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Stories of women and power

  • Stories of women and power

    Between East and West, portraits from the Jovian series of the Uffizi

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    Introduction. Women and power in the 16th century

    The Jovian series preserved in the Uffizi consists of more than 560 portraits, of which only 36 are dedicated to women, representing mostly figures with important political or intellectual roles, who went down in history for the most disparate reasons and in the most diverse fields. All these personalities deserve special attention, especially on the occasion of March 8th, which we intend to celebrate as an opportunity for reflection to enrich the contemporary debate around the 'female subject'. In particular, we chose six protagonists for our story: Roxolana, Cameria, Catherine of Aragon, Catherine de' Medici, Elizabeth I of England and Vittoria Colonna. All these women have a prominent position in the collection in terms of historical importance and symbolic-cultural value: six personalities taken from the Eastern and Western world, who lived very different lives but were able to assert themselves with resourcefulness and strategic ability, sometimes even at their own expense.
    These figures are linked by one fundamental aspect: they all distinguished themselves in a social sphere that had been historically dominated by men, that of power, be it political-military, cultural, intellectual or even personal, understood in terms of chárisma. In addition, they all lived in the 'feminine' century par excellence, the 16th century, a period in which a huge number of women held a position on the thrones of Europe and in the most influential cultural circles. It was a century that ushered in the modern age, in which the innovative role of the 'woman in power' entered a society that was still strongly patriarchal, both in theory and practice, due to ancient considerations that sought their legitimisation in the theories of Aristotle according to which the woman was 'biologically' unfit to rule.

    During the 16th century, the presence of so many influential women stimulated a real debate, with detractors and apologists, on the relationship between power and women. In 1516, in The Education of the Christian Prince, Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote about how women were unfit for positions of responsibility due to their natural inconstancy. The famous Presbyterian pastor John Knox, in his work First blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women (1558), argued that women's lack of physical strength corresponded to a lack of moral strength, which made them incapable of governing. Moreover, in 1576, the well-known philosopher and jurist Jean Bodin, in his Six Books of the Republic, reiterated the Aristotelian thesis according to which gender necessarily interferes with the ability to hold positions of leadership, thus making women unfit for it. Nevertheless, our six protagonists still managed to find a way, not only to assert their individual subjectivity and consequently their role, but also, as we will see, to earn the respect, and in some cases even the veneration, of subjects, admirers and followers.

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    The Jovian series of the Uffizi

    The Jovian series preserved in the Uffizi is a collection consisting of more than five hundred portraits arranged along the walls of the corridors in the second floor of the Gallery. The initial nucleus consisted of copies of portraits from the collection of Paolo Giovio, a humanist, doctor and historian from Como and bishop of Nocera Inferiore, who over a period of about thirty years, from 1521 to 1552, collected a remarkable series of portraits of Illustrious Men. Known, admired and described by numerous writers and artists, it represented an inspiration for all the subsequent portrait collections, of which the Florentine one was the first and most complete. The copies were made at the behest of Cosimo I de' Medici, who followed the advice of Giovio himself and sent Cristofano dell'Altissimo, a young painter and pupil of Bronzino, to Como. Cristofano continued to work on the collection even after his return to Florence, expanding it according to the wishes of the duke and his sons and successors, first Francesco and then Ferdinando. Already exhibited along the corridors of the Uffizi around 1587, the collection continued to grow until the early 19th century. The intricate history of the Florentine collection, which had never been studied in its entirety, is the subject of the publication 'La Collezione Gioviana degli Uffizi' (The Jovian Collection of the Uffizi) edited by Maria Matilde Simari and Alberica Barbolani da Montauto and presented in December 2023.

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    Illustrious women in the Jovian collection

    Tommaso Arrighetti (1758-1775 fl.)
    View of the First Corridor of the Uffizi Gallery with the portrait of Ferdinando I de' Medici, 8 portraits from the Jovian collection and Roman sculptures
    18th century, pen and black pencil on white paper
    Department of Prints and Drawings, Uffizi

    Paolo Giovio's collection was extremely innovative compared to older representations of 'illustrious men (and women)'. This tradition was renewed and spread throughout Tuscany between the 14th and 15th century, thanks to several fresco cycles that were usually placed in the halls of municipal buildings as examples of civic virtue, thus presupposing the existence of an iconographic-didactic project based on historical and literary sources. In these cycles, such as the one frescoed by Andrea del Castagno in Villa Carducci di Legnaia near Florence, which is currently preserved in the Uffizi, the woman was represented as an idealised heroine taken both from history and myth. Giovio, on the other hand, decided to engage in a pretty gruelling 'treasure hunt' in order to increase his collection of portraits, searching for paintings, drawings and medals or commissioning the works himself. In doing so, he created an extremely diverse and constantly evolving collection based on his interests and available knowledge. Even though 'gender quotas' were clearly outnumbered by the male presence, they were all real women currently living at the time: women famous for their intellectual and political roles, or simply esteemed acquaintances of his.

    The Florentine collection, on the other hand, presented new features such as the single format, the initial assignment to a single artist, and the idea to use the same frame for the paintings in order to standardise the collection. As a consequence, each character had identical visibility and dignity. For this long series of faces, each one with the same perspective, size and frame, the Medici dukes decided to choose only female figures of marked importance, especially political ones.

    Catherine de' Medici was placed among the French kings alongside her husband, father-in-law and children; Roxolana and Cameria stood out in the series of Ottoman sultans; Elizabeth I of England appeared in all the power of her mission as queen - not wife or mother - Vittoria Colonna took her place among the intellectuals, by virtue of her own achievements, rather than alongside her powerful and beloved husband Ferdinando d'Avalos.

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    Stories of women and power: Roxolana

    Portrait of Roxolana, wife of Suleiman the Magnificent
    (Rohatyn? circa 1500 - Istanbul 1558)

    Cristofano di Papi dell’Altissimo
    (Florence 1522 - 1605)
    1556, oil on wood
    Uffizi, East Corridor

    The sultana is usually identified with Anastasia Lisowska, who was kidnapped by Tatar raiders in the province of Ruthenia in western Ukraine, which at the time was under Poland’s control, and entered Suleiman's harem between 1517 and 1520.
    The name she was given in the West, Roxolana, or Roxa, is said to derive from that of her homeland in the 16th century. In Constantinople, she was given the name Hürrem, 'she who laughs' or 'joyful' due to her cheerful character which, combined with her lively intelligence and political skill, allowed her to win Suleiman's heart and stand out among all the concubines. Hürrem's rise from slave to the Sultan's favourite was very rapid. She gave birth not only to a girl, but also to five sons, thus contravening the rule that required concubines to leave the harem at the birth of their first child in order to raise him in border territories. Two other exceptions were made for her: the marriage, which took place in a sumptuous ceremony in 1533 or 1534, thus making Roxa the first haseki sultan (wife of the sultan) in the history of the Ottoman Empire; and her constant presence by her husband's side, of whom she was a valuable collaborator and informant. These stories describe an exceptional woman, capable of winning the heart of the Sultan, who wrote passionate letters to her, and also of authoritatively supporting him in his political activities. Thanks to her diplomatic skills, she acted as a mediator with other sovereigns, in particular with Sigismund of Poland and his son, who were very familiar with the Ottoman imperial couple, perhaps because of the sultana's origins. At the same time, in the East, her good relations with the women of the Safavid sultans favoured the peace of Amasya, which marked the end of the wars between the Ottomans and ancient Persia. In this way, she laid the foundations that would allow her daughter Mihrimah and other women to rule the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire in the period known as the 'sultanate of women' (16th - 17th century).

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    Stories of women and power: Roxolana

    Uxor Solimani. Instead of a name, just two words of enormous historical significance characterise the role of Roxolana in the portrait of the Florentine Jovian series: the woman who went from being a slave to becoming the wife of the most powerful enemy of the entire Western world managed to brake the traditions of the Ottoman world and single-handedly accomplished a great revolution.

    In Titian's biography, Vasari mentioned a portrait of sixteen-year-old Roxolana and another one of her daughter Cameria, 'with beautiful clothes and hairstyles'. Various copies of this painting circulated throughout Europe in the 16th century, but the portrait of Roxolana made by Cristofano for the Florentine collection seems rather to descend from the painted wood engravings attributed to Erhard Schön and also mentioned by Rouillé in his work Promptuarium Iconum of 1553. Like in the engravings, the sultana is represented in profile, with pronounced, strong-willed features and a very elaborate headdress with jewellery and thin red braids descending on her chest, together with a few locks of loose hair.

    Cristofano dell'Altissimo sent the portrait to Florence in October 1556. This is the first work mentioned in the list of paintings preserved in Palazzo Vecchio 'in the first room of the desk' in 1564, where the Jovian series was placed before being transferred to the Uffizi. The sultana is depicted with a strong profile and determined look, with long red hair under a precious headdress.

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    Stories of women and power: Cameria

    Portrait of Mihrimah Sultan known as Cameria
    (Istanbul 1522 – 1578)

    Cristofano di Papi dell’Altissimo
    (Florence 1522 – 1605)
    1555 - 1564, oil on wood
    Uffizi, East Corridor

    The only daughter among the six children of Suleiman the Magnificent and Roxolana, named Mihrimah or Cameria, stands out as an extraordinary Ottoman princess. Adored by her father, she became his advisor and strongest supporter after her mother's passing, actively engaging in the Empire's political affairs. She even took on governmental responsibilities during Suleiman's absences. In 1539, Mihrimah married Rustem Pasha, who, despite his Serbian or Croatian origins and humble beginnings as a stable slave, managed to climb the social ladder to become Second Vizier of the Empire also thanks to this marriage. He was a powerful and wealthy man, loyal to Roxolana, who helped her to get rid of her stepson Mustafa - Suleiman's eldest son and designated successor - thus facilitating her sons' accession to the throne. Later, Rustem became Grand Vizier and reached the height of his power and wealth.

    Mihrimah was wealthy due to her family's status and contributed financially to her father's military campaigns, such as the failed siege of Malta. She played a significant role during the era known as the 'Sultanate of Women', succeeding her grandmother Ayşe Hafsa Sultan as Validé Sultan (Mother Queen) during the reign of her brother Selim II, who was more interested in leisure than state affairs, thus making Mihrimah's political acumen and cultural contribution even more crucial. She also distinguished herself for commissioning public projects and charitable works, such as two mosques in Constantinople still bearing her name, which also included a soup kitchen for the poor, a hospital, a library, and a school designed by the famous architect Sinan.

    In 1574, after Selim's death, she shared the title of Validé Sultan with her sister-in-law, Nur Banu Sultan, mother of the new emperor Murad III.

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    Stories of women and power: Cameria

    Cameria's fame must also have been great in the West, as proved by the first known list of portraits that Cosimo I asked to Cristofano when he was still in Como. The list contained also a painting of Cameria, which later will be found in the third hall of Palazzo Vecchio. In addition, a portrait of the 'sultana daughter of the Great Turk', which was probably the copy of a work by Titian mentioned by Vasari and prototype of our portrait, appeared in a list of paintings that Giovio sent to Como from Rome around 1547. Differently from the heavy brush strokes of Roxolana's portrait, Cristofano's work is characterised by delicate skin tones, blurred colours and delicate features reminiscent of Venetian artistry.

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    Stories of women and power: Catherine of Aragon

    Portrait of Catherine of Aragon
    (Alcalá de Henares 1485 - Kimbolton, Huntingdon 1536)

    Carlo Ventura Sacconi e bottega
    (Florence 1676-1762)
    1725, oil on canvas
    Uffizi, South Corridor

    "Sir, I am about to weep: but, thinking that / We are a queen, or long have dreamed so, certain / The daughter of a king, my drops of tears / I’ll turn to sparks of fire" (W. Shakespeare & J. Fletcher, Henry VIII)

    Shakespeare's words alone would suffice to authentically capture the historical character of Catherine of Aragon, who was resolute and fearless, uncompromising yet aware, morally upright and devout.

    Catherine, the daughter of the Spanish royals Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, had to navigate between conflicting cultural realms throughout her whole life. She spent her early years and much of her childhood constantly moving from town to town, on the battlefields, following her parents who were leading the great Spanish Reconquista against the Arabs of Andalusia, a conflict that swiftly transformed into a religious struggle between Christians and Muslims. As an adult, Catherine adeptly balanced herself in a world characterised by the rise of Reformation movements all across Europe that openly challenged the Catholic doctrines of the Roman Church, to which she remained fiercely loyal. Her upbringing, which was deeply influenced by her mother Isabella, not only emphasised religious teachings and classical education, but was also based on practical, modern, and pragmatic statecraft skills, including military strategies – a ground-breaking approach for a woman of her era.

    In 1501, she married the heir to the English throne, young Arthur Tudor, who tragically passed away after just one year of marriage. Now widowed, Catherine demonstrated resourcefulness and remarkable political acumen by convincing her father to appoint her as Spanish ambassador to England - an unprecedented role for a woman in European history. This diplomatic office prevented her from being marginalised at court and allowed her to refine her political skills. In 1509, Catherine ascended to the throne of England by marrying King Henry VIII Tudor, Arthur's brother. Politically astute, she efficiently managed her regent role during her husband's military campaigns in France. She personally orchestrated the largest – numerically – military operation against Scottish invaders, which culminated in the epic Battle of Flodden in 1513.

    Her marriage to Henry VIII marked the first and longest-lasting union of the ruler. Over their twenty-two years together, Catherine experienced multiple pregnancies, some ending in miscarriages and others resulting in the premature death of her children. Only Mary, born in 1516 and raised by Catherine in devout Catholicism, survived. She would later become known as 'Bloody Mary' due to the persecution of Protestants she perpetrated during her reign.

    The religious turmoil of the time caused profound anguish also to Catherine. The conflict between Catholics and Protestants spread all over sixteenth-century Europe, casting a shadow over her private struggles. Not only she had to endure the heartbreaking loss of her children, but she also had to face the humiliation of not giving a male heir to her husband. Being a true believer, she steadfastly refused to grant Henry a divorce or acknowledge his authority as head of the new Anglican Church he established in 1534.

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    Stories of women and power: Catherine of Aragon

    Rejected by Henry, Catherine firmly resisted his plans. She did not take the vows to join a convent, as suggested by English nobles and Papal emissaries, and adamantly asserted her role as God's chosen wife and queen until her final moments. By depriving her of comforts and support, and threatening repercussions against her daughter Mary, from whom she was separated, Henry hoped to force Catherine to step aside without causing scandal. Nevertheless, Catherine always refused to bow to Henry's will, as she continued to write him letters filled with devotion and respect until her last moments.

    When Shakespeare and Fletcher immortalised her as the central figure of their drama almost 80 years after her death, which happened in 1536, her legacy remained vivid even though she was a Catholic queen in an increasingly Protestant world. The inscription on her tomb in Peterborough Cathedral attests to this: 'a queen cherished by the English people for her loyalty, piety, courage and compassion'.

    The portrait, which was made by Carlo Ventura Sacconi, forms part of the later works of the Jovian collection. Completed in 1725, it was likely commissioned by Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici to complement the series of distinguished personalities of the sixteenth century. The work is probably a replica of one of the portraits of Catherine of Aragon made by Hans Holbein the Younger in the 16th century, which became well-known throughout Europe also thanks to print reproductions, such as Robert White's 1681 print that was probably used as a model by Sacconi.

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    Stories of women and power: Vittoria Colonna

    Portrait of Vittoria Colonna
    (Marino 1490 – Rome 1547)

    Cristofano di Papi dell’Altissimo
    (Florence 1522 – 1605)
    1552 - 1568, oil on wood
    Uffizi, East Corridor

    Vittoria was a celebrated poetess and friend to prominent figures of her era, such as Baldassar Castiglione, Pietro Bembo, Michelangelo and Paolo Giovio himself. She stood out as one of the most representative figures within that mix of culture, power and religion that shaped the lives of nearly all Renaissance intellectuals. Daughter of Fabrizio Colonna, head of a powerful and ancient Roman family, and Agnese di Montefeltro, daughter of Federico, the Duke of Urbino, Vittoria was betrothed at the tender age of 7 to Ferdinando Francesco (Ferrante) d’Avalos, a marquis from Pescara. This strategic alliance aimed at connecting the Colonna family with the Aragonese. Consequently, from a very young age, she began frequenting the Aragonese Castle in Ischia, where she became part of the refined circle surrounding Ferrante's sophisticated aunt, Costanza. However, the marriage between Vittoria and Ferrante, celebrated in 1509, was marked by his constant absences due to his role as a valiant warrior engaged in frequent clashes against the French. When her husband was taken prisoner in Ravenna, Vittoria dedicated her first known poetic composition to him, an Epistle in verse that was much appreciated by the public. The sorrow for her distant beloved and the sense of loneliness and abandonment became dominant themes in Vittoria's poetic production, becoming more intense after Ferrante's tragic death in 1525. The more she celebrated her dependence on her heroic husband (now elevated, after his death, to a pure ideal), the more she asserted her own autonomy and authority, thus achieving exceptional popularity, a rarity among women of her time. Vittoria published her work Rime in 1538, becoming the foremost representative of female Petrarchism, a movement that flourished in the third decade of the 16th century. Her influence extended to other female poets such as Tullia d’Aragona, Gaspara Stampa, Veronica Gambara, Laura Battiferri and Veronica Franco. Admired as a poetess and revered as an example of virtue and moral education, Vittoria developed respectful friendships with the most powerful personalities of the era, from Emperor Charles V to popes, and her name appeared in the works of numerous contemporary writers who sought her advice and opinions on writing. Ariosto chose to immortalise Vittoria in Canto XXXVII of his epic poem, the Orlando Furioso: “I will choose one; and I will choose the one,/who will overcome envy in such a way,/that no one else will suffer,/if I keep silent about the others, and if I praise her alone.” She had a deep friendship with Michelangelo, whom she met in Rome in the 1530s. Upon her death in 1547, the artist dedicated numerous sonnets to her, mourning the loss of a true spiritual guide. Nevertheless, for a certain period Colonna was even suspected of heresy. Her constant spiritual and religious quest led her to approach the reformist ideas of Juan de Valdés, a Spanish scholar and theologian who turned Naples into the main centre of a new spirituality fuelled by the Christian Humanism of Erasmus of Rotterdam and Franciscan mysticism.

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    Stories of women and power: Vittoria Colonna

    I came to Ischia, to Vittoria Colonna, a woman of sublime and chaste beauty. And at the same time, as much as and more than a man, worthy of all sorts of praise.” Paolo Giovio, 'Dialogo', 1528

    When he was fleeing from the Sack of Rome in 1527 and from his imprisonment in Castel Sant'Angelo, Paolo Giovio found refuge in Ischia as a guest of Vittoria Colonna. He spent a few months there, fascinated by the poetess and the literary circle that had formed around her. Thanks to those encounters, Giovio wrote the Dialogo de viris et foeminis aetate nostra florentibus (1528), where he presented a discussion among the most important personalities of the time while extensively praising his hostess. The historian's musings on a potential portrait of Vittoria are intriguing: “which excellent means... will enable us to reproduce a true representation of Vittoria Colonna, her figure, her outward disposition, and which are the most suitable and fitting rhetoric colours to reproduce her soul in a way that can reflect the peculiar traits of all her virtues as if they were natural?”

    There are no documentary traces of a portrait of her in Giovio's collection, but an image of 'Vittoria Marquis of Pescara' must have been present in the Jovian Museum, since he expressly asked for a copy to Cristofano while he was in Como. A photograph found at Fondazione Zeri documents the existence of a portrait on canvas attributed to an anonymous Roman painter of the 16th century, which apart from the laurel crown is identical to the one in the Florentine series and might have been its prototype.

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    Stories of women and power: Catherine de' Medici

    Portrait of Catherine de' Medici Queen of France
    (Florence 1519 - Blois 1589)

    Cristofano di Papi dell’Altissimo
    (Florence 1522 – 1605)
    1562 - 1563, oil on wood
    Uffizi, East Corridor

    Catherine de' Medici was one of the most influential sovereigns of her time. Her ascent to the French throne is intricately tied to the peak of political influence in the European setting of the Medici family, which, following her reign, managed to secure another queen for the French throne, Mary, the daughter of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francis I.

    Catherine was the daughter of Lorenzo de' Medici, the Duke of Urbino and sole legitimate grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and Madeleine de La Tour d'Auvergne. She lost both her parents at a young age and was raised between Florence and Rome under the guidance of her influential uncles, first Pope Leo X and then Clement VII, who saw her as a valuable asset to create future and fruitful political alliances. Indeed, the marriage between fourteen-year-old Catherine and her contemporary, Henry of Valois, the second son of the King of France, was a diplomatic masterpiece. In 1533, the young bride was triumphantly escorted to France by Clement VII himself to solidify the prestigious union between the Medici family, the Papacy, and the royal lineage of the Valois. However, the presence at court of a foreigner who had no aristocratic origins was not well received by the French. Catherine was poorly tolerated and neglected also by her husband, who was engrossed in a relationship with Diane de Poitiers. Despite this, Catherine developed a strong bond with her father-in-law, King Francis I, who had a deep appreciation for Italian culture and art. Following the sudden death of her brother-in-law, Francis, the Dauphin of France, Catherine and her husband Henry, brother of the deceased prince, unexpectedly became heirs to the throne. She became queen in 1547 and queen mother in 1559, and three of her ten children were sovereigns. Catherine exhibited strong character, diplomatic skills, and great political acumen, attempting to reconcile the opposing factions of Catholics and Huguenots until the tragic events leading to the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre on 24 August 1572, for which she was (unjustly?) accused of instigation.
    Historiography presents her as a controversial figure, whose ambivalence heavily influenced the judgments regarding her role in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. According to Catholic narrative, especially in Italy, Catherine was portrayed as the devoted wife of Henry, who after his sudden death during a jousting tournament found herself in the position of exercising power, carrying out her duties for the good of France rather than personal ambition. She was a strong queen who endeavoured to mediate the turbulent religious feuds plaguing the country, having also to endure the heartbreaking loss of almost all her children (except for Henry and Margaret). Thanks to this literature, Catherine is still celebrated as the heir to the cultural tradition of Italian Renaissance in France. A cultured and refined woman who promoted arts beyond the Alps, particularly in architecture and theatre, and introduced avant-garde customs, styles, and innovative practices like etiquette and Tuscan cuisine. Apparently, she was the one who brought to France ice cream, crepes, and duck à l'orange, which are now considered typically French dishes, as well as certain perfumed essences, the use of the fork, and the side-saddle.

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    Stories of women and power: Catherine de' Medici

    On the other hand, the Protestant and ultra-Catholic factions present in France painted a completely different picture of Catherine, promoting the legend of the 'Black Queen' or 'Madame la Serpente', as she was portrayed as a student of the diabolical Machiavelli, therefore dedicated to plots, assassinations and betrayal. She was considered a practitioner of black magic and the occult, surrounded by shadowy figures like her renowned court magician, Nostradamus. This esoteric perspective led to reconsider the incidents happening around her, such as the sudden death of her brother-in-law, for which she was suspected of poisoning; or the death of her husband in a duel, for which she was accused of using black magic to satisfy her thirst for power. Even the massacre of French Huguenots was linked directly to her ruthless hand, thus cementing her image as a diabolical witch, particularly in Protestant Europe, and possibly influencing Shakespeare's portrayal of Lady Macbeth, a power-hungry queen willing to sell her soul to the devil to retain the crown.

    Catherine never returned to Tuscany after her marriage, but maintained a close correspondence with Cosimo I, her contemporary and childhood friend. However, she accused Cosimo of usurpation due to his origins in the cadet branch of the Medici family, as she believed that he should not have obtained the Duchy of Florence that rightfully belonged to her as legitimate descendant of the main branch. Their friction culminated in the war of Siena, which Cosimo won in 1554, conquering the city on behalf of Charles V of Habsburg against Sienese troops supported by the French royals. However, there's proof of a subsequent reconciliation, as 22 portraits of the Medici made by Cristofano di Papi were sent to France in 1567. The portraits were replicas of those from the Jovian collection.

    Giovio did not have a portrait of Catherine, although he had known her as a child and was bound to her by sincere affection. The portrait in our collection was painted in Florence between 1562 and 1563, along with others of the Medici family, and its presence in the Map Room of the Uffizi was reported by Vasari in 1568. The work reproduces the fresco medallion painted by Vasari between 1555 and 1562 in Palazzo Vecchio, which was also the replica of a painting made by Corneille de Lyon in 1536.

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    Stories of women and power: Elizabeth I

    Elizabeth I, Queen of England and Ireland
    (Greenwich 1533 - Richmond upon Thames 1603)

    Cristofano di Papi dell'Altissimo?
    (Florence 1522 - 1605)
    Last decades of the 16th century, oil on wood
    Uffizi, East Corridor

    "Shall I ascribe any thing to my Self, and my Sexly Weakness? I were not worthy to Live then; and of all, most unworthy of the great Mercies I have had from God, who hath ever yet given me a Heart, which never yet feared Forreign or Home - Enemy".
    Elizabeth I, from the "Golden Speech" to the Parliament, 1601

    Daughter of Henry VIII Tudor and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth did not have an easy life from childhood due to her mother's fall from grace and her father's repudiation, which excluded her from the succession. The ascent to the throne of her stepsister Mary made her position even more critical: feared as a possible usurper of the crown, Elizabeth was indeed imprisoned in the infamous Tower of London. Fate, however, dictated that, after only five years of reign, Mary fell seriously ill, thus leaving the throne vacant, which, in the absence of male heirs, was assigned to Elizabeth in 1558. The difficulties and hardships experienced in her youth certainly contributed to shaping her strong and resourceful character, as the new queen governed England for a remarkable forty-five years until her death, thus marking the end of the Tudor dynasty.

    Ranked among the greatest sovereigns of modern Europe, Elizabeth I managed to transition England from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, inheriting the crown of a country torn apart by centuries-old internal struggles – exacerbated by bloody religious feuds between Catholics and Protestants in the last quarter of the century – and transforming it into a flourishing and pacified nation. This achievement came at the cost of drastic measures, such as the execution, after being pressured by the Parliament, of her cousin Mary Stuart, who was considered the mastermind behind numerous plots in an attempt to dethrone her; or the reaffirmation of the independence of the Anglican Church from Rome, which resulted in the definitive marginalisation of Catholic power elites. With regard to her foreign policy, Elizabeth made England one of the greatest military powers in Europe, also employing corsairs, including the famous Francis Drake, and laying the foundations for the supremacy of English trade overseas, which represented the driving force behind the expansion of the first nucleus of the future British Empire. In 1588, the memorable defeat of the Spanish Invincible Armada led by Philip II marked the downfall of Spain's undisputed dominance over European routes. In this climate of stability and political solidity, the so-called Golden Age flourished: the queen's patronage and forward-thinking cultural policies promoted arts, literature (Sir Philip Sidney was a court poet), theatre (notably William Shakespeare), philosophy (Francis Bacon served as the Queen's Chancellor), and sciences (William Gilbert maintained regular correspondence with Galileo).
    Independent and strong-willed, Elizabeth never succumbed to pressure from many quarters to marry and give an heir to the throne. This earned her the name of 'Virgin Queen' (although rumours circulated about her favour towards certain courtiers, particularly Sir Robert Dudley). She wanted to be recognised as a virgo virago, 'wife of the nation' and 'mother of her subjects', who at the same was not afraid to speak of herself in masculine terms: "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman - she said to the troops leaving for the battle against the Invincible Armada - but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too".

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    Stories of women and power: Elizabeth I

    "A pale Roman nose, a head of hair loaded with crowns and powdered with diamonds, a vast ruff, a vaster fardingale, and a bushel of pearls, are features by which everybody knows at once the pictures of Queen Elizabeth."
    Horace Walpole on Elizabeth I in Anecdotes of Painting in England, 1765.

    If we look at the official speeches and the iconography of Elizabeth's portraits, it is evident that the queen followed a careful and clever communication strategy of exquisite political value. By depicting herself as an androgynous creature, both in speech and physical features, which became increasingly abstract and rarefied, she wanted to appear as a symbol or icon rather than a real woman. Her policy wasn't aimed at dismantling the age-old patriarchal structures of power she inherited; instead, she accommodated and exploited them to her advantage, often referring to herself as a consecrated king who embodied all the qualities of a sovereign chosen by God. Being portrayed as the 'Virgin Queen' allowed Elizabeth, who was already the head of the Anglican Church, to elevate herself to an almost venerable figure, thus filling the void left by the suppression of the Catholic worship of 'Virgin Mary' in popular liturgies, to the extent that she was carried in procession in the same way as the image of the Madonna was carried in Catholic festivals. Presenting herself as a sacred object of veneration was a way to inspire awe and respect, as Elizabeth introduced a new ideal of femininity within the framework of traditional patriarchal social structures: the powerful woman, no longer confined to the role of housewife or cloistered virgin.

    Even in a more austere version, with a black dress, the hair almost completely covered by a coif, and a not overly voluminous ruff, we can admire a depiction of this charismatic sovereign in the collection of the Uffizi, one of the most celebrated female personalities in European history. Elizabeth's resolute spirit also emerges from the Florentine portrait, of which we have no documentary evidence until 1704, when its presence was reported in the Second Corridor of the Uffizi. Due to stylistic similarities with other documented paintings, it can be tentatively placed in the corpus of portraits executed by Cristofano dell'Altissimo in the second half of the 16th century.

  • 16/16

    C. de Medicis, Lettres, a cura di H. De La Ferriere, I-X, Paris 1880-1903.

    A. Bernardi Amy, La vita e l'opera di Vittoria Colonna, Firenze 1947.

    P. Giovio, Lettere, a cura di G.G. Ferrero, in Opera omnia, I-II, Roma 1956-1958.

    P. De Vecchi, Il Museo Gioviano e le “Verae Imagines” degli uomini illustri, in Omaggio a Tiziano. La cultura artistica milanese nell’età di Carlo V, catalogo della mostra (Milano, Palazzo Reale, 27 aprile - 20 luglio 1977), a cura di M. Garberi, Milano, 1977, pp. 87-96.

    R. Strong, The Cult of Elizabeth, London 1977.

    I. Cloulas, Caterina de’ Medici, Paris 1979.

    K. Langedijk, The portraits of the Medici, 15th-18th Centuries, Firenze 1981–1987.

    B. Fasola, Per un nuovo catalogo della collezione gioviana, in Paolo Giovio. Il Rinascimento e la memoria, Atti del convegno (Como, 3-5 giugno 1983), a cura di F. Minonzio, Como 1985, pp. 169-180.

    L. A. Montrose, “Shaping Fantasies”: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture, in "Representations", 1, 1983, pp. 61-94.

    S. Meloni Trkulja, Cristofano di Papi dell’Altissimo, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, 31, Roma 1985, pp. 54-57.

    M. L. King, Le donne nel Rinascimento, Roma-Bari 1991.

    N. Zemon Davis, Donne e Politica, in G. Duby, M. Perrot, Storia delle donne dal Rinascimento all’età moderna, Roma-Bari 1991, pp. 201-19.

    G. Le Thiec, L’entrée des Grands Turcs dans le “Museo” de Paolo Giovio, in “Mélanges de l’École française de Rome. Italie et Méditerranée”, 104, 1992, pp. 781-830.

    J. Bodin, Sei libri dello Stato, vol. VI, Torino, 1997.

    M.P. Pedani, Simbologia ottomana nell’opera di Gentile Bellini, in “Atti. Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere e Arti”, 155, 1997, pp. 1-29.

    C. Erickson, Elisabetta I: la vergine regina, Milano 2000.

    P. Giovio, Elogi degli Uomini illustri, a cura di F. Minonzio, Torino 2006.

    J. Knox, Il primo squillo di tromba contro il mostruoso governo delle donne, a cura di P. Adamo, Milano 2006.

    M.P. Pedani, Breve storia dell’impero ottomano, Roma 2006.

    A. F. Carlucci, Haseki Sultan, validé Sultan e ministri. Le donne turche e il potere, in Fatema Mernissi e noi: riflessioni, studi e ricerche, a cura di V. Fedele, S. Garofalo, Ariccia (RM) 2008, pp. 169-186.

    S. Ffolliot,  «La Florentine » or « la bonne Françoise »: some Sixteenth- Century Commentators on Catherine de’ Medici and her Patronage, in Medici Women as Cultural Mediators (1533-1743). Le donne di casa Medici e il loro ruolo di mediatrici culturali fra le corti d’Europa, a cura di C. Strunck, Firenze 2008, pp. 17-37.

    Il mecenatismo di Caterina de’ Medici. Poesia, feste, musica, pittura, scultura, architettura, a cura di S. Frommel e G. Wolf con F. Bardati, Venezia 2008, pp. 391-395.

    Erasmo da Rotterdam. L’educazione del principe cristiano, a cura di D. Canfora, Bari 2009.

    Shakespeare. Enrico VIII, introduzione di N. D'Agostino, prefazione, traduzione e note di A. Cozza, Milano 2010.

    M. D'Amico, La rivincita di Caterina d'Aragona, in "La Stampa", Torino, 23 agosto 2011.

    Paolo Giovio. Dialogo sugli uomini e le donne illustri del nostro tempo, voll. I-II, a cura di F. Minonzio, Torino 2011.

    P. Zimmermann, Paolo Giovio. Uno storico e la crisi italiana del XVI secolo, Cologno Monzese (MI) 2012.

    L’Empire du sultan. Le monde Ottoman dans l’art de la Renaissance, catalogo della mostra (Bruxelles, Palais des Beaux-Arts, 27 febbraio - 31 maggio 2015), édité par R. Born, M. Dziewulski, G. Messling, Tielt 2015.

    M. Melotti, Elisabetta I, Milano 2019.

    S. Mumcu, Parentele, amicizie e carriere: La distribuzione del potere al centro dell'Impero ottomano (1550-1566), Università degli Studi di Padova, Corso di Dottorato in Studi Storici, Georgrafici e Antropologici, relatori M. C. La Rocca, W. Panciera, a.a. 2017-2018.

    S. Rovida, “Un cuore di tigre in una pelle di donna”. Il paradigma dell’androginia femminile nelle tragedie e nei drammi storici di Shakespeare, Arezzo 2022.

    D. Salomoni, Francis Drake: il corsaro che sfidò un impero, Bari 2023.

    M. M. Simari e A. Barbolani da Montauto, La Collezione Gioviana degli Uffizi, Firenze 2023.

    Portrait of Paolo Giovio
    (Como 1486 - Florence 1552)

    Cristofano di Papi dell’Altissimo
    (Florence 1522-1605)
    1552-1568, oil on wood
    Uffizi, East Corridor

Stories of women and power

Between East and West, portraits from the Jovian series of the Uffizi


Project: Dipartimento Strategie Digitali - Divisione Comunicazione Culturale delle Gallerie degli Uffizi
Divisione Comunicazione Culturale: Elena Marconi (coordinatrice)
Dipartimento Strategie Digitali: Francesca Sborgi (coordinatrice)

Texts by: Alberica Barbolani Montauto, Patrizia Naldini, Katiuscia Quinci, Simone Rovida
Photographs: Roberto Palermo, Antonio Quattrone
Editing web: Andrea Biotti
Revisione testi: Patrizia Naldini
Translated by: Way2Global srl

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