present self-government and established her as a moral example for others to follow. They also forge a deep connection between Eleonora and Florence. Vasari regarded exemplary images as a means of reflecting back to rulers their own virtues and of demonstrating these virtues to those given access to see the paintings and this was at the core of his planning.

Not for the first time in this series of articles, I find myself asking: what do these images mean?

The general consensus amongst art historians is that these frescoes allow for a multiplicity of meanings to be read into them, according to the interests and intentions of the viewer. Rather than prescribe concrete references and meanings for the paintings in Eleonora’s rooms, it is likely that the elastic meanings of the exemplary figures represented would have been adapted by commentators guiding important visitors through these rooms and would have been stretched to cover every aspect of Eleonora’s character and every event of her life with Cosimo and their children. This seems to me a most intelligent use of the propaganda machine beating at the heart of the Ducal family.

I shall now give a description and illustration of each room, touching as appropriate on the iconographic significance.

The decoration of each of the four large rooms is structured in the same way. An event from the life of a famous woman occupies a large central ceiling panel, oil on canvas, and numerous small soffits surround it. In these are painted images which evoke Cosimo, Tuscany and the Medici and establish the direct connection with Eleonora and her bond with Cosimo. A frieze consisting of several panels per wall runs just below each ceiling. Cosimo’s insignia is prominent in each room.

In the Sala di Ester, the main panel shows Queen Esther kneeling before her husband King Ahasiverus who is granting her plea.

Eleonora’s name and rank are clearly spelled out in a large inscription, embellished with putti, running around the top of the walls in a frieze. Other images which can be seen are the Medici palle and the Florentine lily.

The Sala delle Sabine has as its main panel Heralia, leader of the Sabine women, interceding in combat between their Roman husbands and their Sabine male relatives.

Juno’s peacock features heavily in the remaining iconography. The peacock is regarded as the symbol of ‘chaste fertility’, the obvious iconographic source when attempting to align Eleonora’s chastity with the fact that she bore Cosimo eleven children.

The Sala di Penelope shows the wife of Odysseus centre stage at her loom. She exemplifies fidelity. The remaining space is filled with Medici and Toledo coats of arms and allegories of Tuscan rivers.

The Sala di Gualdrada celebrates the purity of the twelfth century maiden Gualdrada Berti dei Ravignani, called upon by many subsequent authors including Dante and Boccaccio. She is shown confronting Emperor Otto IV and her father and surrounded by scenes of Florentine festivals and Medici and Toledo coats of arms.

Eleonora had been praised for her chastity, prudence, wisdom, fecundity, piety, drama and sharpness of intellect. The women portrayed in these rooms employ power that accrues from their virtue for the benefit of others or to interrupt the violence of men against men. The images portray Eleonora as a powerful intercessor for the city’s economic well-being in what was, for its time, a highly innovative project.

The Chapel of Eleonora

The physical structure of the Chapel was completed by 1541. The body of the space was formed by the subdivision of a larger hall, also creating the Camera Verde and Scrittoio. A false vault was then added on top, creating an intimate space, only fourteen feet square, often likened to a jewel box.

The decoration is entirely the work of Bronzino, who was active in the Chapel on three separate occasions – between 1541 and 1545, in 1553 and again in the mid 1560s. By the time he started on this space, Bronzino had created his own manner of sculptural painting, influenced by his interest in antique sculptures. His scenes create windows into alternate realms, transporting us beyond the confines of the Chapel. The forceful gestures, leaps in scale, brilliant colouring and apparent shifts in medium combines in a vivid example of Florentine Mannerism.

His first altarpiece, a ‘Lamentation’ (1541-5), was sent as a gift in 1545 to Cardinal Nicolas Perrenot de Granvelle, minister of Charles V and subsequently replaced, with the addition of an ‘Annunciation’. The vault is decorated with saints and the walls frescoed with scenes from the life of Moses. Frescos of ‘Moses Striking the Rock’ and the ‘Gathering of Manna’ to the right emphasise the iconography of the Eucharist, a key component of the Catholic Counter-Reformation and also of the Hapsburg tradition, recently revived by Emperor Charles V.

Eleonora appears in the guise of the pregnant woman standing behind Moses to the left of the altar, in ‘Moses Appointing Joshua’, again emphasising her fecundity.


While all Christians were expected to perform religious devotions at home in order to continue their journey towards salvation, only the elite were privileged with private chapels to facilitate their pious practices in the domestic sphere. Exemplary piety was part of Eleonora’s noble persona as duchess of the Florentine people. Eyewitness accounts attest to her frequent prayers in the private space of her chapel, and her devotions were undoubtedly aided by Bronzino’s frescoes. How did Eleonora experience the imagery that Bronzino prepared for her chapel?

I have read some interpretations of the decorative scheme which are drawn from an Italian perspective, but I believe that the Chapel should be read through the eyes of Eleonora’s Spanish spirituality and piety. Her devotions were shaped by a Spanish devotional treatise commissioned by her mother – the ‘Mirror of Illustrious Persons’. This treatise says that persons of great rank have a singular obligation to serve God and follow a spiritual life, pay Christ reverential obedience, contemplate His life and Passion, reflect on their own sins and repent and pray for deliverance. Eleonora’s father also owned an extensive library of devotional books and Eleonora is known to have had a personal devotion to Saint Francis and Saint Jerome, common amongst the Spanish.

The frescoes dealing with Moses’ narratives refer to the power of prayer, illustrating how Moses succeeded only when he combined perseverance and petitionery prayer. The benefits of contemplative prayer were extolled in a number of Spanish devotional works prior to 1540.

Let us now look in more detail at the various components of the decorative scheme.

Ceiling vault

The ceiling has a background of rich lapis lazuli and is divided into quadrants by garlands supported by putti.

The choice of the four sacred figures depicted on the ceiling reflects Eleonora’s Spanish heritage. All four figures were prominent in the devotions of the earlier Spanish queen, Isabel I of Castile, at whose court Eleonora’s mother was raised. In her lifetime, Isabel was the most powerful woman in Europe and a major cultural patron—a worthy model for the young Florentine duchess. Saint Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscan order and was of particular importance to Eleonora who had, in 1540, made a pilgrimage to La Verna, the Tuscan mountain where Francis purportedly received the stigmata.

Above the north wall, John the Evangelist, holding his gospel book and accompanied by an eagle, gazes in revelation towards an unseen force; across from him Francis of Assisi receives the stigmata, the markings of Christ’s crucifixion awarded to him for his exceptional faith. Above the altar wall the Archangel Michael raises his sword to thwart an encroaching demon. Michael’s violent spiraling movement contrasts with the gracefully outstretched arms of Jerome seated and gazing in contemplation with his lion over the chapel’s entrance.


Chapel walls – Scenes from the Life of Moses

The stories recorded by Bronzino on the walls of the chapel recount narratives from the life of Moses as told in Exodus, adapted here to Eleonora’s personal interests. Throughout the space, women outnumber men. Themes of divine intercession, regeneration, sustenance, and continuity, are repeated throughout. On the south wall, uninterrupted by window or door and most receptive of natural light, are two scenes combined into a single episode: the ‘Crossing of the Red Sea’ and ‘Moses Appointing Joshua’.

The fresco of the Red Sea contains an image of Eleonora’s bearded father, with his back to us as he faces Moses. On the left side of the composition, the rose-colored water of the Red Sea extends into background space, swallowing the struggling Egyptians in pursuit of the fleeing Israelites now safely regrouping on dry land. On the right side of the composition, crowds of figures in various states of dress extend sweepingly into the background. The right foreground depicts a seated Moses—rays of light extending from his temples—pointing towards his successor, a youthful Joshua who in turn gestures outwards, towards the viewer, in her day Eleonora. Joshua will complete the journey started by Moses, leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. These allusions to divine protection facilitated by able leadership and continuity are often interpreted as reflecting the interests of the new Medici regime. This reading is supported by the inclusion of a notably pregnant woman (just behind Moses) – the ever-pregnant Eleonora, guarantor of the Medici lineage.

The other walls repeat these themes of divine intervention and provision, often through allusions to water as a cleansing and life-giving force. On the north wall, ‘Moses Striking the Rock’ shows miraculous waters gushing forth from the arid landscape as thirsty Israelites drink or scoop up this precious fluid. On the same wall, the ‘Gathering of the Manna’ shows desperate throngs using vessels of various sizes and shapes to gather the divinely provided sustenance.

Moses Striking the Rock
Gathering of the Manna

Entrance wall

The entrance wall depicts the story of the Brazen Serpent, another scene of miraculous intervention. Punished by a plague of snakes by God for their lack of faith, the Israelites are saved by Moses who intervenes on their behalf. God prompts him to make an image of a serpent and place it on a pole, promising that all who looked upon it would be cured of snakebites. Bronzino’s sinuous serpent winds arounds a cross, foreshadowing the redemption of Christ’s crucifixion shown directly across from this image in the altarpiece.

Lamentation’ altarpiece

Altarpiece in Chapel of Eleonora

The first thing one sees as one enters the Chapel is the last element of the decorative program to be completed: the brilliant ‘Lamentation’ altarpiece, a scene of collective mourning centred on the Virgin Mary holding her dead son. The current work in the chapel with accompanying side panels depicting the ‘Annunciation’ is a replica of the original painting, sent as a diplomatic gift to Nicolas Perrenot de Granville, keeper of the seals for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, shortly after the work’s installation in July of 1545. A precise replica of the original altarpiece, also by Bronzino, with new side panels was in place by 1553.

At the devotional centre of the image, Christ’s gleaming body is displayed in the lap of his grieving mother with his upper torso supported by a golden-haired John the Evangelist, and his knees and feet held by Mary Magdalen. Angels frame this central grouping, one holding a chalice, the other a cloth, alluding to the mass performed on the altar below. The scene is dominated by women: four holy women gather behind John, while a fifth stands at the centre of the composition, directly behind the Virgin, her hand raised and gazing down upon Christ.

Standing apart from the women and the group touching Christ’s body are three men, including Nicodemus, who holds a magnificent vessel—a reference to the spices he brought to the entombment—and Joseph of Arimathea, holding the nails of the crucifixion. The comportment of the figures in the altarpiece, conform to gendered expectations found throughout lamentation imagery: the men are reservedly distanced from the central scene while their female counterparts are more overtly engaged. Above these earthbound figures, five twisting putti float above the clouds holding the instruments of the Passion.

Like Jacopo Pontormo’s Capponi Chapel altarpiece, a stylistically similar work often cited as a point of departure for his pupil Bronzino, the figures within this scene of mourning shed no tears. Their emotional responses to the death of Christ are instead articulated through the twists and turns of their bodies. This fluidity also characterises both the form and iconography of the surrounding walls: idealised bodies twist and surge in space, and literal fluids – the Red Sea, the miraculous water unleashed by Moses – abound.

Jacopo da Pontormo (1525-8) ‘Deposition’, Santa Felicita, Florence

Eleonora’s changing iconography

Few if any of us retain the same dreams and values throughout our lives. Our aspirations change and grow and the ways in which we project ourselves and are seen by others alter with time. The extent to which it matters how others view, and in particular approve of, us matters more to some than others. However, when one is leader of a Duchy one’s public persona is a matter of vital importance, a point not lost on Cosimo and Eleonora, who were adept at using the propaganda machine to represent themselves to both the people of Florence and rulers of adjacent city states in a positive light.

From the time of her marriage in 1539 until late 1560, allegories, portraits and encomia of Eleonora did not celebrate her capacity for the cardinal virtues or her public role, but rather celebrated her fecundity, her virtue in general and her status as the wife of the ruler, who mounted his own publicity campaign.

In the 1540s and 1550s, allegories almost exclusively link her with the goddess Juno, the peacock representing chaste fecundity. To our modern eyes, it may seem somewhat unusual to celebrate a woman’s ‘chastity’ or ‘purity’, especially given the couple had eleven children, confirming that abstinence was not a strong suit. Eleonora became associated with an iconography of abundance, which including the goddesses of matrimony (Juno once again) and fertility (Cybele).

Although the populace of cinquecento Florence no longer worshipped ancient deities, they would have been familiar with their theology. Juno’s was one of the most complex; she held a number of epithets each associated with a different aspect and role. She was associated, among other situations and qualities, with marriage, vitality, youthfulness, protection, fertility and purity. Therefore, it is tenable that in the theology of the time, a single deity could embrace both chastity and multiparity.

Juno, Ceres (goddess of agriculture , grain, fertility and motherhood) and Ops (fertility) are also represented in the decorative program for the Quartiere degli Elementi and the Terraza di Giunone in the Palazzo Vecchio by Vasari in 1555-6. Another aspect of Roman theology can now be seen; there are multiple deities associated with the same virtue. This iconography was most extensively developed in the Terrazza di Guinone.

Francesco Salviati’s ceiling decoration for the scrittoio in the Duchess’s apartments is the earliest surviving allegorical work to celebrate the fertility of Eleonora’s grain estates and her personal fertility. Executed in 1545, the figure depicted in the central medallion is Dovizia (wealth or abundance); she holds a cornucopia and a palm frond. By 1545, only four years after her arrival in Florence, Eleonora was mother of four children and the two putti in the decoration may refer to these two male heirs.

Eleonora was also identified with the grain god Ceres, as in a sculpture by Baccio Bandinelli gifted to her in 1548 and positioned by her in the Boboli Gardens.

Elsewhere, her association with the goddess Juno was further celebrated in a portrait medal of the duchess executed in 1551 by Domenico Paggini and a fountain for the ceremonial entrance of Cosimo and Eleonora to Siena in 1560 by Ammannati.

Bust of Eleonora with crowned peahen on reverse (1551) Private collection

Whilst this first set of projected identities exemplified Eleonora as a genetrix (mother, ancestress) for the Medici family, a later set exemplified her as a living exemplum virtutis for women in general.

After 1560 when Cosimo made a triumphal entrance into Siena, primary emphasis was placed on Eleonora’s deeds, which manifested the cardinal virtues, her power derived from moral action, developing for her a new image of a wise, valiant, chaste, prudent Florentine donna regia, a worthy counterpart to Duke Cosimo. This was a quite deliberate reshaping of Eleonora’s public persona away from her fecundity towards a new set of regal virtues, a campaign to reshape her public image by adding allegorical representations of her  – wisdom, valour, chastity and prudence – as the Tuscan duchess who has stood firm at her husband’s side as together they invigorated what had been a declining state.


Allegory of Venus and Cupid

Descent of Christ into Limbo

Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence

Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1545) National Gallery, London

A mystery in terms of iconography and execution, this work was painted in 1545 and sent as a gift to King Frances I of France. Venus and Cupid embrace, surrounded by personifications such as Time, shown as an elderly bald man with an hourglass, and Folly, shown as a putto.

There is no doubt that Bronzino showcases a lot of artistic merit here, but scholars are still puzzling over the iconography, which speaks volumes about his intellect as well as his inheritance from his master Pontormo and his adherence to the wider tenets of Mannerism. In particular, Venus, Cupid and the putto are all drawn in the figura serpentinata beloved of Mannerist artists.

The identity and meaning of the other figures is unclear, but it was with some delight that I uncovered during my research the nugget of information that the foot shown bottom left is the trademark iconic Monty Python foot.

Bronzino did not only work for the Ducal couple. Some of his other works are fascinating and revealing and lead us towards an analysis of the end of his career and his reputation after his death.

Descent of Christ into Limbo (1552) Santa Croce, Florence

The Council of Trent had begun its lengthy deliberations, shaping the future of the Catholic Church, but had not yet reached the subject of painting; this would come in 1563. The ‘Descent’ is therefore a pre-Tridentine work. No one needs to be an art history enthusiast to be captured by the breath of this oil painting’s fluidity. In the centre of the painting stands Jesus – tall, slender and muscular, pale with light-brown hair, reaching out to hold a bald man’s boney hand, which we find out belongs to Noah. In his composition, the artist looks to Michelangelo for his muscular male nudes and contrapposto poses, but also to classical statuary for Eve and the female figures transformed into Venuses. We probably owe the design of the frame to Bronzino himself, who is known to have supplied designs for other objects of applied art, while the carver has been identified as Battista di Marco del Tasso, who we encountered with his role in the initial reconstruction of Eleonora’s apartments in Palazzo Vecchio.

The work was created for Giovanni Zanchini’s chapel in Santa Croce and remains on display in the church to this day, where I took the photograph shown here. The work was damaged in the catastrophic flood of 1966 and underwent restoration over several decades.

The subject is taken from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and Jacobus de Varagine’s Golden Legend which tell us that before His resurrection, Christ descended into Limbo to rescue the just who had lived before his time, including Adam, Seth, Isaiah, Simeon, David, Habakkuk, Micah, Enoch, Elijah and John the Baptist, all of whom Dante mentions in Canto IV of his Inferno. Terrifying devils peek out of the hellish glow above.

Vasari mentions the presence of contemporary portraits – Pontormo, Giovan Battista Gelli, Bachiacca, Costanza da Sommaia and Camilla Tedaldi dal Corno – who have since been variously identified in the painting. The following image, created from a 2010 exhibition on the work of Bronzino, identifies the numerous portraits included in the painting, which include Bronzino’s own image, as Jacob in the foreground . The figure in blue to whom he turns has been reported to strongly resemble Eleonora.

By as early as 1584 ‘The Descent’ was being criticised for having too many nudes and led to Bronzino being criticised for immoral art. Alfonso de’ Pazzi, a member of the Accademia Fiorentina, wrote a sonnet on the painting in which he believed that Bronzino must have mistaken paradise for a brothel. At least one fellow academician is recorded as voicing her displeasure at being included.

Cosimo wanted to adhere to the edicts Council of Trent, not only in reflection of his own beliefs but also because he depended on papal support to maintain power. He therefore persevered with reforms of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce along Tridentine lines, under the supervision of Vasari, which helped him to receive the Grand Ducal crown from Pius V in 1569. During and following the renovations in Santa Croce, Bronzino’s ‘Descent’ was maintained in its chapel. Bronzino at least still had the backing of his main patron.


Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (1569) San Lorenzo, Florence

The ‘Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence’ commissioned in 1565 and unveiled on August 10 1569 when Bronzino was 66 was his last major commission. It shows his interest in sculpture linked to his tradition for the burlesque; almost every one of the extraordinarily contorted poses can be traced back to Raphael or to Michaelangelo, whom Bronzino idolised. The style is Mannerist, the style promoted by the Medici ducal court from 1540 and the ‘Martyrdom’ is often cited as an apotheosis of Mannerism in its effete virtuosity and courtly sycophancy. For many, though, an art that is pre-eminently about itself is a politically complacent art.

From the outset, the work was condemned for being overly imaginative, artificial, immoral and lacking clear devotional purpose, starting with ‘Il Riposo’ which singled out the abundance of naked, highly animated bodies arranged in festive arabesques, seen as a final excess of the stylistic current grounded in Bronzino’s imitation of Michaelangelo. To this day, commentators are universally disparaging; I came across the following barbs as I researched this work online:

‘A fusion of ballet and Turkish bath..’

‘One of Mannerism’s most monumental failures from every point of view..’

‘Empty of all significance and devoid of taste..’

‘A saints and sinners dinner at a very unusual spa..’

That degree of contempt is quite unusual in my experience. So, why all the fuss? Let’s take a slightly less acerbic look at the controversy.

There can be little doubt that, at the time it was painted, the work did not adhere to the dictates of the Council of Trent decree on sacred art, published in 1563. It also transgressed one of the earliest and most influential treatises published thereafter – Giovan Andrea Gilio’s ‘Dialogue on the Errors of Painters Concerning History’ (1564).

It is legitimate to state that the ‘Martyrdom’ falls short of the Tridentine decrees for the following reasons:

  • The composition contains figures with no historical basis in Lawrence’s martyrdom
  • There is no business having female allegorical figures in this historical narrative
  • There is no call for nudity in this topic
  • The presence of nudity is distracting and profane
  • Artificiality of pose and gesture  
  • Prioritisation of formal design over narration
  • There is an absence of actual or plausible figures
  • The emotional tenor is ambivalent, lacking pathos

Now, Bronzino was well aware of the Decrees and the post-Tridentine treatises: indeed his Santa Croce ‘Pieta’ (1570) and Santo Spirito ‘Noli me Tangere’ (1561-5) are clear devotional representations which comply with both in their clear, decorous, affecting presentation of sacred history.

Pietà (1570) Santa Croce
Noli me tangere (1561-5) Santo Spirito

So, why did he apparently make a conscious decision here to ignore protocol? Here are some possible explanations.

Is the ‘Martyrdom’ a defensive reaction to criticism of Michaelangelo, whom he worshipped, in ‘Il Riposo’ and Gilio’s treatise?

Is it a kind of manifesto for the new Accademia del Disegno, which maintained the memory of Michaelangelo?

Is Bronzino resisting the total hegemony of Rome, which was aggressively disseminating the decrees of the Council of Trent, over Florence?

And finally, is Bronzino redefining and reframing Michaelangelo’s pictorial language according to the literary principles of Aristotle’s Poetics. If so, redefining it into what? The worry is that it descends into some kind of sacred theatre, lacking a clear meaning or direction, obsessed with itself.

Which, to me, brings the discussion full circle; if the iconography is so obscure that viewers describe it in the terms they do and the art is actually about itself then what does this say about the patron and the artist? Cosimo had, in fact, ceded rule to his son, Francesco I, in 1564 and would die in 1574, so controversy around this work had no effect on him. The artist, however, would not escape so lightly.


Bronzino’s declining reputation

There is no doubt that Bronzino’s reputation declined after the ‘Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence’. What possible factors were responsible for this? As he ventured little outside of Florence his fame remained very local and it may have simply been either contentment with his lot or complacency and lack of ambition.

The Counter-Reformation

We have seen how, and perhaps why, some of Bronzino’s post-Tridentine religious images struggled to be appropriate. But we have also seen that he could, if he chose, paint in the manner now expected of those producing sacred art. I have read that Bronzino was too old to change his manner of painting, but I’m not of that opinion. I prefer to believe that he chose not to, a choice which he was entirely entitled to make. But, one rarely has total control over their own destiny and there were two major dissenting voices about to be raised.


Giorgio Vasari eventually succeeded Bronzino as Medici court artist. The general consensus is that he bore considerable resentment and jealousy towards his predecessor. In his ‘Lives…’ Vasari’s account of Bronzino is short and lacks both the details and scope worthy of his personal reputation. In Vasari’s work ‘Duke Cosimo de Medici with His Architects, Engineers and Sculptors (1555), Palazzo Vecchio, Bronzino is absent, despite being very active artistically at this time.

But it wasn’t always that way; at one time Vasari considered Bronzino the most important artist of his generation, claiming him ‘a Florentine painter truly most rare and worthy of all praise’. It was with Vasari that Bronzino helped to establish the Accademia del Disegno in Florence in 1563. So, what happened to cause a rift between the two?

A passage on painters’ excuses in Bronzino’s poem, “II secondo delle scuse” offers considerable insight into Bronzino’s views on art, its theory and practice. Not only did Bronzino’s own artistic practice reflect his beliefs, he was perfectly willing to implicate others if he felt they were transgressing. He reserved particular scorn for those artists who, in his opinion painted ‘too quickly’; although not specifically naming Vasari in this context, it appears that his compatriot took exception to an implied criticism.

In his biography of Jacopo Pontormo, Vasari was highly critical of two contrasting stylistic phases in the painter’s career. Recent scholarship, concentrating on the (destroyed) frescoes in the choir of San Lorenzo, has concluded that Vasari was acting out of professional jealousy, or that he was attempting to obscure the frescoes’ heretical content. This sets a clear precedent for Vasari developing envy and being quite prepared to attack a colleague’s reputation. As Pontormo’s pupil, Bronzino might have been caught up in the crossfire.

On a more general theme, the main group of artists securing commissions in Florence in the 1530s and 40s included Bronzino but did not include Vasari, who apparently did not take kindly to a perceived series of snubs, which in actual fact was more likely the cut and thrust of normal commercial competition.


‘Il Riposo’

Raffaello Borghini’s ‘Il Riposo’ (1584) is the most widely known Florentine document on the subject of the Counter-Reformation content of religious paintings. It takes the form of a dialogue on painting and sculpture at Bernardo Vecchietti’s villa ‘Il Riposo’, between Vecchietti, Baccio Valori, Girolamo Michelozzi and Ridolfo Sirigatti. The theoretic argument of the first two books is dependent on Vasari; but the third and fourth books provide information on Giambologna and other contemporaries of the author. A distillation of the art gossip that was a feature of the Medici Grand Ducal court, Borghini’s treatise puts forth simple criteria for judging the quality of a work of art. ‘Il Riposo’ focuses on important issues that Vasari avoided, ignored, or was oblivious to. Picking up where Vasari left off, Borghini deals with artists who came after Michaelangelo and provides more comprehensive descriptions of artists who Vasari only touched upon such as Tintoretto, Veronese, Barocci, and the artists of Francesco I’s Studiolo. This text is also invaluable as a description of the mid-sixteenth century reaction against the style of the ‘maniera,’ which stressed the representation of self-consciously convoluted figures in complicated works of art.The first art treatise specifically directed toward non-practitioners, ‘Il Riposo’ gives unique insight into the early stages of art history as a discipline, late Renaissance art and theory, and the Counter-Reformation in Italy. As ‘Il Riposo’ was published 20 years after the Council of Trent it considered Bronzino’s art retrospectively as he had died 10 years before it was published. It criticised various altarpieces and panels by Bronzino for including naked figures in often convoluted stances and for failing to stay true to scripture.



It would be a shame to end this article reflecting on the decline in Bronzino’s career. I prefer to imagine him engaged with Eleonora planning the jewel-like interior of her chapel, which was to prove so comforting to the Duchess. This formidable woman is worthy of her respect for all the recognition and respect she garnered at a time when women very much took a back seat in the power games played out in medieval city states.

There is much of interest and beauty to see on a visit to Florence and I highly recommend seeking out some of the artworks and locations I have touched on here.













The changing art of Sandro Botticelli

In this article we shall study the artistic output of one of the greatest Renaissance masters, Sandro Botticelli. Many of you will be familiar with his masterpiece in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, ‘The Birth of Venus’. By many it is regarded as the second most ‘famous’ painting in the world, after, of course, ‘Mona Lisa’. We shall, naturally enough, examine this work during the course of this article, but there is much more to Botticelli’s oeuvre that merits our attention.

If you have read any of my other art posts, you may be aware that I like to consider works of art in the context of the history, social and political, of the times in which they were created. With Botticelli, this means Florence in the latter part of the fifteenth century, the quattrocento. It is a fascinating time in history, a complex, contradictory time, containing as it did both Lorenzo de’ Medici and the charismatic Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola. A delicate and fluctuating balance existed between traditional Florentine republicanism and the Medici family trying, but not yet fully succeeding, to crush it. Humanist learning was flourishing and the success of banking, trading and cloth-making made many families wealthy, allowing the cultivation of an opulent, naturalistic style of art through patronage. Art had become a political tool and Botticelli was the leading man of Renaissance Florence, an influencer. Then, Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ died on 8 April 1492, Savonarola rose to power and a golden age in Florence, one of great artistic creativity, ended.

Botticelli’s painting was shaped by a whole range of influences, including:
• His patrons
• His own life – unusually, he made paintings for himself which embodied his own imagination and visions
• The culture and society of quattrocento Florence – the rise of Savonarola would produce a sea change in his style

Botticelli’s primary innovation was filtered, transformed beauty. Botticelli is , indeed, seen by many art critics as the man who ‘invented’ beauty and was certainly the first artist to explore the female gaze. There is little doubt that many of Botticelli’s women share a resemblance, and some believe that this is possibly to a real woman, Simonetta Vespucci, beloved of Giuliano de’ Medici, who died aged 23. Others, myself included, consider that Botticelli unrelentingly searched for a universal model of beauty, rather than recreating an individual appearance. To many, his Madonnas and Venus figures represent this idealised form of female beauty. Others call up the rather strange androgyny exhibited by many of his figures. Some comment on the eroticism that his work represents to their eyes. As always, we encounter and interact with a painting on a uniquely personal level and bring our own experiences and values to bear on the qualitative aesthetic of that viewing.

Unlike many artists, Botticelli was famous in his lifetime but he died just as the High Renaissance style was reading its zenith so his art suddenly became old fashioned. Botticelli was eclipsed by the giants of the High Renaissance – Raphael, Michaelangelo and Leonardo – and his art became quickly disregarded and forgotten. This situation persisted until the nineteenth century, when a renewed interest in the art of Italy from the time before Raphael, sparked by the creativity of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, led to a new appreciation of Botticelli’s work. His legacy has persisted from then until now; as we shall see, his work continues to be re-imagined in ever more surprising ways.
His masterpieces speak a powerful contemporary language.

Botticelli and the Medici

Early in his career, Botticelli became a favourite of the Medici and the great men of their party. Lorenzo ‘Il Magnifico’ recommended him but may not have directly commissioned any works from him, but his brother Giuliano was definitely a patron, as was Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, a cousin from a separate branch of the family. Let us explore this relationship through several works.

Sant’Ambrogio altarpiece

‘Virgin and Child with Saints’ (1470-2)*Uffizi Gallery, Florence

*for all works in this article, the dates I give are approximate; few dates for Botticelli’s works are definitive

It portrays the Virgin enthroned with Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, Saints Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Alexandria and, kneeling in the foreground, Saints Cosmas and Damian.
The saints in foreground, patron saints of the Medici, are portraits of Lorenzo and Giuliano.

‘Adoration of the Magi’

‘Adoration of the Magi’ (1475) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

A small work, richly detailed, which won Botticelli universal admiration. The Adoration is the climax of his early style, still influenced by Lippi, characterised by skill in line drawing and modelling of figures and the use of strong, light colour palette. The painting shows a range of poses of heads in profile, three-quarter profile and full face, a technique Botticelli was making his own. Interestingly, it was the first nonlinear depiction of the story of the Nativity.

Lorenzo was by this time using culture to his advantage, as a way to further his reputation. Artists were being used to represent powerful people in paintings and frescoes and Botticelli’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ contains portraits of Cosimo, Piero, Lorenzo, Giovanni and Giuliano. The Magi were considered kings; there is no confusion of meaning here. This is a bold, unequivocal statement of Medici power.

Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano, both alive, are shown, but Cosimo and his sons Piero and Giovanni were all dead so why did the patron (Guaspare di Zanobi del Lama, himself depicted as one of the Magi) choose to portray them in his painting? He presumably continued an allegiance to the family and their continued dominance, under Lorenzo, over Florence. This was still the surest horse to back.

A figure to the right of the foreground catches our eye with a somewhat arrogant gaze. This is widely accepted as a self portrait of the artist.

The Pazzi conspiracy Botticelli’s first dated commission from the Signoria, the ruling council of Florence, was after the Pazzi conspiracy, an outrage which shocked the city. Members of the Pazzi family, a rival to the Medici, attacked and stabbed Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano during Easter celebrations in the Duomo on 26 April, 1478. This outrage was instigated by Girolamo Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV, who was himself suspected of personal involvement. The conspirators also tried to seize the Palazzo della Signoria and rouse the people but failed miserably in their aim to seize political control of Florence.

Giuliano died of his wounds, but Lorenzo made his escape to the Medici palace, where he rallied his supporters and took his full revenge. Those responsible were hung outside Bargello. Botticelli was commissioned to paint the conspirators hanging and his pictures were displayed in public as pro Medici propaganda.

Botticelli was subsequently commissioned to paint a fresco of the eight chief participants’ executions above the door of the customs house, which was subsequently erased in November 1494 after Piero de Medici’s flight from Florence and the return from exile of Medici opponents including the Pazzi family.

Botticelli painted several portraits of Giuliano, with whom he was well acquainted, during the 1470s. The prototype of these, painted posthumously in 1478, hangs in Washington.

‘Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici’ (1478) National Gallery of Art, Washington

He also painted a posthumous portrait of Piero, son of Cosimo and father of Lorenzo, in the mid/late 1470s, which was destroyed in World War II.

Finally, let us consider the ‘Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Medal of Cosimo de Medici’

‘Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Medal of Cosimo de’ Medici’ (1474-5) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The portrait, from a time when Botticelli was building his talents and reputation as a portrait artist, is in the Flemish style. The medal is cast in gilt gesso and the man’s hands are painted around it, rather awkwardly. Overall, it is a cramped, uncomfortable composition.
The identity of the youth is unknown. Speculation as to his identity has encompassed a number of members of the Medici family – Lorenzo, Piero or Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco – and even Botticelli’s brother Antonio.

There can be no more obvious indication that an artist’s work is being influenced by his patrons that his directly representing them in his work. The Medici were probably the most sought after patrons of the arts in Florence in the quattrocento and Botticelli would continue, as we shall see, to be a chosen vehicle for their commissions for years to come.

Botticelli’s early life

For someone such as myself, who counts Florence as his favourite place in the world, and whose knowledge of Italian art centres largely on the cradle of the Renaissance, Botticelli is an ideal subject to study as, apart from a brief sojourn in Rome in 1481-2, all of his life was spent in Florence.

Botticelli was a nickname, his family name was Filipepi; his full name was Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi. His mother was Smerelda and his father, Mariano, a tanner to trade. Young Sandro worked alongside his father for a time. He was born in 1445 in Borgo Ognissanti, near the church where he is buried. The family had eight children, four of whom survived to adulthood.

Botticelli was sent to work with a goldsmith but was drawn to painting instead. He was placed as an assistant to Fra Filippo Lippi in 1461-2, an artist favoured and protected by the Medici, to whom he was therefore introduced. From the beginning, his art was characterised by its liveliness, tenderness, brightness and decorativeness.

Botticelli spent five years in Prato with Lippi when he was domiciled there during his infamous affair with the nun Lucrezia Buti, who bore him his son Filippino. Under Lippi’s tutelage, Botticelli learned techniques of painting on panel and fresco and elements of style, composition and ornamentation that comprised the common pictorial language of the day.

To understand Botticelli one must balance what he took from Lippi, what he discarded, what he added and what he developed. Consider a typical Lippi painting, his ‘Annunciation’ from the National Gallery in London, painted around 1450.

From Lippi, Botticelli took:
• Linear treatment of the human form
• Pointed oval faces and broad foreheads
• Golden-haired, impish boy angels
• Fancy, rich costumes embroidered with gold and pearls
• Use of transparent fabric over opaque colour
• Use of architecture to define spatial depth
• Common repertory of Madonna motifs, such as the pomegranate and the Child clutching the veil
• Populating the scene with multiple figures

Botticelli left Lippi in 1467 when Lippi departed for Spoleto and set up his workshop

It is now time for us to explore some of Botticelli’s early paintings.

Botticelli’s early works

The ‘Adoration of the Magi’ from 1465 is Botticelli’s earliest surviving istoria painting, possibly his earliest surviving work.

‘Adoration of the Magi’ (1464) National Gallery, London

The work shows that Botticelli’s abilities are nascent at this early stage in his career. The composition is badly balanced, shows discords in size, is not centred on the adoration of the Child and contains many figures which lack adequate expression or action. It does not form a single convincing whole. Botticelli painted several subsequent ‘Adorations’, one of which we have already encountered.

One of his early Madonnas is the ‘Virgin and Child with Two Angels’

‘Virgin and Child with Two Angels’ (1470) Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

The work owes an obvious debt to Filippo Lippi and still has something of Lippi’s softness but now Botticelli demonstrates firmer linear definition, more emphatic and naturalistic modelling and greater intensity of expression. The strong red, blue and green in the Virgin’s dress and are Botticelli’s own.

Botticelli’s breakthrough work is widely regarded to be ‘Fortitude’.

‘Fortitude’ (1470) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

This is one of a series of the seven virtues, painted for the chamber of the Sei della Mercanzia, a tribunal of six judges which tried disputes between merchants. They commissioned a series of seven works for the back of the bench on which they sat. Piero del Pollaiuolo won the contract but soon fell behind.
Tomasso Soderini, a loyal Medici supporter, brother-in-law of Piero and uncle of Giuliano, persuaded the Sei to allot two of the virtues to Botticelli, who eventually only completed Fortitude, following the composition of the other six.

She is drawn with a sure, vigorous naturalism of line and robust relief, employing a beautiful colour palette and use of metallic reflections. This is Botticelli’s first example of inventing an elegantly fantastic costume, including armour, something which would become a feature of his works.

Around the same time, Botticelli was commissioned to paint another ‘Adoration’, this time a tondo, now in the National Gallery London.

‘Adoration of the Magi’ (1470-74) National Gallery, London

His patron was Antonio Pucci, another partisan of the Medici who was involved in the various manipulations by which they controlled the government of the Republic.

The architecture is used to convent the eye on a central vertical band and to define the various planes and overall perspective. It takes the form of a ruined basilica, with a nave receding into the distance and a decaying transept on the left.
The lines of figures and the concentration of strong bright colours in their costumes maintains this emphasis on perspective. The poplar on which the painting is executed is seen, on close inspection, to have a perspectival grid of fine incised lines.
The composition has developed in confidence from the earlier example we saw; the Holy Family now take centre stage but their figures are smaller than those in the foreground and too diminished for plausible illusion, giving what is still a rather scattered overall appearance.

His first surviving altarpiece is a ‘Virgin and Child with Saints’.

‘Virgin and Child with Saint Mary Magdalen, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Cosmas, Saint Damian, Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1470) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Very little is known of the history of this piece, which we encountered earlier when we looked at Medici patronage. It retains much of Lippi’s influence. In it, Botticelli shows that he can pose a group of large scale figures making them all convincing individually and in relation to each other.

Botticelli was now becoming recognised as a portrait artist, and a remarkable one at that, but sadly only eight or so of his portraits survive. His ‘Portrait of Smerelda Bandinelli’ (aka Brandini) in the Victoria and Albert Museum is the first recorded portrait of a woman looking directly at the viewer.

Portrait of Smerelda Bandinelli (1472) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It shows many similarities to Leonardo da Vinci’s much more lauded ‘Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci’ (1474). Botticelli deserves more appreciation that he receives for what is a major development in the history of art. It is one of the earliest imaginative developments of an interior setting in Florentine portraiture. Light from the window throws the left wall into shadow while illuminating the face and transparent gown worn over a scarlet robe. She looks directly at us in an almost challenging manner, one which must have astonished contemporary viewers who had never seen any such representation before.

Leonardo da Vinci ‘Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci’ (1474-78) National Gallery of Art, Washington

Portrait of a Young Man

Portrait of a Young Man (1470-73) Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Botticelli is credited with introducing the three-quarter pose, rather than the more usually adopted profile, and this is one of the first three-quarter portraits in Western European art.

Beginning of Botticelli’s mature style

Botticelli’s mature style developed between 1478 and 1481 and is characterised by:
• Figure design with confident plasticity
• Immediacy and vitality in form
• Scaling and recession in harmonious consonance
• Natural unfolding of scenes
• Expertise in use of light and colour

Let us continue into this phase of Botticelli’s career by comparing the works we have just seen with two further portraits.

Portrait of a Young Man (1481-2) National Gallery, London

Again, the identity of the sitter is unknown. Botticelli uses dark clothing to focus our attention on the features of the handsome subject. The significance of this painting is that the sitter faces us directly, rather than in profile or three-quarter view. It would be Botticelli’s only such en face portrait and take portraiture in a new direction.

Portrait of a Youth (1480-5) National Gallery of Art, Washington

This work was attributed to Botticelli only in 1922. Of interest is the prominence of his hand, which appears to have swollen joints and elongated fingers. This could be a stylistic motif, something we will certainly encounter in Botticelli’s later works, but has also led to the suggestion that it is a representation of a medical condition such as juvenile arthritis or Marfan’s syndrome.

‘Saint Augustine’

Another example of Botticelli’s mature works is his first surviving and possibly his greatest fresco, ‘Saint Augustine’ in the Church of Ognissanti, Florence, which was painted in rivalry with its pendant, Ghirlandaio’s ‘Saint Jerome in his Study’.

Botticelli ‘Saint Augustine’ (1480) Ognissanti, Florence
Domenichino Ghirlandaio ‘Saint Jerome’ (1480) Ognissanti, Florence

In 1464 Botticelli’s father bought a house in Via Nuova near to Ognissanti (modern Via della Porcellana), which Sandro took over in 1470 and lived in for the rest of his life. Here the notable family on the street were the Vespucci, including Amerigo Vespucci , born in 1454, after whom the Americas were named. The Vespucci were close Medici allies, and would become regular patrons of Botticelli. The fresco was commissioned by the Vespucci family, probably Amerigo’s father Nastaglio, a notary, and his brother Giorgio Antonio, both neighbours of Botticelli.

Note the exactitude of the still-life objects, the illusionistic rendering of the open drawer and the representation of the small space of the cell. On the beam, the shield of the Vespucci family demonstrates its patronage.

‘Madonna del Libro’

Madonna del Libro (1480) Museo Poldi Pozzoli, Milan

Botticelli interprets the scene with his now familiar subtlety and love of small details: the set of boxes and the bowl of lush fruits, the pages of the book, the garments, the intricate halos and the transparent veils which all exhibit a realistic tactile quality. The composition is refined and balanced. Botticelli painted it employing subtle differences in colour, and was able to put these colours together so that they complement each other admirably. The painting is adorned with gold filigree decorating the clothes and objects, the result of the contractual agreement he made with the commissioner. The top layer of blue was lapis lazuli, a very expensive ingredient, indicating it was commissioned by a highly prestigious patron, the identity of whom is unknown.
The painting shows all the elements of Botticelli’s mature poetic style, with the interrelationship of light, shapes and voids which confers an ethereal quality to the work, whose delicate, elegant linearity is still far from the intense pathos of his late work.

Madonna del Magnificat’

Madonna del Magnificat (1480-1) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

This tondo depicts the Virgin as the Queen of Heaven, full of grace. The provenance of the work is unclear, but it entered the Uffizi in 1764.

The work shows the Virgin Mary crowned by two of five angels, a sheer veil covering her flowing blonde hair and a Byzantine style scarf around her shoulders. She is writing the opening of the Magnificat, a canticle known as the ‘Song of Mary’, on the right-hand page of a book; on the left page is part of the Benedictus. The infant Jesus guides her hand, looking up to the clear blue sky, or perhaps to his mother, softly returning his gaze. In her left hand she holds a pomegranate symbolic of Jesus’s suffering and resurrection. The figures are placed in front of a bright and serene landscape, and the framing creates a division between Heaven and earth. To the left, three angels crowd around, seemingly in deep conversation amongst one another

During this phase of Botticelli’s work, he maintained a very moderate, average emotional state throughout the content of his paintings, well illustrated in this work. During this phase, Botticelli painted several Madonnas, each of which was incredibly maternal in nature, the soft motherly love of the Virgin accentuated by the tenderness between herself and the Christ child. Botticelli famously painted his female figures, especially his Madonnas, with incredibly pale, porcelain-like faces, with light pink blushing across their noses, cheeks, and mouths, a combination of features typically found in court paintings, as well as qualities learned from his study of Classical works. Botticelli juxtaposes the Classical grace of these quasi-courtly paintings with the garb of then-contemporary Florentines.

Botticelli in Rome

To placate Pope Sixtus IV, Lorenzo sent him Botticelli to paint the walls of the Sistine chapel. Also working there at the time were Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli and Perugino. The design scheme was to illustrate the concordance of the Old and New Testaments by matching events in the Old Testament with those they foreshadowed in the New. Moses was taken as the archetype of Christ, eight panels from each life facing each other.

Botticelli contributed three frescoes:
Temptation of Christ, Bearer of the Law of the Gospels (1481-2): Christ’s three temptations are seen in the upper register

Temptation of Moses, Bearer of the Written Law (1481-2): depicts several separate acts involving Moses

Conturbation of the Laws of Moses: three episodes – revolt of the Jews against Moses, discomfiture of the sons of Aaron and the Levites, the punishment of Korah, Dathan and Abiram

Botticelli’s style is now much richer, with golden highlights. However, in all, the overriding desire of Sixtus IV for narrative clarity and symbolic emphasis detracts from the aesthetic appeal of the work.

In Rome, Botticelli also painted another Adoration, National Gallery of Art Washington, not majorly developing his previous depictions of this theme.

Botticelli’s secular works of the1480s

The works for which Botticelli is most renown are his series of large secular paintings from the 1480s. The main ones we shall consider are:
• Primavera
• Pallas and the Centaur
• The Birth of Venus
• Mars and Venus

These superlative paintings create a mythological world self-sufficient in its beauty, quite unlike anything else in existence or being produced at the time. They continue to fascinate to this day, drawing huge crowds to the room in the Uffizi in Florence where they are displayed.

Each individual work is deserving of more attention than we shall have time for in this article, which aims to give an overview of Botticelli’s career. However, for me the most searching question that arises as I view and read about these paintings is this: should great works of art contain profound philosophical or moral questions or be enjoyed for their imaginative and expressive values?


Primavera (1482) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

This is a large painting, on poplar panel, some two by three metres in size. It was painted for a villa owned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, where it hung alongside ‘Pallas and the Centaur’. It is a hugely complex and ambiguous work in which, no matter how often one stands before it or looks at a reproduction, one always finds something new. Botticelli is famous for the many layers of symbolism which surround his secular work, never more so than within this painting, about which volume upon volume has been written. In the limited space available here, I choose to begin with something it is actually very easy to overlook here, a visual description of what it is we are looking at.

It is set in a semicircular meadow, rich in grasses and flowering plants, enclosed by spruce and orange trees. It is the garden of Venus, who stands before her tree, the myrtle. The flowers tell us it is spring; most are drawn from life although in some Botticelli blends flowers from one plant and leaves from another. There are at least 500 species represented.
Venus is represented as the goddess of love and marriage. Her right hand gestures to the three dancing graces and her son, Cupid, who fires an arrow to kindle the flames of love in the Grace’s heart. The Graces exemplify the kind of beauty admired in quattrocento Florence.
Zephyr flies down through the trees on the right and blows the draperies of Chloris forward; he seizes her and she turns to scream as flowers cascade from her mouth.
Mercury stands facing outwards to the left, halting a stream of grey clouds about to enter the garden. His helmet and sword confirm his role of guarding the garden.
In the foreground, Flora advances, her right hand plunged into a mass of roses; as she scatters them they grow at her feet. She is attired and adorned in a range of flowers.
This is the first painting since antiquity which represented the ancient gods.

The history of the painting is not known with certainty, although it may have been commissioned by one of the Medici. It draws from a number of classical and Renaissance literary sources, including the works of the Ancient Roman poet Ovid and, less certainly, Lucretius, and may also allude to a poem by Poliziano, the Medici house poet who may have helped Botticelli devise the composition, as there is no source in which these figures ever appeared together which could act as a reference source.

The aspects of Botticelli’s technique which are evident here have been previously discussed. It is akin to a medieval tapestry with its minute depiction of plants, beyond natural in its decorative appearance. A key to understanding the process of its creation is that the painting combines the natural world with Botticelli’s internal imaginary world.

How to interpret this work?
It has been postulated to be a Neoplatonic allegory, inspired by Marsilio Ficino, the greatest philosopher at Lorenzo’s court, in which Venus symbolises the gentle, humanising virtue of humanitas. In this philosophy, Venus rules over both earthly and divine love, representing a classical version of the Virgin Mary. Of note, Venus’s hand gesture, intended to the viewer, is akin to that adopted by Mary as she greets the Angel in most scenes depicting the ‘Annunciation’.

Others take an opposing view that the sensuality evident in the figures is exactly the meaning, that of love, including the carnal form and its fruition, of celebrating pleasure and enjoyment.
Should you choose to, any time spent reading about the history and meaning of this work would be well worth the investment of your time.

Pallas and the Centaur

Again, this work was painted for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici to hang in his villa. Later, it hung in the Palazzo Vecchio.

Pallas and the Centaur (1482-3) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

First, to describe what is seen. On the left is a tall cliff, beyond a bay or lake before a hill. A ship sails in the lake. The Centaur stands in the left foreground, armed with a bow and four arrows. He looks with pain and surprise at the female figure who has seized his hair. She is normally identified as the Roman goddess Minerva, the Roman equivalent of Pallas Athena. Her robe is embroidered with the Medici device of three interlocked diamond rings. Branches of olive, the tree of Pallas, wind around her arms, breasts and hair. She holds a halberd.

Interpretations of this painting range over a wide range of possibilities:
• Political allegory symbolising triumph of peace over discord, or of triumph over vice
• An allegory of culture taming the wild and feral in our nature
• An allegory of passion submitting to chastity and/or reason
• A representation of the Neoplatonic idea that the human soul is part animal and part human
• She is a guard arresting the centaur who is trying to hunt in the territory of the goddess Diana; the emphasis on her chastity is a compliment to Lorenzo’s bride
• A simple wedding gift, from Lorenzo to his cousin

To me, the fascination is not which of these possibilities one regards as ‘correct’ but that there are so many options to consider. In most of the art I study, the provenance, patronage and meaning of the work is indisputable. The fact that Botticelli’s art can be so enigmatic speaks to me both of the character of the man and the increasing flexibility of the humanist time in which he was living. We shall soon see, however, that these halcyon days were finite.

The Birth of Venus

The Birth of Venus (1484-6) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Painted for an unknown patron then passed to Duke Cosimo de’ Medici or his father Giovanni, this work dates from one or two years after Primavera and Pallas and the Centaur, and is painted on canvas, compared with the Primavera which is on panel.

Let’s look at what is depicted.
The scene is set in a great bay with a steep horizon of sea and land, the coast set to the right, dotted with trees. At the extreme right is a grove of orange trees. The sea is capped by waves which lap to shore and turn right, pushing a large scallop shell along.
Venus stands in contrapposto in the first graceful movement of stepping ashore, partly concealing her breasts with her right hand and her belly and thighs with her hair. The breath of Zephyr ruffles her hair: he flies behind her, wrapped in a blue cloak and clasping a nymph in his left arm.
Around and in front of them falls a cascade of roses; in mythology roses were born at the same time as Venus. A barefooted Hora, goddess of spring, steps forward to receive Venus, her robe embroidered with cornflowers and daisies and fringed with gold.

Strictly speaking (and at risk of sounding pedantic) in mythological terms the painting does not depict the birth of Venus but her landing on shore after her birth. It is probably Cyprus, which became her kingdom – she was first worshipped at Paphos.

The painting is much simpler in composition than Primavera; compare the sparse sea with the rich meadow. The balance of figures and unity of action complies with Leon Battista Alberti’s precept that the most dignified istoria paintings should contain only a few figures. It was clearly painted to delight the eye by its use of line, colour and crisp delineation of contours.

This painting, quite simply, is an ode to beauty, a beauty which goes beyond realism to represent an ideal form of beauty. Perhaps this is the moment of the ‘invention’ of female beauty; certainly, for many, it remains the ideal standard of female beauty. Apart from beauty, many of Botticelli’s female faces have an air of introspection, suggesting an inner process, consciousness and intelligence. I find myself wondering, as I look at his Venuses and Madonnas, what thoughts might occupy their minds as they gaze out in eternity.

This is the first Renaissance celebration of the female nude, represented for the quality of its own perfection, with no intended erotic, moral or religious overtones. There appears to be no deeper meaning to the painting than this; perhaps it is a mistake to suppose that every secular Renaissance painting is charged with moral significance. For other viewers, particularly with a modern eye, ‘Venus’ represents a celebration of female sexuality, with its mixture of innocence, purity and eroticism. We shall look more closely at how this image has been reinvented for the modern age at the end of this piece.

The Medici, who owned and may have commissioned the work, adhered to a Neoplatonic philosophy that held beauty as a means to experiencing the divine. But this was not always the way that Renaissance society viewed pictorial depiction of naked flesh; only a few years before, nudity was associated with sin, as we see depicted in Masaccio’s famous fresco depicting the ‘Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’ from the Brancacci chapel in Florence, painted in 1425. Contrast the shame and anguish on Eve’s face with the way in which Venus holds our gaze.

Masaccio ‘Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’ (1425) Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence

And things would come full circle before the end of the century. Savonarola believed that beauty was a distraction from God and preached a constant diatribe against sin. His crusade against beauty in its physical forms reached a crescendo on 7 February 1497 with the Bonfire of the Vanities, leading to a sudden change in the creative climate of Florence which greatly affected Botticelli as the ambiguity of his pagan paintings left him open to attack. We shall soon see the major impact this would have on Botticelli’s output.

Mars and Venus

Mars and Venus (1485) National Gallery, London

This is the first surviving picture by Botticelli which was inspired by motifs from literary descriptions of individual Greek paintings, not merely suggested by ancient myth or poetry. It is painted on panel; unknown for whom or where.

The picture is set in a meadow sheltered by the myrtle grove of Venus, who reclines on the grass after their romantic dalliance, supported by a red cushion, in a white gown trimmed in gold braid.
To the right lies Mars, his lips parted and eyes closed in sleep, his head resting on a tree trunk, his arm over his cuirass. His figure is beautifully modelled and drafted and perfectly foreshortened.
The poses of their figures were taken from an ancient sarcophagus now in the Vatican museum.

Between the figures play three infant satyrs, playing with the lance and helmet. One tries to waken Mars by blowing in a conch shell, another pokes his head through the cuirass. Wasps swarm from the tree trunk; their presence has been interpreted as a punning reference to the Vespucci family who may have commissioned the work.

The meaning of this work would appear to be more straightforward – the triumph of Venus over Mars, of love’s power to subdue masculine nature. Botticelli has made this quite clear by the inscription Amor Vincit Fortitudinem.

Religious paintings from 1483

Botticelli’s work during this central stage of his career is more tightly fettered by tradition and by the devotional tastes and expectations of his patrons; they are generally designed according to established patterns of convention. The style is that of Florentine naturalism. Botticelli does not break with the traditional conventions of altarpieces; rather, he intensifies them by his ability to reveal inner thoughts and the condensed expressiveness of his colour and line, bringing some of his personality and style to bear.

An example of his output from this time is the ‘Madonna della Melangrana’.

Madonna della Melangrana (1487) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The magnificent contemporary frame carved with the Florentine lily suggests that this work was painted for a Florentine public office. Very little is known about the exact history of the piece.
The Virgin, three-quarter length, supports the Child holding an open pomegranate. Three angels are arranged on each side of her, expressing Botticelli’s typical variety of profiles and expressions. He uses gold radiantly to create an atmosphere of heavenly light.
This is one of the last paintings in which he lavishes all of his old interest and care on the representation of rich, coloured, patterned objects which fall and flow.
His art is about to take a darker turn.


We have seen how Botticelli, like many of his fellow artists, secured the influential patronage of the Medici family, under the leadership of Lorenzo, who became known as ‘Il Magnifico’. No matter one’s views on the morality of the Medici, a topic well beyond the scope of this article, it is difficult to dispute the fact that under his leadership and patronage the artistic milieu of Florence flourished.

Then Lorenzo ‘Il Magnifico’ died on 8 April 1492. Power passed to his son Piero. During the French invasion of 1494, Piero allied himself with the Pope, Alexander IV and King Alfonso of Naples. Rivalry between the two branches of the Medici family ruptured and Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco and his brother Giovanni were accused of conspiring with the king of France, Charles VIII, against Piero and confined to their villas. As Charles advanced, Piero tried to placate him by surrendering Pisa and other frontier places. This proved to be a huge mistake as his support among powerful citizens of the city evaporated and he was forced to flee.

In the vacuum thus created, Savonarola rose to power. His followers, the piagnoni, included Botticelli’s brother, Simone, the Della Robbia family, the architect Il Cronaca and, possibly, Botticelli himself. Vasari was scathing that Botticelli became an adherent, although some modern scholars believe he was confusing the two brothers.

After the expulsion of the Medici, Savonarola preached that Christ had achieved this by taking Florence under his special protection and that, to maintain this favour, the population must repent. When Charles signed a treaty of alliance and departed, the city’s escape was seen as a miracle delivered by the holy friar. Savonarola believed that humanity was drowning in sin and preached that the day of judgement was near. People flocked to his sermons in their droves. He spoke openly about clerical and political corruption.

Savonarola had charisma and achieved what to many must have seemed an impossible task – steering a political path between government by the oligarchic families and the Popolo by the formation of a new Consiglio. However, people were tiring of him because his opposition to trade and profit had contributed to economic misery.
In 1497 he was excommunicated by the Pope, whom Savonarola had denounced for his laxity and love of luxury. The following year, largely at the insistence of the Pope, Savonarola was arrested on 8 April, tortured and burned at the stake on 23 May. The following year there was a reaction in favour of Savonarola and his followers.

This is a very simplistic overview of a complex and nuanced period in history. As I put together this summary, I couldn’t help but reflect on how little some things have changed when it comes to power and politics, even if we no longer burn our disgraced leaders in public.

Botticelli’s late works

Botticelli’s small paintings of his last years condense much art and refined effects of colour into a little space and are finished in a technique often miniaturistic in its use of fine, delicate strokes.
A good example of this, and an intriguing painting with regards to its meaning and intention, is the ‘Calumny of Apelles’.

Calumny of Apelles (1494-5) Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Here Botticelli creates a lost antique painting by Apelles, described in Lucian’s dialogue on calumny (a term we are more familiar with is ‘slander’), the story of which relates to Apelles being falsely denounced. As with most of his works, the exact date of its execution is difficult to ascertain with certainty; this is relevant when we come shortly to consider its possible meaning.

The scene is set in the white marble and red-paved hall of a royal palace, richly decorated with statues and reliefs, some of which reproduce known works by Botticelli. The figures depicted are all personifications of virtues or vices.
Far right sits a king with asses ears into which whisper Ignorance and Suspicion. Before him are three groups of figures.
Rancour moves his hand towards the king’s eyes, blinding him to the truth. With his right hand, he pulls Calumny forward. She is accompanied by Perfidy and Remorse, clothed in black.
Far right, unclothed, is Truth, hand raised towards Heaven.

In term of the development of Botticelli’s late style, it is enlightening to compare this painting with his great mythologies of the 1480s. The figures here are slimmer; they are elongated and their limbs slender and extended, a style approaching Mannerism. Corporally speaking, rather than solid physical fullness, he is depicting intense, incisive, absorbed expression.

Once again, one must wonder – what is the meaning of this work? Two things immediately come to mind. Given the paucity of recorded information surrounding the painting, and indeed much of Botticelli’s work, any such observations are by their nature subjective. And secondly, many possible explanations have been postulated when one begins to read about the work. I shall outline some of these below and state my opinion too.
Did Botticelli nearly fall victim to a calumnious denunciation by an envious rival? Record do show he was accused of sodomy, a crime in Florence at that time, but the allegations were dismissed.
Was he objecting to the criticism of Savonarola, which was beginning to be heard although would not reach its crescendo for two or three years? Some writers use this as ammunition to support the idea that Botticelli, openly or otherwise, supported the Dominican friar. Perhaps the estimated date of the painting is against this theory.
Some report that a friend was affected by a slanderous accusation and this painting is a gesture of Botticelli’s support.
Or it a more general criticism aimed by a world-weary Botticelli at the world in which he is living?
Or was it purely for his own pleasure, as he depicts his own works?

I believe the likeliest explanation is a combination of the latter two scenarios. I am fully aware that by taking this position I am influenced by my own reactions to situations which I find objectionable, but I suggest we all adopt this response to some degree. Yes, I will make my objections known, sometimes forcibly, but I will usually fight back, and at the same time console myself, by turning to something of value and meaning, which restores my faith in the world and my place in it.

Florence was a turbulent place in the 1490s as we have seen, and there must have been a sense of the momentous events just over the horizon. Having enjoyed the benefits of Medici patronage for years, Botticelli saw more testing times ahead, for himself personally and for his city. By including his own works in what is a painting which holds a mirror up to the times in which he is living, Botticelli defiantly asserts his worth and ongoing values.

This painting represents the end of Botticelli’s golden era as the triumvirate of the High Renaissance took centre stage among changing tastes and he could no longer find commissions.

7 February 1497
A pyramid of fire rages in Piazza della Signoria – the Bonfire of the Vanities – consuming paintings, sculpture and books of immense value and beauty. Savonarola was one of the great orators of his day, and his sermons stopped the golden age of Florentine art dead. Florence, once a powerhouse of creativity, descends into darkness.

Botticelli must now make art for a new era. Everything must be chaste, quiet and moral. Religious piety and sorrow populate his paintings.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1495-1500), Poldi Pezzoli museum, Milan

Painted for an altar in Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence, this is a composition of coldly ornate passionate emotion, typical of Botticelli’s late works. Whereas before he idealised the body to define beauty, here he is distorting the body to convey grief. Christ lies in the arms of the two Marys, his body undulating with sharply indented curves. At the apex is the blazing yellow robe and agonised face of Joseph, in front of the tomb, holding the Crown of Thorns and the Three Nails.
The naturalism in his work has disappeared, replaced by a personal geometry which would influence future painters.
The piece was commissioned by the book illuminator Donati di Antonio Cioni for his family chapel. Members of his family were followers of Savonarola, known as piagnoni or ‘snivellers’, once again raising the question of what, if any, was the relationship between Botticelli and Savonarola. We have one final work to examine in this light, which may prove to be the most revealing of all.

Mystical Nativity
As we have seen, in the latter years of the 1490s, two things happened; Savonarola rose to power and there was a sea change in the content and style of Botticelli’s art. As I reached this awareness during my research for this article I wondered – are these two facts directly causally related, or did they occur coincidentally at a crossroads in history? Let’s consider the possibilities.

Most artists will change their style, often significantly, as their career advances. Sometimes this relates to a change in their health; Claude Monet developed cataracts which materially altered the style of his painting. Sometimes the artist is responding to developments in the history of their time; I have written previously of the artistic response to the Catholic Counter-Reformation, with particular regard to Caravaggio. And sometimes it is simply a desire to create something completely new, both to the artist and to the viewer; to me, the art of Ai Weiwei comes to mind. So it is possible that Botticelli himself chose the path of his art, either through personal taste or because he could detect the winds of change around him.

But there is considerable evidence that Botticelli did have views on Savonarola and indeed that he may have actively approved of the doctrine he preached. Indeed, Giorgi Vasari himself wrote that Botticelli ‘was so ardent a partisan (of Savonarola) that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress’. It is also written, again by Vasari amongst others (although one person assertively doing so has the good grace to admit that ‘the truth is lost to history’) that Botticelli was compelled to burn his mythological paintings at the priest’s behest. This refers to the infamous ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ of 7 February 1497. Prior to this, followers of Savonarola had roamed Florence, even breaking into homes, removing anything deemed remotely trivial or lascivious, to be consumed in the flames.

Savonarola did not condemn all types of art; it was acceptable if it provided moral instruction and encouraged his followers to reflect on the life and death of Christ. Knowing this, and influenced by Savonarola’s apocalyptic preaching, surely it is neither a surprise nor a coincidence that Botticelli produced his late works in the style he did, a more somber, simplistic style harking back to the sentiment and style of older religious painting. But would Botticelli really have thrown his secular paintings in the flames, driven by a fanatical adherence to Savonarola’s message? I find this hard to envisage; it is one thing (apart from anything else, a prudent one) to dance to the tune the new leader is playing, it is yet another entirely to publicly renounce one’s past glories in this way.
Botticelli could not stop the Bonfire, but I cannot conscience him literally adding fuel to the fire.

I believe Botticelli bowed to the inevitable and altered his style and content to fit the prevailing social conditions; he is hardly the first, and certainly would not be the last, artist to be constrained in this way. Coinciding as it did with the rise of the High Renaissance triumvirate, Botticelli’s new style proved unfashionable and his career would rapidly decline. But there is one final work for us to consider and, once again, it has the imprint of Savonarola all over it.

Mystical Nativity (1501) National Gallery, London

For the reasons just explained, Botticelli’s ‘Mystical Nativity’ is a return to a more medieval style of devotional imagery. By now, Botticelli had withdrawn from Florentine civic life and politics. This painting contains a conventional Nativity, Virgin Adoring the Child and an Adoration of the Shepherds, and yet it is much, much more. Simultaneously, it is a painting both about the birth of Jesus and the end of humanity.

Central to the composition is the Holy Family in a stable.
In the foreground, pairs of men and angels embrace. The men wear wreaths of olive, the tree of peace, while the angels hold olive boughs with scrolls inscribed ‘On earth peace to men of goodwill’. In the foreground , five devils sink into pits.

To the right of the Holy Family, two shepherds kneel in adoration, while to the left three men are shown the Family by an angel; the scroll on her olive branch reads ‘Behold the Lamb of God’. On the roof of the stable kneel three angels, again adorned with olive.

Above opens the golden dome of heaven and twelve dancing angels, each holding a stem of olive from which flutter two scrolls whose inscriptions praise the Virgin; the inscriptions on the scrolls held by the angels come directly from sermons by Savonarola on the twelve privileges of the Virgin.
The sky, with its golden background, is eternity and the perfection of the universe.

This is the most refined and delicately coloured of Botticelli’s late works. The predominant colour palette is one of green.

So, what is the meaning of this painting? Once again, we have no information on the commissioning of the work to help us. Many believe that the direct inclusion of words from his sermons proves that Botticelli was indeed a follower of Savonarola, and this is, of course, plausible. The absence of a clear logical reason as to why Botticelli should adhere to the philosophy of a man who railed against his dear patrons, the Medici, and indeed against the creation of the kind of art to which Botticelli had dedicated much of his life, does not make such a scenario inconceivable. But it makes me look for an alternative, perhaps one that encompasses Botticelli’s personal beliefs. And he provides us with proof of these in the inscription at the top of the painting, the only time in his life that he ‘signed’ one of his works.

The Greek inscription along the top of the painting translates as: ‘This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I, Alessandro, in the half-time after the time, painted, according to the eleventh [chapter] of Saint John, in the second woe of the Apocalypse, during the release of the devil for three and a half years; then he shall be bound in the twelfth [chapter] and we shall see [him buried] as in this picture’. The allusion is to the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse, as told in the book of Revelation. At the end of the Florentine year 1500 Botticelli saw himself as living in the second wave of the Apocalypse. He held to a theme which permeated Savonarola’s preachings, that this would pass and the church would rise again around the season of Olive Sunday, our Palm Sunday.
So this is in fact a picture of hope and comfort, again presumably intended for Botticelli’s own use, rather than a patron. And perhaps it shows us that Botticelli did indeed approve of some of Savonarola’s sentiments, at least the more hopeful and redemptive ones.

Perhaps there is just a glimpse, towards the end, of the conviction of an obstinate but ultimately prudent piagnone.

Sadly, Botticelli’s career was now in terminal decline. When he died, on 17 May, 1510, no one noticed. He is buried in the church of Ognissanti, yards from where he was born and lived the vast majority of his life.

Drawings for Dante’s Divina Commedia

Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia is an epic 14th century poem in three parts, the best known of which, Inferno, describes Dante’s descent through Hell, guided by the poet Virgil, and the numerous characters which he encounters there. It remains on of the canonical works of Western literature but was popular from its inception. Many artists over the years have drawn illustrations for Dante’s magnificent epic and Botticelli was one. He in fact set out to do so on two separate occasions, under circumstances which give further insight into what drove his creative engine.

Botticelli designed nineteen plates on copper, engraved by the goldsmith Baccio Baldini for the 1481 edition of the Divina Commedia, published in Florence by Nicolo di Lorenzo della Magna.
At the time, such an undertaking was unprecedented for a leading painter but, sadly, was it destined to fail, largely because Baldini’s attempts to render Botticelli’s style into engravings was ineffective. The project was probably cut short when Botticelli was summoned to Rome to work in the Sistine Chapel and his interest in seeming an inferior talent attempt to translate his work waned sharply.

He would return to Inferno years later, making a large series of drawings in pen and stylus, of which ninety-three survive. Huge in their complexity and emotional contrast, these were executed over a period of many years, are experimental in nature, have been extensively reworked and are, in the main, incomplete. We must assume they were done for a copy of Dante that Botticelli intended solely for himself. It is worth remembering that artists choosing to create from their imagination for their own appreciation and enjoyment was not a commonplace occurrence in this period of art history.

Large introductory Chart of Hell (1480-90), Bibliotheca Apostolica, Vatican Museums

This is the most extensive, detailed and well-known of Botticelli’s illustrations.
It is shaped as an inverted cone, descending to the tenth level where Satan lurks, devouring as sinner with each of his three mouths. Each level corresponds, as does the poem, to a particular type of sinner receiving their appropriate punishment.

Botticelli’s legacy

Immediately after his death, Botticelli was, and remained, forgotten, his works in placed storage. The ‘Birth of Venus’, now probably the world’s most recognisable picture after ‘Mona Lisa’, remained hidden for centuries, probably in a minor Medici palace. It and ‘Primavera’ entered the Uffizi in 1815, only to go straight into storage.

Botticelli was resurrected in the 19th century by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood who responded to his paganism, nonconformity to type, nudity and ambiguity. They resurrected interest in Italian paintings before the time of Raphael. One of their shining lights, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, regarded Botticelli as a hook on which to hang their depiction of female beauty. For rich Victorian collectors, Venus was the acceptable form of the female nude and the Pre-Raphaelites found a willing market to view and buy their art.

Dante Gabriele Rossetti owned a version of the ‘Portrait of Smerelda Bandinelli’ and reinterpreted it as ‘Woman at the Window’ (1879), Fogg Art Museum Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This was the beginning of a series of reimagining of Botticelli’s works, in particular the ‘Birth of Venus’.

In 1939, the painting was taken to the United States by Mussolini, who promoted it as a representation of the ‘brand’ of Italy.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Just as with the ‘Mona Lisa’, the ‘Birth of Venus’ has become a modern icon. Late 20th and 21st century depictions of Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ include:
• Andy Warhol
• Beyonce
• Yin Xin
• Ursula Andress in ‘Dr No’
• Terry Gilliam’s ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’
• Dolce and Gabbana
• Tomoko Nagao
• Rip Cronk

Botticelli’s masterpiece continues to speak a powerful contemporary language to generations of new admirers.


Sandro Botticelli created some of the most memorable images in Renaissance art. His idealised form of beauty became emblematic and has proved to possess remarkable longevity in these times of ephemeral fashions.

His career can be analysed in three phases – his early support by Medici patrons, a central phase which left us some truly amazing secular works and a late phase, under the shadow of Savonarola, when his art took on a brooding introspection.

His life is a reminder of how our creative talents can be both stimulated and inhibited by the circumstances which surround us, but ultimately depend on our inner processes and desires.

Caravaggio and the art of the Counter-Reformation

Chalk portrait of Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio by Ottavio Leoni

I have always been interested in history and art. From the outset, my first love has been the art of Italy, in particular the Renaissance, but over the years I have gradually extended my areas of expertise to either side of that temporal region and, to a lesser extent, widened my scope of appreciation geographically. Whenever one contemplates a work of art, one is drawn to the conditions which existed at the time the work was created and the inevitable effects that the history of the period had on the aesthetic quality of the art.

The history of the Italian city states in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries is fascinating, rivalling the blood and thunder we choose to entertain ourselves with today, in epic series such as ‘Game of Thrones’. The family dynasties such as the Medici in Florence and the Sforza in Milan, alongside the unending succession of fascinating characters that constitutes the papacy, generate myriad fascinating individuals whose stories and actions can thrill, mystify and appall us centuries later.

I have come to realise that the studying of art and history are complementary pastimes; each enhances the knowledge and enjoyment of the other. It is my intention to write a series of articles which examine a particular artist, or art movement, within its historical context, drawing out the links between the two spheres and demonstrating that the appearance of a work of art can be best understood by appreciating the forces at play in the place and time of its creation.

I start with one of the best known and, it is fair to say, infamous artists of his age – Caravaggio. Like many, I came to his art through reading of his rumbustious temperament and outrageous behaviour and yet my understanding of the history of the time was telling me that this was a time when spirituality in art was undergoing a refocusing, following the events of the Counter-Reformation. And Caravaggio was flourishing, regarded as one of the best, if not the pre-eminent, painters in Rome at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

In this article, I examine the people who influenced the development of his mature style and look at his works, both private and public, executed during his time in Rome from 1599 to 1606. I discuss the degree to which they conform to the conditions imposed by the Council of Trent and the position adopted by the various treatises on artistic style that were published thereafter and show a side to Caravaggio that I previously did not appreciate and that does not often appear in the biographies or art monographs dedicated to his remarkable oeuvre.

I hope you will find my thoughts stimulating. At the same time, this is a lengthy article and I appreciate that you may not wish to look at every part of it. In the hope that you will find at least something of value herein, I shall list the main sections to make it easier to find the topics which interest you.

I begin by looking at the development of sacred art before the Council of Trent and of the Lombard style of art, so influential to Caravaggio. Then I discuss the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic response, the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent, with particular emphasis on its decrees on sacred images. Next, I look at the texts and treatises which were published in the years after the Council and how artists responded to the guidance therein.

We shall meet the main players who set the spiritual scene in Rome at the end of the sixteenth century and unravel the ideas they generated which shaped artistic development for many decades to come.

I choose Caravaggio as the example par excellence of an artist who rose to meet the challenges of this new form of sacred art and we see how his style and form developed. We meet many of the patrons who commissioned both his private and public works and closely examine a number of his sacred works produced during his spell in Rome from 1599 to 1606, evaluating each work to see how closely he adheres to the criteria within which he is charged to operate.

It is my sincere hope that you will find something to interest you and that you will, as I do, marvel at the genius of the artist.

Sacred art before the Council of Trent

If we wish to understand how truly revolutionary the art of Caravaggio was in its time, it is useful to follow the development of sacred images that took place in the preceding centuries. To us, with the benefit of being cognisant of how art developed after Caravaggio, we may fail to realise how big a departure his style was from what had come before and the dislocating effect that his paintings would have had on the viewers. When we listen to Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony now, we revel in its style and magnitude but perhaps fail to hear that is was utterly unlike anything that had been written before; Caravaggio’s art is the visual equivalent.

To begin with, let’s look at an example of Caravaggio’s sacred work from the period when he was establishing himself in Rome.

‘Madonna di Loreto’ (1604-1606), Cavaletti Chapel, Sant’Agostino, Rome

Among Caravaggio’s most powerful altarpieces, it merges the immediacy of traditional icons with the narrative force of Renaissance istoria painting, the past with the present and the devotional with the didactic. We shall study this painting in more detail later. But for now, it serves to illustrate the transition from sacred imagery as a Renaissance devotional aid to sacred imagery as a vehicle for displaying narrative artistry. But what preceded this new, natural style?

For centuries, sacred images played an important role in reinforcing the lessons heard during mass. The majority of the population were illiterate and those who could read rarely had access to bibles, so the conveyance of religious messages depended on the spoken word or visual image. Picture bibles, known as biblia pauperum were in circulation and public sacred images became seen as a version of these. In the Renaissance these paintings appeared on chapel walls and altarpieces in churches.

The sacred images familiar to us now grew out of Byzantine images known as icons, prevalent from the 3rd century onwards. These conveyed intimacy by proximity to the viewer and timelessness by a flat frontal placement against a gold background.

‘Madonna and Child’ (1230) Berlinghiero, Metropolitan Museum of art, New York

In the trecento*, a growing interest in naturalism led to the loosening of this formality and an introduction of illusionism and gestural movement.

Giotto ‘Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata (circa1300), Louvre, Paris

[*trecento is an Italian term for the 1300s. I shall use this terminology and the equivalents (quattrocento, cinquecento, seicento) when describing centuries of art history ]

By the early quattrocento, the gold background of narrations was replaced by natural settings and scenes were populated by multiple figures in a variety of positions and views.

Fra Angelico, ‘Descent from the Cross’, (1430-1434), Museum of San Marco, Florence

By the end of the quattrocento the transformation from icon to narrative was nearly complete. Light and colour were rich but natural and clarify of line replaced by softness of form. Movement and a developed temporal sequence were in use.

Giovanni Bellini ‘The Resurrection of Christ’ (1475-1478), Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

The early cinquecento saw the victory of the narrative over the icon, won by the masters of the High Renaissance. One of the main developments leading to this was the development of linear perspective by Leon Battista Alberti in his seminal work Della Pittura (On Pictures).

Raphael ‘Entombment’ (1504), Gallery Borghese, Rome

At the end of the High Renaissance, the Mannerist style briefly flourished in Florence. Mannerism, or maniera, was characterised by exaggerated form and expression, artificial colouration, disjunction in space and unbalanced, crowded compositions. The style was formulated by a younger generation of artists who professionally matured after the death of Raphael in 1520 and was a conscious, clear departure from the order and rationality of the High Renaissance.

Jacopo Pontormo painted an altarpiece for the Capponi chapel in the church of Santa Felicita in Florence which represents an interesting return to icon-style sacred painting through a Mannerist lens. Let me nail my colours to the mast here and state that this is one of my very favourite works of art. I was fortunate to see its unveiling after a restoration while studying in Florence in 2018 and the sheer beauty of its colours moved me to tears. I shall say more of this later in this article. The photograph here is one I took that day.

Jacopo Pontormo ‘Capponi altarpiece’ (1525-1528), Santa Felicita, Florence

The altarpiece has been identified as a Deposition, a Pietà and an Entombment and can be read as any, due to the deliberate ambiguity in its composition. The landscape is non-descript; there is no sign of a tomb. It is unclear in which direction the body of Christ is being carried as the bearers are static. It is as if we are in an echo of the days of the icon, being confronted with the dead body of Christ and reminded of his sacrifice.

And yet this process requires the viewer to visualise the sequence of events in their mind and is designed to make an emotional appeal to the viewer – look at the expressions on the faces of this figures in the painting.

This merging of narrative and icon seen in this and other Mannerist works has been interpreted as a response to the Protestant Reformation, one not requiring decrees or treatises but more along the lines of a personal manifesto for change.

The Lombard style

The definition of ‘Lombard’ is somewhat loose and flexible and can include artists from a variety of northern Italian regions. The term is perhaps more usefully applied to common intentions and the artistic means through which they were achieved.

The Lombard style began in the second decade of the cinquecento, drawing on the heritage of Leonardo da Vinci’s natural, affective and tangible style, which had blossomed during his Milanese years. Undoubtedly the most important figure of Lombard thought and style, Leonardo was Tuscan by birth but spent the years 1482-99 and 1508-13 in and around Milan. Such was his influence that his style and theoretical positions were still fully entrenched within the artistic sphere of Lombardy more than sixty years after his death.

Although the experiential art of Lombardy developed independently of, and prior to, the formulation of the Tridentine decree on images, from 1563 the Lombard sacred style began to be seen as a solution to the crisis of the devotional image. Leonardo’s ideas were synergised with Counter-Reformatory ideals by Giovanni Paolo Lomasso, who published his Trattato dell’arte della pittura in 1584, advocating proportionate lines, natural colours, imitati of corporeal things and movement which demonstrated “great affections and passions of the soul”. This aligned his work with the Tridentine decrees which deemed emotional incitement of the viewer a necessary precursor to spiritual transformation.

For Leonardo, shadows were integral to the impression of perspective and the rendering of three-dimensional form. ‘The Virgin of the Rocks’ magnificently combines this use of sfumato and the burgeoning interest in nature seen in Lombard art at this time.

Leonardo da Vinci ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ (completed 1508), National Gallery, London

The contrast in light and dark, typically where darkness dominates, would become an archetypal feature of Caravaggio’s work. These uses of shadow – sfumato or tenebrism – serve a threefold purpose:

  • Artistic – integral to empirical naturalism and the creation of three-dimensional form
  • Theoretical – restricts the artist to empirical truth
  • Theological – ensures the presentation of scriptural truth

The decree and post-Tridentine discursive treatises on sacred images ignited the desire for images that were natural, tangible and moving, qualities already inherent in the Lombard sacred style, which would prove to be instrumental in the individual sacred style reform of artists in the years after the closing of the Council of Trent.

Such artists included:

  • The Carraci in Bologna – Ludovico (1555-1619), Agostino (1537-1602), Annibale (1560-1609)
  • Federico Barocci (c1535-1612) in Urbino and Rome
  • Santi di Tito (1536-1603) in Florence
  • Antonio Campi (1522-87) in Milan

The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation

After 1517, with the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses by Martin Luther, which ignited the Protestant Reformation, the crisis between icon and narrative, between religion and art, came to a head, with widespread outbreaks of image destruction and desecration, known as iconoclasm. Although there had been increasing outrage towards a variety of activities of the Catholic Church, such as the sale of indulgences, Protestant Reformers especially demonised sacred images and their worship, which led to their destruction in widespread acts of vandalism. Image veneration was considered heretical and idolatrous by Calvin and derided as superstitious by Erasmus.

The Catholic Church’s response, the Counter-Reformation, led to the opening of the Council of Trent in 1545. A series of conclaves would take place over the next eighteen years, pontificating on a whole range of issues, including scripture, the sacraments, mass and the veneration of saints. The Council of Trent also directed its attention to the veneration of sacred images, defining their purpose in a 1563 decree; however, the question of images was only addressed in the hurried last weeks of the twenty-fifth and final session of the Council from the 3rd of December 1563. The main precipitant to this was the arrival of a vocal French delegation who had experienced conflicts generated by aggressive Huguenot iconoclasts.

Even reading the full text of the decrees, their contents are vague and proscriptive, rather than prescriptive. For instruction on what sacred art should do (rather than what should be avoided) we must turn to the treatises written in the years after the Council was dissolved.

In general terms, however, images were required to:

  • Serve as memory aids
  • Serve as bibles for the illiterate
  • Touch and move the viewer in a profound way

There would be no such thing as a single ‘Tridentine style’: rather, the dictums and ideals of the Council were shaped by local politics and cultural norms and applied selectively. Following the dissolution of the Council, a number of texts and treatises were authored and it was these which provided the necessary guidance which would shape the types of sacred images artists felt safe to produce and which became commissioned for private and public devotional use. We shall examine the most significant two of these shortly.

How did the Council of Trent impact on artistic development?

The Council of Trent prescribed three functions for the artistic image, which was sometimes referred to as the biblia pauperum:

  • Memoria – recalling saintly models of the past
  • Excitatio – stirring the senses and the soul
  • Gaudium – the pleasure of ascension to the sublime

But how were artists to action these principles, while still requiring to win prestigious private and public commissions? What in fact was the impact of the Council of Trent on artistic development? Did it smother artistic creation and lead to a decline in art, stifling expression? Or did it lead to a more ‘spiritual’ art, characterised by earthy naturalism? Was it, in fact, the catalyst to the ecstatic emotionality of the Baroque?

Retrospectively, any and all of these positions is tenable. I’d like to look closely at the responses which occurred in the immediate years after the Council was dissolved, both the treatises written and the art produced, to see what the evidence generated at the time tells us about how the Council of Trent changed the course of art history.

What texts and treatises came after the Council of Trent?

In response to the Reformation, Catholics vigorously defended the value attributed to miraculous images as a means by which God manifested his will and invited the veneration of the people, in works such as:

  • De Imaginibus et miraculis sanctorum published in Bologna by Giulio Castellani in 1568
  • Le sette chiese di Roma published by the friend of the Oratorians , a group we shall shortly encounter, Onofrio Panvinio in Rome in 1570
  • The Annales Ecclesiastici, in which Cesare Baronio, a disciple of Filippo Neri, who we shall also meet soon, tackled the theme of sacred images from a historiographic point of view

The Council of Trent’s decree on images sparked the publication of a series of Counter-Reformatory treatises which addressed style in sacred paintings and provided a clear foundation upon which artists might build when making sacred images. The main two were:

  • Giovanni Andrea Gilio (1564) Degli errori e degli abusi de’ pittori (Dialogue on the Errors and Abuses of Painters)
  • Gabriele Paleotti (1582) Discorso intorno alle imagini sacre e profane (Hereafter referred to as the Discorso)

In Gilio’s Degli errori, Michaelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’ is singled out as the quintessential example of impropriety in sacred imagery due to licentiousness, nudity, confusion and profanity.

Michelangelo ‘Last Judgement’ (1536-1541), Sistine Chapel, Rome

He advocated replacing the artificial maniera style with a natural one, exhibiting honest devotion, urging artists to ‘show the pure and simple truth’. He proposed that a compromise between the old style of icon and a new, natural form of truthful imitation be developed.

Paleotti, in his Discorso, stressed the importance of:

  • Imitation
  • Truth to nature
  • Naturalism as a means of moving the emotions of the viewer

We shall now examine his treatise in more detail as it is time for us to examine the considerable influence that he had in Rome around the end of the sixteenth century and his links to other significant influencers.

The protagonists of spiritual change

What is so particular to the development of art in response to the Counter-Reformation and, in particular, the Council of Trent, was how closely its style and content was to become linked to the religious and, more particularly, the spiritual atmosphere of the times. During the Renaissance, the majority of art was sacred rather than secular, and individual works were commissioned by individual patrons or religious organisations, but the material quality of the works produced was shaped by the skills and proclivities of the artists or the aesthetic wishes of the patron, rather than a framework based on contemporary ecclesiastical thought.

Three main individuals appear repeatedly in accounts of the spiritual changes which gripped post-Tridentine Rome and Milan towards the latter part of the cinquecento. Each illustrates attitudes and abilities which, in and of themselves, are worthy of our attention. They were part of a network which drove forward Catholic thought and reform and propelled art in a new direction. They were:

  • Cardinal Carlo Borromeo
  • Saint Filippo Neri
  • Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti

We shall look at each individual life in a moment, but before doing so it is important that we realise that they did not function in isolation and, indeed, had a considerable influence on each other and the wider intellectual and ecclesiastical community in Rome at the time. They also all brought their ideas to bear on Caravaggio.

Reading their correspondence establishes clear evidence of Borromeo’s influence on Paleotti and Paleotti’s on Caravaggio. It also establishes Paleotti’s links to Filippo Neri and the Oratorians. As we shall see, there is no doubt that much of Paleotti’s Discorso is inspired by Borromeo’s position on sacred images.

Borromeo also formed a long friendship with Filippo Neri and was an adherent of his confraternity, as were a number of key patrons and associates of Caravaggio.

Paleotti and Borromeo collaborated at the final sessions of the Council of Trent in 1562 to 1563, which defined the conditions which would apply to sacred images.

In summary, therefore, there was a concerted effort to establish a canon reformulation on sacred imagery under the guidance of Paleotti and his Discorso, with Caravaggio at its artistic head.

Carlo Borromeo

Portrait by Giovanni Ambrogio Figino

A major figure in cinquecento century Catholicism in Milan was Carlo Borromeo, who was considered the embodiment of saintly virtue even in his lifetime. He was called to Rome in 1559 by his uncle, Pope Pius IV, who named him cardinal deacon and protector of the Franciscans. This order was very close to his heart and shaped his personal faith and devotion. He consciously and concertedly emulated Saint Francis of Assisi and, during a pilgrimage to Rome, he visited La Verna, where Saint Francis received the stigmata, and Assisi itself.

Borromeo played an integral role in the third sessions of the Council of Trent in 1562 to 1563 and in the implementation of its decrees, particularly that on images. He was made a bishop on 7 December 1563 and Archbishop of Milan on 12 May 1564 and served in this role until his death in 1584. During his tenure the presence of the Observant Friar Minors of Saint Francis took hold right across Lombardy.

In Rome he formed a long and lasting relationship with Filippo Neri. It became his custom to visit the seven pilgrimage churches barefoot, with great humility and devotion, praying out loud as he walked the streets. He was also devoted to the Scala Santa, the steps which Christ ascended to his trial before Pilate. He climbed these steps nearly every day on his knees, a tangible act of humility and devotion. He also washed the feet of pilgrims in his titular church Santa Prassede.

Public acts of penitence and prayer were central to his spirituality; these included erecting crosses throughout Milan, promoting the Forty Hours devotion and vivid re-enactments of Christ’s road to Calvary. During a plague outbreak in July 1576 he ministered to victims every day and processed through the streets of Milan with the city’s most holy relic – the Sacred Nail. He was barefoot and hooded, a rope around his neck, carrying a cross and weeping profusely

Privately, images played a central role for him in promoting penitence and prayer and he fully endorsed the Tridentine position, which he had helped to shape. Borromeo possessed a large collection of sacred paintings, favouring highly emotional and lifelike images which incorporated chiaroscuro, such as by the brothers Campi – Giulio, Antonio and Vincenzo – who played an integral role in the reform movement in Northern Italy.

Giulio Campi ‘Last Supper’ (1569), Cremona Cathedral

Borromeo died in Milan on 3 November 1584. There was a huge outpouring of grief, which Caravaggio would have witnessed. Droves of people continually travelled to the cathedral to pay respects at his tomb. Reports of miracles began soon after his death: many who suffered illness or disability reported being cured by invoking or praying to him, or even by praying to his image or touching objects used by him.

His fame persisted after his death and he was canonised in 1610.

The relationships which Caravaggio established with ecclesiastical cardinal-patrons, many of whom we will encounter later, and religious orders during his sojourn in Rome from 1592 to 1606 are seen as instrumental in his awareness of Counter-Reformation prescriptions and devotion. This fundamental understanding, however, developed not in Rome but in Lombardy, under the spiritual and postural aegis of Carlo Borromeo. In Rome, Borromeo’s visible and public demonstrations of humility, charity and piety, contributed hugely to the formulation of Caravaggio’s sacred style.

Borromeo insisted that images could imprint a scene or message which entered the hearts of the faithful and which words could not achieve. He is quoted as saying that ‘painting is a language painters speak not to men’s ears but rather to men’s souls’. One can imagine Caravaggio taking these words to heart as he considered the direction his art was about to take.

Filippo Neri

Filippo Neri was born in Florence and active in Rome from 1533 until his death in 1595. In Rome, he founded the Confraternity of the Most Holy Trinity of Pilgrims and Convalescents (Santissima Trinita de’ Pellegrini e de’ Convalescenti) whose main objective was to minister to the needs of thousands of pilgrims who flocked to Rome as well as to care for those discharged from hospitals but still too weak to work. He also founded the Congregation of the Oratory, usually known as the Oratorians, in 1551. The Oratory was a congregation of secular priests living under obedience but bound by no vows. The objects were prayer, preaching and the sacraments. The Order remains active worldwide today.

Neri preached simplicity, immediacy, affectivity and humility. His members meditated before images in the practice of their spiritual exercises, bringing forth vivid visualisations of scenes from Christ’s life. Such spiritual exercises trace back to the time of Saint Francis of Assisi. He shared the views of other ecclesiastical figures involved in the debate on images, including Carlo and Federico Borromeo and Gabriele Paleotti.

For Neri, art served as a catalyst to move the affetti, the passions of the soul, to translate visual pleasure into a process that uses the senses to journey from mundane beauty to divine glory. I am reminded of him when I recall my first experience of Jacopo Pontormo’s altarpiece for the Capponi chapel in Santa Felicita in Florence. As I stood in awe, transfixed by the colours of the newly restored work, I felt a huge emotional response, being moved to tears. I am not someone who easily shows his emotions and, having no faith, this was not a ‘religious’ experience, at least not in the concrete meaning of the term. Neither was I alone; among several in the chapel, beside me stood a very elderly gentleman, weeping openly. Our eyes met briefly, he nodded at me in a shared understanding, quietly said, ‘Pontormo, Pontormo’ and smiled.

Neri’s reactions before various works of art involved the senses at the highest degree – he is recorded as fainting in front of Federico Barocci’s ‘Visitation of the Virgin’ in the Chinese Nuova, weeping before a Crucifix when attending lectures in San Marco in Florence, and seized by tremors before a painting of ‘Saint John the Baptist’. Guido Reni painted ‘Saint Philip’ for his titular chapel in the Chiesa Nuova, in which he is represented kneeling before an apparition of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, lost in rapture as if in heaven.

Guido Reni ‘San Filippo Neri in Ecstasy’ (1614), Chiesa Nuova, Rome

Filippo also experienced visions, such as blood coming from the wounds in a marble bas-relief of Christ ‘Man of Sorrows’ and a revelation that Ferrarese Friar Savonarola, to whom he was devoted, was to be spared the threat of his works being condemned. A vision of Saint John the Baptist also is reported to have come to him and revealed the will of God.

Filippo’s experiences reveal that the contemplation of the beauty and simplicity of a work of art led him directly to mystical ascent and divine revelation. His example of an affective bond with sacred images was followed by his pupils, such as Cesare Baronio, who continued Filippo’s message that a scared image is an earthly counterpart of celestial visions which succeeds, by means of its beauty, in assisting an ascent to God.

Filippo’s beliefs on the transformative qualities of the sacred image informed his decorative program for his church. A miraculous quattrocento fresco of the ‘Madonna and Infant Christ’ was detached from a street wall and hosted in the Chiesa Nuova, also known as Santa Maria in Vallicella; it would become the focus of Peter Paul Rubens’ decoration of the main altar.

The decoration of the individual chapels was conceived as a visualisation of the mysteries of the life of Christ and the Virgin, depicted in the series of altarpieces on each altar, which can still be seen today.

Filippo died on 25 May 1595. He was beatified in 1615 and canonised in 1622. His body lies in his funeral chapel in the Chiesa Nuova.

Gabriele Paleotti

Gabriele Paleotti was born in Bologna in 1522. He became a cardinal on 12 May 1565 and Bishop of Bologna on 13 January 1567. He was a colleague of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, with whom he collaborated at the final sessions of the Council of Trent in 1562 to 1563. He was part of the group that decided to cover the offending parts of Michaelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’.

Paleotti was named as co-cardinal-protector and Educator of Reform at the Accademia di San Luca in Rome in 1595, with Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, a patron of Caravaggio with whom he was residing. He died in 1597 and is buried in Bologna cathedral.

Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti is remembered for one of the main treatises to influence the development of post-Tridentine art, his Discorso intorno alle imagini sacre e profane (1582) hereafter referred to as the Discorso. Paleotti consulted widely among ecclesiastical and artistic colleagues to produce two volumes of an intended five of the Discorso, which were subsequently widely disseminated. There is no doubt that much of Paleotti’s Discorso is inspired by Borromeo’s position on sacred images.

Paleotti stressed the importance of:

  • Imitation
  • Truth to nature
  • Naturalism as a means of moving the emotions of the viewer

He extolled the virtues of naturalism, liveliness and tangible presence in sacred painting and reaches out directly to artists, charging them with being imitators of nature and upholders of truth, in the service of God. His theory involved three subcategories of ‘delight’, which the painter should seek to induce in viewers:

  • Sensuous delight (animale) – obtained through the senses, with vision the most noble. He  gives precedence to colour and shadow, two components integral to the work of Caravaggio
  • Rational delight (razionale) – imitation as the main aim of depiction
  • Supernatural (sopranaturale) – spiritual delight, a persevering transfixation

In this way, the goal of sacred painting approaches an equivalence to that of the contemporary popular exercises of religious meditation practiced by Carlo Borromeo and Filippo Neri.

Caravaggiohis early life and art


In Rome at the turn of the 17th century one artist in particular fulfilled the objectives of the Council of Trent – Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

Michaelangelo Merisi was born in Milan on 29 September 1571. His family came from the small, town of Caravaggio. Through his mother’s family, he had ties to the Sforza-Colonna family, which would prove invaluable in later life, and to the family of Carlo Borromeo.

His father and grandfather died of plague when Caravaggio was six. Aged twelve, his mother apprenticed him to Simone Peterzano, who was a former pupil of Titian. His work, along with that of the Campi, would influence Caravaggio’s initial independent works in Rome. It should be noted that Peterzano’s work adheres closely to the Tridentine decrees.

Caravaggio’s formative years in Milan, therefore, presented him with a complex fabric of Counter-Reformation zeal and devotion, exercises on meditation and a taste for the real and tangible in art, promoted under the auspices of Carlo Borromeo. There is little record of these early years however, and no traces of the works he executed during this time.

It was around the time of his return from Milan to Caravaggio in 1589 that we begin to find records of his temperament and the ‘disturbed and contentious nature’ so promoted by biographers. How does one square his apparent temperamental quirks – strong willed, belligerent, independent – with a compliance and adherence to the new Catholic rhetoric on images? There is some merit in the theory that much of the malice penned by his early biographers was born out of professional jealousy but there are numerous judicial records of infringement of the law, at times minor but at times more serious. His numerous brushes with the law did not forestall his continued success as an artist, although the culmination of these, his being charged with the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni, led to him fleeing Rome in 1606. It is my conscious choice not to dwell on the vagaries of Caravaggio’s character, which have been well documented many times, but instead to focus on how and under what influences his artistic style developed.

Caravaggio arrived in Rome in 1592 and was put in contact with associates of his uncle, Ludovico Merisi. They helped him secure lodgings with Monsignor Pandolfo Pucci. He is recorded as working in the workshop of a Sicilian painter, Lorenzo Carli, then joining that of the Cavaliere d’Arpino, a favourite artist of Pope Clement VIII. Those early paintings which remain extant are all secular in nature and seem to have found a market in collections.

Caravaggio’s early patrons were tied to one another both directly and indirectly. They were either part of, or closely tied to, the ecclesiastical hierarchy and were actively involved with key confraternities and orders in Rome close to Filippo Neri and Carlo Borromeo, including SS. Trinita dei Pellegrini and the Oratorians.

The major patrons whom Caravaggio cultivated on arriving in Rome were:

  • Ottavio Costa – Genoese banker and member of the Confraternity of the SS. Trinità dei Pellegrini
  • Girolamo Vittrice – sottoguardaroba to the popes, close contact of Carlo Borromeo and the Oratorians
  • Cardinal Maffeo Barberini – future Pope Urban VIII
  • Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte – Caravaggio’s first protector, closely tied to Filippo Neri and the Oratorians, to Paleotti and to Federico Borromeo (Carlo’s cousin)
  • Cardinal Federico Borromeo
  • Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani and his brother Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani

We shall shortly meet each of these patrons and examine the Caravaggio works which they owned or commissioned. Before this, however, we should touch on the conditions under which Caravaggio’s style blossomed.

How did his style form and develop?

Before we commence our detailed look at individual works, let us consider some general comments about the ways in which Caravaggio’s sacred style formed and developed during his years in Rome from 1599 to 1606.

Most art historians see his Lombard artistic heritage as pivotal to the development of Caravaggio’s sacred style. He would have absorbed the works of Leonardo, in particular his use of shadow and sfumato, which he would develop into his own characteristic tenebrism. As we have seen, he trained with Peterzano and the Cavaliere d’Arpino, and some accounts suggest he may have been familiar with some of the works of Venetian artists, including Giorgione and Titian. It is my belief that rather than an imitative artist, Caravaggio was a man brave and talented enough to paint according to his ideas and values, irrespective of the fact that, without a precedent for his type of imagery, there was no guarantee of critical acceptance.

The relationships which Caravaggio established with ecclesiastical Cardinal-patrons and religious orders during his sojourn in Rome from 1592 to 1606 are seen as instrumental in his awareness of Counter-Reformation prescriptions and devotion. As we have seen, through his network of connections and patrons, Caravaggio was exposed to a variety of spiritual influences, including the humility of Borromeo and of the Oratorians, the Franciscan light of grace and the ‘Spiritual Exercises’ of the Jesuits. Through Paleotti’s Discorso, he knew the importance of imitation, truth to nature and naturalism as a means of moving the emotions of the viewer.

Our study of the individual masterpieces he created will show us that Caravaggio’s sacred works combine the icon and the narrative, devotion and art into a style which can be understood as positioned between the sacred and the profane. Although sometimes seen by scholars in a negative light, his art will be shown to conform to the spirituality espoused by Carlo Borromeo and to the definitions of the sacred and the profane in Paleotti’s Discorso.

Caravaggio’s Roman patrons

Ottavio Costa

A member of the Genoese nobility and a major papal banker for whom Caravaggio painted ‘Saint Francis in Ecstasy’

‘Saint Francis in Ecstasy’ (1595), Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut

This is a very spiritual, introspective work. Saint Francis is seen swooning in the arms of an Angel, with merely his facial features suggesting that he is experiencing deep emotion. Saint Francis had come to embody the new spirituality evoked in the decrees of the Council of Trent and Caravaggio’s painting, which stirs the emotions, demands our empathy and requires our penance, as well as pointing to his acute awareness of Franciscan thought and the impression made upon Caravaggio by the actions and legacy of Carlo Borromeo.


Costa also commissioned the ‘Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness’

‘Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness’ (1604), Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

A youthful Baptist is in the wilderness, covered by animal skins, holding a reed cross, surrounded by darkness and illuminated in palpable relief by light emanating from upper left.

The painting evokes penitence: the Saint turns away from the light not towards it. The magnitude of his struggle for truth is shown by his facial expression and the tense, taut position of his limbs.

Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte

Widely regarded as Caravaggio’s first major patron, by 1595 Caravaggio was living with del Monte in the Palazzo Madama. Del Monte served both Cardinal Alessandro Sforza and Cardinal Ferdinando de’Medici, future grand duke of Tuscany. He was an associate of Filippo Neri and the Oratorians.

Del Monte purchased both ‘The Fortune Teller’ and ‘The Cardsharps’ (both c1594)

He commissioned several works from Caravaggio, including secular paintings:

‘The Musicians’ (c1595)

‘The Lute Player’ (c1600)

‘Medusa’ (c1597)

The only sacred work he commissioned is ‘Saint Catherine of Alexandria’

‘Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ (1598-1599), Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid

It is here that Caravaggio’s experimentation with chiaroscuro develops into the signature tenebrism of his mature works.

A single isolated figure before an impenetrable dark background harks back to the traditional iconic devotional images. She is an immediate, tangible, human presence. The cross formed by sword and palm references Christ’s crucifixion. Despite her impending death, she faces us with an expression of courage and strength, inspiring the that though faith will come redemption in the afterlife. We are moved by her plight and awed by her resilience.

Girolamo Vittrice

An active member of the papal court and sottoguardaroba to popes since Gregory XIII, Vittrice accompanied, among others, Cardinals Federico Borromeo, Francesco Maria del Monte, Benedetto Giustiniani and Maffeo Barberini (the future Pope Urban VIII) when Pope Clement VIII visited Ferrara.

He commissioned three works by Caravaggio:

‘The Fortune Teller’ (c1595)

‘Rest on the Flight Into Egypt’

‘Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ (1597), Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome

This is a complex composition, a pastoral scene akin to the kind of fete champitre that Giorgione was painting in the early cinquecento. I find little of psychological or philosophical meaning in this work; to me it is reminder of the immense artistic ability Caravaggio possessed even at this early stage in his career.

‘The Penitent Magdalene’

‘Penitent Magdalene’ (1594-1595), Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome

Saint Mary Magdalene had become seen as a Counter-Reformation model of affective and effective penitence and humility. Caravaggio’s ‘Penitent Magdalene’ simultaneously stays within the bounds of tradition and departs from it.

Critics immediately accused him of ‘pretending’ that his model was the Magdalene and his use of contemporary clothes and jewellery, thus missing his intention to portray a flesh-and-blood person more tangible to the viewer and hence a more effective incitement to penitence and humility.

There is more than a hint of remorse in her posture and the single tear that runs down her cheek. She is like one of us and we look at the image and consider our own worth.

Marchese Vincenzo and Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani

Brothers Marchese Vincenzo, a wealthy banker, and Cardinal Benedetto lived in the Palazzo Giustiniani, across the street from Palazzo Madama. Both were in a social circle tightly bound with adherents to Carlo Borromeo and to the Oratorians.

Benedetto would play a crucial role in Caravaggio’s first two public commissions in Rome at the turn of the century.

There were ten works by Caravaggio in their collection:

‘Lute Player’ (c1596)

‘Portrait of Fillide Melandroni’ (destroyed 1945) – Fillide was a prostitute who modelled for Caravaggio several times, including in the ‘Penitent Magdalene’

‘Amor Victorious’ (1601-2)

‘Crowning with Thorns’

‘Crowning with Thorns’ (1602-1604), Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna

This is a brutal portrayal, deliberately designed to emphasise the cruelty of the torturers hammering home the crown and the suffering Christ endured to save the viewer. It is also about how to feel pain, with the endurance and tolerance Christ shows.

‘Portrait of Cardinal Benedetto Giustiniani’ (lost)

‘Agony in the Garden’ (destroyed 1945)

‘Penitent Magdalen in the Desert’ (lost)

‘Penitent Saint Jerome’ (lost)

‘Incredulity of Saint Thomas’

‘Incredulity of Saint Thomas’ (1601-1602), Sanssouci, Potsdam

A horizontal form, comprising half-length, close up figures of Christ and three apostles, isolated against a dark background broken only by a single stream of raking light from upper left. The complex geometry of the figures thrusts them into the foreground.

Saint Thomas receives proof of Christ’s resurrection, eyes wide in wonder, fingers probing the wound in his side. Shadows are cast over Thomas, signifying his doubt, but where he reaches into the wound the scene is bathed in light. The composition draws the viewer into the painting, focusing on the facial expressions of the apostles, in particular Thomas, thus directly involving us in feeling the intensity of the process. This is consistent with the Tridentine position that a painting must induce belief in the viewer in order for them to emotionally connect.

Thomas seeks proof that Christ exists as a man in his corporeal world; he receives his proof through touch, the viewer through sight.

Cardinal Federico Borromeo

Del Monte introduced Federico to Caravaggio and helped him acquire, or indeed perhaps gifted him, ‘Basket of Fruit’ (c1596)





















Art history articles

I haven’t published anything on this site for quite some time. I have been working on a follow up book to ‘The Things You Think You Cannot Do’, which takes the story of Jess though her pregnancy to childbirth and beyond, as the world emerges from the grips of the Covid pandemic. I have also been continuing my attempts to find a publisher for the first book; those of you who write will not be surprised to find that this was unsuccessful. No matter how often you read that this is the norm, not to give up, it’s hard to keep reading rejection e- mails, no matter how nicely worded they are. So, I may continue with the follow up and self-publish, but if I’m honest the momentum has dropped.

I miss writing. Against expectations I continue to work part time and I’m also training as a life counsellor, which takes up a considerable amount of time, but I have missed the quiet time in my study when I sat with my iPad and put done my thoughts ‘on paper’.

Recently, we took a five week holiday, a cruise across the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia. It was a retirement gift to ourselves, originally booked in 2019 and cancelled and rescheduled several times for reasons with which you will all be all too familiar. We had a considerable number of ‘sea days’ to relax and unwind, and I read numerous books and also articles on art and history. In addition, there were a number of enrichment lectures provided, covering a wide range of topics, including Michelangelo, the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen, Pavarotti and opera, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bermuda Triangle and the voyages of Captain Cook. Some of these are topics about which I have some knowledge, allowing me to ascertain the quality of the content and presentation, which was very variable. As I read my art and history articles, I realised I had a number of interests which would make excellent topics for such a presentation. And so, I decided that was what I would do.

I have no formal qualifications in either art or history, beyond a life long interest, many holidays to Florence, much time spent reading, attendance at University evening classes and a month spent in Florence studying with the British Institute. I thought if I wrote some relevant articles it would help focus my knowledge and help when I make a planned trip to Rome, or revisit Florence, ensuring that I see as much of the art and history in which I am interested as possible.

As I do so, I intend to publish them here. Perhaps there are some people out there who share my passions and will find something of interest therein. At the very least, I will be able to remember the public works of Caravaggio and where I can find them. There’s a clue to the first article. Coming soon…

Reduced price for ‘Hope Restored in Florence’

It’s been some time since I published the story of Lucrezia’s adventures in the beautiful city of Florence. The book can be enjoyed on a number of levels – a satisfying mystery, a paean to the jewel of the Renaissance, an exploration of some of the lesser known artists of the time or an insight into the life of one of the most interesting female characters in the history of Florence, Eleanora di Toledo.

To encourage more of you to share all the book has to offer, I’ve reduced the prices on Amazon; paperback is now £3.95 and Kindle £1.77. It’s simply too good to miss so go on, give it a try. You might finish up hopelessly in love with Florence, just like me…

Thank you for your reviews

A huge thank you to everyone who has posted reviews for ‘The Things You Think You Cannot Do’ on Amazon or Goodreads. Also to those who have discussed their views on the book in person. It’s hugely helpful and encouraging for a new author to receive feedback, both positive and constructively critical.

The most recent review mentioned that the book ‘absolutely comprehends humanity at its best and at its worst’. This cuts to the heart of what I had set out to do in the novel and gave me huge heart!

The reviewer kindly expressed a wish that more books would be forthcoming. I’m currently working on a continuation of Jess and Todd’s story, which begins with the the birth of their child.

Please remember that my second novel, ‘Hope Restored In Florence’ is now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. A very different book, it’s part crime story, part historical fiction, part art text – focusing on lesser known artists including women – and above all a window on my beloved Florence. Please check it out!


Thank you so much to those of you who have bought a copy of ‘The Things You Think You Cannot Do’ and the many kind words you have sent me.

I now have my first two reviews (***** too!) and thank you so much for this. Reviews are vital for a first time author as they help with the awareness of the book that is so critical to its success and, as I’m finding, so elusive!

So, please, if you enjoy reading my book, please take a moment to put a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads – a few sentences adds considerable weight to the review too.

Thanks so much for all your support! 😀

Publication day!

Finally it’s here – ‘The Things You Think You Cannot Do’ is available on Amazon as ebook and paperback. I’m very proud and excited having reached this stage.

Please consider having a look on Amazon and consider buying the book. Here’s the link:


If you enjoy the book, please leave a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads – this is crucial to a new author. Many thanks!

Reflections two months on

It’s been fascinating and exciting reading through the proof file of ‘The Things You Think You Cannot Do’ prior to its forthcoming publication. As any of you who write will recognise, as a work nears completion you’re repeatedly checking and editing each section rather than reading the whole work again (well, at least I was!) So to read the text from cover to cover having laid it aside for two months was revelatory.

The book is set in current times and focuses on three individuals; having explored their back stories to see what events shaped them and how, we see them plunged into the coronavirus pandemic trying, as we all are, to make a way through it. Much has changed and continues to change since I completed the book and one of the main impressions I got was how much more of their stories remains to be told. These are incredible times and marked by huge uncertainties, which for many of us provide considerable challenges. I’m already writing the follow up stories to the lives in ‘The Things You Think You Cannot Do’ even though I have no way of knowing the landscape in which these stories will unfold and end. But I’ve always been one to focus on processes rather than outcomes so the words are still flowing!

The main change in my life since this lockdown began has been returning to work part time as a GP working in a COVID assessment unit. Thankfully, we deal with patients who are, on the whole, not seriously ill – most of them do not turn out, on testing, to have COVID. But what stands out is the fear of becoming unwell, what it’s like to develop a cough or a fever, have to be directed away from your normal health care provider and be examined by staff clad in protective equipment. This fear is something I bring out in the book and I believe a key part of successfully managing our current situation is balancing this fear with informed reassurance and, of course, appropriate and decisive action.

Certainly the most rewarding part of returning to work has been being part of an amazing team, pulled together from different disciplines, who learn as we go and support each other with wisdom, compassion and a degree of humour. I’ve met some amazing doctors, nurses, health care assistants and reception staff who have supported me back into work and looked after me. The likelihood is that we will remain in the situation in which we find ourselves, with low levels of infection and sporadic local clusters and outbreaks, for the foreseeable future. The question I’m most asked about my work, by far, is ‘will we get a second wave?’ Of course, I don’t know any more than you do, but it really does come down to how well we adhere to the advice we are given.

Rest assured, at least where I work, preparations are in place. The unit will remain open and ready to be scaled up if that is what is required. I’m certain that each area will have the same contingency plans. So, my humble advice is live the best life you can right now, listen to and follow the advice we all hear every day but don’t be scared; there are a lot of good people who will have your back if needed.

Stay safe! ☺️

The Things You Think You Cannot Do

The ideas in my first novel came from my work experiences as a GP when I witnessed ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges. It was obvious that the pandemic and the lockdown was the time to put these writings together in the back stories of three fictional lives and imagine how these characters would face the future. Here is the author’s summary for the book…

Even in the darkest days can be found courage, love and the answers to our dreams.
The coronavirus pandemic has shut down the world, tearing lives asunder. Huddled indoors, fearful, we watch and wonder when, if ever, our lives will be the same again. Against this unheralded background, three individuals face their own, unique challenges to survive.

Jess, a lonely, childless woman, clings to a young refugee who has become so much more than a pupil to her, as she longs for love. Then she meets the dashing Todd, who simultaneously both offers a tantalising hope and threatens to separate her from the only person who has given meaning to her life. The dilemma she faces would send her halfway round the world, away from all she has ever known. How can she possibly choose?

Kevin, a young man, struggling to find his place in the world, blighted by a loveless upbringing and bullying at school, now lives in London, a city gripped by dread. An introvert and loner at heart, he must form bonds with those around him to plot a way through lockdown, fulfilling a role which is vital to the future of the nation.

Daniel dedicates his life as a doctor to helping all those, good and bad, who pass through his surgery. The only person he seems unable to help is himself; he lives a solitary life, cocooned against the pain of loves lost. As the sheer scale of the pandemic becomes horrifyingly clear, he faces a choice with potentially devastating consequences.

Look out for ‘The Things You Think You Cannot Do’ coming on Kindle and in paperback soon!