Sacra conversazione con la famiglia di Cosimo I (1576)
The above image is a painting representing « una Sacra Famiglia » (a Holy Family). In reality, there is very little sacredness in this painting, and by knowing all the legends about the characters depicted, one could even qualify it as a profane painting. (see footnote 1)
This work of art was once part of Prince’s Odescalchi collection, it was later bought by the State in 1909, then exhibited at the Medici Chapel in 1930, then moved to the Uffizi Gallery, and is now possible to admire at the Museo del Cenacolo di Andrea del Sarto, where it is called « Sacra conversazione con la famiglia di Cosimo I » (sacred conversation with the family of Cosimo I), attributed to a painter from Bronzino’s school.
In the painting, the artist has portrayed Maria Salviati (the widow of Ludovico di Giovanni de’ Medici, known as Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, and mother of Cosimo I) who opens her arms over the heads of the family members as if to protect them. Are represented, from left to right, Grand Duke Cosimo the First, his son Ferdinando I, his wife Eleanor of Toledo with their son Pietro carried in her arms, his other son Francesco I, then Paolo Giordano Orsini, husband of Isabella de’ Medici, who is portrayed in the foreground on the opposite side. The last character depicted in the center is probably Garzia de’ Medici, the eighth child of Cosimo I and Eleanor.
As can be assumed, thanks to the title of the painting and the figures with halos, this art-work has a religious relevance and members of the Medici family are represented as saints. Indeed, Cosimo and Ferdinando are Saints Cosmas and Damian, Maria Salviati is Saint Anne, Eleanor of Toledo and Pietro are respectively the Virgin Mary and the Divine Infant, Francesco I is seen as Saint George, Isabella de’ Medici is Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Garzia is Saint John, and Paolo Giordano Orsini holds the banner of the Order of Saint Stephen.
Then why is this painting profane ? According to legends, apart from Maria Salviati, all the characters portrayed in the “holy family” have been protagonists of mournful stories, being murderers and/or murdered.
In November 1562, don Garzia stabbed his brother Giovanni after an argument during a hunting session and Cosimo, who went blind because of rabies infection, killed Garzia in turn; two losses from which Eleanor never recovered and eventually caused her death.
However, real crimes were perpetrated by Pietro de’ Medici and Paolo Orsini. On the night of July 10th, 1576, Pietro strangled his wife (and first cousin) Eleanor di Garzia di Toledo with a towel. She was suspected of adultery with her supposed lover Bernardino Antinori, who, by order of Pietro, was imprisoned and killed. A few days later, on the night of July 16th at the Villa Medici in Cerreto Guidi, Isabella de’ Medici was murdered. Accused of being unfaithful, her husband Paolo Orsini drew a rope tight around her neck and unscrupulously strangled her and left her lifeless body hanging above the bed.
The painting appears to have been commissioned by the Grand Duke Francesco I (successor of Cosimo I, who died in 1574) in 1576, in order to dispel rumours and clean up the image of the Medici family. Unfortunately, Francesco I could not predict that his efforts would be wiped out eleven years later.
In 1587, the reputation of the Medici family was once again tarnished by a macabre story, the one of Poggio a Caiano, in which two Medicis portrayed in the painting were protagonists. To discover this legend, read this previous article about the legend of ‘the window that must not be closed‘ in Piazza SS. Annunziata, Florence.