In Florence a wonderful exhibition on a powerful woman: Leonor de Toledo, who married Cosimo de’ Medici

Mar 14, 2023

In Palazzo Pitti an exhibition was recently inaugurated which marks the culmination of the studies on a decisive figure in the nascent Duchy of Florence, in the first half of the sixteenth century. And this figure is exceptionally a woman, Donna Leonor Álvarez de Toledo, Spanish, daughter of the viceroy of Naples don Pedro, who in 1539 married the new duke of Florence, Cosimo.

Inside the exhibition

Eleonora shifted over the years from being simply “the wife of” to an all-round figure, a decidedly new kind of duchess, especially in the Florentine panorama of the time, but not only. She was emancipated, also economically autonomous (she was in fact much richer than her husband), she was well read, managed her assets, took care of her children. Unusually, the duke delegated many family matters to her, from the purchase of land to the collection of money and the signing of contracts. Eleonora had autonomy of action, which was rare for her time. She participated in almost every aspect of the political and cultural life of the duchy, and determined not only the fate of her children but also of the future of the state.

Her marriage to Cosimo, even if it was surely political and dynastic, was a true love story, which saw the birth of 11 children. It showed a relationship of trust and exchange with her husband, who did not hesitate to leave her regent of the state in his absence three times. Not a day went by when Cosimo was away from Florence that he didn’t write her a letter. And even at court they wrote to Cosimo to ask him come back when he was away, because apparently Eleonora could go into a rage when she missed her husband!

The exhibition, through more than one hundred works of painting, sculpture, goldsmithing, drawings, tapestries and clothes, retraces the whole parable of her intense but unfortunately short life, given that she died in Pisa when she was only 40, in 1562, because of malaria, contracted on the Tuscan coast.

One of the newest aspects to emerge from the exhibition is her role as prudent administrator of her own personal assets and those of the Medici family. Thanks to enlightened and faithful officials such as Luca Martini, superintendent of ditches, she reclaimed vast areas of land in the Pisa area, which she then put to good use with the cultivation of wheat, becoming almost the only supplier of this precious commodity for the city of Florence. She did the same with the Medici estates, in which she promoted agricultural crops in apparent autonomy from her husband, so much so that on her death Cosimo first of all asked for a complete inventory of her assets, a clear sign that up to that moment he did not have it!

She did the same in the Orti dei Pitti, the real object of her purchase. In fact, this was the part that interested her most among the possessions of the Pitti Oltrarno, her palace was almost an accessory to that green hill in which she planted a garden, and a real farm. In fact, the first plants that she had planted there were wheat and vines, especially those of moscato, with which she produced moscatello wine in small barrels. The purchase (made with her own money) and above all the transformation she made of that complex is certainly the most important legacy that Eleonora left, not only in Florence, but throughout Europe, because it was there that the first truly great Italian garden was born together with a model of palace with garden as a domestic architecture of power.

Now, the court. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, Florence was one of the most elegant, cultured, rich and beautiful courts on the entire continent, and everything has its origins in her. The Medicis had continued to live, despite everything, with a semblance of sobriety and a republican spirit. With Eleonora everything changed, the court was formed, with all the necessary characters and ceremonies. And she was the only one who could do it, given that her mother, Donna Maria Osorio y Pimental, orphaned at the age of 7, had been welcomed to the Spanish court by Isabella of Castile, and there she had learned all the rules that she passed on to her children. It was Eleonora who introduced the ladies-in-waiting, the poets and poetesses, a court singer, the dwarfs, the tailor and the weavers who worked only for her and her family into the Medici house.

A wonderful dress probably created for a bridesmaid who accompanied Eleonora in her triumphal entry into Rome

Fashion and the manufacturing of clothes, another central element also in the exhibition. The court tailor was called Agostino da Gubbio, he was paid by the court and provided for the creation of all the necessary clothes, not only those of Eleonora, but also those of Cosimo, his children, the ladies-in-waiting and other figures who lived with the family ducal, like the dwarfs Morgante and Barbino. Eleonora was able to intelligently integrate some elements of Spanish, Habsburg and even Turkish fashion into Florentine fashion, and informed hers and her court’s style. The zimarra with frogs that he wears in the portrait made by Bronzino in 1550 and kept in Pisa has an Ottoman origin. In the exhibition a beautiful red velvet dress stands out. It dates 1560, was created in Pisa, probably by Agostino da Gubbio for a bridesmaid who accompanied Eleonora in her triumphal entry into Rome.

Eleonora took part in many of Cosimo’s projects, such as the foundation of the Medici tapestry factory, one of the most splendid of the time, given that she the daughter of don Pedro, who owned more than 80 tapestries when he died! But she also participated in the birth of the ducal printing house founded by Lorenzo Torrentino in 1547. Eleonora had personally commissioned Benedetto Varchi in 1546 to translate Seneca’s De Beneficis into the vernacular, which was then published in 1554 with a dedication to her. In fact, the duchess also participated in the life of the Academy, not only thanks to her relationship with Varchi, but also with the protection she offered to two poetesses, Tullia d’Aragona and especially Laura Battiferri. These two poetesses dedicated their poetry collections to their patroness, and it is probably the first time that a woman has dedicated her work to another woman.

The splendid portrait of Eleonora and the her son. The prototype for this subject in the centuries

She was also an important artistic patron, choosing Bronzino as court painter and entrusting him with her own portraits and those of her children, inaugurating, among other things, the genre of the isolated portrait of a child in Florence. Naturally, the very famous portrait of her with her son Giovanni, now in the Uffizi, is also on display, a true icon of portraiture of the time, which she conceived as an extraordinary means of conveying the importance, wealth and luxury of the Florentine court. That portrait will become the prototype of the portrait of a ruler with a child throughout Europe. It was she who ordered from Bronzino and his workshop innumerable copies of those portraits which she then sent to the courts of all Europe, also making a fundamental contribution to that luxury industry which distinguished Fiorenza.

She was also involved as a devout Christian, and we owe her the arrival of the Jesuits in Florence, who had their patron in her and who turned to her, even bypassing Cosimo. When she died, Eleonora in her will left an annual benefit of 200 scudi to the order of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. But above all we could say that she left to the Jesuits a couple of benefactors who continued her work. In fact, the poet Laura Battiferri, with her husband, the sculptor and architect Bartolomeo Ammannati, continued as benefactors of the new order, even going so far as to completely rebuild at their own expense the church of San Giovannino located next to their convent. In that church, the couple reserved a chapel for themselves for burial, for which they ordered a large altarpiece from Alessandro Allori, which is shown at the exhibition. The large canvas, reduced to miserable conditions, was completely restored years ago and returned to perfect legibility, allowing the devout Laura to be recognized in the figure of an elderly woman kneeling on the right of the canvas and her husband Bartolomeo standing above her. Art-Test contributed to the diagnostic analyses to support this complex restoration, with a scanned reflectography which highlighted the preparatory drawing and some pentimenti as, for example, the position of Christ’s hands.

Finally, a complex and rich exhibition, with an equally fundamentally important catalogue, which decisively reiterates and confirms the uncommon role played by the Spanish Álvarez de Toledo.

Filippo Melli