Eleonora di Toledo: life of a Duchess

To this day, the way we learn European history is still male-centred. It is not surprising then, that the history of the Medici family focuses mostly on the male members of the family: Cosimo the Elder, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Cosimo I and his two sons Francesco and Ferdinand. Yet, the story of the female members of the Medici family isn’t less interesting or less relevant. Lorenzo the Magnificent wouldn’t have become such a successful strategist without his mother Lucrezia Tornabuoni. The importance of the Medici family in Europe wouldn’t be the same without Caterina and Maria, the two Medici Queens of France. Florence would definitely not be the same without Eleonora di Toledo; the wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Duchess of Florence.

Thanks to the temporary exhibition at Palazzo Pitti “Eleonora di Toledo and the Invention of the Medici Court in Florence” curated by Bruce Edelstein and open until 14 May 2023, we can better understand the importance of Eleonora for Florence, for the Medici dynasty and for the Florentine art of the mid-16th century.

Eleonora di Toledo and her Spanish origin

Because of historians’ male gaze, Eleonora’s influence on Florence and her impact on the Florentine State has always been underestimated. Considering the relevance of women for the success of the Medici family, I don’t think it is right to call Eleonora exceptional. It would presume that female achievements were something unusual at the time, when it is us who continue to overlook them. Eleonora was definitely a privileged woman of her time, who managed to successfully fulfill the important functions life offered her.

Eleonora di Toledo con il figlio Francesco
Agnolo Bronzino, Eleonora di Toledo with her son Francesco, 1549, oil on wood, Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Reale, Pisa.

Eleonora di Toledo was born in 1522 in Alba de Tormes, Spain as daughter of Pedro Álvarez de Toledo y Zúñiga. In 1532, when Eleonora was 10 years old, her father took the office of Viceroy of Naples and began to rule the Kingdom of Naples in the name of Charles V. The family moved to Naples and young Eleonora assisted with the first years of her father’s rule; years of reform and investments in private residences of the family.

During the first decade of his presence in Naples, Pedro de Toledo achieved a greater control over the state. He centralized whole administration at Castel Capuano, promoted the construction of a new city wall and expanded the arsenal. At the same time he wanted to increase the prestige of his own family and thus he decided to invest in a new suburban residence in Pozzuoli, the Horti Toledani. This new residence included a palace, a garden and a working farm. The Horti Toledani gave reason for Pedro’s pride, the tangible sign of his campaign of restoration of the Kingdom of Naples and expression of the ambitions of de Toledo family.

Eleonora and Cosimo, a Ducal couple in Florence

The marriage of Pedro’s daughter Eleonora with the young Duke of Florence, Cosimo I de’ Medici, was part of this dynastic strategy. Also, for Cosimo, the choice of Eleonora for his consort presented a possibility of tightening his relations with the Habsburgs and Spain. The couple married by proxy, without even meeting in person, on March 29, 1539. The young seventeen year old Duchess arrived to Tuscany on June 22, 1539 and finally met with her newlywed husband Cosimo the day after.

The first surprising thing in this story is that Eleonora and Cosimo were a good match. Obviously, a “good match” in 16th-century Europe isn’t exactly the same as what we would expect from a happy couple today. In the past, the emotional world followed strict rules and every type of relationship was codified and ritualised.

Eleonora di Toledo e Cosimo I
Francesco Ferrucci del Tadda, Portraits of Cosimo I and Eleonora di Toledo, porphyry, 1560s, Museo del Bargello.

Family ties were governed by ‘philia’: a rational, long lasting love. Very much different from ‘eros’: an irrational, uncontrolled passion. In the past people considered eros an external force, that from time to time took temporary control over a human being. It was ‘phlia’ that united Cosimo and Eleonora and created their strong feeling of attachment, complicity, shared ambitions and aims. We know from contemporary accounts, that Cosimo was fully devoted to his wife. Vincenzo Fedeli, Venetian ambassador to the Florentine court, wrote that “after becoming prince, [Cosimo] never conversed with any woman other than the duchess his wife[1]”.

Eleonora’s Florence

Eleonora’s contribution to Cosimo’s rule was one of the factors that guaranteed the success of the young Duke. Cosimo’s plans for his Duchy were truly ambitious as they contemplated the enlargement of the state. In fact, by the end of the 1550’s, Cosimo managed to obtain the feudal rights over the territories of the Republic of Siena. In 1569, after Eleonora’s death, the Medici’s state was transformed into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, which reinforced the position of the Dynasty in the context of European diplomacy.

Florence, as the capital of the state, went through major transformations. Cosimo and Eleonora moved with their family to the ancient town hall, Palazzo dei Priori, and transformed the symbol of the Florentine Republic into the first Ducal palace of the Medici family. The palace was enlarged and decorated by Giorgio Vasari and the numerous artists active in his workshop.

During 1560, Vasari started to work on the construction of the new office complex for the Duke. The Uffizi soon became the administrative centre of the Duchy and a representative space where the Medici family displayed their wealth, position and ambitions as rulers of an important European state.

Eleonora as manager of family estates

Cosimo’s continued successes were made possible thanks to Eleonora and her share in the government. The wealth of the di Toledo family represented an important contribution to Cosimo’s rule. Not only did the marriage stipulations provide Cosimo with an immense dowry of 50,000 scudi, but the Duke continued to borrow money from his wife during all of her life. As Bruce Edelstein recalls, by 1553 Cosimo’s debts with Eleonora were so significant, that he granted her an annual income of 10,000 gold scudi from the Florentine salt tax[2].

Eleonora’s tasks at the court included management of the Medici’s estates, handling of wheat trade and activity in the commodities markets. By leaving the management of private goods of the family in Eleonora’s hands, it allowed the Medici’s to hide the obvious conflict of interests, as Eleonora’s main client was the Tuscan state ruled by her husband. In any case, Eleonora proved to be a skilful manager and a strong leader with vision and charisma.

Palazzo Pitti: the new Ducal residence for the Medici family

Eleonora’s most ambitious achievement was the purchase of vast properties from the Pitti family concluded in 1550. The estate included the fifteenth-century urban palace and vast green areas behind it. From the day of the purchase until her death in 1562 the development of the Pitti residence was at the centre of Eleonora’s attention. Niccolò Tribolo was hired to provide the projects for the garden. Baccio Bandinelli became responsible for the fountains and sculptures. Eleonora wanted to transform the Pitti complex into a suburban residence for her family where her husband and children (she gave birth to eleven children, eight of whom survived to maturity and four outlived their mother) could exercise sports, enjoy fresh air and physical activity.  The gardens were also thought as source of healthy food for the family. In fact, during the centuries the gardeners from the Boboli would contribute to the biodiversity of the different botanical families: roses, tomatoes, citrus fruits, by the development of new varieties and preservation of ancients and precious species.

Giusto Utens, Palazzo Pitti
Iustus van Utens, The Pitti Palace with the Boboli Gardens, 1599-1602, Villa la Petraia. 

The Pitti Palace was enlarged many times during its history. The first addition was the courtyard designed between 1560 and 1568 by Bartolomeo Ammannati, Eleonora’s favored artist. The courtyard functioned as a “filter” between the spaces of the palace and the garden. It would also be used as a stage for magnificent spectacles glorifying the Medici’s rule. This was the case for the grand celebrations of the wedding of Eleonora’s son Ferdinand with Christine of Lorrain in 1589. In order to imitate the spectacular ship battles organized by the Romans at the Colosseum, the Medici’s flooded the courtyard of their residence and enacted a ship battle between a Christian armada and the Ottomans[3]. The Pitti Palace became vital for the Medici’s diplomatic strategy. Together with the Uffizi complex, the palace and the gardens were at the center of the Medici’s display of power and authority.

“Eleonora di Toledo and the Invention of the Medici Court in Florence” – a temporary exhibition at Museo degli Argenti

Eleonora’s contribution to the success of Cosimo I was underestimated for many centuries. Today we can learn more about her thanks to the many recent publications and the exhibition “Eleonora di Toledo and the Invention of the Medici Court in Florence” curated by Bruce Edelstein. The show on display at Museo degli Argenti at the Pitti Palace provides you an intimate encounter with the duchess. Visiting the show is like entering into Eleonora’s private room. You meet with Eleonora’s family, her father, her husband Cosimo and their children. You can learn more about Eleonora’s plans and ambitions. The exhibition talks about Eleonora’s impact on the Florentine fashion and allows you to admire her jewels and objects dear to her. It is definitely worth visiting it if you’re in Florence this spring. The exhibition is open until May 14, 2023.

If you want to discover Eleonora’s world, learning more about the Duchess, contact me for a private guided tour of this important exhibition!

Suggested reading on Eleonora di Toledo:

Bruce Edelstein, Eleonora di Toledo and the Creation of the Boboli Gardens, Livorno 2022.

Janet Cox-Rearick, Bronzino’s Chapel of Eleonora in the Palazzo Vecchio. Berkeley 1993.

Janet Cox-Rearick, Power-Dressing at the Courts of Cosimo de’ Medici and Frangois I: The “moda alia spagnola” of Spanish Consorts Eleonore d’Autriche and Eleonora di Toledo, “Artibus et Historiae”, Vol. 30, No. 60 (2009), pp. 39-69.

Eleonora di Toldo e l’invenzione della corte dei Medici a Firenze, ed. Bruce Edelstein, Valentina Conticelli, Livorno 2023.

Bruce Edelstein, “La fecundissima Signora Duchessa: The Courtly Persona of Eleonora di Toledo and the Iconography of Abundance”, in: The Cultural World of Eleonora di Toledo: Duchess of Florence and Siena, ed. Konrad Eisenbichler, Aldershot 2004, pp. 71-97.

Bruce Edelstein, “Eleonora di Toledo e la gestione dei beni familiari: una strategia economica?”, in: Donne di Potere nel Rinascimento, ed. Letizia Arcangeli,Susanna Peyronel, Roma: 2008, pp. 743-764.


[1] Bruce Edelstein, “Eleonora di Toledo,” Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England, eds. D. Robin, A. Larsen & C. Levin, Denver 2007, p. 363.

[2] Bruce Edelstein, Eleonora di Toledo and the Creation of the Boboli Gardens, Livorno 2022, p.30.

[3] Maria Alberti, Battaglie navali, scorrerie corsare e politica dello spettacolo: Le Naumachie medicee del 1589, “California Italian Studies”, 1(1) 2010, pp. 19-27.