Art in the Service of the Ideal- The Florentine Matriarch Eleonora di Toledo


(Agnolo Bronzino’s Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni, c.1545, Uffizi Gallery, Florence)



 [Eleonora, Duchess of Florence/ Fecundity, joyful with modesty]


The image above by the renowned artist Agnolo Bronzino depicts Eleonora di Toledo, the wife of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici of Florence executed c.1545. This double portrait has been juxtaposed with an example of a Latin inscription found on a medal dating from c.1551 dedicated to Eleonora demonstrating how both visual and written forms were utilised by the duke to promote the gendered ideals of his court. Images such as the state portrait by Bronzino were used to exemplify the ideal societal role of women during this period, namely motherhood. From the celebration of her marriage to Cosimo in 1539 until her death in 1562, Eleonora’s depiction was synonymous with her ability to fulfil her role as a wife and provide male heirs for her husband. Simultaneously Cosimo used the representation of his wife and children as a form of dynastic propaganda, showing the strength of the Medici family in a politically turbulent period in Florence’s history. As the daughter of the Spanish viceroy of Naples and a member of a family of royal prestige, Eleonora’s marriage to Cosimo greatly enhanced the duke’s political standing as he attempted to establish and legitimise his court in Florence. Cosimo was the first of the Medici to govern Florence as an appointed ruler, a title given to him by Emperor Charles V. Throughout his rule, Cosimo exploited images to attempt to persuade his subjects with visual evidence of his legitimacy as leader of the new court. Eleonora’s image therefore embodied two key purposes: to provide a female exemplar which Florentine women were to attempt to emulate while simultaneously demonstrating the dynastic power of the Medici in a society dominated by patriarchy.

 Fifteenth century Florentine women were expected to get married and provide their husbands with as many children as possible, preferably sons. L.B. Alberti, in his book entitled Della Famiglia (On the Family) wrote that the key characteristic a wife should possess was that she should be ‘well made for bearing children, with the kind of constitution that promises to make them big’.[1] Responsibility for conceiving was therefore placed predominantly upon women. Chastity played an integral role in their lives as it was essential that a woman remain pure both before and during marriage to ensure the legitimacy of her offspring.[2] As the duchess, Eleonora’s fertility and chastity were of paramount importance for the preservation of the Medici name and power. She had to demonstrate her fecundity to both her husband and to those who resided in the court leading to the commissioning of art works which memorialised her success in fulfilling her marital duties.

 Eleonora’s success as a fertile woman and mother is given its most explicit depiction in the state portrait by Bronzino. The inclusion of her second son, Giovanni, instead of her eldest child, Francesco was a deliberate choice on the part of Cosimo for several reasons. It could firstly be simply read as a visual testament of Eleonora’s fertility. J. Cox-Rearick argues that Cosimo hoped that Giovanni would follow in the footsteps of his ancestors and become a pope, guaranteeing the piety and salvation of this generation of the family. The duke also hoped that as pope, Giovanni would reunite Rome and Florence as his papal ancestors had, making the ducal court of Florence an immensely powerful entity.[3]

 Another prominent theme depicted in this image is the allusion to the figures’ divinity through their association with the Virgin and Christ Child, the ideal mother and son. By choosing to include the younger son, Bronzino evokes the divinity of Eleonora as a successful mother as the infant Christ was normally depicted in his early years in devotional works of this period.[4] Eleonora’s eldest son would have been considered too old to act as a contemporary substitute for Christ. The association of the holy family would have been easily interpreted by its audience, suggesting the Medici’s divine right to rule. Eleonora’s resemblance to the Virgin is furthered by the artist’s application of an almost pure blue pigment around her head which contrasts with the darker background, drawing the viewers’ attention to this area and making it appear as if she is emitting light similar to a haloed saint.[5] By employing the conventions associated with the depiction of the Virgin, Bronzino and his patron constructed an overt comparison of Eleonora and the ideal mother.

Eleonora’ role as duchess is alluded to in the painting with the inclusion of the verdant Tuscan landscape located in background. By placing her in front of this scene, Bronzino links her fertility which is physically represented in the image by the inclusion of her son with her regency of the lands of Florence. It can also be argued that the association with the Virgin further confirms her power as the wife of the ruler as Mary was the patron saint of Florence and regarded as its protector. By forging this link between Eleonora and the Virgin, Cosimo was attempting to show that his wife would also protect the city through her production of male children who would grow up to rule and guard Florence from its enemies.

portrait3  pomegranate detail

 Eleonora is clearly rewarded for her fertility by the array of jewels and the dress she wears. It was considered the husband’s responsibility to dress his wife in a fashion that was deemed appropriate to his social status.[6] Eleonora is depicted wearing an extravagant and expensive costume demonstrating the wealth and prestige of her husband. The pomegranate motif which adorns her dress attests to her fecund nature as it is deliberately prominent on her abdomen thus physically indicating to the viewer why she wears this symbol. The large number of pearls adorning the duchess can be interpreted as a material reward from her husband for her ability to provide him with children. Pearls were symbols of marital chastity and within the context of this image, the presence of some many of these gemstones reads as a testament of the chaste nature of the duchess during her marriage and the legitimacy of the children she bore.

During her marriage to Cosimo, Eleonora indeed demonstrated her fertile nature by successfully giving birth to eleven children within a fourteen year period. The duchess is not depicted in the state portrait for her intellectual abilities. She is clearly celebrated for her contribution to Cosimo’s lineage, an argument which is strengthened by the fact that she was never depicted with any of her daughters.[7] Bronzino’s portrait reflects the iconic status she enjoyed within her court due to her safe delivery of a number of sons for her husband, honouring her privileged status as an exemplary Florentine matriarch.


[1] L.B. Alberti, The Family in Renaissance Florence, Books One to Four, I Libri della Famiglia, translated by Renee Neu Watkins, Waveland Press, Illinois, 2004, 116.

[2] J.M. Musacchio, The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1999, 55.

[3] J. Cox-Rearick, Bronzino’s Chapel of Eleonora in the Palazzo Vecchio, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford, 1993, 37.

[4] G. Langdon, Medici Women: Portraits of Power, Love and Betrayal from the Court of Duke Cosimo I, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2006, 67.

[5] L. Campbell, Renaissance Portraits: European Portrait-Painting in the Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1990, 25.

[6] R. Orsi Landini and M. Westerman Bulgarella, ‘Costume in Fifteenth Century Florentine Portraits’ in D.A. Brown (ed.), Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2001, 93.

[7] J. Cox-Rearick, Bronzino’s Chapel of Eleonora in the Palazzo Vecchio, 42.