Entering the private chapel of Eleanora of Toledo, Duchess of Florence is like stepping into a jeweled box. The space is small, just 14 x 14 feet, and one feels enveloped in deeply saturated hues and transcendent lighting effects. Powerfully built human figures densely populate the ceiling and walls which act as windows into alternate realms. The Florentine painter Agnolo Bronzino decorated this chapel, which is in the Palazzo Vecchio, in the 1540s.
The style of the paintings, characterized by forceful gestures, leaps in scale, brilliant coloring, and seeming shifts in medium, is a vivid example of Florentine mannerism and exemplifies the glamorous aesthetic fostered at the court where Eleonora reigned as Duchess. The chapel’s imagery was tailored to Eleonora’s personal devotional interests. While all Christians were expected to perform religious devotions at home in order to continue their journey towards salvation, only the elite were privileged with private chapels to facilitate their pious practices in the domestic sphere.
Eleonora was born in Spain in 1522. In 1534, two years after her father was appointed viceroy of Spanish-ruled Naples, Eleonora along with her mother, Doña María Osorio y Pimentel, and siblings, joined Don Pedro de Toledo, her father at the glamorous court of Naples. Five years later, at the age of seventeen, she married the newly appointed Duke of Florence, Cosimo I de’Medici. Cosimo descended from a secondary branch of the mighty Medici clan and had come to power suddenly upon the assassination of his cousin, Alessandro de’Medici, the first Duke of Florence. While the Medici were rich and well-connected, they were not descended from nobility—these were merchant bankers whose political power came from the money they earned through shrewd business dealings.
Eleonora, born into Spanish nobility and raised at a royal court with a father closely tied to the Holy Roman Emperor, was quite the catch. Cosimo’s new regime benefitted from Eleonora’s shrewd business mind and imperial contacts while her fertility—she gave birth to eleven children—guaranteed the new Medici family lineage. As Duchess of Florence, Eleonora helped define the consort’s role as matriarch and political helpmate, often ruling in her husband’s stead when war or diplomacy took Cosimo from the capital.
By all accounts Eleonora was a pious woman and the driving force behind the creation and decoration of Bronzino’s sumptuous chapel in the family palace. The room’s decoration began with the frescoed ceiling which is separated into quadrants by bountiful garlands supported by four nude putti (cherubs), recalling images of fecundity popular in ancient Roman decorative arts. The saturation of the rich blue, made of lapis lazuli, that serves as heavenly backdrop lessens towards the center of the ceiling where a golden light surrounds a medallion once bearing the combined emblem of the Medici and Toledo families (later replaced with three faces representing the Holy Trinity). This glowing centerpiece seemingly illuminates the sacred figures who are depicted here in massive scale, appearing too large for the cramped space of the fictive vault and dwarfing the figures on the walls below.
Above the north wall, John the Evangelist, holding his gospel book and accompanied by an eagle, gazes in revelation towards an unseen force; across from him Francis of Assisi receives the stigmata, the markings of Christ’s crucifixion awarded to him for his exceptional faith. Above the altar wall the Archangel Michael raises his sword to thwart an encroaching demon. Michael’s violent spiraling movement contrasts with the gracefully outstretched arms of Jerome seated and gazing in contemplation with his lion over the chapel’s entrance.
The choice of the four sacred figures depicted on the ceiling is thought to reflect Eleonora’s Spanish heritage. All four figures were prominent in the devotions of the earlier Spanish queen, Isabel I of Castile, at whose court Eleonora’s mother was raised. In her lifetime, Isabel was the most powerful woman in Europe and a major cultural patron—a worthy model for the young Florentine duchess. Saint Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscan order and was of particular importance to Eleonora who had, in 1540, made a pilgrimage to La Verna, the Tuscan mountain where Francis purportedly received the stigmata. The deeply personal and emotionally-charged devotion popularized by Francis and his followers appealed to the profoundly devout and private Eleonora.
The stories recorded by Bronzino on the walls of the chapel recount narratives from the life of Moses as told in Exodus, adapted here to Eleonora’s personal interests. Throughout the space, women outnumber men. Themes of divine intercession, regeneration, sustenance, and continuity, are repeated throughout. On the south wall, uninterrupted by window or door and most receptive of natural light, are two scenes combined into a single episode: the Crossing of the Red Sea and Moses Appointing Joshua.
On the left side of the composition, the rose-colored water of the Red Sea extends into deep space, swallowing the struggling Egyptians in pursuit of the fleeing Israelites now safely regrouping on dry land. At Moses’s request, these waters—while lethal to the Egyptians—had miraculously parted to allow God’s chosen people to escape. On the right side of the composition, crowds of figures in various states of dress extend sweepingly into the background. The right foreground depicts a seated Moses—rays of light extending from his temples—pointing towards his successor, a youthful Joshua who in turn gestures outwards, towards the viewer (read: towards Eleonora who would have stood in the chapel). Joshua will complete the journey started by Moses, leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. These allusions to divine protection facilitated by able leadership and continuity are often interpreted as reflecting the interests of the new Medici regime. This reading is supported by the inclusion of a notably pregnant woman (just behind Moses)—perhaps an avatar for the ever-pregnant Eleonora, guarantor of the Medici lineage. Francesco, the ducal couple’s first male heir, was born in 1541 shortly after the chapel decoration was undertaken.
The other walls repeat these themes of divine intervention and provision, often through allusions to water as a cleansing and life-giving force. On the north wall, the episode of Moses Striking the Rock, shows miraculous waters gushing forth from the arid landscape as thirsty Israelites drink or scoop up this precious fluid. On the same wall, the scene of the Gathering of the Manna (shown earlier), shows desperate throngs using vessels of various sizes and shapes to gather the divinely provided sustenance.
The entrance wall depicts the story of the Brazen Serpent, another scene of miraculous intervention. Punished by a plague of snakes by God for their lack of faith, the Israelites are saved by Moses who intervenes on their behalf. God prompts him to make an image of a serpent and place it on a pole, promising that all who looked upon it would be cured of snakebites. Bronzino’s sinuous serpent winds arounds a cross, foreshadowing the redemption of Christ’s crucifixion shown directly across from this image in the altarpiece.
Moving into the room from the outside, the first thing one sees is the last element of the decorative program to be completed: the brilliant Lamentation altarpiece, a scene of collective mourning centered on the Virgin Mary holding her dead son. The current work in the chapel with accompanying side panels depicting the annunciation is a replica of the original painting, sent as a diplomatic gift to Nicolas Perrenot de Granville, keeper of the seals for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, shortly after the work’s installation in July of 1545.  A precise replica of the original altarpiece, also by Bronzino, with new side panels was in place by 1553.
At the devotional center of the image, Christ’s gleaming body is displayed parallel to the picture plane and in the lap of his grieving mother with his upper torso supported by a golden-haired John the Evangelist, and his knees and feet held by Mary Magdalen. Angels frame this central grouping, one holding a chalice, the other a cloth, alluding to the mass performed on the altar below. The scene is dominated by women: four holy women gather behind John, while a fifth stands at the center of the composition, directly behind the Virgin, her hand raised and gazing down upon Christ.
Standing apart from the women and the group touching Christ’s body are three men, including Nicodemus, who holds a magnificent vessel—a reference to the spices he brought to the entombment—and Joseph of Arimathea, holding the nails of the crucifixion. The comportment of the figures in the altarpiece, conform to gendered expectations found throughout lamentation imagery: the men are reservedly distanced from the central scene while their female counterparts are more overtly engaged. Above these earthbound figures, five twisting putti float above the clouds holding the instruments of the Passion.
Like Jacopo Pontormo’s Capponi Chapel altarpiece, a stylistically similar work often cited as a point of departure for his pupil Bronzino, the figures within this scene of mourning shed no tears. Their emotional responses to the death of Christ are instead articulated through the twists and turns of their bodies. This fluidity also characterizes both the form and iconography of the surrounding walls: idealized bodies twist and surge in space, and literal fluids—the Red Sea, the miraculous water unleashed by Moses—abound.
For a female viewer like Eleonora, conditioned by contemporary understanding of the body and differences between the sexes, this fluidity may have prompted associations with women’s bodies as vessels and with the emotions as products of humoral fluids moving through the human body. Women were characterized in this culture in terms of fluidity; their emotions surged, their temperaments ebbed and flowed in ways thought to justify the need for patriarchal authority over them. In this sanctified space, however, these many references to fluids, to women, to vessels—they are found in every scene—may have prompted a deeply personal and positive connection to the sacred histories and to the deceased Christ of the lamentation altarpiece for its female patron. Bronzino’s Virgin Mary, the vessel of Christ, is surrounded on three sides by containers—she, like her son, leads Christians to redemption; likewise, Eleonora, vessel of the Medici lineage, will bring protection and continuity to Florentines.
Exemplary piety was part of Eleonora’s noble persona as duchess of the Florentine people. Eyewitness accounts attest to her frequent prayers in the private space of her chapel, and her devotions were undoubtedly aided by Bronzino’s frescoes.
Notes: The original lateral panels depicted St. John the Baptist (currently in the Getty collection) and St. Cosmos (now lost).
Janet Cox-Rearick, Bronzino’s Chapel of Eleonora in the Palazzo Vecchio Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California press, 1993).
Bruce Edelstein, “Bronzino in the Service of Eleonora di Toledo and Cosimo I de’ Medici: Conjugal Patronage and the Painter-Courtier,” in Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy, edited by S. Reiss and D. Wilkins (Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2001), pp. 225–61.
Bruce Edelstein, Eleonora di Toledo and the Creation of the Boboli Gardens (Florence: Gallerie degli Uffizi; Livorno: Sillabe, 2022).
Robert Gaston, “Eleonora di Toledo’s Chapel: Lineage, Salvation, and the War Against the Turks,” in The Cultural World of Eleonora di Toledo, Duchess of Florence and Siena (New York: Ashgate, 2004).