Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait

van_eyck_arnolfini_large-resized-600 Van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, National Gallery London

This week’s post moves away from Renaissance Italy to look to the art of Northern Europe. Jan Van Eyck’s iconic work the Arnolfini Portrait (also called the Arnolfini Wedding), dating from 1434 and located in the National Gallery London, is one of the earliest examples of oil painting in Europe. My focus is the representation of the woman, Giovanna (Jeanne) Cenami, who stands beside her groom and the patron of the work, Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini. The portrait provides us with a fascinating insight into society’s expectations for women, their roles as wives and mothers which they were trained for from childhood. By hiring Van Eyck, Giovanni ensured that Italian marital tradition and social convention was successfully combined with Flemish style to create a truly unique piece of art.

Measuring three feet in height, the panel depicts an austerely and expensively dressed man clasping the hand of an equally elegantly attired young woman.  Van Eyck’s painting is quite unusual as standing double portraits dating from this period were rare. The subjects are positioned by the artist for us to observe the scene. Their bodies face in the direction of the onlookers, they address their actions and their glances towards us. The audience therefore becomes witnesses to the official ceremony of marriage which is taking place in the portrait. As Italians living in Bruges, Giovanni wished to memorialise the ceremony, as it was vital for the marriage to be witnessed in order to make it official. The representation of Giovanna is particularly interesting in terms of how the artist visually compared her to the ideal woman and mother, the Virgin Mary and continually refers to her role as a wife through the inclusion of subtly placed symbols.

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Giotto, Marriage of the Virgin, c.1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

As befitting a woman of her status, Giovanna is portrayed by the artist as a respectful bride. Van Eyck captures her demure demeanour by averting her eyes so that she does not engage directly with the audience or her husband. Compare Giovanna’s representation to that of the Virgin Mary in Giotto’s Marriage of the Virgin dating from c.1305. The pose, averted eyes and demeanour are very similar. Why would Van Eyck present the sitter in this manner in the portrait? By linking the marriage of the Virgin to this double portrait, Van Eyck underlines the sacred nature of the socially significant event. He therefore transforms a familiar trope from Marian imagery into a statement of another kind by relocating the couple into the secular world. Giovanna is presented to the audience as a contemporary version of the Virgin, a woman who will fulfil her marital duties by producing children and particularly male heirs for her husband.

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Detail of Giovanna, Arnolfini Portrait

Her delicate facial features and hands denote a woman of standing and the all-important characteristic of beauty. Leon Battista Alberti in his book Della Famiglia (On the Family) wrote about beauty as an essential feminine quality, and argued that the beauty of a bride denoted her ‘aptitude for bearing and giving birth to many fine children’. The allusion to the importance of fecundity is mirrored in a number of elements of the painting. There has been a lot of debate about the girl’s physical appearance and the possibility that she was pregnant when this portrait was painted. It has now been established that Giovanna was not pregnant; the way she gathers the fold of her dress to emphasise her abdomen was a common feature in contemporary fashion. The emphasis on this part of her body was vital as an allusion to her potential fertility as a young newly-married woman.

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Detail of the carved figures of a dragon and woman and the dusting brush, Arnolfini Portrait

The importance of fertility is reinforced by the presence of a carved figure of a dragon alongside the representation of a female figure on the top of the bedstead which is partially hidden by Giovanna. There are two possible readings for their inclusion here. Firstly, the carved female figure who is accompanied by the dragon can be interpreted as the representation of St. Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth. The legend surrounding the saint states that she was swallowed by a dragon and through her constant prayers to God, escaped through the belly of the dragon untouched. St. Margaret was prayed to by women in labour to ensure the safety of the woman and her unborn child. Women were often given a prayer book to St. Margaret during pregnancy which served as a talisman. The second interpretation for the figure is the representation of St. Martha, the patron saint of housewives. This reading is supported by the inclusion of a dusting brush which hangs from the bedstead, referring to Giovanna’s role in managing and maintaining the home, the designated space of women of this period.

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Another interesting feature of this scene is the juxtaposition of Giovanna and the object which dominates the right of the image, the bed. This element serves to draw the viewer’s attention to the private site of sexual encounter and the site for the woman’s production of children for her husband, reinforcing Giovanna’s role within the marriage.

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Detail of the dog, Arnolfini Portrait

To ensure the legitimacy of the children which Giovanna produces during her marriage, the artist includes a dog at her feet, the traditional symbol of fidelity and loyalty. In a similar manner to the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto which I looked at in a previous post, the dog serves to remind the audience of the importance of chastity within marriage as a way of ensuring the purity of the bloodline of her husband. Standing between Giovanni and Giovanna in the foreground, the dog alludes to the ideal marriage, with a faithful wife ensuring the longevity of her husband’s lineage for future generations.

Although this image focuses upon the representation of a marriage, it presents us with a number of subtle symbols which allude to the depicted woman’s imminent role as a wife and especially as a mother. Van Eyck in his realistic artistic style successfully portrays the social conventions and expectations of the feminine sex.

Ilaria del Carretto: A Mother Memorialised in Marble (Part Two)

Continuing on from part one of the post on Ilaria de Carretto’s tomb, this post will focus on the analysis of the effigy and inclusion of the ten putti figures on the sides of the sarcophagus.

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Detail of the effigy of the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto

The physical appearance of the effigy not only explicitly commemorates Ilaria, it simultaneously makes reference to the wealth and prestige of the Guinigi. Each aspect of the effigy, from the costume she wears, her hair style, headdress and swollen abdomen demonstrate the duality of meaning ascribed not only to this element but to the monument as a whole by her husband. Once again in a similar manner to the inclusion of the dog, the representation of the deceased Ilaria was clearly influenced by Northern European sources. The effigy had no counterparts in contemporary Italian funerary monuments.[1] The high stiff collar with its large opening which frames Ilaria’s face, the long pendant sleeves, high waisted belt, the flowered headdress and the pointed shoes were considered the height of fashion during this period, especially among the elite classes in Northern Renaissance Italian courts.[2] It demonstrated to the contemporary viewer that Paolo wished for his wife to be portrayed in a costume associated with the wealthy elite classes of Northern European and Northern Italian courts. The effigy thus projected an image of the wealth and prestige of her husband to those who saw the tomb. Paolo wished to emphasise and promote his prestigious standing in order to justify his legitimacy as the self-proclaimed ruler and Lord of Lucca. He did so by dressing his deceased wife’s effigy in a costume appropriate for a Northern European princess. Thus Paolo used the monument to further his own political agenda and to reinforce his rule to his subjects in Lucca.

The effigy’s facial features have been somewhat idealised by della Quercia, a common practice by artists of this period when portraying those of the elite class. The domed forehead, high hairline and perfectly proportioned facial features enhance and highlight the beauty of the woman commemorated by this work. Beauty was a quality deemed essential for a Renaissance woman to possess. Physical beauty was seen as an indicator of the inner qualities of a person. Thus della Quercia depicted Ilaria in her death as an ideal woman who possessed the necessary feminine qualities, such as beauty evident from the effigy’s facial features, as well as her chasteness, evoked by the presence of the sculpted dog. Thus the artist and patron chose to add various subtle symbols to the tomb’s effigy which emphasised Ilaria’s virtuous nature.

Another powerful element of the tomb is the prominence given to the wedding ring worn on the right hand of the effigy. It is interesting to note that the effigy does not wear any other form of jewellery (apart from the diadem which will be discussed below). Therefore the inclusion of this wedding band on her ring finger clearly indicated her role as a wife and marked her for posterity as her husband’s property. The ring may have ensured that this symbol of marriage stood out prominently from the rest of the effigy and tomb.[3]

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Detail of the ghirlanda (headdress)

The headdress (ghirlanda) which adorns the effigy adds to the aristocratic semblance of Ilaria. In fact, the headdress looks similar to a crown, once again reinforcing Paolo’s aim to enhance his family’s prestige. A bronze diadem may have also been located at one time just above the effigy’s headdress.[4] The possibility of the presence of a physical jewelled crown would have made a powerful visual statement to the tomb’s audience. To associate Ilaria with royalty was an unambiguous and bold statement about her husband’s reign as the Lord of Lucca. Decorated with flowers, the headdress can also be interpreted as having connotations to fertility and in particular Ilaria’s fecundity. The allusion to Ilaria’s reproductive capabilities is complemented by further suggestion to this attribute by the inclusion of the putti carrying garlands loaded with fruit and flowers which will be discussed below.

The final element of the effigy which must be examined is the placement of the crossed hands on top of her noticeably swollen abdomen which serves as a potent symbol within this piece. Paolo clearly wished to subtly indicate to the tomb’s audience the cause of Ilaria’s death. In fact, Ilaria’s tomb is one of a very small number of art works depicting women which includes a reference to the cause of death as childbirth. The patron achieves this link through the positioning of the hands on the stomach, drawing the viewers’ eyes to her pregnant body. The effigy promotes Ilaria’s role as a wife and mother, echoing the message of the abundant vegetation surrounding the joint coat of arms of the two families mentioned in part one of this blog post.

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Detail of the ‘joyous’ putti on the side panel of the sarcophagus

The classically influenced swag-bearing putti on the two side panels of the sarcophagus continued the monument’s emphasis on Ilaria’s commemoration as the mother of the Guinigi heir. These were the earliest examples in the 15th century of large-scale putti in Renaissance art, a motif which was to become very popular.[5] The presence of these activated nude little boys can be interpreted in a number of ways. The putto became a popular figure found on domestic objects and in particular on objects associated with the event of childbirth. Jacqueline Marie Musacchio argued that the inclusion of a naked male child held a magical resonance and their presence on domestic objects during this period clearly made reference to the much-desired male child who was essential for a society dominated by the patriarchal lineage.[6] Thus one possible interpretation for the inclusion of the putti on the sarcophagus is that Paolo wanted to emphasise his wife’s fulfilment of her duties through the birth of a male heir. The monument stood to contemporaries as a powerful visual affirmation of the strength of the Guinigi bloodline through Ladislaus’ birth. The heavy garlands which they carry are laden with fruit similar to that which surrounds the coat of arms and the effigy’s headdress. In the classical period, the garlands heaving with fruit are carried by putti referring to the ‘life-supporting spirits contained in the fruits of the earth, the source of all life in nature’.[7] The putti and garlands symbolically refer therefore to Mother Nature and placed on the tomb of a woman who died in childbirth, highlighted Ilaria’s fertile nature.

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Detail of the ‘solemn’ putti on the side panel of the sarcophagus

The facial expressions and movement of the bodies of the putti are of particular interest as the two sets express very different emotions which add to the work’s commemoration of Ilaria. On one side, the putti appear sad and overburdened by the heaving garland they carry. On the opposite side, the figures appear to possess a freer spirit and perform a choral dance.[8] The polarity of the emotions evoked to the audience the emotions of the patron towards the sudden death of his young wife. The grief he felt is poignantly expressed by the solemn-looking putti and the burden they carry (the garland), a further physical manifestation of their pain and suffering. This group may also represent the sadness of Ilaria’s children over the loss of their mother at a very young age. Paolo simultaneously wanted to celebrate the life of his wife and the joy she brought to his family which is captured by della Quercia through the lively dance of the putti on the opposite panel of the tomb.

ilaria tomb

Ilaria’s tomb is a truly unique monument from the period in question in terms of its style, appearance and meaning within the Italian context. Della Quercia succeeded in combining a number of innovative features with classically-inspired elements to ensure that the tomb remains a masterpiece of western sculpture to this day. The commissioning of such a lavish work by the Lord of Lucca demonstrates the high regard he had for his wife and the mother of his first two children. Accordingly, Ilaria is memorialised for posterity as a mother by means of her physical presence on the tomb in the form of the effigy as well as the tomb’s placement in a prestigious location within the city’s cathedral. Through his design and execution of the funerary monument, della Quercia imbued Ilaria with a sense of dignity and nobility in her death which augmented her posthumous elevated standing in her conjugal family. The tomb stands as a testament to the importance of motherhood in fifteenth-century Renaissance society.

[1] Allan Marquand, ‘The Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto’, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan-Mar 1915), pp24-33, 28.

[2] M. Paoli, ‘Jacopo della Quercia E Paolo Guinigi: Nuove Osservazioni e Ipotesi Sul Monumento di Ilaria’ in Ilaria del Carretto E Il Suo Monumento- La Donna Nell’Arte, La Cultura E La Societa Del ‘400, Ed. by Stephanie Toussaint, San Marco Lithotype, Lucca, 1995, 16-17.

[3] Charles Seymour, Jacopo Della Quercia: Sculptor, Yale University Press, London, 1973, 33.

[4] Robert Munman, Sienese Renaissance Tomb Monuments, American Philosophy Society, 1993, 121.

[5] James Beck, Jacopo della Quercia, Vol. 1, Columbia University Press, New York, 56.

[6] Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, The Art and Ritual of Childbirth of Renaissance Italy, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999, 127.

[7] Charles Dempsey, Inventing the Renaissance Putto, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 2001, 28.

[8] A. Marquand, ‘The Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto’, 31.

Ilaria del Carretto- A Mother Memorialised in Marble (Part One)

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Jacopo della Quercia, Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, c.1406, St. Martin’s Cathedral, Lucca.

On the 8th of December 1405, Ilaria del Carretto- wife of Paolo Guinigi, Lord of Lucca- died in childbirth. As the mother of Paolo’s first-born son Ladislaus and daughter (named Ilaria after her mother), Ilaria is commemorated for her success in producing an heir by the commissioning of an extravagant tomb located in the Cathedral of St. Martin. Designed by Jacopo della Quercia, one of the foremost sculptors of the fifteenth century, the unique marble sarcophagus dedicated to Ilaria’s memory provides the art historian with a plethora of information about the role of court women in Renaissance Italy.

As Paolo’s second of four wives, it is interesting to question why Ilaria alone was honoured by this distinctive form of commemoration. Three of his wives, including Ilaria, provided their husbands with 8 children in total, 5 sons and 3 daughters. Paolo’s first wife, Maria Caterina di Valerano degli Antelminelli, died aged 12 in 1400 before the marriage was consummated. In 1403, Ilaria married Paolo and produced 2 children during her short life as his wife. Paolo’s third wife, Piacentina da Varano whom he married in the spring of 1407 gave birth to 5 children (4 boys and 1 girl). In 1420, Paolo wed his final wife, Iacopa Trinci who had 1 daughter and died during her second pregnancy. As can be clearly seen by the number of children, the wives of the Lord of Lucca attempted to fulfil their societal roles as women by giving birth to as many children as possible, even if it resulted in their deaths. Ilaria stood out among the wives by giving birth to Paolo’s first-born son and heir to his father’s name, wealth and position. Therefore Ilaria is commemorated posthumously for her contribution to the patriarchal lineage of her husband’s family. Paolo chose to honour Ilaria for her achievements and contribution to his family. The tomb serves as much as a statement about the importance of the Guinigi lineage and her role in its continuation as it was a commemorative monument to his deceased wife. This point is clearly evident when the elements which constitute the monument are examined including the Guinigi and Carretto coat of arms, the presence of the dog at Ilaria’s feet, Ilaria’s physical appearance and the putti who adorn the side panels of the sarcophagus.

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Detail of the Guinigi and Carretto Coat of Arms

Each of the decorative elements included by della Quercia on the monument were carefully chosen by the patron and artist for their inherent symbolism and ability to not only commemorate the deceased consort but also to emphasise to the audience the importance of the Guinigi family. The coat of arms located on the panel below the effigy’s head can be considered as the most obvious expression of this idea on the tomb. It combines the heraldic devices of both the Guinigi and Carretto. Due to the lack of an inscription (it is believed that an inscription did exist but was later removed and lost), the coat of arms is the only means by which the deceased can be identified. The presence of the darts of the Guinigi imprese marks Ilaria as Paolo’s wife and thus her identity as a woman is intrinsically linked to that of her husband’s. Combining the two families’ coat of arms also served to maintain friendly relations with the Carretto after Ilaria’s death. The Carretto were a powerful and influential family during this period, the creation of a strong political alliance was a key factor in Paolo’s decision to marry Ilaria. This need to stress the alliance between the Guinigi and Carretto explains the prominent inclusion of the two impresi in this manner by della Quercia.

The foliage decoration surrounding the coat of arms on both sides also warrants further investigation for its symbolic meaning to the contemporary audience. Allan Marquand describes this foliage as ‘florid gothic plants bearing seeded flowers’.[1] The inclusion of the abundant vegetation and its deliberate placement around the combined coat of arms refers to the fruitful union of Paolo and Ilaria. The seeded flowers represent Ilaria’s fertile nature and therefore focus on her reproductive role and the securing of her husband’s lineage.

ilaria and dog

cangnolinoDetails of the Effigy of Ilaria and her faithful companion

The dog depicted lying at his mistress’ feet is an element of the funerary monument which has not received as much attention as other components of the piece. The presence of the symbolically-charged cagnolino was not a feature commonly found on Italian funerary monuments of this period. Dogs were commonly depicted on monuments in Northern Europe such as the Netherlands and France.[2] The dog was regarded as a symbol of fidelity and in this case he looks up directly and attentively towards his mistress’ head. In della Quercia’s monument, the dog can be interpreted in a number of ways. Firstly, it acts as a sign of Ilaria’s unwavering fidelity to her husband, a key quality a married woman must possess in order to ensure the legitimacy of her children and the purity of the future generations of the Guinigi bloodline. Giorgio Vasari saw the dog as a symbol of conjugal love. Its inclusion on the monument can therefore be viewed as a visual demonstration of Paolo’s love for his deceased wife and his grief over her untimely death. The sculpted dog and its placement in relation to the effigy provides a third possible reading. The alertness of the dog with his gaze fixed firmly towards Ilaria’s head functioned as a means of directing the audience’s attention to her face, denoting the importance of the deceased who is remembered by this ostentatious marble memorial. Here, the dog acts as an eternal protector for Ilaria’s effigy, dutifully guarding this woman who remained faithful throughout her marriage.

Part Two of this post will be published by the end of the week- stay tuned!

[1] Allan Marquand, ‘The Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto’, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan-Mar 1915), pp24-33, 31.

[2] Robert Munman, Sienese Renaissance Tomb Monuments, Vol. 205, American Philosophical Society: Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, 1993, 72.

The Bargello Relief- Representing the Realities of the Renaissance Birth Chamber

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Figure 1: Andrea del Verrocchio, Bargello Relief, late 1400’s, Bargello Museum, Florence.

The Bargello Relief represents one of the most harrowing and realistic depictions of the realities of childbirth in art (Fig. 1). Located in the Bargello Museum, Florence, the relief depicts two separate scenes; a woman dying during the process of childbirth surrounded by grieving female attendants is portrayed on the right with the presentation of the deceased baby by the midwife to his father and a group of onlookers represented on the left.

The piece was commissioned by Giovanni Tornabuoni (the father-in-law of Giovanna degli Albizzi whose portrait I looked at in a previous blog post). Giovanni ordered the creation of this work to commemorate the death of his beloved wife Francesca Pitti who died in labour on September 23rd 1477. The relief in fact may have been a component of a much larger sculptural piece, a tomb executed by Andrea del Verrocchio and dedicated to Francesca located in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome (where Giovanni worked as the head of the Medici bank). Unfortunately, the tomb has been dismantled and lost with the Bargello relief the sole surviving piece of the work. The creator of the relief has been the subject of much debate with two of the leading Verrocchio scholars, Butterfield and Covi, attributing it to Francesco di Simone, a Florentine sculptor who worked with Verrocchio.[1] Verrocchio himself designed and executed the most important elements of the commission and assigned artists present in his workshop to assist him in the decoration.

At first glance, the relief appears to have been designed within the traditional format used for birth iconography; the depiction of the ‘lying-in scene’ (depicting the birth of a child) and the portrayal of the presentation of the child to the father for naming.[2] This scene realistically portrays the event which took place within the feminine and private realm of the birth chamber. Verrocchio graphically depicts the apparent dangers associated with childbirth and motherhood, which were faced by all women. Traditional lying-in scenes commonly found on birth trays such as Masaccio’s 1425 Desco da Parto (Fig.2) represented the ideal situation and outcome for this process, namely the successful birth of the child (preferably a boy) and the survival of the mother.

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Figure 2: Masaccio, Desco da Parto, 1425-28, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.

These trays and the illustrations adorning them were believed to possess talismanic properties, acting to protect and reassure the expectant mother at a time when death in childbirth was a common occurrence.[3] The Bargello relief depicts the opposite of these protective scenes. Kisler argues that the authenticity invested by the artist by the sculptor allowed contemporary women to read through the deceased woman’s body, sympathetically in the image and physically and emotionally through their own experiences of birth.[4] From a feminine perspective, the truthful representation of Francesca’s demise in this commemorative piece publicly validated and highlighted the risks women undertook to provide male heirs for their husbands and for the republic.

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Eight grieving women surround the free-standing bed where Francesca lies. She is physically held up by one attendant whose right hand touches the deceased’s breast in the traditional position of a birth assistant. The midwife holds the other arm and searches for a pulse.[5] The women display their grief in a variety of ways; one sits hunched over in front of the bed holding her head in her hands while the woman on the far right pulls her hair in anguish.

Bargello_-_Verrocchio_Tornabuoni_2 (2) Bargello_-_Verrocchio_Tornabuoni_2 (3)

Their collective declaration of sadness contrasts sharply to the austere and somewhat restrained expressions of the figures in the presentation scene. The articulation of suffering was customary among Florentine women when a death occurred.[6] They grieve openly whereas when the child was presented to his father and bystanders in the more public sphere, such expressions were internalised as they would have been deemed inappropriate considering the context and environment. Within the confines of the domestic bedchamber, the women disclose their feelings over the loss of the mother and male child.

The pose of the dying figure with her serene expression differentiates to the visible expression of mourning displayed by those who surround her. Francesca’s depiction is heavily influenced by examples of classical art; she is dressed in Roman garb and lies on a bed in the all’antica style. There are a striking number of similarities between Francesca’s depiction and that of the death of Meleager. Murdered by his own mother with the aid of the goddess Diana in revenge for the slaughter of his uncles, the Death of Meleager was a popular subject matter found on ancient Roman sarcophagi (Fig. 3).

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Fig. 3 Death of Meleager, 2nd Century A.D, Louvre, Paris

Traditionally, the dying hero is represented lying in state surrounded by his mourning loved ones. In both the Bargello Relief and the Death of Meleager scene, the dying protagonist lies on a bed surrounded by a group of figures with varying expressions of profound melancholy including the seated female holding her head in her hands. The principal characters do not exhibit the suffering they have endured. By depicting Francesca in this manner, Verrocchio conferred the deceased with a sense of heroic dignity and gravitas. Her calm appearance masks the pain and suffering she obviously endured. It is only subtly referenced to through the depiction of her limp, tousled hair which sticks to her neck, her dress slipping down her left arm and the exposing of her left breast. The fact that she is portrayed as sitting up in the bed demonstrates how she was physically exhausted from the labour.[7]

Bargello_-_Verrocchio_Tornabuoni_2 (4)

It is interesting to note that Verrocchio chose not to depict the caesarean birth which Giovanni alludes to in a personal letter about Francesca’s death. The focus is upon the aftermath of the childbirth process, with the child swaddled and held by the wet nurse whose bodice remain tied, indicating that the child is dead, as well as Francesca’s final moments. The representation of such a traumatic and grisly procedure would have been deemed inappropriate and too graphic for this commission and its contemporary audience. The emphasis here is on Francesca’s portrayal as a courageous woman who, after suffering the agony of a failed delivery, remained dignified to the end. Her willingness to die in order to give birth to her son demonstrates her heroic nature.

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Unlike typical representations of the presentation of the infant to his father for naming, Verrocchio depicts the moment when the midwife presents the dead swaddled child. Immediately, the viewer is confronted with a sense of tragedy and loss of not only the baby but also his mother. The inclusion of a clearly recognisable Giovanni (when compared to other representations of the patron, (Fig. 4) provides an insight into society’s focus upon the promotion of the patriarchal line and strength of the family. Francesca was only identifiable through her association with her husband and his portrayal in the opposite episode. Emphasis is thus placed upon the Tornabuoni lineage and Francesca’s contribution to it as the mother of the family’s sole heir.

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Fig. 4. Detail of Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Donor Portrait of Giovanni Tornabuoni, 1485-1490, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

The relief was designed to act as a didactic narrative to emphasise the role of motherhood to the female audience. Although the scene depicts her death, the implied message is a positive one as it points to the possibility of achieving a revered status through the fulfilment of their duties as patrician wives. Verrocchio chose to portray the realities of the surrounding death within the domestic context, respectful of the mourning customs of the time while simultaneously giving a truthful image of this emotional event for all those involved in the process, an event which women would experience in one capacity or another during their lives.

[1] A. Butterfield, The Sculptures of Andrea del Verrocchio, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1997, 238 and D. Covi, Andrea del Verrocchio, Life and Work, Arte e Archeologia, Studi e Documenti, 27, Leo S. Olschki Editore, Florence, 2005, 148.

[2] M. Kisler, ‘Florence and the Feminine’, in J. Levaric Smarr and D. Valentini (eds.), Italian Women and the City: Essays, Dickinson Press, Madison, NJ, Fairleigh, 2003, 70.

[3] J.M. Musacchio, ‘Imaginative Conceptions in Renaissance Italy’, in G.A. Johnson and S.F. Matthew Grieco (eds.), Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, 42-60.

[4] Kisler, ‘Florence and the Feminine’, 71.

[5] Ibid, 70.

[6] S. Strocchia, Death and Ritual in Renaissance Florence, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1992, 117.

[7] Kisler, ‘Florence and the Feminine’, 71.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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]

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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]

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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.

Battista Sforza, Countess of Urbino: An Illustrious Woman (Part One)

Battista Sforza, Countess of Urbino: An Illustrious Woman[1] 

This blog post (which is in two parts) will examine one of the most famous diptychs from the Renaissance period, Piero della Francesca’s Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza. This post is dedicated to my grandfather Frank Hoysted who passed away recently. For Pops.

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Piero Della Francesca, Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, c.1472-1474, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

The pivotal moment in the life of Battista Sforza, wife of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, was the birth of their only son, Guidobaldo on Friday 24th January 1472. On the 6th of July of the same year at the age of twenty-six, Battista died of pneumonia as a result of complications after childbirth. Her marriage to Federico was a fruitful one leading to the birth of eight daughters over a period of a decade and finally a son. A number of art works were commissioned by her husband within a short period after her death. The birth of Guidobaldo and Battista’s success in securing the continuation of the Montefeltro lineage, name and rule clearly influenced her husband’s decision to commemorate Battista in such a manner. I am going to focus in this blog post on the obverse of Piero della Francesca’s exquisite double portrait of Battista and Federico which is located today in the Uffizi Gallery Florence.

Diptych of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza

Accord and harmony, deemed as essential for the validation of the prestige of a fifteenth-century Italian court such as Urbino, are clearly the central themes of Piero’s Diptych executed c.1472-1474. These concepts were only attainable through the presence of a proficient consort in a court ruled by a condottiere (mercenary soldier). The ruler’s wife therefore possessed a double persona; she had to fulfil her biological function as a woman as well as her domestic obligations while simultaneously performing her civic duties as a consort. Although Battista had successfully given birth to numerous daughters, her son’s birth was essential to secure her familial and political position, confirming her acceptance by the citizens of Urbino as a suitable and capable ruler in Federico’s frequent absences. This acceptance is perfectly captured in della Francesca’s Diptych. Each element of the work was carefully chosen to promote and propagate the image of the ideal court and the magnificence of those who ruled it leading to scholars such as Martin Wanke arguing that the diptych is a straightforward image of prestige.[2]

On the obverse side of the image, the artist depicts the profiled portraits of Federico and his wife, set in front of an expansive and detailed landscape facing one another. Federico wears a simple red giubbone (jacket) and the cylindrical red berretta often worn by condottieri princes.[3] The austere appearance of the prince is furthered by the omission of any ostentatious display of jewellery or ornament on his person.

Battista Sforza*tempera on panel*47x 34 cm

In comparison, the countess is represented as the ideal court lady magnificently dressed (magnifica pompa) in contemporary costume, adorned with her most precious jewels, her hair in an elaborate coiffure with the small facial features and a high forehead considered fashionable at this time.[4] The intricate hairstyle was used not only to express the sitter’s rank, it also gave weight and majesty to her head.[5] The abundance of pearls- her favoured gemstone- other precious stones and the costly brocade dress in her portrait signified the wealth of her husband and of their court (pearls were also seen as symbols of chastity and virtue- important traits for a Renaissance woman to possess).[6] The use of the profile pose was clearly influenced by the medallic tradition dating from the Classical period, a genre that had recently been revived in the Italian courts as a form of visual propaganda promoting the rulers and their courts.[7] The profile portrait was synonymous with power, authority and prestige. The use of this format demonstrates the patron’s wish to be portrayed as a contemporary emperor and his wife as an empress possessing great influence and nobility.

Federico-da-Montefeltro-e-moglie-Battista-Sforza

The alignment of the sitters’ facial features and their positioning to face one another allowed the artist to depict their fixed gaze upon each other, reinforcing the promotion of their unified rule to the viewer. Piero’s use of complimentary colours in the couple’s portraits enhances this display of symmetry with an identical shade of red employed for the costume of Federico, his berretta, the touch of colour on Battista’s lips and the red brooch she wears. The red brooch depicted against Battista’s dress appears to reach towards the redness of Federico’s coat.[8] The portraits of the two figures and the various components of their depiction act as a balancing force in this image, indicative of the stability that the ruling couple brought to their court.

Interestingly, Battista is depicted on the left side of the diptych, an unusual feature for a double portrait. The man was typically depicted on the left, to the right of Christ which was considered the most honourable position. Scholars have argued that Battista’s placement on the left of the image was due to the need to conceal Federico’s disfigurement (he lost his right eye and nasal bridge in a jousting contest) as it was essential for a Renaissance ruler to hide any flaw from the painting’s audience.[9] Her inclusion in the more honourable position would only have been deemed appropriate and acceptable due to her death. Her privileged placement can also be read as an attempt to promote her virtuous nature, emphasised further by the presence of the symbolically-charged pearl on her body. The allusion to her chastity and its significance to the Montefeltro and the future of the court permitted her to be placed in the most distinguished site as the person who preserved the balanced nature of rule.

The couple’s positioning before the expansive and continuous landscape underlines their joint control as their large scale portraits dominate their surroundings just as the power of these rulers presided over their territories.[10] The inclusion of such a vista demonstrates the importance of territory to the Quattrocento prince as without land, he had no legitimacy or authority.[11] The influence of the Northern European tradition of double portraits is evident here by the juxtaposition of the figures against an extensive vista as can be seen in Hans Memling’s Double Portrait of An Elderly Couple, an early example of its genre.[12]

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Hans Memling, Double Portrait of an Elderly Couple, 1470-1475, Staatliche Museen, Berlin and the Louvre, Paris.

Unlike Memling, Piero did not include a balustrade or some other form of device to separate the sitters from the scene behind them signifying that the landscape and those who ruled over it were unified; the couple integral to the preservation of the landscape and vice versa. Formal parallels can be drawn between the patterns found on Battista’s brocaded sleeve and the diamond-shaped necklace she wears and those repeated in the ploughed field, while the single strand of pearls replicates the diagonal and whiteness of the distant city walls.[13] Federico’s facial moles and their light-dark pattern is replicated by the design of the distant fields, the shaded area under his chin is repeated in the triangular hills while the white of his collar is echoed by the sails of the boats on the river.[14]

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Comparison of the landscape of Urbino today to details from Della Francesca’s Diptych.

Aronberg Lavin points out that the countryside in the diptych appears to be far more placid and earthly than the reality of the Urbino landscape.[15] The modification of the landscape can be interpreted as visual evidence of how it was tamed and maintained by its benevolent rulers and the effects of harmonious administration.[16]

In Part Two of this post, the reverse of the diptych will be examined….. stayed tuned!

[1] The inclusion of ‘illustrious woman’ in the title is inspired by the title of Giovanni Boccaccio’s book De Mulieribus Claris (Famous Women) written in 1361-1362.

[2] Martin Wanke, ‘Individuality as Argument: Piero della Francesca’s Portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino’, in N. Mann and L. Syson (Eds.), The Image of the Individual: Portraits in the Renaissance, British Museum Press, London, 1998, 81-90.

[3] Joanna Woods-Marsden, ‘Piero della Francesca’s Rulers’ Portraits’, in J.M. Wood (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, 97.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ronald Lightbown, Piero della Francesca, Abbeville Press, New York, London and Paris, 1992, 237.

[6] Mary Hollingsworth, ‘Art Patronage in Renaissance Urbino, Pesaro and Rimini, c.1400-1550’ in C.M. Rosenberg (Ed.), The Court Cities of Northern Italy: Milan, Parma, Piacenza, Mantua, Ferrara, Bologna, Urbino, Pesaro and Rimini, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, 335.

[7] P. Murray and P. de Vecchi (Eds.), The Complete Paintings of Piero della Francesca, Penguin, London, 1985, 100.

[8] L. Schneider-Adams, Key Monuments of the Italian Renaissance, Westview Press, Oxford, 2000, 91.

[9] M. Hollingsworth, in C.M. Rosenberg (ed.), The Court Cities of Northern Italy, 335.

[10] A. Angelini, Piero della Francesca, Scala, Florence, 1995, 62.

[11] Woods-Marsden in J.M. Wood (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, 106.

[12] M. Aronberg Lavin, Piero della Francesca, Phaidon Press, London, 2002, 259.

[13] Charles De Tolnay, Conceptions religieuses dans la Peinture de Piero della Francesca, Tipocolor, Florence, 1963, 14-16.

[14] L. Schneider-Adams, Italian Renaissance Art, Westview Press, Colorado, 2001, 197.

[15] M. Aronberg Lavin, Piero della Francesca, 259.

[16] Ibid.