The Model Mother- Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni

thyssen museum ghirlandaio image

Fig. 1. Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, 1488, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.

Pregnancy was a dangerous event in the life of a fifteenth-century Florentine patrician woman. One-fifth of all deaths among females that occurred in Florence during this period were in fact related to complications in childbirth or ensuing post-partum infections. In the years 1424-25 and 1430, the Books of the Dead recorded the deaths of fifty-two women as a result of labour. As conditions for pregnant women did not improve in the ensuing half a century, childbirth remained a dangerous event for women to endure. Husbands took many precautions to ensure a successful birth as can be seen in the vast array of objects associated with this event created at this time. People turned to religion and magic in order to ensure that both the mother and child would survive this perilous process. Death in childbirth affected women from all classes and wealth did not act as a deterrent. The loss of a fertile young woman was detrimental to both her family and to society in general. Not only did her natal and conjugal families lose out on the children she may have had in the future, the loss of the child that she carried (which was commonplace) denied the family the opportunity to forge advantageous marriage alliances and heirs to the family name and wealth.

In a society which had recently experienced the devastating effects of the Black Death, leading to the loss of approximately 80,000 of its citizens, the civic authorities of the city-state began to actively promote the need for the production of children to counter-act the dramatic population decline. A family-centred ideology emerged at the core of Florentine society. In the writings of resident authors such as Leon Battista Alberti, marriage and family were regarded as the building blocks of a strong and prosperous society. The need for children was of paramount importance to the citizens of Florence as a means of ensuring the continuation of family lineages and the prosperity of the society which they were born into. The production of children was thus perceived primarily as for the good of both the family and society rather than just for individual satisfaction. The inhabitants of the city-state and particularly the women were under immense societal pressure to carry out their civic duty by producing offspring. As women were the bearers of children, their roles within their marital families centred upon their ability to fulfil the role of motherhood and produce as many children as possible for their husbands.

A number of art works dedicated to women who died in childbirth survive to the present day and Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni dating from c.1488 is one of the most famous examples [Fig.1]. It is clear through the examination of these art works that a woman received a privileged status through her death in childbirth, particularly if she had already provided her husband with a male heir. Although the depictions of women who died in this manner do not usually reference what caused their demise, these works promote motherhood to contemporary Italian viewers in a number of ways. This argument stems from an idea put forward by the historian David Herlihy who states that, due to motherhood, Renaissance Italian women were elevated in status.[1] The following brief synopsis of a painted portrait of a Florentine woman demonstrates that, within the context of the republican city-state, a woman was clearly defined by her role as mother and contributor to her husband’s dynastic lineage.

Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni

Giovanna was born into one of the most influential and powerful families of the period, the Albizzi. At the age of eighteen, Giovanna entered into another powerful Florentine family, the Tornabuoni, through her marriage to Lorenzo Tornabuoni. Marriage was the key event in the lives of Florentine citizens, particularly for women as they were dependent upon matrimony alone to define their status. Girls were conditioned for their nuptials from an early age. The similarities in the ages of the bride and groom is considered unusual in the Florentine context; usually the man would choose his bride when he was twenty to twenty-five years old and, if he should feel that his position would improve, he would wait until he reached thirty to marry. The bride was usually in her early teenage years at the time of betrothal. Gert Jan van der Sman argues that the similarity in their age suggests that their union was for dynastic purposes.[2] On 11th October 1487, Giovanna successfully gave birth to her first child, a boy who was named Giovanni after his grandfather, the family patriarch. Giovanna died less than a year later on 7th October 1488, as a result of childbirth. Of particular interest are the series of images created by the prominent Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio commissioned by her grieving husband and also her father-in-law shortly after her death.

Ghirlandaio’s Portrait

The Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni dating from 1488 includes a number of interesting elements such as the Latin epigram. It reads as:

                                ‘Ars Utinam Mores Animum que Effingere Posses                                                                                             Pulchrior In Terris Nulla Tabella Foret’

[Art, if only you were able to portray character and soul, no painting on earth would be more beautiful]

thyssen museum ghirlandaio image (4)

The identity of the author of these words has been a matter of much contention amongst art historians. Maria DePrano presents the most relevant interpretation and identification of the true author of the verse by arguing that it was Lorenzo’s composition which had been based upon an epigram written by the ancient Roman poet Martial with a minor change in the verb conjugation to make the words more personalised.[3] Lorenzo verbalises his sorrow over the sudden death of his wife. Not only did he lose his beloved wife who he had been married to for only a brief period of time, he also lost the child which she was giving birth to. Their first-born son, Giovanni, who was less than a year old at the time of her death, lost his mother. Therefore the epigram is one of both anguish and lament by a grief-stricken husband beseeching art to bring his wife back to life. The position of the inscription within the portrait itself is interesting and deliberate on the part of the artist as the bottom left hand corner is partially obscured by the sitter’s beautifully elongated neck. The viewer is left in no doubt that the words of this epigram are in fact referring to Giovanna herself, her character, mind and feminine virtues. It is important to note that the majority of inscriptions included in the portraiture of Florentine women were located on the reverse side of the images such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci c.1474-78 [Fig. 2] Their placement on the reverse suggests that they were intended to be viewed by a select private audience such as the patron who commissioned the work and close family. In the case of Ghirlandaio’s portrait, the inscription’s prominence within the work itself must be interpreted as a public statement, intended to be viewed by a wider audience.

ginevra

 

Fig. 2. Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, c.1474-78, National Gallery of Art, Washington

The open nature of this personal statement of Lorenzo’s lament is furthered by the work’s original location. This image is one of the only female portraits of the Renaissance period whose exact location was documented in an inventory. It was located in Lorenzo’s personal chambers in the chamera del palcho d’oro (‘chamber with the gold ceiling’) of the Palazzo Tornabuoni and hung in this room for nearly ten years after her death when Lorenzo had in fact remarried.[4] The private chambers of Florentine patrician men were quasi-public spaces within the palazzo and the camera was in fact the most controlled space, only accessible to those who were admitted to the space by its owner. Those who saw the portrait would have been invited by Lorenzo himself into the room. It was within these spaces that men placed their most valuable art works and prized possessions so that their wealth and prestige could be exhibited and seen. By placing Giovanna’s portrait in this chamber, Lorenzo not only gave Giovanna a prized position within his household but simultaneously suggested that her image and thus Giovanna herself was in fact a cherished possession of his. The inscription acts as a public acknowledgement of her worth and significance to her husband and adds to the sense of high regard she achieved posthumously.

The significance of physical appearance in female portraiture

thyssen museum ghirlandaio image

The manner in which Ghirlandaio represents his sitter including the profile format and her appearance added to the perception of her privileged status within the Tornabuoni family. In classical times, the use of the strict profile pose was allied to biography so that these portraits came to stand for their sitters’ virtuous behaviour. Its use in Florentine art asserted similar virtues upon those represented. With her eyes and face averted, Giovanna’s depiction was particularly apt in a society which idealised the images of women in terms of their chastity and modesty. Her upright posture emphasised through the pose demonstrates her chaste nature, considered the most fundamental virtue for a patrician woman to possess as it was deemed vital to ensure the legitimacy of the offspring she produced. It also allowed the viewer to appreciate Giovanna’s beauty, as the observer can clearly see her domed forehead, elongated neck and high hairline, features considered beautiful in Florentine society. Beauty was regarded as another significant quality for women to possess which was clearly emphasised by its reference in the portrait’s inscription.

The domestic environment was seen as the space reserved for women and Jacqueline Marie Musacchio points out that many Florentine women spent a large portion of their lives being controlled by male family members and contained within the walls of the family palazzo.[5] Alberti argued that it was in fact natural for a woman to remain inside and to tend to the household while the man’s place was outside the home, tending to all other matters. In a culture which believed that a woman should give the impression that her body was contained and protected with her limbs controlled, the use of the profile in female portraiture was perfectly suited to demonstrate this ideal.[6] This is furthered by Giovanna’s physical containment within the confines of the Netherlandish motif of the dark tomb-like niche.[7] Therefore Giovanna is shown here as exemplary and virtuous in the 1488 portrait.

Giovanna’s pose and appearance also held importance with regards to the exhibition of the wealth and prestige of her marital family. Extravagant costumes and jewellery were symbols of affluence and status in this society. The dominance of the initial ‘L’ on the sleeve of Giovanna’s giornea (dress) refers to her husband and thus denotes her as Lorenzo’s wife. The use of heraldic or familial devices on women’s clothing demonstrates how women were perceived in terms of their families- firstly their father’s and then, through marriage, their husband’s. A woman was thus never viewed as an individual with a separate identity who earned honour for their own merits, but was only seen in terms of her ability to assist in the continuation of the patriarchal lineage of the family.

thyssen museum ghirlandaio image (3)

Each of the objects included in the portrait were carefully chosen to provide a further insight into the sitter’s personality and nature which the artist could not evoke in the portrait. The prayer book symbolised the piety Giovanna possessed and the string of coral beads alluded to the use of talismanic objects to safeguard the wellbeing and health of the new born child. Of particular interest is the dragon pendant with its reference to the symbol of St. Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth, to whom women in labour prayed to ensure a safe delivery. The dragon pendant is an unusual inclusion as no other example of such a necklace has been found in a Quattrocento female portrait. The incorporation of the coral beads and dragon necklace in particular subtly allude to the circumstances surrounding her death. The artist successfully constructed an image of Giovanna as a paradigm for the ideals a woman was expected to possess and an exemplar which other women should aspire to imitate in their own lives.

thyssen museum ghirlandaio image (2)

Giovanna’s fate was shared by many of her contemporaries, including her closest female kin. Her mother, Caterina Soderini, mother-in-law Francesca Pitti Tornabuoni, and sister-in-law Ludovica, all died as a result of childbirth, demonstrating the devastating effects of this event on Florentine families. The emphasis on the commemoration of Giovanna in the painted portrait by Ghirlandaio expresses how she was perceived as having played a crucial role in this family in ensuring its continuation and was thus regarded as a valued member due to her role as the mother of the Tornabuoni male heir. Lorenzo, through the medium of art, venerated his spouse for her achievements as a woman through the realisation of her civic duty as a wife. To commission a painted portrait of an individual at this time was to commemorate the sitter for their accomplishments, confirmed in the writings of Alberti who asserted that: ‘Through painting the faces of the dead go on living for a very long time’.[8] Accordingly, Giovanna was commemorated for posterity as an exemplar amongst her sex, the highest of accolades.

[1] D. Herlihy, ‘The Natural History of Medieval Women’ in D. Herlihy, Women, Family and Society in Medieval Europe: Historical Essays, 1978-1991, ed. A. Molho, Berghahn Books, Providence, 1991, 53.

[2] Gert van der Sman, Lorenzo and Giovanna: Timeless Art and Fleeting Lives in Renaissance Florence, trans. By D. Webb, Madragora, Florence, 2010, 29.

[3] Maria DePrano, ‘No Painting on Earth would be more beautiful’: an analysis of Giovanna degli Albizzi’s portrait inscription’, Renaissance Studies, Vol. 22, No. 5, 2008, 632-33.

[4] Ibid, 634.

[5] Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, Art, Marriage and Family in the Florentine Renaissance Palace, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2008, 62.

[6] L.B. Alberti, The Family in Renaissance Florence, Waveland Press, Illinois, 2004, 207-8.

[7] J. Woods-Marsden, ‘Portraits of the Lady, 1430-1520’, in D.A. Brown (ed.), Virtue and Beauty Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2001, 69.

[8] L.B. Alberti, On Painting and Sculpture, trans. C. Grayson, Phaidon, London, 1972, 60.

Battista Sforza: Countess of Urbino: An Illustrious Woman Part 2

As part two of the post on Battista Sforza, the reverse of Piero della Francesca’s striking Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza will be discussed. Don’t forget to check out part one! Dedicated to Lady, my faithful companion for the last 11 years.

montefe3

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. [Fig. Five] Piero’s work is the earliest example of a diptych with scenes on the reverse.[1] 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.

montefe4

Both figures are represented seated on a triumphal cart surrounded by women who personify qualities possessed by the couple. Federico, in the scene of the Triumph of Fame, dressed in his suit of armour is reminiscent of a Roman general seated upon the field stool used on the battlefield, and is about to be crowned with a wreath of laurels by the winged female personification of Victory. He is accompanied by four women symbolically representing the Cardinal Virtues of Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance, essential qualities vital for a Renaissance ruler to possess.[2]

montefe6

 

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.[3] Battista, mirroring the pose of her husband, is seated upon a chair holding a small book. The chariot is driven by Cupid and drawn by two unicorns, 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. Paola Tinagli argues that 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.[4] The inscription located in the parapet below emphasises these qualities further:

               ‘QVE MODVM REBVS TENVIT SECVNDIS/

               CONIVGIS MAGNI DECORATA RERVM/

               LAVDE GESTARVM VOLITAT PER ORA/

 CVNCTA VIRORVM’

[She that kept her modesty in favourable circumstances/ flies on the mouths of all men/ adorned with the praise of her great husband’s exploits][5]

montefe8

The inclusion of the mysterious fourth figure located directly behind the countess and facing away from the viewer adds a further level of meaning to the two panels. Woods-Marsden suggests that the figure is intended to be interpreted here as a Clarissan nun with whom the countess had a very close relationship throughout her life as a consort, reflected in her choice of burial place in the nuns’ common tomb in Santa Chiara.[6] Dressed in a grey costume and headdress, the traditional colour of Time, she may also be interpreted as the symbol of Eternity.[7] 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 Petrarch established in his poem in an symbolic manner.[8] Erwin Panofsky strengthens this thesis by remarking that 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.’[9] 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.

Although the representation of a pelican has been found on the reverse of posthumous medals created during this period, the inclusion of the bird accompanying Charity in a diptych scene is unique to this work. The pelican was believed to nourish her chicks with her own blood. The bird, in keeping with contemporary thought, is shown here tearing at its own breast to draw the blood to feed its young. Its appearance may be read as a reference to Battista’s self-sacrifice, reinforcing the myth written to explain her demise.[10] This subtle allusion reinforces the central theme of the scene celebrating the chaste and virtuous nature of the countess, her ability as a wife and mother and a statement regarding the legitimacy of the heir she bore.

An explanation for the incorporation of the triumphal scenes on the reverse of the diptych may be found in the proposed locations and functions for the work. The intended audience was contingent upon the original site for the work.[11] A precise location has not been established, although a number of hypotheses have been made. Some scholars 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.[12] 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.[13] Woods-Marsden asserts that the work was only produced in special circumstances but was probably stored within the private space of Federico’s studiolo.[14] Aronberg Lavin also argues that, as the work was hinged and relatively small (each panel measures 47 x 33cm), it was to be opened to its different sides on various occasions and therefore functioned as a keepsake for private reflection.[15] When closed, the allegorical representations of the couple’s virtues depicted on the reverse acted as a ‘shield’, protecting the ruler portraits within.[16] 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.[17]

[1] Woods-Marsden, in J.M. Wood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, 108.

[2] Grazia Pernis and Schneider Adams, Federico da Montefeltro and Sigismondo Malatesta, 102. Justice holds a scale in one hand and keeps Federico’s sword upright in the other and  is seated facing the viewer, nearest to the picture plane. Prudence carries a snake and a mirror, objects traditionally ascribed to her. Fortitude holds a broken column and Temperance is depicted on the opposite side facing away from the viewer and surveying the land around Urbino.

Clearly this scene of the Triumph of Fame is intended to exhibit Federico’s prowess as a condottiere, attested to by his recent victory at the Battle of Volterra on the behalf of Florence, the premise for the commissioning of the scene on the reverse.[2] Federico is portrayed here as possessing each of the crucial qualities necessary to govern his court effectively and successfully as reiterated in the inscription beneath, heralding him as a powerful and capable ruler:

‘CLARVS INSIGNI VEHITVR TRIVMPHO/

QVEM PAREM SVMMIS DVCIBVS PERHENNIS/

FAMA VIRTVTVM CELEBRAT DECENTER/

SCEPTRA TENENTEM.’

[He is borne into triumph/ fame celebrates him/ he holds a sceptre]

[3] Charity and Faith are seated at the front of the chariot. Faith is depicted holding a chalice, the host, a cross and accompanied by a faithful dog at her side. Charity is unusually dressed in black rather than red in this image and exceptionally is shown here holding a pelican. Hope stands behind Battista, and looks out of the pictorial space as if addressing the viewer.

[4] P. Tinagli, Women in Italian Renaissance Art, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1997, 58-59.

[5] Ibid. Her translation.

[6] Woods-Marsden, in J.M. Wood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca,  110.

[7] Grazia Pernis and Schneider Adams, Federico da Montefeltro and Sigismondo Malatesta,101.

[8] Ibid, 103.

[9] E. Panofsky, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance, Harper & Row, London, 1972, 79.

[10] Woods-Marsden, in J.M. Wood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, 109.

[11] Ibid, 112.

[12] Osborne, Urbino: The Story of A Renaissance City, 116.

[13] Aronberg Lavin, Piero della Francesca, 265.

[14] Woods-Marsden, in J.M. Wood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, 113.

[15] Aronberg Lavin, Piero della Francesca, 265.

[16] A. Cecchi in L. Bellosi (ed.), Una Scuola per Piero: Luce, colore e prospettiva nella formazione fiorentina di Piero della Francesca, Venice, 1992, 144. This is confirmed by the varying levels of damage on the two sides.

[17] Woods-Marsden, in J.M. Wood (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, 113.

Renaissance Mothers and Matriarchs- The beginning of the journey!

Image Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni (1488, Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)

Welcome to my blog- this is my first ever post and I hope that my random ramblings will keep you entertained over the coming couple of months (and maybe years!!) as I begin my PhD research on Florentine Renaissance matriarchs. What I am hoping (fingers crossed!!) to focus my research on is the examination of the jewellery worn by women in their beautiful portraits and to show that the jewellery they wear is a marker of their success as women in producing children. I will be looking at exquisite portraits of republican and ducal Florentine women as well as the representation of mythical and religious women to analyse the importance of motherhood and fulfilling this role to be a valuable member of society. Of course no discussion of the ‘ideal’ woman would be complete without exploring the ‘fallen women’- those ‘terrible’ women who didn’t fall into the category of what patriarchal society deemed appropriate for women at that time.

My love for exploring the world of Renaissance women all began in my undergrad under the guidance of the Renaissance expert and head of the History of Art department at University College Cork, Dr. Flavio Boggi. When he talked about the portraiture of the Renaissance period, I instantly wanted to know more about these women’s’ lives, who they were, how they lived. I devoted my final year thesis on the examination of the virtuous ideal Renaissance woman and have never looked back. My MPhil examined Renaissance women both of Florence and the courts of Renaissance Italy who died in childbirth and were memorialised in a variety of ways and media by their husbands and other male members of their family. When deciding what subject I wanted to research for my PhD, I got caught up in another idea but after a few months realised that I really wanted to return to my Renaissance women.

So that’s me!! Keep an eye on the blog as I will be updating it regularly with analysis of some of the most beautiful representations of women from the Renaissance from the likes of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Agnolo Bronzino, Leonardo da Vinci among others.