“Footnotes from Florence” – a personal collection of curious connections between the UK and Florence.
“Portrait of a woman in Green” is being shown at the Charles 1 Exhibition at the Royal Academy – Definitely an image of a Florentine lady painted by an artist from Florence – She is believed to be Matteo Sofferoni’s daughter, but what and where is the connection between the artist and this fascinating face?
To begin this story I must congratulate the Royal Academy, which has excelled itself this year, 2018, by managing to find, extricate and exhibit together under one roof, over 140 superb paintings and sculptures from the 2,000 works created for, or acquired by, King Charles 1 and his wife Henrietta Maria. They had all been commissioned or bought during their 24 years together before the beginning of the English Civil War.that split them and their art collection apart forever.
The image above shows the Royal couple exchanging gifts. The King offers his wife laurel leaves as a symbol of victory, and with similar unintentional irony, she gives him an olive branch – a symbol of peace – in return. This was painted by Anthony Van Dyke in 1632 when they had made peace with one another after a spectacularly rocky start to their 1625 marriage. In their early years together the haughty 15-year-old princess refused to learn English and talked incessantly to her entourage in French. The infuriated English King sent nearly all of her staff back to France in order to force her to learn to speak to him and their subjects in their own language.
Surprisingly, after this fracas, their arranged marriage turned into a great love match, when Henrietta-Maria was one of the few people to offer sympathy to Charles 1 after the murder of his great friend Charles Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Having lost his confidante, Charles turned to his wife and they became friends, as well as passionate lovers and Henrietta Maria, daughter of Marie de Medici, lived up to the nickname of her great-grandmother Eleonora of Toledo (la Fecundissima) by bearing him, nine children.
Henrietta Maria also took after her Medici forebears by becoming a great Patron of the Arts. She used her substantial 800.000 Crown dowry to become an important sponsor of portrait painters such as Anthony van Dyck & Daniel Mytens and encouraged her husband to spend his country’s money on enlarging his collection of Old Master paintings from across Europe, especially from Renaissance Italy.
Charles had already, in his trans-European search for a bride, visited Mantua and finding the new Gonzaga Duke virtually bankrupt he had seized the opportunity to send his agent Daniel Nils to negotiate with the bankrupt Duke Ferdinando Gonzaga, son of Henrietta-Maria’s aunt Eleonora de Medici, with what would now be called a blank-cheque, to purchase their entire art collection. Ferdinando had married Catherine de Medici – the daughter of their uncle Ferdinando de Medici – so although the characters are confusing with all these similar names and the in-breeding was unfortunate, but the bottom line was that the art collection, by being sold to Henrietta Maria and her husband, meant that these treasures were still being kept within the Medici family! Ferdinando Gonzaga died in 1626 and his younger brother Vincenzo II inherited the duchy and the debts so he continued to negotiate the sale.
According to the catalogue of this exhibition, the painting of the “Portrait of a woman in green” that is the main subject of this blog, was acquired as part of his Mantuan haul, but I still wonder whether it could have come directly with Henrietta Maria, via her mother Marie de Medici, whose magnificent dowry, was accompanied by 17 galleys to protect her from Barbary pirates as she travelled from Livorno to Marseilles. It could have included paintings as well as her wardrobe and her famous jewellery. The Rubens painting below imagines Maria de Medici’s arrival at Marseilles. The stern of the ship in which she travelled was inlaid with sapphires, emeralds, topaz, pearls and amethysts – a goodly haul had those pirates managed to catch her!
The current RA Exhibition, Charles I: King and Collector, is the first time that most of these paintings and sculptures have been under the same roof since the event known as the Commonwealth Sale in 1651.
Oliver Cromwell, having dispensed with the troublesome Stuart King, needed to raise money to pay the debts accumulated by the two Civil Wars engendered by Charles I’s Roman Catholic leanings and his fervent belief that the Divine Right of Kings made him only answerable to God for his actions. Cromwell wasn’t installed as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland until 1653, but he was the Leader of the Parliament who generated the two 1651 Acts that were passed entitling Parliament to acquire the property and goods of the Royal family. This enabled the Commonwealth leader to sell off the entire artwork collection of the Stuart King and his family – many of which, as shown in brackets by the description of each artwork on display at the Royal Academy, had been sold at bargain basement prices! For example, this wonderful portrait of Rembrandt’s mother below raised only £4.00 (which converts to only £81.33 at today’s rate) – virtually nothing towards reducing the National Debt.
As I have mentioned in a previous Blog the famous pearls originally belonging to Catherine de Medici escaped this fate because James I had already given them to his daughter Elizabeth of Bohemia, shown wearing them in the image below.
Amongst the many remarkable works of art in this Exhibition, the oil painting that I have noticed capturing most attention and discussion is the elegant portrait labelled as “Portrait of a Woman in Green” by Agnolo Bronzino. I too was fascinated by those knowing eyes in a soft face which seems somehow at odds with the perfect crisp lines of the silky materials in her clothing.
I recognised the painting from the Bronzino Exhibition in the Palazzo Strozzi in 2010, because it had caught my attention there too. I checked the catalogue of that Exhibition, which described as a portrait by Bronzino of the daughter of Florentine Customs Official Matteo Sofferoni.
This identification has been challenged over the years, as the painting is believed to have been purchased from Northern Italy, but given that both Ferdinando Gonzaga’s mother and his wife hailed from Florence a portrait by a Florentine artist of a woman wearing Florentine fashion doesn’t seem in any way unlikely!
In addition, the rights of the Duchy of Urbino were transferred to Ferdinando’s wife, Christina, aunt, after the death of Queen Catherine de’ Medici of France, and thus assumed by future Medici rulers.
A more interesting question to me is who she was and whether her portrait could have been taken from Florence as a keepsake of a great friendship by any of the transplanted Medici brides whether sent to Mantua or France.
The woman in Green was initially labelled as being the work of Raphael. Then it was identified as probably being a work by Florentine artist Agnolo Bronzino, but nobody could confirm the connection between Bronzino and Matteo Sofferoni, and it was suggested that it could be by Andrea del Sarto or even Michelangelo’s friend Sebastiano del Piombo.
Recently, Elizabeth Pilliod Ph.D a Renaissance scholar who is the author of Pontormo, Bronzino, Allori: A Genealogy of Florentine Art, New Haven, and London: Yale University Press, published in 2001, attributed it to Bronzino. *Elizabeth Pilliod also contributed to the 2010 Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi Exhibition and wrote the catalogue notes for this particular painting.
In her book, she outlines the curious collection of links between the most famous Florentine artists of that generation, which certainly explains how they might have known this beautiful and intelligent looking lady.
In the first place, they all lived close to one another in the same part of Florence. Vasari describes Bronzino and Portormo sharing a house in Via Laura, which runs parallel to Via Della Collona, which is where Portormo built his house
Far from being a starving artist, Jacopo Carucci, better known as Jacobo di Pontormo, was quite a wealthy man, but his eccentric stinginess in home building was even described by Vasari in his Lives of the Artists as a means of displaying his irritability and reclusiveness. Having made his main residence in the upper part of his house, grumpy Pontormo made it only accessible by a ladder, which he would hurriedly pull up and close off the hatch if there was any sign of an unwelcome guest – and in his case, this was practically any guest!
The house that he had built for himself on Via Della Colonna was a pretty substantial Palazzo, as shown below, but later in his life, not even his pupil Bronzino was welcome to visit him in it. Andrea del Sarto – his colleague and teacher already lived nearby. Elizabeth Pilliod challenges Vasari’s contention that Pontormo had no friends.
The artist known as Frangiabiagio, who painted the portrait of the customs official Matteo Sofferoni, whilst a young man, as shown below, lived more to the west of the City opposite the church that now houses the Marino Manini sculptures.
Nonetheless, this artistic group would have moved in the same ambit so Bronzino would also have known Matteo Sofferini. In fact, it is said that Bronzino was an especially close friend of Matteo’s sister’s husband, the swordmaker Tofano Allori and that Matteo Sofferini had aided Tofano Allori in the purchase of his home in 1538, so they were clearly also running around in similar, somewhat confusing, circles as their Patrons.
When Tofano Allori died in 1541 Bronzino moved into the Allori house, he even took over financial responsibility for the Allori family and taught his son, Alessandro, to paint., This would have given Bronzino practically a family connection to Sofferini’s daughter, although it seems he might have met and painted her as a memento for his friend earlier, when he was invited to move away from Florence to work for the Duke of Urbino, Francesco Maria Della Rovere, from the end of 1530 until 1532. Giorgio Vasari mentions in his Lives of the Artists that whilst Bronzino was in Pesaro he painted a “truly beautiful and much-extolled” picture of a daughter of Matteo Sofferoni so she was presumably in Pesaro herself at this time. This connection with Urbino could also explain the attribution to Raphael on the back of the frame of the painting, but I feel that certainly, her clothing is typical of the skill of Bronzino – her head, however, shows a softness of expression that is not usually shown in his portraits of the Medici family and their followers.
This softness is also referenced in the Royal Collection description of this painting They suggest that “Matteo Sofferoni was a merchant rather than a nobleman; this fact and his friendship with Bronzino might explain the greater sense of intimacy and informality in this portrait compared with the slightly later and almost certainly patrician Lady in Red”…. “Scholars have used the comparison with Bronzino’s Lady in Red of c.1532-5 (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt) to suggest that ‘The Lady in Green’ work is too informal in pose, too simple in setting and too imprecisely finished to be by the same artist.
I find myself in disagreement with this statement as the dress, hands, and jewellery look very similar in both paintings – and the blouse, except for the black trim looks so similar it might well have been leant by one lady to the other for the purpose of the portrait! The face, however, looks to me to be by a different hand – it just doesn’t have the hard edges and ice-cold eyes that Bronzino was famous for – and to me it is all the better for that!
In summary, we do have the provenance of the painting, we are practically certain who painted at least most of it, we know where and when it was painted and happily for Her Majesty it now belongs, once again, to the Queen of England. It usually hangs in Queen Elizabeth II State Apartments at Windsor Castle.
Now, I would like to know her name, what she did and why she was in Pesaro – and most of all why she has such a fascinating face? A face that has captured the heart of almost everyone I know who saw this exhibition.