Eleonora di Toledo marked the passage of the months with epicurean delights. In April, asparagus from Milan and healthy doses of oysters. June was graced with figs, peaches, Venetian pears, and olives from her father’s Spanish vineyard. And as autumnal weather cooled Tuscany, feasts of salted cod, artichokes and pheasants were abundant. The setting, after all, was an illustrious Renaissance court; not just any court but that of the Medici’s. Eleonora was the wife of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici. Yet it was no secret that Eleonara had married beneath her.
Born in 1522, Eleonora was the daughter of one of Spain’s wealthiest and important families. When Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, made her father Viceroy to Naples, Eleonora couldn’t know that she was destined to take the path of a political marriage to Florence’s all-powerful family. And some argue that Eleonora was among one of the first modern ruling ladies, a political advisor to her husband, commissioning and curating the arts, purchasing a palace with her own funds… and giving birth to eleven children. She was beautiful, intelligent, pious, and without a doubt, influential in helping guide the relatively new Dukedom of the Medici’s.
The Medici’s were not descended from power or royalty. Born in Florence in 1360, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, one of five sons would inherit very little. Yet he would establish two woollen workshops and after securing a job in banking, set up the vastly influential Medici family bank in 1397. Branches were soon established throughout Italian city-states and beyond. Giovanni’s son Cosimo, then his grandson Piero, and in turn his great-grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent, would through the decades– except for two short interruptions – be the defacto rulers of Tuscany. They would endow Florence with patronage of art and architecture, helping facilitate a rebirth of the classical world – a great flourishing of artists, architects, scholars, writers and poets. In short, The Renaissance.
A distinguished visitor in 1490 declared from the pulpit of Florence’s cathedral that the Florentines were a people ‘whose name is known all over the world and is more blessed than any other.’ Two years later, the Florentine scholar Ficino wrote that the “profusion of golden intellects had restored to life the arts of grammar, poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture and music… and all of this, in Florence.”
A number of years ago, I happily strolled back and forth across Ponte Vecchio during a week-long course of ‘Women in Renaissance Art’ at the British Institute of Florence. The ‘old bridge’ has long spanned over the river Arno. It unites the two halves of the city, between the old Roman centre with Brunelleschi’s towering Duomo, stalwart palazzos and charming piazzas, then beyond, over to the Oltrarno to the more working-class quarter of Florence. The ‘other side’ where the grandeur of Palazzo Pitti meets medieval chapels and neighbourhoods that still echo with the hum of this once-artisanal community – leather ateliers and stationers, wool dyers and sculpture studios. Ponte Vecchio’s origins during Roman times as a stone and wooden crossing, only seems to underscore the palimpsest layering of history and architecture. It enraptures and endears us to this storied city; I’ve written previously of how and when I fell in love with Florence.
During my sojourn to study at the Institute, as I ambled back across the Arno to my pensione, I was transfixed by thoughts of the women of the Renaissance and the roles they played. Their contributions, sacrifices, perceptions and opinions are often overshadowed. Thankfully their stories are slowly and enticingly being peeled back. And not surprisingly, just as women throughout centuries have thrived, persevered, and often quietly made their way, Florence holds colourful, fascinating and heartbreaking tales… as rich as the Ghirlandaio, Lippi or Masaccio canvasses that imbue this richly decorated city.
As I write this however, I’m not nestled in the drawing room of the Hermitage gazing out over the Arno at sunset, ziaboldone in hand, eager to record the tales of the day. No, in this time of the pandemic, I’m in the snowy mountains of British Columbia studying virtually with the British Institute. Tulips evoking spring decorate my desk, Renaissance books lay open and bookmarked, and a painting of Eleonora di Toledo invites me to examine each finely crafted detail. It isn’t my favourite Renaissance painting – that goes to Primavera and Birth of Venus by Botticelli (I can’t settle on just one) – yet the story behind the painting and the life of the subject is captivating. Women’s lives often are.
It is 1544, Eleonora and her second son Giovanni will soon be posing for the talented Bronzino, the portrait painter of the Medici court. Despite the Duchy and its tremendous wealth, Duke Cosimo agonizes as to how the portrait will be received. Are the clothes and jewels appropriate and lavish enough? Will the background be too understated? Should both of his young sons appear in the portrait? Yet surely such obvious fecundity, producing two sons in a short period, secures the Medici line and thus the future of Florence?
Cosimo (1519 – 1574) is from a different branch of the Medici family than those who had ruled for the past one-hundred and sixty years or so. He is the son of Maria Salviati, a granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and the famous soldier Giovanni delle Bande Nere. In 1537, at the age of only 17 and almost unknown, his mother helps propel him to the head of the family when the Duke of Florence is assassinated by a cousin. Many influential men in the city favour Cosimo, hoping to rule through him as they anticipate he’ll be malleable and inept. Instead, he proves strong-willed, astute, ambitious, ruthless at times, and after his marriage to Eleonora in 1539, only more formidable.
There’s a romantic notion that the Duke first caught glimpse of the young Spanish noblewoman on a business trip to the state of Naples. Her father is allegedly considering an older sister for matrimony, yet legend has it Cosimo was taken with the beauty and grace of the younger sibling. Seemingly, despite the great wealth and their vast patronage of the Renaissance, the Toledo’s family are wary. The Medici’s are no match for their illustrious royal family. It’s time for Cosimo’s mother, Maria Salviati to hone her marriage-brokerage skills!
Maria is a Medici by birth, a noblewoman, widowed at the age of 27, and had already used her family connections to secure her son’s installation as the new Duke as Florence. And she certainly knows the advantages of a family marriage to royalty, rather than to yet another noble family.
Allore, Maria sends her agents off to Venice, to peruse pearls. She wants only the best, two hundred or so, which are duly purchased. Fifty of the lustrous margaritas, and a pendant, are sent to win over the potential daughter-in-law-to-be… with the promise of the remaining pearls upon marriage. It’s also likely that Maria spends a small fortune on other gifts, as does Cosimo, as does Eleonara’s family when they finally agree upon the marriage and the substantial dowry. A dowry during the Renaissance was held in safe keeping for the wife’s benefit, though husbands could earn interest on the amount.
After a jubilant welcome to Florence, the spectacular wedding lasts for days and it’s agreed that despite the arrangement, the union is a fond one. To her new home, Eleonora brings an entourage, an art collection and the necessities to set up her casa. Her cassoni, carved wedding chests, would certainly have been overflowing. These chests, often exhibited during the precession that accompanied young brides to their new home, are costly and heavily decorated with representations of legendary heroes and allegories. The most expressive was saved for the heavy inner lid – imagery of those vital conjugal duties. Cosimo, however, needs no inspiration in this regard. He has already fathered a much-loved illegitimate daughter, Bia, who is raised by her grandmother Maria. By this time in 1540, the family had moved from the imposing family palazzo to the stately Pallazo della Signoria.
The couple’s first child, a daughter named after Maria, is born nine months later. A son Francesco, ten months later, Isabella just over a year later, then Giovanni the next year, Lucrezia just over a year after that. In all, Eleonora gives birth to eleven children in fourteen years. Last is Don Pietro in 1554 and sadly, of him, there are dark stories to be told… first, back to the Bronzino painting.
This is an important ‘royal’ portrait, yet perhaps that doesn’t quite compensate for the tedium of portrait posing, or even finding the time for that matter. Eleonora is not only busy as a mother and in her role as Duchess, she is also a traveller at heart.; happiest to escape the confines of Florence and whisked away by Cosimo on business or to one of the many villas in the dukedom. They play tennis, fish and hunt, entertain, and enjoy those vast Tuscan feasts.
Was it perhaps on one of these trips that the couple agrees upon the fabric for the portrait dress, acquiring twenty-seven metres of the finest fabric; worth a small king’s ransom. The three year sartorial undertaking to construct the masterpiece of velvet, brocade, gold and pearls requires ten meters. Eleonora sends the remaining fabric to her sisters in Spain, then gives a little to charity.
At last, the dress is declared a triumph and the sittings with Bronzino can be arranged. Besides her beautiful self, Eleonora adorns the dress – a golden chain belt with a glimmering pearly tassel and of course, those precious marriage pearls. Bronzino renders the painting exquisitely in the Mannerist style with a sculptural treatment and flat lighting. And he delicately paints a pomegranate on the constricted bodice of the dress, which justifiably symbolizes fertility and abundance. Eleonora looks regal yet distant perhaps, or is it simply what her more-strict Spanish royal upbringing dictates? This portrait is painted to impress, to exalt the Medici dynasty, really a vehicle for propaganda.
Often painted as gifts to noblemen, ruling families and royalty, once approved by their patron (the person who paid for its commission) portraits such as this would be wrapped in fine Florentine paper and transported afar using the Medici’s intricate communication and ‘logistics’ network. In this instance, quite likely intended as a gift to the Emperor himself. The family couldn’t have known just how poignant and treasured this painting will become. Despite her piety and prayers for the safekeeping of her family, tragedy would soon befall it.
In 1549, Eleonora purchases the Palazzo Pitti, on that other side of the Arno, commissioning an extension and a grand garden. It becomes one of the family’s residences with room to house some of Eleonora’s and Cosimo’s amassed paintings, sculptures and objects d’art. Yet the Duchess won’t see her project completed. Three years later, the sweet boy in the painting is 19 and already a bishop. His brother Garzia is 16. In 1562, on a trip to Pisa, they and their mother succumb to malaria within weeks of each other. The boys die first. Then, at only forty, Eleonora passes away in the arms of her disconsolate husband.
Prayers are held throughout Florence, especially in the convent that Eleonora had founded, and the mournful funerals and the burials in the family crypts in the Basilica of San Lorenzo are far too premature. The exquisite dress, so carefully created, is now a burial gown.
As I delve deeper into Eleonora’s life, I’m interested in her legacy; a great patron of convents, of the arts, of Palazzo Pitti. Although the public perception of the Duchess was often one of ‘excessively Spanish, too pious and noble’, my perception, along with her legacy, is also one of a loving mother and wife. And I reflect with relief that she didn’t live to see the trials and tragedies that befall her family.
Cosimo carries on, fathers at least one more illegitimate child, then is conferred upon him the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. He hands over the reins of the Duchy to his eldest son Francesco, marries Camilla Martelli, has two more children, then spends most of his remaining years outside of Florence at Villa di Castello. I come across a passage that after ruling Tuscany for thirty-seven years, in his final years, he dedicates himself to the cultivation of jasmine.
Eleonora and Cosimo had ensured all of their children were raised and educated in the classics, languages and the arts. Cosimo’s favourite daughter, Isabella, seems to be a delightful blend of her parents. A beauty like her mother, she has a love of music, is high-spirited and has an aptitude for politics. Yet her fate too is of a political marriage and her father settles the strategic union with the wealthy Roman Orsini clan.
Isabella is betrothed at age eleven, to twelve-year old Paolo Giordano Orsini. The marriage ceremony takes place at the favourite family Villa di Castello when the bride is sixteen and it’s known that the groom departs the next day with the military. Yet Cosimo does something unusual and safe keeps not only the dowry, but makes the paternal decision that his daughter should mostly remain in the Medici family home, rather than at the Corsinis. When her mother dies, Isabella steps in as ‘First Lady.’
Isabella also has an unusual amount of freedom and control over her own affairs than is customary for a young Florentine bride. She hosts a creative group of women who gather to appreciate and promote the arts. Isabella has an affair, rather unfortunately, with her husband’s cousin. This leads to a fateful night in 1576 when on a hunting holiday with her husband, Isabella is strangled at midday in the presence of servants at a family villa. Her husband is perhaps the murderer, or gives his tacit permission, as does Isabella’s brother, the now Grand Duke Francesco. An ambassador who knew Eleonora’s daughter wrote, “Her liveliness never leaves her, it is born within her.”
Yet that trait does not extend to Eleonora’s and Cosimo’s last child, Don Pietro, who appears to have had few redeeming qualities. A spendthrift and serial philanderer, he will truly shame the family name while at yet another country villa with his young wife. She is in fact a cousin of Pietro’s. Eleonora niece who she had taken in as a child, raising her alongside her own children. Leonor Alvarez di Toledo was named after Eleonora. She is witty, talented, and close with Isabella who is like a sister.
Like Isabella’s, Leonor’s marriage is not a success and she also conducts herself as her husband does, with a tendency to take lovers. In Cosimo’s time, affairs were tolerated if kept quiet; behind the villa doors so to say. Not so with Grand Duke Francesco and he also appears to cover up and approve another murder.
Leonor is strangled by Pietro de’ Medici on July 10, 1576, six days before Isabella. The Spanish royal house of the Toledos is outraged, yet Pietro is never brought to justice. He ends his days in debt, banished of all places to Spain and when he dies, his five illegitimate children are brought back to Florence to be cared for.
But this story is about Eleonora, Isabella and Leonor, three women of the Renaissance. And indeed, all Renaissance women – with talents, hopes, and dreams. Yet despite the many strides made by Eleonora and the two vibrant women she had loved and nurtured, their lives were ended tragically and senselessly, seemingly without remorse or punishment.
I’m haunted by something that is pointed out during the lectures that have become a part of my daily routine, part of my own Renaissance dream that has kept me grounded through these last winter days. We have to consider that during the Renaissance, close to half of all females were either sent to convents because of lack of dowry funds, or indeed chose to enter one – places of intellect, of learning, of peace and perhaps refuge.
In this fabled period that witnesses a rebirth of ‘enlightenment’, awakening of patronage and refinement of arts and architecture, a blossoming of knowledge and fresh philosophies, women were often denied access to that freedom of choice and expression. As much as Eleonora, her daughter and her ward epitomised the admirable traits of confidence, talent and opinions, their own flowering took place in the constraints of hypocrisy and their lesser status as women… a strength in adversity that fascinates and endears them even more to me.