Bronzino, Portrait of Cosimo de'Medici in Armor (1543)

Bronzino, Portrait of Cosimo de’Medici in Armor (1543). Tempera on panel, 71 x 57 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Some recurring themes seem to be emerging this week in paintings of art patrons through the ages that were not originally meant but reflect on my tastes all the same. You may have noticed that two of these works reside in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. My interest in works from Florence should be obvious, I spent a lot of time drooling in front of them during my time there (I went to the Uffizi on average twice a week for the better part of nine months). I have long been interested in both Northern art and early modern Italian art and these two works come out of artistic moments that hold great appeal to me. Though my introduction to my own areas of study may allude to a specialty in Venetian art, the majority of my study has been into the lives, art and patronage of the Italian Mannerists, of which Bronzino is one of the most important. The artistic lineage of the Mannerists, from Andrea del Sarto to Pontormo to Bronzino to Alessandro Allori and obviously including the early influence of Guilio Romano, and Michelangelo and the involvement of Rosso Fiorentino and Parmigianino, is an epoch that has always fascinated me and is what led me to study in Florence in the first place. Phew, now that I have explained away any strange coincidences of repetition (because I can’t stay away from the Mannerists and the Portinari Altarpiece is just too perfect to pass up), back to the artwork.

Cosimo de’Medici was first Grand Duke of Tuscany. He came to power at the very tender age of 17 when the Duke Alessandro de’Medici was assassinated on January 6, 1537. Alessandro was the last member of the most senior branch of the family and had inherited the ducal title hereditarily. When he died with no legitimate heirs the most powerful men in Florence called Cosimo to Florence from the “provinces” to take over the duchy. Though this was initially a ploy to gain a weak leader, Cosimo would turn out to be one the most powerful, both locally and internationally Florentine rulers since Lorenzo the Magnificent (he who patronized Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo years earlier). Cosimo married the well-connected and very wealthy Eleonora di Toledo (she bought the large Pitti Palace, across the Arno from the Palazzo Vecchio, for a residential home for her new family soon after the wedding) in 1539. She is easily recognizably to anyone who has visited the Uffizi from her fantastic portrait with her oldest son (shown below). I will also, hopefully soon, cover the fantastic chapel she commissioned by Bronzino in the Palazzo Vecchio.

Continuing a long Medici tradition of art patronage, Cosimo most often used Agnolo Bronzino for his own portraiture and that of his family. Also often commissioned to paint works meant as gifts for the royal heads of Europe, Bronzino enjoyed unparallel success and patronage at Cosimo’s Florentine court. Other artistic luminaries of the court include the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammanati and his wife, MY FAVORITE, Laura Battiferri (I’m sure you remember her portrait from early on). Bronzino is one of the most commercially successful Mannerists, and this work is a brilliant example of the court patronage of Cosimo and Eleonora. Here, Bronzino demonstrates the early development in his career of the standard type for Cosimo’s portraiture. This type of standardized portrait, in which Cosimo is shown young, strong, controlled, formal and distant, would remain a constant in official portraiture for roughly fifteen years. The same type of posture and formality is seen in the portraits of Eleonora and all their children. These portraits were to show the public face of the first family of Florence. The paintings meant for private are of a very different nature, such as Bronzino’s Cosimo I as Orpheus from 1539 (also shown below), which Cosimo gave to Eleonora as a wedding present (I can only imagine her reaction…).

The public face of a patron can often be far from a realistic depiction of personality, but is always the idealized version that the patron needs projected to others. For Augustus and Cosimo, the powerful leader is shown taciturn and serious while for Portinari piety is the order of the day. The following days of modern and contemporary portraiture of patrons will, undoubtedly, have different motivations.

Bronzino, Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo with her Son Giovanni (1545). Oil on panel, 115 x 96 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Bronzino, Portrait of Cosimo I as Orpheus (c. 1539). Oil on wood, 93 x 67 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Sources Used:

Brock, Maurice. Bronzino. Paris: Flammarion, 2002.

For Cosimo in armor: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f9/Angelo_Bronzino_036.jpg

For Eleonora: http://www.wga.hu/art/b/bronzino/1/eleonora.jpg

For Cosimo (nude): http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/52029.html


Hugo van der Goes, Portinari Altarpiece (1475-76)

Hugo van der Goes, Portinari Altarpiece (1475-76). Oil on panel, 253 cm × 588 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Moving forward in time, we go next to patrons in the fifteenth century. Though I meant to write on one work from the Northern Renaissance and one from the Italian, I realized that I could not let this work pass just because it crosses boundaries into both of these territories. So this is going to stand in for a more wholly Northern work though the patrons were Italian. The artist, Hugo van der Goes was from Ghent, and the work was commissioned in Bruges and painted there so that's good enough for me!

The altarpiece's central scene is an Adoration of the Holy Family and Shepherds (Luke 2:10-19). Here Mary is shown deep in prayer as she accepts what her child must do during his life to become the salvation of all human souls. Mary's somber countenance is offset by the awestruck wonder of the poor and lowly shepherds. Though many Adoration scenes are that of the Magi, or the Three Kings as they are commonly known, this is a painting that depicts an more humble moment in the infancy of Christ. Crowned heads of state are not here offering gifts to the son of God, here peasants humble themselves before a child who they believe, before anyone, is holy. While many patrons of similar works in terms of size or subject matter might have preferred a more lavish work with themselves shown as one of the Magi or an attendant on a king, depending on one's social standing in real life, here the Portinari are shown as pious supplicants to Christ and Mary, while the altarpiece's size and beauty are left to highlight the wealth and power of the patron and his family.

Tommaso Portinari was a wealthy Italian banker who was the representative of the Medici family of Florence to Bruges. He lived there for over 25 years and during his time in the Netherlands was very successful for both his employer and himself. This work was commissioned to showcase his achievement in Florence and was created for his family chapel at the hospital of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Tommasso is shown kneeling on the left wing of the altarpiece with his patron saint, Thomas (with spear), and his two sons, Antonio and Pigello, with Antonio's patron saint, Anthony also present. On the right shutter Portinari's wife, Mario Baroncelli and their daughter Margherita are shown with their patron saints, Mary Magdalen (on the far right with her jar of ointment) and Margaret (with holy book and cross). They had another son named Guido who is not shown but was born in 1476.

The artist, Hugo van der Goes, here amalgamates the painting styles of the best of his time. He is able to show the symbolic details and intricate technique of Jan van Eyck while retaining the emotional responsiveness of his subjects to the drama unfolding before them. Here, however, he surpasses van der Weyden in his ability to show the difference in responses in each group of onlookers. The Virgin Mary and St. Joseph (in the shadows on the left of the central panel) watch in a controlled and somber contemplation, while the peasants react to the moment with bigger gestures and emotive facial expressions.

Symbolic details abound in the work and are very evident in the small still-life composition at the bottom center of the central panel. The flowers, irises and scarlet lilies, shown in the intricate vase to the left are symbols, iconographically, of Christ's passon, royal lineage and purity. The flowers, columbines and carnations, in the glass container are common symbols of the Virgin Mary's grief and sorrow at his Passion. The sheaf of wheat and the grapes incised onto the earthen vase allude to the body and blood (wine) that makes up the Eucharist. This small tableau of iconographic objects is a particularly important aspect of the work and is given pride of place in the forefront of the scene.

Other aspects of that make this painting such a masterpiece come in the slanted lighting that illuminates the naked Christ child while throwing into darkness the small barn, and the beasts within, where he was born. The symmetrical composition of the work that revolves around the Virgin and Child is a masterful creation that gives each component of the work a place in the scene unfolding. The Virgin is shown as the bridge between the humble and divine but the angels that kneel in adoration are another way to bridge a gap between the patrons and the Holy Family.

The Portinari Altarpiece arrived in Florence in 1483 and was widely admired by court persons and artists alike. There are many instances of artists of the time attempting to emulate the wonder and awestruck expressions shown on the realistic depictions of the humble peasants. Though the altarpiece was well-received, it was one of Hugo van der Goes last major works. He retreated to the sanctuary of the monastery of the Roode Klooster between the years of 1476 and 1478.

Tommaso Portinari remained an avid patron of the arts and there are two famous portraits of himself and his wife by Hans Memling from around the same period (shown below).

Hans Memling, Tommaso di Folco Portinari & Maria Portinari, probably 1470. Oil on wood, Tommaso overall 17 3/8 x 13 1/4 in. Maria overall 17 3/8 x 13 3/8 in.

Sources Used:

Snyder, James. Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005.

Image source for Portinari Altarpiece: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/69/Hugo_van_der_Goes_004.jpg

Image Source for Hans Memling, Tommaso di Folco Portinari (1428-1501); Maria Portinari (Maria Maddalena Baroncelli, 1456-?) (14.40.626-27) Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Augustus of Prima Porta, early first century AD

Augustus of Prima Porta, early first century AD. Painted Carrara marble, 6' 8''. Musei Vaticani, Rome.

This week I will be working with portraits of patrons. Usually commissioned from a favorite artist, patron portraiture is always commissioned with a mind to have a very specific message and meaning depicted. I decided to start with one of the early, and most prolific, patrons of portraiture, the Roman Emperor Augustus.

The Prima Porta Augustus, from early in the first century AD, is a beautiful example of how portraiture can be propaganda for the patron. It can showcase wealth, education, power, social standing or more subtle nuances like refinement while alluding to historical moments the subject wishes to be associated with. This statue in particular is a piece of Roman propaganda from the highest echelons of power.

This statue was found in the villa of Augustus' wife, Livia, and is called the Prima Porta Augustus because the villa was situated near an ancient archway to the north of Rome. This work contains many of the key aspects of Augustus' larger propaganda program. Though this copy of an earlier bronze statue was probably commissioned by Augustus' adopted son, Tiberius, the original work, it can be very safely assumed, was commissioned by Augustus himself upon the triumph over the Parthians. The body of the emperor himself begins the subtle suggestive tone of the larger work. From his bare feet, which allude to his heroic actions (Roman mythological heroes are always shown barefoot), to the small figure at his left of Cupid and a dolphin, which are direct comments on the Julio-Claudian family's claim of ancestral descent from the goddess Venus through Augustus' adopted father, Julius Caesar. However, the most important aspect of this work, and its desired message, comes on Augustus' detailed breastplate.

Beginning on the shoulders, the gods of the sun and the moon grace the top part of the plate. Below them a Parthian barbarian, shown by his baggy uniform and shaggy hair, returns a military standard to a Roman legionary. This episode helps to date the work to being a later marble copy of a bronze statue commissioned after Augustus' victory over the Parthians in 20 BC. The allegory of the sky and Mother Earth, holding a cornucopia as well as the gods Apollo and Diana show the peace that encompasses all of the Roman empire now that Augustus has triumphed and protected it against their enemies.

This statue is a beautiful example of how Augustus used personal portraiture as a key aspect of his propaganda program in spreading his message of authority and peace. The symbolic allusions to peace on the breastplate, the small figures that support his claim to power and the idealized form of a powerful young emperor all combine to create a message of calm control and absolute power. This is probably the most famous statue of Augustus but there are legions of them, and those are only the ones that survived. This type of portraiture was the way that Augustus was able to reach to the far corners of his empire. He called on his ancestral lineage to confirm the validity of his claims, but also to showcase his own personal achievements. Many of the rural communities that lay far from Rome would never have laid eyes on the emperor himself, but this idealized image of authority and its message of peace would have been a powerful weapon spreading his message and in controlling the far-flung areas of the empire.

Sources Used:

Ramage, Nancy H. and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005.

Images taken from: http://mv.vatican.va/4_ES/pages/z-Patrons/MV_Patrons_04_03.html