Portrait of Laura Battiferri, wife of the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati by Agnolo Bronzino

Portrait of Laura Battiferri by Agnolo Bronzino (c.1560)

My featured painting bears a strange resemblance to the painting I looked at in my last blog although they were painted about thirty years apart by two different Italian artists.  It is not unusual to see paintings featuring the same sitter or views of certain buildings or particular landscapes painted by different artists but it is somewhat unusual to look upon two portraits of two different women featuring a similar gesture towards a certain object which has been included in both of the works of art.  Sounds a little confusing?  Ok let me say that if you have just stumbled on to this page without looking at my previous blog (June 25th  Portrait of a Woman with a Volume of Petrarch by Andrea del Sarto) then go to that one first and read about that particular painting before you read more about today’s offering.

I am sure having now looked at the two paintings you can see the unusual similarity – the book and the pointing fingers.   My featured work of art today is a portrait completed by Agnolo Bronzino around 1560 and is entitled Ritratto di Laura Battiferri, moglie dello scultore Bartolomeo Ammannati  (Portrait of Laura Battiferri, wife of the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati) and is housed in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.  It is part of the Loeser Bequest of Palazzo Vecchio which comprises of over thirty works of art that the American collector Charles Alexander Loeser bequeathed to the Florence City Council on his death in 1928.  The idea behind his bequest was that he felt it would play a part in the enhancement and reconstruction of the ancient atmosphere of Palazzo Vecchio, which the Florentine Council was carrying out at that time.   One of the conditions Loeser made was that he laid down procedures for the layout of his bequest, which was to be displayed in several rooms in Palazzo Vecchio, and that they were to be kept united in perpetuity, in an arrangement that would give the area not the habitual appearance of a museum but as he put it, it would  make each room appear “simply beautiful for the repose and enjoyment of the visitor”.

Before we look at the painting in detail I suppose the first question one asks when we look at this work of art is, who was Laura Battiferri and why would the great Italain Mannerist painter, Bronzino,  depict her in the portrait pointing at a book?  To find the answer to those questions one needs to look at the life of both the artist and his sitter.

Bronzino, whose real name was Agnolo di Cosimo, but was was probably given the nickname Il Bronzino (the little bronze) because of his relatively dark skin.  He was born in 1503 in Monticelli, a suburb of Florence.  His first artistic training was under the tutorship of the Florentine painter, Raffellino del Garbo and this lasted several years before he became an apprentice at the studio of Jacopo Carrucci, better known as, Pontormo, named as such after the Tuscan town where he was born.  Pontormo is now recognised as one of the founder of Florentine Mannerism.  Despite Pontormo being nine years older than Bronzino they became great friends and artistic collaborators and in some ways Pontormo acted as a father-figure for the young Bronzino.

In 1522 the plague struck Florence and Pontormo and Bronzino left the Tuscan city and headed for the Certosa del Galluzzo which is prominently situated on a hillside just south of Florence.  Here Pontormo, with Bronzino as his apprentice, worked together on a commission to paint a series of frescoes.   This was a very important time for Bronzino as he began to gain a reputation for the beauty of his work.   Bronzino returned to Florence in 1532 and worked on his frescos, as well as a number of portraits.    Seven years later in 1539, Bronzino had a major breakthrough with his artistic career when he received the patronage of the Medicis and was commissioned to carry out the elaborate decorations for the wedding of Cosimo I de’ Medici to Eleonora di Toledo who was the daughter of the Viceroy of Naples.   From that moment in time he became the official court painter to the Medici court and over time would paint a large number of portraits of the Medici clan and members of the royal court.  His portraits of the royal couple, Cosimo and Eleonora, and other figures of the Duke’s court, revealed a delicate coldness, almost an aloofness.  This was to define Bronzino’s portraiture style.  It was a portraiture technique which showed no emotion whilst always remaining stylish. The works were well received by the sitters and Bronzino’s portraiture style went on to influence a century of European court portraiture.

It is now we have our first connection between Bronzino and the sitter in today’s painting, Laura Battiferri, because she was a close friend of Eleanora di Toledo, Cosimo’s di Medici’s wife and there is no doubt that the artist and sitter met at the Medici court.  Another thing the artist and sitter had in common was poetry.   Although we are well aware that Bronzino was an artist he was also, like Laura Battiferri, an accomplished poet. Besides the portraits of members of the Medici family and some of the favoured royal courtiers he would paint portraits of his fellow poets, one of which was Laura Battiferri.   Laura Battiferri  came from Urbino.  She was born illegitimately to a pre-Reformation churchman Giovanni Battiferri, and his concubine. Her wealthy father, a Vatican cleric, provided her with a humanist education. As a well regarded and well respected poet she mixed with the most distinguished poets and artists of her day and lived all her life in court circles. She was the wife of the renowned architect and sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati, who was a close confidant and adviser to Cosimo di Medici.

And so to the painting.    I would ask you to look at today’s work in conjunction with Andrea del Sarto’s  Portrait of a Woman with a Volume of Petrarch which I featured in my last blog (June 24th).  Both are female portraits but Bronzino has unusually reverted to the type of female portraiture of the Quattrocento (the art of 15th century Italy).   In those days, in female portraiture, the sitter was seen in profile view.  These works were traditionally painted by male artists for male patrons.  Graham Smith commented on why female portraits in those days were painted in profile view in his 1996 book Bronzino’s Portrait of Laura Battiferri.  He wrote:

 “…the profile portrait allowed the suitor to explore his lover’s face ardently, while simultaneously attesting to the woman’s chastity and female virtue…”

As we look at the portrait of Laura are we immediately struck by her beauty?  I think not.  There is a remoteness about this lady as she looks straight ahead avoiding our eyes.  It is if she has turned away from us showing her disdain for us.   Or could it be that she is exhibiting a sense of modesty, and it is this which makes her avert her eyes?   Whatever the reason, it has in some way, added a majestic aura to her character.   There is a sense that she is untouchable and unattainable which of course would please her husband who is thought to have commissioned the work.  Laura was also recorded by historians as being a devout Catholic and a very pious person.  It is known that she was a great supporter of the Jesuitical Counter-Reformation also known as the Catholic Reformation which was the period of  Catholic revival beginning with the Council of Trent (1545-63)and which historians now look upon as a response to the Protestant Reformation. Therefore Bronzino’s portrayal of her is a very fitting one and it could well be that the artist wanted to indicate this piety in the way he depicted her.

Laura Battiferri

Look at her closely.  Her neck and fingers have been elongated in a Mannerist style.  The upper part of her body is now completely out of proportion in relation to her small head and the way in which Bronzino has depicted her forehead in some ways draws attention to her long and slightly hooked nose.  She is wearing a transparent veil, which hangs down from the shell-shaped, calotte-style bonnet covering her tightly combed-back hair onto her goffered shawl and puffed sleeves.  Her one and only gesture, as she ignores us, is to point to a page in an open book which she is holding.  Her elongated thin fingers frame a certain passage of the prose.  It is a book of sonnets by the Italian poet Petrarch.  Compare this with Andrea del Sarto’s woman who is also pointing to a book of his sonnets.  So similar and yet so different.  The woman in del Sarto’s portrait connects with us.  We have eye contact with her.  We can almost know what she is thinking but with Laura Battiferri she is an enigma.  With no eye contact, her thoughts remain her own.

The passage in the book

In both portraits we see the women pointing to a passage in Petrarch’s book in which the central theme is the poet’s love for a woman he met when he was in his early twenties. Her name was Laura de Noves.   In this painting, Laura Battiferri points to a passage in the book where Petrarch talks about “his Laura” and maybe Battiferri identifies herself with Petrarch’s Laura and empathizes with the poet’s words as he describes the love of his life:

“….she is an unapproachable, unattainable beauty… as chaste as the adored mistress of a troubadour, as modest and devout as a ‘Stilnovismo Beatrice'”. “Laura’s personality is even more elusive than her external appearance. She remains the incarnation of chaste and noble beauty.”

Bronzino had already painted a number of portraits which featured the sitter pointing to pages in a book.  Around 1540 he completed his portrait entitled Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi in which the young lady points to a page in a book which rests on her knee.   Eight years earlier he painted a portrait entitled Lorenzo Lenzi, in which the young son of a prominent Florentine family holds an open book inscribed with sonnets by Petrarch and so when he completed his portrait of Laura Battiferri around 1560 showing the sitter pointing at pages in a book it was not a unique depiction and of course as we know Andrea del Sarto’s painting was completed about thirty years earlier.

I end with a question to any females reading this blog.  If you were to commission an artist to paint your portrait would you go for the Bronzino-profile style in which the artist would probably depict you as modest and unattainable or would you choose the del Sarto-style in which you look out at the us, the viewer and from your facial expression maybe we are able to read your thoughts?

An Allegory with Venus and Cupid by Il Bronzino

An Allegory with Venus and Cupid by Bronzino (c. 1545)

Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano, usually known as Il Bronzino (probably because of his dark complexion), was born in Monticello, a town south east of Florence, in 1503.  His early artistic training was as a student of Raffaellino del Garbo, the Florentine painter of the early Renaissance.  From his tutelage Il Bronzino went on to study under Jacopo Pontormo who was one of the founders of Florentine Mannerism.  The plague hit the area where they lived and so Bronzino and Pontormo moved north to Certosa where they continued to collaborate on a series of frescos.  Master and pupil got on well which was surprising as Pontormo was known to be a curmudgeonly and melancholy old man.  Il Bronzino established his own reputation as a great artist in his late twenties and in 1530 he was working for the Duke of Urbino.  Two years later he returned to Florence where he concentrated on portraiture and some fresco work.  At the age of 37 he was made court painter to Còsimo di Giovanni degli Mèdici, the de facto ruler of Florence and his wife Eleanora of Toledo for whom he decorated the chapel in the Palazzo Vecchio with fantastic coloured frescoes of astonishing incoherence and they were filled with the usual Mannerist exaggerated distortions.

It was about this time (c.1545) that Il Bronzino completed the painting which I am featuring in My Daily Art Display today.  It is an oil on wood painting entitled An Allegory with Venus and Cupid.  It is believed that Il Bronzino was commissioned to do this by Cosimo de’ Medici as a gift for King Francis I of France.  This is a complex painting full of hidden meanings and open to a great deal of interpretation.  Many art historians have submitted long and complex theses with regards to the meaning of this many faceted work of art.  So let us take a look at the painting and see what we can glean from Il Bronzino’s  enigmatic and complex painting.

First of all we need to identify the characters within the scene.  The leading individual at the centre of the painting is Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, holding the golden apple in her left hand, which she had been given to her by Paris for being the fairest of all the goddesses.  To the left of her and slightly behind her is her son Cupid. 

The incestuous kiss

They are entwined in an incestuous act.  His right hand is fondling his mother’s breast at the same time as he plants a kiss on her mouth.  Is she seducing her adolescent son who by now would appreciate her sexuality?  Which of them do you think is controlling the situation?  But look more closely at Venus and her son.  Although they are exchanging a kiss they have other thoughts on their minds.  Venus is reaching behind Cupid removing an arrow from his quiver whilst he is trying to remove her crown with his left hand.
To the right of Venus with an anklet of bells is the smiling nude putto who represents Foolish Pleasure.   He dances towards them with a somewhat lascivious expression, scattering flowers, blissfully unaware of the thorn which pierces his right foot.    

Deceit

Behind him is a female dressed in green and purple robes holding in her right hand a sweet honeycomb which she is offering up as a gift.  However beware as this Fraud or Deceit and as the saying goes she is “fair of face but foul of body”.  Why do we believe this?  Well look at her left hand and you can just make out the sting in her serpentile tail which she tries to hide behind her back. 

Above Fraud and Foolish Pleasure we see a bald bearded elderly man, whose well-muscled arm is holding up an exquisite ultramarine coloured cloth behind all the characters in this scene.  He is Father Time and he has an angered expression as he looks across at the half-completed head of Oblivion

Suffering or Syphillis

Below this unusual unfinished head is the very disturbing figure of Suffering or Jealousy.  He clutches his head and we can see that his face is distorted in pain.  Art historians now believe this character could represent Syphilis which had reached epidemic proportions in Europe at this time. 

So there you have it, seven strangely portrayed characters but why did Il Bronzino paint them like he has done.  The painting, as I  said earlier, was thought to be for King Francis I of France who was notoriously lecherous and maybe this is why the painting has a predominately erotic feel to it.  He was also known to like heraldry and obscure symbolism so this in a way may have been a puzzle for him to fathom out.  But remember Il Bronzino was a painter of the Mannerism genre and this ambiguous imagery with its erotic overtones is typical of the Mannerist period of art.  His wealthy noble patrons would also have liked the silky-smooth textures, masks and the jewels on display in this painting.

If you like paintings with hidden meanings and varied interpretations then this painting is for you.  Look at it carefully and see if you can see any other hidden clues as to its meaning.

 Enjoy !