Undoubtedly, when a state portrait is painted, a little propaganda sneaks its way into the work of art. In this portrait by Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1545, Eleonora of Toledo wears a dress of striking brocaded velvet. Although the sumptuousness of the fabric, which is woven with silver threads on the ground, a pattern of black velvet and silver and gold brocaded effect, is indicative of her rank in society, the cut and construction of her garments are conventional for the time and place; in 16th century Italy, the distinctions in dress between classes was not defined by different types of garments, but by quality of materials and tailoring.
Much about the construction of this garment can be gleaned from the study of her burial clothing, which underwent an extensive restoration and is kept at the Galleria del Costume in Florence; the general shape and construction of Florentine clothing varied very little in the approximately twenty years between the date of this portrait and Eleonora’s burial in 1562.
Another extant garment of the 1560s, a red silk velvet gown on display at the Museo di Palazzo Reale in Pisa, has applied trim in an identical placement to Eleonora’s burial clothing. It is similar in construction, and its sleeves have a comparable silhouette to the ones in the Bronzino portrait, although they do not appear to be cut in panels. This gown may have very well belonged to Eleonora as well, or at least to one of her ladies-in-waiting.
Perhaps the most discerning aspect of the gown from the Bronzino portrait is its magnificent silk fabric. Renaissance Italy was renowned for its silk mills, and what better way to distinguish the Duchess’ rank by enrobing her in the most decadent example of rich weaving available? An existing textile from the Museo del Bargello is identical to the one depicted in the portrait.
In some ways, this garment almost appears too good to have existed. There is speculation among scholars that Bronzino may have painted Eleonora in a gown of conventional fashion, and was given a textile to copy. Eleonora’s wardrobe had been recorded, albeit incompletely, and this gown does not appear in the records.
But a gown of such splendor surely couldn’t have been dismissed from wardrobe accounts, could it?
Regardless of whether or not this particular dress actually existed or was an imagined conglomerate of typical Florentine dress and an extraordinary example of Italian silk weaving, the dynastic portrait of Eleonora of Toledo reflects a fashion that was entirely appropriate to her wealth and status in mid-16th century Florence.
And for those who believe that all fashion comes around again, or if you fancy dressing in a contemporary interpretation of the fashion of the Duchess of Medici, it looks like you’re in luck this season!