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]

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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

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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.

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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.

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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 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.