My Favourite Painting: Olga Polizzi

'Many people think this is a cold, arrogant portrait of a not very maternal woman, but I do not agree'

Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni, 1545, by Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano called Bronzino (1503–72), 46in by 382⁄5in, Uffizi, Florence. Bridgeman Images.

Olga Polizzi says:
‘I am always drawn to portraits of mother and child. This one is particularly beautiful. The pale skin, the long, slim-fingered hands sitting in the folds of the stunning dress, silk and velvet, embroidered appliqué and the very large natural pearls worthy of a very grande dame. Many people think this is a cold, arrogant portrait of a not very maternal woman, but I do not agree. Eleonora was very clever and competent, a very good wife and mother of 11 children. Here, she looks so young and serene. Mother and young son look alike, with their high foreheads and heavy lidded eyes. To me, this portrait is extremely touching.’

Olga Polizzi is a hotelier and interior designer.

John McEwen comments:
‘The late Sir Michael Levey described Bronzino as the last great painter of the Florentine Renaissance. Bronzino (his adopted name described the colour of his hair) was the son of a Florentine butcher and favourite pupil of the Mannerist pioneer Jacopo Pontormo (1494–1557). He was noted for kindness. Latterly, he lived with an armourer’s family and looked after them when the husband died. Pontormo’s journal also tells of Bronzino’s lifelong concern for him.

Bronzino, a poet-painter, wrote 19 sonnets lamenting Pontormo’s death and completed some of his unfinished frescoes. It was with Pontormo that he first worked for the Medici and, in due course, he became Court Painter to Cosimo I de’ Medici, following the latter’s marriage to Eleonora di Toledo (1522–62). Eleonora was a daughter of the Marquis of Villafranca, Spanish viceroy of Naples. She introduced the royal blood the Medici had lacked, thus legitimising their sovereign status. Eleonora had 11 children and is shown with her younger son, Giovanni, destined by Medici tradition to be Pope. In the event, he only became a cardinal.

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One copy of the painting is in the Wallace Collection. Eleonora was a successful consort in her own right. She overcame her alien nationality to earn the love of her people, founded many churches and served as regent in Cosimo’s absence. Her large family consolidated the power of the Medici for a further century, a fecundity symbolised by the stylised gold-thread pomegranates on her brocade dress. She and two of her children were victims of a malaria epidemic.’

This article was first published in Country Life, March 5, 2014