- Medici Women: Portraits of Power, Love and Betrayal from the Court of Cosimo I
In Renaissance studies of late, boundaries between disciplines have become ever more blurred as historians and art historians alike have sought to unravel the nexus between portraiture, patronage, and biography. Gabrielle Langdon engages this debate (and several others) in Medici Women. Here Langdon studies the lives and images of the women involved with Cosimo I de' Medici (1519-74): his mother, Maria Salviati; his wife, Eleonora di Toledo; and his daughters and female wards, Bia, Maria, Isabella, Guilia, Lucrezia, and Dianora di Toledo. Her book likewise contributes to a growing body of scholarship on Medici wives and women, including Natalie Tomas's The Medici Women (Ashgate, 2003), a study of the fifteenth-century Medici spouses and daughters; Konrad Eisenbichler's recent collection of essays, The Cultural World of Eleonora di Toledo (Ashgate, 2004); and art historian Caroline Murphy's biography of Cosimo's daughter Isabella, The Murder of a Medici Princess (Oxford, 2008).
Langdon's text gives close and detailed consideration to a dozen or so portraits, including Agnolo Bronzino's famous portrait of Eleonora. In so doing her goal is to determine how "women's portraiture fit in the wider scheme of Medici ambitions" (4). An implicit secondary goal, equally well met, is a close study of Bronzino and his protégé Alessandro Allori as Medici court artists and the executors of much of Cosimo's portraiture: one of the great strengths of this book is Langdon's detailed examination and convincing attribution of many images of Medici women to these artists. The book is organized according to the chronology of its protagonists and their portraits. Each chapter consists of a detailed and precise formal reading of the image in question, buttressed by accompanying visual evidence and accompanied by biographical details. In each case Langdon considers the status of the woman pictured and enhances her analysis of the image with discussion of literature and art theory of the period. Langdon finds each image to be rife with Medici symbolism, no matter the intended viewer or moment in the life cycle depicted: youth, nubility, married, or widowed. She notes that in "all genres of portraiture for women of Cosimo's court . . . a strong element of propaganda informs every one" (24). As was frequently the case with Renaissance women, Langdon demonstrates that their bodies and images served to strengthen and confirm familial and governmental patriarchy.
That female portraits formed a portion of Cosimo's larger programs of self-aggrandizement and the glorification and unification of Tuscany should not be surprising. What is especially significant is Langdon's identification [End Page 583] of the roles that gender could play in such a program. She frames this discussion in terms of decorum, a theory of visual status and suitability developed in fifteenth-century art theory by Leon Battista Alberti and especially articulated and applied to portraiture in the writings of Leonardo da Vinci. Langdon traces the development of this ideology of portrayal in the writings of sixteenth-century theorists, many of whom, like Giorgio Vasari and Benedetto Varchi, had intimate ties to the Medici court and its principal portraitists, Bronzino and Allori. Langdon consistently turns to period writings, including the above theorists but also the literature of Florentine and European courts (including sonnets by Bronzino thoughtfully translated in an appendix to the text) in order to assist the reader in comprehending the "period eye."1 Literature and theory greatly enhance Langdon's analysis; however, the non-art historian may desire a more thorough contextual introduction to the history of Renaissance portraiture itself, or portraiture of women, with which the author dispenses in one introductory paragraph. A slightly expanded treatment of the evolution of female imagery in the late fifteenth century, especially in antecedent courts such as Milan and Ferrara, in the vein of the short précis on portrait miniatures that she provides in the final chapter would no doubt have made her...