Tommaso Portinari (Florence 1428 - 1501)
Tommaso Portinari was born in Florence in 1428 into a banking family in the Medici milieu with interests in the Bruges business world. For many years his father Adoardo (or Adovardo) managed the Medici Bank’s central headquarters in Florence and when he died early, in 1428, Tommaso and his brothers Pigello and Acerrito enjoyed the protection and concrete support of Cosimo the Elder.
In around 1440 Tommaso was invited to Bruges to work at the Medici Bank branch there managed by his cousin Bernardo di Giovanni d’Adorado with whom he began his career. The branch had been founded by Bernardo di Giovanni himself in 1439, following on from the Medici decision to manage their Flanders business directly, to enhance the flourishing trade then engaged in via correspondents and, in general, to restore ‘Florentine primacy’ over Low Countries’ financiers which had been such a feature of the 13th to the first half of the 14th centuries.
In 1438 Bernardo was recalled to Florence when he failed to generate positive results, while Tommaso continued to work there for a further twenty-five years without coming to particular prominence. It was only in 1465, after Cosimo de’ Medici’s death, that he was appointed branch director, taking over from his rival Angelo Tani and becoming bank partner.
On the strength of this new strategic appointment, and to consolidate the bank’s and his own personal prestige, in 1466 Tommaso Portinari obtained Piero de’ Medici’s permission to buy up one of the most attractive and grandiose buildings in Bruges as branch headquarters – Hôtel Bladelin, previously owned by Pierre Bladelin, councillor to Philip the Good, situated in the city’s trading centre. He thus managed its refined décor, supplementing it with Medici coats of arms and carved busts. His skilled nurturing of relationships with the Burgundy Court, as well as the loans given and services made, led to him being appointed member of the Duchy’s council under Philip the Good and then Charles the Bold, whose close friend he became.
His entrepreneurial skill, and the absence of Florentine ambassadors to Bruges, led to Portinari carrying out important diplomatic missions for Charles the Bold and the Florentine Republic. It can certainly be said that in these years (1465- c.70) Portinari was the most influential Italian in Bruges and, in fact, the only foreign merchant to be invited to Charles the Bold and Margaret of York’s wedding in 1468 where he led the Florentine delegation in the wedding procession, a clear acknowledgement of his success.
He showed significant commercial skill in ensuring Florentine silk cloth an outlet in the flourishing Flemish market from 1465 onwards, replacing the Lucca-based companies previously monopolising this market. The Burgundy court continued to buy high quality fabric refined with gold and silver and brocade from Florence until at least 1480.
The Florentines were also part of the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree and habitually made generous donations to churches and monasteries. It was with his commissioning of paintings by Hans Memling and, above all, Hugo van der Goes, that Tommaso Portinari achieved the apex of his prominence.
Returning to Florence in 1469, he married fifteen year old Maria Baroncelli, daughter of Francesco Bandini Baroncelli, in 1470 and had five children with her: Margherita (1471), Antonio (1472), Pigello (1472 or 1473), Guido (1477), Francesco (1478), Dianora (1479) and Giovanni Battista (1485).
We have images of three of these in portraits painted by Hugo van der Goes in the triptych in which Antonio and Pigello (left door) and Margherita (right door) are shown as children with their parents. Portraits of Tommaso and his wife, always dressed ‘Burgundy style’, also appear in a further two Flemish masterpieces commissioned by the banker from Hans Memling: half bust in two panels (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art), possibly doors in a small triptych whose central image has been lost; kneeling whole figure in the Passion of Christ panel in Turin’s Palazzo Sabauda, probably commissioned for the family chapel in Sint-Jakobskerk, Bruges.
Tommaso is also depicted in a sort of ‘cryptoportrait’ as an elect soul in Hans Memling’s Last Judgement triptych (Gdansk, Muzuem Narodowe).
Lastly, in late 1469, Portinari returned to Bruges and, when Piero de’ Medici died, Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici took over as heads of the Medici Bank and its business partners. In around the mid-1470s the Bruges branch went into severe financial crisis as a result of a series of events and risky operations by Portinari, such as: the closure of the London Medici Bank branch in 1477, and the transfer of its debts to the Bruges branch; the death of Charles the Bold, to whom Tommaso had lent huge sums, in the 1477 Battle of Nancy; the purchase of the Gravelines port (near Calais) customs tender; and the financing of a Portuguese expedition to Guinea.
Following on from these huge losses Lorenzo de’ Medici broke off relations with Portinari in 1480, leaving him the branch with all its debts and noting sarcastically that ‘these are the great profits which the management of Tommaso Portinari has accorded us’. The total shortfall of the two branches – London and Bruges – amounted to 70,000 ducats.
Portinari’s responsibility for the Bruges debacle has been much debated historiographically, but he must certainly have been an audacious, charismatic man with considerable diplomatic skills, because financial disaster did not prevent him from continuing to engage in intense commercial activities and being appointed to prestigious posts. In 1486 he was sent to Milan by Maximilian of Austria, consort of Mary of Burgundy, to negotiate with Ludovico il Moro and, as a result of this, he and Lorenzo il Magnifico were reconciled. This latter sent him to England in 1489 to draw up a commercial treaty and Philip the Fair commissioned him with delicate negotiations between the Low Countries and England in 1469. In 1497 he returned to Florence where he received a number of important appointments: Gonfalonier of the Compagnia del Popolo, member of the Otto della Guardia and member of the Sei dell'Arte della Mercanzia.
He died in 1501 at Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova founded in 1288 by his ancestor Folco Portinari and was buried at the Chiesa di Sant’Egidio family tomb in front of the high altar, where the triptych bearing his name is exhibited.