In the 16th century, the art of portraiture became increasingly common among the Florentine elite, who had found in it a means of capturing their facial characteristics and social status for posterity. They drew on literary characters such as Petrarch, musical references or a staged production full of symbols to describe the models life in all its facets.
The Musée Jacquemart-André
has devoted an unrivalled exhibition to the great Florentine portrait painters of the 16th century, based on around forty works. Alongside the presentation of masterpieces by Pontormo, a pupil of Andrea del Sarto and master of mannerism, there is a chance to appreciate the refined and graceful features, typical of the portraits of Bronzino or Salviati, which are testimony to a meaningful sense of sophistication.
This exhibition offers a panorama of Florentine portraiture in the 16th century with all its main themes and stylistic transformations. Through the eyes of the painters experimenting with new ways of representing their contemporaries, it allows visitors to appreciate the style developments of the Cinquecento, an especially eventful century in cultural and religious terms.
The portraits of the republican period in the early 16th century in all their gravitas gave way to heroic representations of men at war, symbols of military and political conflicts that led the Medici to seize power in Florence in 1530. Next come the court portraits, distinguished by their richness and elegance, and the portraits of artists, witnesses to a new role bestowed on court painters and opening their minds to other forms of art such as poetry and music.
This exhibition has benefited from an extraordinary partnership with the Museums of Florence. Other renowned international museum institutions and exceptional collections such as the Royal Collection (London), the Louvre (Paris) and even the Städel Museum (Frankfurt) are also supporting this event with remarkable loans.
The Republic of Florence and the Dawn of the Golden Age of Portraiture
The premature death of Lorenzo il Magnifico, on 4 April 1492, was a turning point in the history of Florence and the Medici. The decades 1490 1510 marked a low point for these merchants, whose good fortune had brought them wealth and power for more than a century. Il Magnifico was succeeded by his son Piero who, in 1494 was obliged to flee the city, and Savonarola took power. It was not until 1512 that the Medici were finally authorised to return to the city.
Florence underwent a radical political and cultural transformation. Throughout this period, young artists depicted their models against a plain background or before a landscape, as can be seen in Ridolfo del Ghirlandaios Veiled Woman. Whether depicted in three quarters or in profile, like the Portrait of a Man by both Franciabigio and Rosso Fiorentino respectively, the models are serious and have a certain simplicityseverity even in both their postures and their attire. The rigour and sobriety characteristic of these works reflected the return to moral values linked to antique republican virtues.
The Medici Reconquest. Portraits of Men Bearing Arms
Capturing the city by force in August 1530 after a terrible year-long siege, Alessandro de Medici then governed Florencewhich had suffered great hardship and was obliged to capitulate, but he was savagely assassinated seven years later. Although shaken by this event, the dynasty managed to survive. Aware of the importance of creating a new form of representationboth of himself and his status and authority, Alessandro entrusted various artists with commissions to carry out a veritable image-based rehabilitation campaign. This resulted in a series of heroic portraits, in which the model was depicted dressed in armour, and these were veritable political propaganda instruments that underlined his recent accession to power, a noteworthy example of which is Giorgio Vasaris Portrait of Alessandro de Medici. Cosimo I also implemented a strategy of legitimisation, in which he cultivated not only his own image, but also that of his father, Giovanni of the Black Bands, the famous condottiero, whom he transformed into a second (after Cosimo the Elder) pater patriae, and for whom he commissioned a whole series of portraits, particularly from Francesco Salviati (1546 1548). The Medici never retreated and never refrained from using force to achieve their goals.
The Medici Court. Magnificent Portraits
By his marriage to Eleonora di Toledo in 1539, Cosimo I sealed his alliance with Charles V. In May 1540, the ducal family moved into the Palazzo Vecchio, the first refurbishment works were carried out in the duchesss apartment. As the inventor of the duchys new pictorial language, Bronzino was the leading artist in the Medici court. Hence, Bronzino was an integral part of the development of the representational codes used in portraits of the duke, which were stripped of all military connotations in the 1560s, like the recently discovered Portrait of Cosimo I de Medici at the Age of Forty. This development reflected the consolidation of the Medicean regime and its ascension to the status of grand duchy of Tuscany in 1569. A keen collector, Cosimo I was primarily interested in monumental projects; and Baccio Bandinelli was his favourite artist. With other sculptors and architects, he transformed the Florentine city into a veritable centre of power. After symbolically taking up residence in the Palazzo Vecchio, where Vasari created a grandiose decor that celebrated the glory of the Medici in the room known as the Salone dei Cinquecento (the Room of the Five Hundred), Cosimo had a large administrative buildingthe Uffizi Palaceerected nearby.
The Medici Heirs. Magnificent Portraits
Francesco I preferred refined works and the decorative arts, a result perhaps of his cultivated upbringing and education, which comprised the study of the sciences, arts, and literature. Between 1570 and 1572, he entrusted Giorgio Vasari and Vincenzo Borghini with the project to refurbish his Studiolo inside the Palazzo Vecchio. From 1580 onwards, Francesco also established an area known as La Tribuna within the Uffizi that was dedicated to his collection comprising antique sculptures, small bronzes, hard-stone objects, goldsmithed objects... in a decor that combined natural treasures with artistic marvels. In the Florence of the second half of the Cinquecento, the art of Medicean portraiture attained its zenith. Bronzino was still the unparalleled master, as attested by the wonderful series of 29 small family portraits painted on tin that he created with the collaboration of his workshop, to adorn Cosimo Is office. More precious than ever, the portraits comprised luxurious materials such as gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and other precious stones, attesting to an increasing emphasis on the sumptuary dimension, complemented by great attention to detail and the rendering of textures. Such refinement was also often associated with miniaturisation, and sometimes resulted in technical accomplishments. Nothing was deemed too luxurious to celebrate the princes life.
Magnificent Portraits of the Courtiers
Like the Medici portraits, those of their courtiers were composed with great finesse. Nothing was left to chance, neither in terms of the works composition, the arrangement and positioning of the sitters, or their postures and expressionsor rather their absence of expression, nor their garments and accessories.
The courtiers portraits rivalled one another in their representation of every detail of luxury and refinement, while taking care not to surpass the sumptuous representations of their rulers. The intention behind these highly naturalistic ceremonial portraits was to transcribe the physiognomy and character of the models and convey their social status, and sometimes even specify their rank within an extremely hierarchical court society. These portraits attest to the emergence of the grand duchys court society, and the affirmation of the nobility of those who belonged to it. The images convey this transmutation of bourgeois codes into specific aristocratic codes, which were indispensable for promoting the princely grandeur of the Medici court.
Mannerist Portraiture as a Mirror of the Arts
As a keen patron of the arts Cosimo I de Medici made a point of officialising and supporting the recently established Academy of Florence whose purpose was to promote the Tuscan language. Likewise, he collaborated with Vasari on the foundation of the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy and Company for the Arts of Drawing). However, beyond the strict and elitist framework of these academies, the artists also assembled in confraternities (Companies of pleasure), whose main aim was to have a good time and indulge in artistic jousts. A healthy emulation resulted from this coming together of the arts, as most of the artists of the era were polyvalent.
Either via instruments or scores, musical references were recurrent, and there were many portraits of musicians, reflecting the fundamental role of music in Florentine culture. The lutea symbol of court music, introduced to Florence by Galileos fatherwas the favourite instrument of professional musicians and the cultivated elite, as evoked by the portraits of Pontormo and Salviati. The men and women who feature in the portraits of Bronzino and Andrea del Sarto are often depicted with books.
The art of Florentine portraiture was, in fact, rooted in the vernacular poetic tradition, and necessarily incorporated references to the great poets who had established the Florentine identity and culture: Dante (12651321), Petrarch (13041374), and Boccaccio (1313 1375).
The success of the portrait of ones beloved, inherited from the first two writers, was considerable at the time, and endlessly employed by painters and poets, in a fertile dialogue between painting and poetry, as with Bronzino and Vasari.
The artist working in the erudite context of the court had to be cultivated, and often devoted themselves to writing. Painted or praised in verse, the beloved lady was generally distinguished by her ideal and eternal beauty, as can be seen in Andrea del Sartos portrait of the facetious young woman holding a book.
The Majestic Grand Portraits of the End of the Century
The Medici court adopted the models of the major European monarchies, and even more so after two of its family members became queens of France: firstly, Catherinethe daughter of Lorenzo, duke of Urbino, who married Henri II in 1533; then Maria, Francesco Is daughter, who married Henri IV in 1600, as attested in her official portrait by Santi di Tito. This portrait highlighted her status as both queen of France and a Tuscan princessan ambassador of the flourishing state, Medici finances, and a wife and future mother.
In its desire to capture the contemporary mood, portraiture obeyed the conventions and ever-increasing demands for dignity, magnificence, and luxury in the Florentine court. This was particularly true after the arrival in 1539 of Eleonora di Toledo, who introduced Spanish fashions to the court. State portraits strictly employed ritual and repetitive codes, emphasising in particular the insignia of rank. Costumes, coiffures, and accessories constituted various weapons in the discreet but cruel battles of international diplomacy. The portraitists working in the court in the second half of the century were expected to pay particular attention to rendering sumptuary details, as attested by the significant volume of work produced in Santo di Titos workshop.
Stripped of the noble and official codes of visual representation that applied to the portraits of the rulers, the portraits of courtiers are less rigid and feature various references to their personalities, and even their tastes and sentiments. In fact, two tendencies became apparent in the portraits of the closing decades. On the one hand, the emergence of an allegorical language, and on the other, a return to a certain simplicity in the portrayal of the sitters and their sentiments, in favour of a certain naturalism. This was particularly true of the portraits of children, which were a speciality of Santi di Tito and his son Tiberio. And lastly, portraits continued to become more popular and were commissioned by the bourgeoisie and less affluent families.