Eleonora di Toledo and the art of Bronzino

Introduction

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 Bronzino was their favourite painter, court artist from their wedding in 1539 until the 1550s, when he was superseded by Giorgio Vasari, justifiably more famous for his landmark work ‘Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects’ than the quality of his own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.

Poetry

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.

Tapestries

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:

Maria

Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Francesco

Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Garcia

Museo Nacional del Prado

Giovanni

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.

1559-64

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.

Iconography

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.

Vasari

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.

 

Conclusion

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published by alastairstravels

Hi. Having taken part retirement from work I am fulfilling a long standing ambition to travel and share my experiences

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