Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy

By Sheryl E. Reiss; David G. Wilkins | Go to book overview

Bronzino in the Service of
Eleonora di Toledo and Cosimo I de' Medici:
Conjugal Patronage and the Painter-Courtier

Bruce L. Edelstein

Of the many Renaissance women whose importance as patrons has been underestimated in the literature, Eleonora di Toledo represents a particularly remarkable case, given the quantity of surviving documents attesting to her activities in this field. Eleonora's shrewd administrative capabilities were fundamental to her husband, Cosimo I de' Medici, in the establishment of his hegemony over Florence; she frequently acted as head of state for the absent duke and as an invaluable source of capital for him.1 Nonetheless, the process of recuperating Eleonora's role in artistic commissions, especially for the early years of her reign, is complicated by the surviving court accounts, which do not distinguish works made for the duchess from those made for the duke. Court artists were, in fact, unlikely to have made the same distinctions that modern scholars have been so keen to identify between commissions executed for Eleonora and those executed for her husband. The career of Agnolo Bronzino, who benefited from the patronage of both members of the ducal couple, offers significant evidence in this regard. Bronzino's works also demonstrate that he was a deft courtier whose ability to satisfy the separate desires and the mutual needs of his patrons secured for him his role as principal painter at the Florentine court for more than three decades.


Eleonora di Toledo, Patron of State Portraits

Most of the documents recording commissions from Eleonora to Bronzino are for portraits of herself and her children. These portraits are of great importance, as many were intended for use as diplomatic gifts.2 In the summer of 1545, for example, one of the secretaries of the ducal court wrote to the majordomo to inform him that, "New commissions from my Lady are to be sent there for pictures and frames, which are said to be requested from Bronzino" (doc. 3). These works were probably commissioned just after the artist completed his famous Uffizi double portrait of Eleonora with one of her sons (fig. 1). On 9 August 1545, Bronzino requested "at least a half-ounce" of ultramarine from the majordomo, which is likely to have been for the deep blue background of this painting. The artist himself wrote, "I do not believe that I could make do with less, because the field is wide and must be dark" (doc. 2). In the 1568 edition of the Lives, Vasari identifies Bronzino's portrait of Eleonora with her son Giovanni as having been painted "according to the wishes" of the lady duchess herself.3

Eleonora's critical appraisal of Bronzino's talents as a portrait painter is evident from the court correspondence as well. Early in 1547 Eleonora ordered a copy of one of Bronzino's portraits of her son Giovanni from an unidentified Flemish painter (doc. 4), but was clearly dismayed by the result (doc. 5).4 After March 1547 no known documents refer to portraits ordered by the duchess from anyone other than Bronzino. This is significant, as it suggests that Eleonora's patronage of Bronzino was not merely the result of his availability to her as

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