The Ideal Woman behind a Portrait - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

The Ideal Woman behind a Portrait

Armstrong State University

Agnolo Bronzino's 1545 painting, Eleonora of Toledo with Son, Giovanni de' Medici, depicts an influential lady of Renaissance Florence. Through the painting, one observes that she is beautiful, poised, a family woman, and protective of her child. The painting provides a glimpse into the family life of those in political positions, as well as the ideal woman during the Renaissance.1

Eleonora of Toledo with Son, Giovanni de' Medici by Agnolo Bronzino (1545)
Eleonora of Toledo with Son, Giovanni
de' Medici by Agnolo Bronzino (1545)

Daughter of a Spanish viceroy, Eleonora of Toledo (b. 1522) married Cosimo I de' Medici (r. 1537−74), the ruler of Florence, in 1539. Her family had connections with Charles V (1500−58), the Holy Roman Emperor, and the marriage was highly attractive to Cosimo for many reasons. One of the major advantages of their union was that as a Spaniard, Eleonora's presence reduced any potential threat from her home country and the Holy Roman Emperor, thus providing political stability to the Medici family's rule.2 Eleonora’s position gave her the opportunity to effect changes in Florence, where she helped Cosimo with many affairs of the state. The ruler left her in charge several times as regent, trusting her to keep Florence running properly. Eleonora complemented her husband and aided him to the best of her ability. She was proactive as a first lady. An authoritative scholar depicts that she was “[p]assionate, imperious, and volatile” and “[d]iligent especially in supervising her children’s upbringing.”3 As such, Eleonora was a strong asset to Cosimo.

In the portrait, Eleonora is wearing a beautiful black and white print dress that was most likely made of Florentine silks. Indeed, as the scholar Joe Thomas points out, “to have an official portrait of his wife, the duchess, painted in other than Florentine silks would have been a contradictory and ironic move on Cosimo’s part.”4 Wearing a Florentine dress not only boosted the economy by showing faith in the fabrics created domestically, but also spurred national pride and inspired acceptance of the Spanish duchess. Despite this, the dress does have Spanish influence examined in the cut, fabric, and style. Thomas suspects that Eleonora fancied this particular dress more than others she owned, because it appears in multiple state portraits and she was buried wearing it. Thus “[t]he image of Eleanor in this dress became the equivalent of her state portrait.”5

Pictured with her son, Giovanni, Eleonora was depicted as a mother foremost. This is possibly “because the Medici’s desperately needed male heirs after Cosimo’s predecessor died childless after having been marred by sexual scandal.”6 Not only were the children necessary to continue the Medici line, but also Eleonora had to be linked to Cosimo’s children to prove the child’s legitimacy. This made the Medici power indisputable. A scholar believes that it “is the first known, state commissioned painting to include the ruler’s heir.”7 Obviously, because of her diligence and protectiveness towards her children, Eleonora was a woman that many others referenced for guidance on desirable behavior.

Descriptions of Eleonora’s ventures in improving her court lead to a glance at a well-known 16th century courtesy book, Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione (1478−1529), that provides the image of an ideal woman during the Renaissance:

For I hold that many virtues of the mind are as necessary to a woman as to a man; also, gentle birth; to avoid affection, to be naturally graceful in all her actions, to be mannerly, clever, prudent, not arrogant, not envious, not slanderous, not vain, not contentious, not inept, to know how to gain and hold the favor of her mistress and of all others, to perform well and gracefully the exercises that are suitable for women. And I do think that beauty is more necessary to her than to the Courtier, for truly that woman lacks much who lacks beauty. Also she must be more circumspect and more careful not to give occasion for evil being said of her and conduct herself so that she may not only escape being sullied by guilt but even by the suspicion of it, for a woman has not so many ways of defending herself against false calumnies as a man has.8

As a woman, accounts of Eleonora’s actions appear to fit well with Castiglione’s ideal woman. She acted as regent and ran the province in her husband’s absence. She was admired as a woman of extraordinary taste, and having the utmost ideals.

Italian poet Leon Battista Alberti (1404−72), in his essay, On Family, gives us a similar view of the ideal woman that emphasizes the wife’s specific role in the family. He coincided with Castiglione for the most part. In his writing, the wife should enhance the husband’s holdings, and control the home, including all domestic activities. She should safeguard his property and wealth, should never embarrass him, and should, essentially, be a good lady. Alberti discusses the wife’s value as a conservation unit and her ability to influence the husband to lower levels of extravagance.9 It seems that Eleonora of Toledo fits both Alberti’s ideal wife and does not. She was very much in control of all domestic activities, and did indeed enhance his holdings. Despite being the essential good wife, the fact that Eleonora gambled and spent large amounts of money would have been detrimental, had the family and she not been significantly wealthy in the first place.

Agreeing with Alberti on the proper disposition of a wife, but going further on the question of what makes a good wife was Italian humanist Francesco Barbaro (1390−1454). Barbaro breaks the duties of the wife into different sections, explaining the importance of the wife on the husband’s mood. Barbaro discusses the importance of communication in relationships, saying that the husband and wife should share each other’s happiness and hardships. Barbaro continues with the disposition of a wife to be demure, complementary of the husband. In the husband’s presence the wife should always be noticed, however, when he is away she must remain in the background.10 Judged by Barbaro’s standard Eleonora made the perfect wife. She loved her husband, and while “the amusements of the young couple included hunting above all, prelate baiting, practical jokes, and energetic equestrian sports despite Eleonora’s annual pregnancies,”11 she still followed and carried out his wishes, not only as a wife, but as his regent. With her interests relatively matching his, the couple could spend much time together respecting each other and helping each other through good times and bad times. In this, Eleanora would know exactly what Cosimo would do within the duchy if problems arose while she was acting regent.

From the discussion above centering on the painting “Eleonora of Toledo with Son” and the subject in history, one can gain a sense of the ideal woman in the upper class represented by Eleonora. Such a “reading” of historical painting proves again that the portraits from the Renaissance era are not only beautiful, but are an insight into the lives of the people within the painting. The values of the subjects are shown to a degree, but inherent ambiguity of the medium leaves the viewer curious to discover more. The essential priorities of both those pictured and the artist shine through the sands of time and continue to awe people centuries later.

About the author

A senior student, Michelle Teplis transferred from Kennesaw State University to Armstrong State University in Fall 2010 to finish prerequisites for the nursing program and to finish a history degree. At Kennesaw, she was a member of all honors societies including Phi Sigma Pi, Delta Epsilon Iota, Phi Eta Sigma, National Society of Collegiate Scholars.

Recommended citation

Michelle Teplis, “The Ideal Woman behind a Portrait,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no. 1 (Spring 2011).


  1. Agnolo Bronzino,Portrait of Eleonora of Toledo with Son, Giovanni, Oil on wood, 1545, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy.
  2. The Medici Archive Project, “Leonor de (Eleonora) Toledo- de’ Medici,”
  3. Gabrielle Langdon, Medici Women: Portraits of Power, Love, and Betrayal, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 60.
  4. Joe Thomas, “Fabric and Dress in Bronzino’s Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo and Son Giovanni,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 57, no. 2, (1994): 265.
  5. Ibid., 262.
  6. Shiri Bilik, “Women Who Ruled, U-M Museum of Art, Through May 5,” MichiganToday, Spring 2002,
  7. .
  8. Ibid.
  9. Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, ed. Daniel Javitch, trans. Charles Singleton, Norton edition, (2002), 151.
  10. Leon Battista Alberti, “On Family, quoted in Constance Jordan, Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Model (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 47.
  11. Francesco Barbaro, “On Wifely Duties,” ed. Benjamin Kohl and Ronald G. Witt, trans. Benjamin Kohl, The Earthly Republic: Italian Humanists on Government and Society. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1978), 192−8.
  12. Langdon, Medici Women, 60.
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