If, before May 15, you traipse over to the Pitti Palace to peek into Eleonora di Toledo’s show in the Grand Duke Treasury rooms, you will soon realize that the 100-piece display honoring her memory won’t let you leave until you’ve paid proper tribute. A peek is not going to do it. You may have heard Eleonora di Toledo (1522-62) described as one of Florence’s earliest influencers, but here is what there is to know: the one she is influencing is you.
The first point of “influence” is Bronzino’s rendition of Eleonora dressed in black and white. Even if the artist’s portraits do not make you want to kneel, in semi-religious reverence, which is the effect they have on me, you will be left wondering if Renaissance folk took humanism to mean every inch of humanity found in a face. Eleonora, in Bronzino’s work, has the undecipherable countenance of any self-respecting duchess. Behold the woman, who used her dowry money to purchase the palace Luca Pitti built with the intention of making his courtyard bigger than the Medici’s whole palazzo. Can you feel the sting of having a rival buy his namesake building—and a woman to boot? The smack of it still hurts five centuries later.
Behold the woman who is to be thanked for your springtime walk at the Boboli Gardens, for they were conceived according to her vision after she moved to the Oltrarno neighborhood, deeming the “unsalubruous Palazzo Vecchio” a poor place to raise her children. Apparently, husband Cosimo I was quick on the uptake: any woman who bears 11 babies needs a palace nursery on the healthy side of the river. (As a side bar, the mini Medicis were raised in the halls now hosting Pitti’s Gallery of Modern Art.)
Can you avoid being “influenced” by Eleonora as you walk through the city’s Oltrarno neighborhood? Still the artisans’ district, the Oltrarno is Eleonora’s. Few people know it, but she needed skilled workers to decorate her new home—gilding, mosaics, carving—anything the hand could craft, she commissioned. The neighborhood discovered its vocation thanks to her influence, and that legacy continues today.
Kudos to New York University’s Bruce Edelstein, the show’s curator, who faced a daunting task by exploring all the themes that make Eleonora endure, timeless as the Boboli. The woman tasked with educating Cosimo as to the ways of the courtly elite brought all the ribbons and laces of noble Spanish protocol with her to Florence. Still, she was forever a gambler, a hunter, an art patron supreme and, besides all that, the woman who knew what gown to wear. What more could a Florentine husband desire, besides all the heirs she gave him?
Eleonora acted as Cosimo’s regent when he travelled abroad, which, at the time, meant outside of Tuscany; it was to her that he entrusted his state. Stranger still, the couple ate together every evening, right alongside their growing brood, and if that isn’t a testimony to this woman’s achievements, then not even Bronzino’s brush will convince you. Upper-echelon men did not dine daily with their wives in Renaissance—ever. The couple was a historical exception. A quote from Eric Cochrane’s book, Florence in the Forgotten Centuries, captures their closeness: “The duke and the duchess are deeply in love,” reported one well-informed observer in 1541, “and one is never apart from the other.”
Today, I like to think of Cosimo I up there in the clouds where the good Medicis go, enjoying his wife’s show down here on an Earth that needs happy news. Her exhibition is both perfect timing and long overdue. Either way, it’s reason to celebrate. Much has been said about Florence’s illustrious children—the sculptor, the painter, the engineer and navigator—but this Duchess, this Spanish daughter of the viceroy in Naples, and Cosimo I’s beloved, was not a child of Florence. Eleonora, foreign as she was, was not the city’s daughter; she was its mother.
The Eleonora di Toledo and the Invention of the Medici Court in Florence exhibition at the Treasury of the Grand Dukes – Palazzo Pitti will run until May 14, 2023.