C. De Melo is an author & art historian in Florence who specializes in historical novels set in Italy.
Eleonora di Toledo & Giovanni (Bronzino 1545)
Madonna of the Pomegranate (Botticelli 1487)
Mary Tudor & Charles Brandon (Jan Gossaert 1516)
Eleonora di Toledo, 16th century Europe's socialite
If one does a Google image search on the Internet for "Eleonora di Toledo" (wife of Grand Duke Cosimo I), Bronzino’s famous double portrait depicting the grand duchess and her young son, Giovanni, inevitably pops up as a result.
At first glance, this famous painting appears to be nothing more than an aesthetically pleasing work of art. Upon closer inspection, however, one can ascertain that it is actually a form of propaganda, an advertisement.
The piece was specifically designed to support the economic agenda of 16th century Florence while simultaneously validating Cosimo I’s rule.
The iconic cream and black gown of brocaded velvet was comprised of gold weft loops. This laborious technique, known as calledriccio sopra riccio (loop over loop), produces a luxuriant texture (see motif detail). In celebration of the revival of the silk industry in Florence, Bronzino replicated the intricacies of this fabric with realistic precision.
Interestingly, the painting was completed in August 1545- the same year in which Cosimo I began commissioning Bronzino and Pontormo to create twenty breathtaking tapestries for his palazzo (those same tapestries were recently featured in the Palazzo Vecchio exhibition: Il Principe dei Sogni: Giuseppe negli Arazzi Medicei). Each massive piece was woven in Florence on Florentine looms.
Eleonora’s expensive gown, precious jewels, and the heavy use of gold is akin to today’s political and corporate power-dressing. She was the daughter of the Viceroy of Naples (the noble Don Pedro di Alvarez di Toledo), who hailed from one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Spain.
The black velvet arabesques flowing throughout the fabric is reminiscent of the black velvet gowns favored by the Spanish royal court. By dressing alla Spagnola, the grand duchess asserts her aristocratic bloodline, immense wealth, and important political connections.
Discover the Florence ruled by the Medici
Learn more about Eleanora di Toledo and Cosimo I in this stunning novel
Pomegranate or Artichoke?
Dressing for Propaganda
Dr. Sheila Barker, the educational program director for the Medici Archive Project, offers an interesting lecture: Pearls, Prunes, and Malaria: behind the scenes of Bronzino's double portrait of Eleonora di Toledo and Giovanni de' Medici (see video).
In this lecture, Dr. Barker mentions that Maria di Salviatti (Cosimo I's mother), purchased two hundred fine quality Venetian pearls with the intention of impressing the young Spanish noblewoman. Eleonora received this lavish gift prior to marrying Cosimo I, and they are most likely the same pearls featured in this portrait.
The gold motifs displayed throughout the fabric alludes to Eleonora’s fecundity. Historians refer to the shape as a pomegranate (albeit a stylized one), a well-known symbol of fertility. The pomegranate also represents the Catholic Church and its followers (many seeds within a single fruit), as well as Jesus's resurrection, which is why this particular fruit is featured in many religious works of art (like the Madonna of the Pomegranate by Sandro Botticelli, painted in 1487).
Curiously, the large motif on the bodice front differs in appearance from the rest of those on the gown (see detail). While the pomegranate is the official accepted theory within the art historical canon, one cannot help but notice this particular motif's conical shape and overlapping leaves. The shape is closer in appearance to an artichoke rather than a pomegranate.
There is no evidence supporting this possibility, but it is interesting to note that the artichoke is also a symbol of fertility. To illustrate this point, a 16th century painting by Jan Gossaert depicts Mary Tudor holding an artichoke alongside her second husband, Charles Brandon. Her first marriage to the French king did not produce progeny, but she gave Brandon four children.
Renaissance noblewomen were expected to provide as many heirs as possible for their husbands- and preferably more than one male. Should calamity befall upon the heir, the next male in line could inherit and continue the family lineage. The heir's brothers were like insurance policies.
Eleonora bore her fifth child (Lucrezia) two months before Bronzino completed the painting. Giovanni was the second son (Francesco being Cosimo's heir). Keep in mind that she married Cosimo in 1539! By the time she died in 1562 the grand duchess had given her husband an impressive total of eleven children:
- Maria (April 3, 1540 – November 19, 1557)
- Francesco (March 25, 1541 – October 19, 1587)
- Isabella (31 August 1542 – 16 July 1576)
- Giovanni (28 September 1543 – November 1562)
- Lucrezia (7 June 1545 – 21 April 1561)
- Pietro (10 August 1546 – 10 June 1547)- died in infancy
- Garzia (5 July 1547 – 12 December 1562)
- Antonio (July 1, 1548 – July 1548)- died in infancy
- Ferdinando (30 July 1549 – 17 February 1609)
- Anna (19 March 1553 – 6 August 1553)- died in infancy
- Pietro (3 June 1554 – 25 April 1604)
Lastly, Bronzino depicted Eleonora and Giovanni with radiant skin and robust health. This physical idealization, combined with their formal pose and serene expressions, reminds us of the many Madonna and Christ child paintings throughout Florence. Eleonora was a faithful Catholic, frequently lauded for her chaste comportment and piety.
During the Renaissance, the Holy Virgin's image underwent a radical transformation. The serious, matronly Mary (so common in medieval art) was replaced by a beautiful young mother by artists like Fra' Fillipo Lippi, Sandro Botticelli, and Raffaello Sanzio. In a period where the line between human and the divine was blurred, Bronzino's implication (whether intentional or not) is quite valid.
As always, thank you for reading!
Dr. Sheila Barker's interesting lecture
Virginia Billeaud Anderson on October 04, 2019:
Thank you for the excellent article. And Dr. Barker's Met lecture was superb. Very grateful.
Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on January 27, 2018:
Very interesting article that I enjoyed very much. I stumbled upon it from your post in a forum. Glad I did.
C De Melo (author) on September 18, 2017:
If you have time, you should listen to the lecture I posted with the article. That dress was unbelievably costly. Yes, Eleonora gave birth 13 times- 11 children survived. She died at age 40 in Pisa from malaria. I have recently released a 16th century Florentine novel entitled ALLEGRA. My protagonist's life correlates with the Medici family and although I took artistic liberties, it's mainly factual accounts. If you're interested and enjoy reading historical fiction, here is the ebook link (99 cents). It's also in paperback for 12.99. Cheers!
RoadMonkey on September 18, 2017:
What a difference between how the rich lived and dressed and the poor and yet I see some of her children died in infancy and others were quite young when they died. Very interesting, thanks.
C De Melo (author) on May 24, 2016:
You're welcome. Thanks for the comment! The video I posted by Dr. Barker is very interesting.
RTalloni on May 24, 2016:
Such an interesting read and a pleasure to see the beautiful painting(s). One has to wonder how long it took how many people to create the amazing dress. Thanks for insight into the life of Eleonora di Toledo and the times in which she lived. The gift of pearls is a lovely picture of affection and appreciation.
C De Melo (author) on May 24, 2016:
Hello Anne...Thanks for the comment. YES, you're absolutely right about the immense weight of historical dresses like these. The sleeves of Eleonora's iconic dress was lined with fur! Can you imagine? Oh, the decadence...
Anne Harrison from Australia on May 24, 2016:
An interesting, detail review of a great painting. I often wonder how luxurious it must have felt to wear such a dress - although probably impossibly heavy! Thanks also for including the Madonna and Child by Lippi - on of my favourite paintings.