Medici princess freed from bad Victorian Photoshop

A portrait of Isabella de’ Medici, daughter of Grand Duke Cosimo I of Tuscany and his wife Eleanor of Toledo, has been liberated from the atrocious Victorian overpaint that had replaced all her individuality and dignity with a cheeseball beauty standard better suited to a cookie tin lithograph than a Renaissance court painting. The portrait was acquired by the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in 1978 when it was reported to be a portrait of Eleanor of Toledo by Bronzino. Bronzino did a portrait of Eleanor wearing a gorgeous brocade dress that is one of the most famous works of the period, but the Carnegie painting was so markedly inferior to that masterpiece that to call the attribution sloppy is a drastic understatement.

The museum’s curator of fine arts Lulu Lippincott suspected it was a modern fake and planned to deaccession the piece. Before lowering the boom, she asked chief conservator Ellen Baxter to determine whether it was a fake. Baxter found that the painting had cracks in it that were characteristic of a panel painting rather than an oil on canvas. The stamp of Francis Leedham, a 19th century British restorer who specialized in the terrifying practice of transferring paintings from wood or fresco to canvas (read a summary of the process here, if you dare), on the stretcher confirmed that this painting was already at least a century old in the Victorian era.

X-rays revealed that underneath the corny lady was the portrait of an older woman with puffy undereyes, a bit of a double chin, a handsome nose bump and significantly larger hands. This subject also sported a halo and held an alabaster urn in her meat hooks, attributes of Mary Magdalene that had been painted over after Leedham had transferred the portrait to canvas. The face and hands were extensively repainted, probably to make the distinctive subject more conventionally “pretty” and appealing to potential buyers.

It was Lulu Lippincott who identified the sitter. She compared the dress, the least tampered with element of the painting, to other portraits of Medici women and found a painting of Isabella de’ Medici wearing the same garment. Born in 1542, Isabella was a luminous figure in the Medici court during her short life. She was beautiful, vivacious, fashionable, intelligent, well-educated, a lover of the arts. Her father Cosimo doted on her. When she was 16, her father arranged a politically expedient marriage for her to Paolo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano. He was a violent man, an avid hunter, fighter and future leader of the Papal armies, but he lived in Rome and Cosimo saw to it that his daughter (and her dowry) stayed with him in Florence.

Cosimo gave her an exceptional amount of freedom for a noblewoman of her time. She ran her own household, and after Eleanor’s death in 1562 [corrected from 1559, thank you Edward!], Isabella ran her father’s too. She threw famously raucous parties and spent lavishly. Her father always covered her debts and protected her from scrutiny even as rumors of her lovers and excesses that would have doomed other society women spread far and wide. Her favorite lover was said to be Troilo Orsini, her husband Paolo’s cousin.

Things went downhill fast for Isabella after her father’s death in 1574. Her brother Francesco was now the Grand Duke, and he had no interest in indulging his sister’s peccadilloes. We don’t know what happened exactly, but in 1576 Isabella died at the Medici Villa of Cerreto Guidi near Empoli. The official story released by Francesco was that his 34-year-old sister dropped dead suddenly while washing her hair. The unofficial story is that she was strangled by her husband out of revenge for her adultery and/or to clear the way for him to marry his own mistress Vittoria Accoramboni.

Isabella was painted repeatedly during her lifetime, often by Alessandro Allori, a prominent Medici court painter and student of Bronzino’s. The Carnegie’s portrait is one of the last.

Lippincott believes that the picture was painted around 1574, and that the halo and urn were added shortly after the work was completed. The Mary Magdalene attributes transformed the portrait into a “symbol of repentance”; Isabella’s brother Francesco, who became head of the family in 1574, was less accepting of her scandalous lifestyle. “This may have been Isabella’s attempt to clean up her act,” Lippincott says.

Conservator Ellen Baxter cleaned up the portrait’s act, removing yellowed varnish and all that tragic overpaint. The age and stability of the paint layers made it a relatively straightforward process, although once the Victorian modifications were gone, there were areas of paint loss, particularly around the edges. Baxter filled in the blanks with a light, judicious hand.

Watch this video to see her in action:

Now that the Isabella has been liberated from a later era’s bad taste, attribution can be revisited. For now, the Carnegie is attributing the portrait to the circle of Alessandro Allori, although it could be the work of the master himself.

Meanwhile, Isabella is going on display in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Faked, Forgotten, Found: Five Renaissance Paintings Investigated exhibition, a fascinating glimpse behind the conservator’s curtain as viewed through the analysis and conservation of five Renaissance paintings in the museum’s collection. The exhibition debuted Saturday and runs through September 15th.

13 thoughts on “Medici princess freed from bad Victorian Photoshop

  1. A minor lesson is that the Victorian standard of beauty shown is indeed much prettier, to my eyes, that the anorexic standards of the present day.

  2. I am aghast at the crap that happens, from the transfer and ‘touching up’ of paintings to the cutting out, trimming and framing illuminations from manuscripts.

  3. Occhi della Madonna ! – With all due respect, if THAT is Isabella, she must have suffered from a disastrous Habsburgian hangover. Apparently, her deadly accident (being ‘strangled at midday’) was arranged in 1576, and that portrait of ‘Isabella with her son Virginio’ from 1574, posted on here, is obviously a sequel to this one. Let us now check out Joanna of Austria, who married Francesco de Medici in 1565: Notably, from 1576 to 1578, she in fact DID have the opportunity to wear all of Isabellas dresses.

    Probably time for some contemporary tunes, Dr. Watson: “Tell it, tell it everywhere: Mister Cotal’s wife is dead! Because he found her with a Spaniard alone in the house, so he killed her…”, the song being filmed/ performed, the song info and its notation.

  4. That is so interesting! Now I wish that they would start X-raying all kinds of paintings just to see what’s really underneath.

  5. Not to defend the Victorian refacing of Isabella de’Medici, here, because that was unforgivably clumsy, but just what are the ethical standards for when to strip off overpainting? For instance, if Jules Bastien-Lepage had been given some compelling reason to overpaint a Rembrandt Peale, it would be just as revolting to see Bastien-Lepage’s work obliterated as it would be to see Peale’s work covered up.

    There seems to be a lot of argument over the ethics, based on the brief search I just ran, but not a lot done to ensure the retention of imagery or replicas of works in overpainted state for future study or (dare I suggest?) appreciation. When does the importance of restoration of a work begin to override the necessity of preserving a piece of the historical context of a work?

  6. The total number of times the video has been viewed over a three-week period has almost doubled in one day since it was posted on this blog.

  7. That sure don’t look like the lady in the other paintings. The Victorian over paint looks to me like the painter was trying to take a painting of a different woman and make her look like the lady in the other paintings. Had I been Eleanor and I had been handed that as a official painting of myself…royal portrait painter looking for a new job tomorrow.

  8. This is certainly a coup for the Pittsburgh Museum, but as for the rest… We are looking at a Florentine painting of more less that time – though rather fussy in detail for Alessandro Allori himself. As far as I can tell, there is no evidence for the sitter being Isabella de’ Medici (without even touching on the story of her alleged “murder”.) Apart from wishful thinking, the identification seems to be based exclusively on the dress in another portrait of Isabella – which I don’t know and cannot find. (Can someone help me here?) In regard to the theory that Mary Magdalen’s ointment jar was painted in as an indication of “repentance” – that isn’t particularly convincing in terms of historical usage. The odds are 99 to 1 that the lady in the picture was named Maria Maddalena.

  9. “just what are the ethical standards for when to strip off overpainting?”

    Interesting question. If the over painting intended to increase monetary value by reflecting trending tastes, then there are presumably plenty examples of those trending tastes already available, and therefore the refreshed work shows us nothing we need keep. If it is done as pure restoration, with an eye to be faithful to a damaged original, then there should be no qualms about removing and/or improving on the over-paint. If it is done to show off, then it is vandalism and beneath contempt.

    1. dude, that’s just how she looks. the medici family ruled Florence for centuries, do you really think she should have been painted as some soft doe eyed wimp? the real her looks like she’s planning to kill you already, as she would have. we should stay true to the original art, and not paint over it to make her conventionally attractive!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.