Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Home for the holidays . . . after a few centuries

By Lucianne Poole

A photo showing a bridge and clouds reflected in the Arno River in Florence, Italy.
The Arno River, Florence, much like it was in the 16th century.
Here's a feature about a centuries-old Italian art mystery. I wrote it in 2010 and sold it to the Globe and Mail, but they never got round to publishing it. So here it is for the first time!

A mysterious couple with a Canadian connection have been reunited in Italy after a 200-year separation.
You can find the aristocratic man and his pale wife side-by-side in an art exhibition in their home town of Florence. The 450-year-old portraits are considered masterpieces by Italian Mannerist painter Bronzino. It is the first time the elegant paintings have appeared together since the 1824 sale of one of them, the Portrait of a Lady.

This historic occasion has revived a centuries-old question: who are the man and the woman?

A banker and his wife

Their identities have been long debated. The National Gallery of Canada, which bought the Portrait of a Man in 1930 from a Berlin art dealer, recently identified the man as Pierantonio Bandini, a wealthy and influential banker born in Florence in 1514. According to the gallery, the woman in the Italian-owned Portrait of a Lady is Bandini's wife Cassandra de' Cavalcanti.
The Medici theory

Other experts say that the couple are Duke Cosimo I de' Medici and his wife, the Duchess Eleonora di Toledo, who ruled 16th-century Florence. In 2004, Janet Cox-Rearick, an American academic, and Mary Westerman Bulgarella, a textile and costume conservator based in Italy, linked the pattern on the couple's clothing to that worn by the duke and duchess' son. As court painter to the Medici, Bronzino painted official portraits of Cosimo I, his family and the Florentine nobility.
What Vasari said

Giorgio Vasari, Bronzino's contemporary and famous for his biographies of Italian artists, noted that Bronzino painted portraits of Bandini and his wife. But these paintings were believed lost.

Then Catherine Johnston started researching for an essay on the Portrait of a Man, now named Pierantonio Bandini in the National Gallery of Canada's collection.
"I started researching the Bronzino in 2004, and I thought everything was known," says Johnston, now retired as curator of European Art. "I was reading Vasari again and again, and finally I thought of Pierantonio Bandini and the missing portraits. 'Could it be them?'"

Portrait listing found

At that time, an Italian researcher discovered a listing for the 1904 sale of the Portrait of a Man from Palazzo Giugni in Florence. The palace was once home to Cassandra Bandini, granddaughter and principal heir to Pierantonio Bandini. She married into the Giugni family, bringing her belongings and, plausibly, Bronzino's portraits.
Johnston acknowledges that her identification of Bandini and his wife is not universally accepted. Nonetheless, she continues to research the paintings, even travelling to Florence to see them at their temporary home in Palazzo Strozzi, close to the magnificent Renaissance palaces where the Bandinis and the Medici once lived.
What do you think?

Do you think the National Art Gallery correctly identified the sitters in the paintings or are they actually of Medici and his wife? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

This exhibition, Bronzino. Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici, ended in 2011. But you can still visit it online (see room VIII), buy the catalogue and see the paintings in person: Pierantonio Bandini at the National Gallery of Canada and Portrait of a Lady in Turin, Italy at Galleria Sabauda

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