Bia de' Medici: history of the Bronzino portrait that still enchants audiences

The portrait of Bia de' Medici, a masterpiece by Bronzino, is one of the Uffizi's most famous and appreciated works. Behind this painting, however, lies a sad story.

There are not many official portraits of children in the history of art, and they are generally depicted alongside an adult, who could be either one of their parents or their guardian. Yet this little girl, centuries later, still fascinates and captures the viewer’s gaze: she is Bia de’ Medici and we can admire her at the Uffizi Galleries in the same room as another of the most famous portraits made by Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo Tori; Florence, 1503 - 1572) for the Medici family, namely Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni. In fact, the setting is the same for both paintings, in that both Bia and Eleonora of Toledo with her little son stand out against a background of beautiful blue, presumably made with lapis lazuli, and all look directly at the viewer; moreover, both Bia and Eleonora are seated, although the little girl, caught in a very natural portrait, seems about to stand up, with her left hand seemingly pushing on the armrest of the chair, ready to spring to her feet. Eleanor’s position is much more relaxed, as her left hand rests directly on the splendid Spanish-style brocade dress, perhaps the real star of the famous portrait, given the attention to detail, the finish and the great refinement with which it was painted (it almost seems as if one can touch the fabric by how realistic it is), while her right hand rests on the shoulder of her second son, who in turn holds on to his mother’s legs with his little hand.

There was no blood relationship between Bia and Eleanor of Toledo, but the young woman loved the little girl as if she had been her own daughter: Bianca de’ Medici, better known by the diminutive Bia, was in fact the daughter, indeed the eldest child, of Cosimo I, Eleanor’s husband. The child had been born in 1537, thus two years before the marriage between Cosimo and Eleonora celebrated in 1539, from an illegitimate relationship between the duke and a woman whose identity is still unknown. Welcomed into the Medici household, Bia had been raised along with the couple’s legitimate children (they had as many as eleven) with the same affection that all members of the family reserved for the little ones, first and foremost her grandmother Maria Salviati, who had a special fondness for Bia. This loving relationship was also accounted for in 1560 by Simone Fortuna, ambassador of Francesco Maria II della Rovere in Tuscany, who wrote in a letter that Duke Cosimo, during his first years in the duchy, “had from a gentlewoman of Fiorenza a little whore, who was baptized in the name of His Most Illustrious Excellency, et si chiamaò Bia. Et la Signora duchessa Leonora, finding her at home, raised her lovingly as born that she was by her husband before she was his wife.”

Bronzino, Ritratto di Bia deÂ’ Medici (1542 circa; olio su tavola, 64 x 48 cm; Firenze, Uffizi)
Bronzino, Portrait of Bia de Medici (c. 1542; oil on panel, 64 x 48 cm; Florence, Uffizi)

Behind the painting of exceptional beauty and refinement, however, lies a sad story: in fact, the painting dates back to the period between 1542 and 1545, the same period in which Bronzino painted the portrait of Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni, but it is a posthumous portrait, because little Bia lost her life at the age of only five. Her father Cosimo left for Arezzo, which belonged to the Florentine possessions, taking Bia with him as well. On the return journey the latter suddenly fell ill: it was the end of January 1542 and the little girl died after a few weeks, to the despair of the whole family who had seen taken away at a tender age that little creature whom everyone loved and who was so full of life, as Bronzino himself wished to express in the Uffizi canvas, in which, as already written, the little girl seems to rise at any moment from that Dantean chair and where she plays with the golden chain between her fingers that encircles her waist.

In the past, the child depicted had been identified as one of the legitimate daughters of Cosimo I and Eleanor of Toledo: in fact, Isabella or Maria de’ Medici had been thought of, but later, as early as the late nineteenth century, the painting was considered a posthumous portrait of Bianca de’ Medici, as a tribute to the child who died too soon that the family wanted the court portraitist to make. It is thought that Bronzino, in depicting her, used the plaster death mask that the duke had made and that is inventoried in his wardrobe in 1553, where the Uffizi portrait was also mentioned.

Bronzino, Ritratto di Eleonora di Toledo (1544-1545 circa; olio su tavola, 115 x 96 cm; Firenze, Uffizi)
Bronzino, Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo (c. 1544-1545; oil on panel, 115 x 96 cm; Florence, Uffizi)

Bronzino had become court portraitist, and as such, he made portraits of all the members of the family, starting with Cosimo and Eleonora and then continuing with the children and Maria Salviati, the duke’s mother. In his Lives, Vasari relates that "the lord duke, having seen the excellence of this painter, and particularly that his own portrayed from nature as much diligence as can be imagined, had himself, who was then young, portrayed armed all in white armor and with one hand over his helmet: in another picture the lady duchess his consort, and in another picture the lord don Francesco their son and prince of Fiorenza. And it was not long before she portrayed, as it pleased her, another time the said lady duchess, in various ways from the first, with Signor Don Giovanni his son after her. She also portrayed Bia maiden, and natural daughter of the duke: and afterwards, some again, and others the second time, all the duke’s children; Signora donna Maria, great maiden, truly beautiful; prencipe don Francesco; Signor don Giovanni; don Garzia, and don Ernando, in several pictures, all of which are in His Excellency’s wardrobe, together with portrait of don Francesco di Tolledo, of Signora Maria mother of the duke [...]." Among the portraits of Cosimo I’s children done by Bronzino, such as that of the young Francesco I, that of Giovanni, that of Maria Lucrezia, and that of Garzia, the portrait of Bia turns out to be the best known and the one that most captivates the public even today. Certainly for its very high pictorial quality and impressive realism, but also for the sweetness that shines through the child’s face. A healthy face, with full, slightly rosy cheeks on skin as pale as the moon; large, penetrating eyes, a fleshy mouth and a barely sketched smile: well-proportioned and harmonious physiognomic features. The straight light brown hair is cut much like a modern bob, combed with a parting in the middle and two symmetrically twisted locks on either side of the forehead. The whiteness of the skin and dress alludes to the purity andinnocence of tender age, but also to the child’s very name, Bianca. She wears a silk dress very elegant in its simplicity, with a square neckline and gathered puff sleeves, with a chain belt around her waist with which she fiddles holding a flap between the fingers of her right hand, ending in a pendant, or rather, a pomander, a perfume holder. Both the neckline and the cuffs are adorned with refined and understated tone-on-tone decoration.

The painter’s skill in depicting the fabrics of the clothes on the canvas was matched by an equal skill in depicting the jewelry: indeed, Bia is bejeweled as an adult, wearing dangling earrings with drop pearls, a choker necklace of pearls, and a gold chain necklace from which hangs a medallion with a profile effigy of her father Cosimo I.

Depicted seated in three-quarter view, she has been called the child version of the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi also made by Bronzino in about 1541, and although small, Bia has around her a stately aura, an innate grace as befitting a member of one of the richest and most important families of the time.

For so long kept in the Tribuna of the Uffizi, today the Portrait of Bia de’ Medici can be admired in what is considered the Bronzino and Medici room, along with magnificent masterpieces by the portrait painters of the Medici court, starting with Eleonora di Toledo, Bianca’s acquired mother who loved her with all her heart.

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