Virtue and Beauty

Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1533

Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1533, oil on panel, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main


Three-Quarter-Length Portraits

In the first half of the sixteenth century, portraits became larger and included more of the sitter's body. This new type originated with Leonardo's Mona Lisa, which portrays the sitter in a relaxed pose with her hands resting in her lap. Bronzino reflected Leonardo's influence in his Portrait of a Lady, thought to represent Francesca Salviati at the time of her second marriage to Ottaviano de' Medici. The painting projects a new emotional warmth and sense of character: Francesca's astute gaze, frank expression, and hint of a smile suggest an amiable woman of intellect, wit, and self-confidence. The attentive lapdog adds a note of playfulness, as does the gilded face of a grotesque on the arm of the chair, intended to remind us that all faces are masks.

The exploration of character seen in this vibrant portrait would be short-lived. In 1537, the Medici consolidated their power and transformed formerly republican Florence into a duchy. After establishing their family as the city's hereditary dukes, the Medici commissioned elaborate portraits that emphasized dynastic connections. Unlike fifteenth-century images of beautiful young wives, female portraits of the early-to-mid-sixteenth century depict mature women, sometimes accompanied by their children. The paintings of women in the Medici circle by Pontormo, Bronzino, and other artists took on the force of official court portraits. With masklike faces and rigid bearing, the women appear as icons of power in portraits that relinquish individuality in favor of courtly elegance and grandeur.


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