by Marisa Garreffa
Last week we met Eleonora di Toledo, Spanish royalty and the young woman who caught the eye of Cosimo I, becoming Duchess of Florence through their marriage. Now we continue our exploration of this little-studied woman from history, discovering her influence on Palazzo della Signoria, Palazzo Pitti, and the grand Boboli Gardens.
As a newly married couple, she and Cosimo first lived together in the Medici Palace. When they relocated to Palazzo della Signoria, they left the Medici Palace to their daughter Isabella and her husband, Paolo Orsini – tragically, a husband who would end up strangling her there. But long before this happened, the couple settled into Palazzo della Signoria where Eleonora set to work on its transformation. As was the practice for ruling couples at the time, they lived in separate quarters. Cosimo was determined to show the palazzo could be worthy of his royal bride, now the Duchess of Florence, and gave her free reign.
The upper floors were for Eleonora, and she had them redecorated in the 1540s. She employed many innovative artists “to beautify her surroundings and her life”. The chapel is by Bronzino, the vault of the camera verde is by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, and the ceiling of the small study by Francesco Salviati. The 15th-century lavabo in the Sala di Ester came from Palazzo di Parte Guelfa. The lower floors were decorated as the apartments for Cosimo, and the floors in the middle were dedicated to the “irritatingly fussy and untidy” mother of Cosimo – Maria. Despite all of the beautification, Eleonora hated it at Palazzo della Signoria. She craved nature and here, instead of a garden, she had only an enclosed terrace where she could keep her flowers and rare plants. This is where her grand dowry came to use, in 1549 when she purchased the Pitti Palace. Amusingly enough, Luca Pitti had built the palace in an attempt to outdo the Medici family, but his ongoing rivalry and attempts to compete resulted in the eventual bankruptcy of the Pitti family. His treasured palace, unfinished at the time of his death, ended up becoming the prize of the very family he wanted to eclipse.
Eleonora and Cosimo had the palazzo expanded and developed by Ammannanti – making the imposing structure even bigger that the original design. They moved in while it was still being finished; the courtyard was still being developed along with new windows on the ground floor of the facade. The gardens behind had been purchased from several families, including a family named the Bogoli, and their name forms the basis of the Boboli Gardens title. The gardens are the most significant accomplishment of Eleonora, built thanks to her vision and inspiration. The work was begun by Tribolo, a master landscape architect, and then when he died the work continued by Ammannati, Giulio and Alfonso Parigi and by Baccio Bandinelli – who built the elaborate Grotticina di Madama at the suggestion of Eleonor. The gardens were her passion; their design and the great artworks that inhabit them.
During these years, Eleonora was also the woman who introduced the Jesuits to Florence, supporting the negotiations of representatives with Cosimo for the founding of a Jesuit college in Florence. They were coached in speaking Spanish in order to approach her well and follow the correct etiquette, and she became an “intercessor to Cosimo on behalf of the Society.” Eventually the bonds were so strong that a Jesuit Father became her confessor, later being present at her bedside vigil at the end of her life. However, there are many doubts as to how open she was to their society and spirituality, as Eisenbichler writes, “instead she remained as elusive to them as she was to others who sought to understand her.”
By the time the Boboli Gardens were finished, Eleonora was sick and dying at the age of 40, losing interest in all the luxuries that used to bring her pleasure, such as her grand dresses and the gardens themselves. Always wanting to follow Cosimo, it was during one of their trips in 1562 that two of their children caught malaria and died, and Eleonora, already vulnerable from her chronic pulmonary tuberculosis, died from the same malaria as her children. She was visited on her deathbed by Cosimo and a Jesuit confessor. The Venetian ambassador wrote, “She died in her husband’s arms, grieving and despairing, refusing to be guided by physicians as was her wont.”
Her body was returned to Florence for a funeral on December 28, and she was buried in the Medici tombs of San Lorenzo. History, while somewhat neglecting her, has also realised her great importance retrospectively. In the words of Eisenbichler, “With the extinction in 1737 of the Medici lineage that she had so vigorously revived two hundred years earlier, Eleonora ceased to be a beloved ancestor and became an icon of late Renaissance aristocracy.”