At the end of the gallery overlooking the Salone dei Cinquecento are the apartments of Eleonora of Toledo (the wife of Duke Cosimo I), which were once located directly above Cosimo’s own rooms (now used as offices) and directly beneath those of her eleven children (yes, eleven children).
The Duchess used this room, known as the “Green Room,” to receive visitors and to manage her quite extensive household.
Unfortunately, the landscape frescoes that gave this room its name are now lost, but the grotesques (painted by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio) remain.
Grotesques mimicked ancient Roman frescoes, making them all the rage in a time when anything “classical” was considered higher art. In his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Giorgio Vasari, Medici court painter, explains:
The Camera Verde is the link between the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti, so named because it was once the residence of the Pitti family, one of the Medici’s main rivals. Duchess Eleonora was so independently wealthy that she bought the Palazzo Pitti with her own money, thereby expanding the Medici residence into a complex that stretched over the Arno river via what is now known as the Vasari Corridor (a corridor that runs along the top of the Ponte Vecchio). The Vasari corridor was designed by – you guessed it – Giorgio Vasari, and it allowed the royal family to traverse from their residence at the Pitti Palace over the Arno river and through the Uffizi to the seat of government without ever stepping out into public.
The Vasari Corridor would have been lost to history during World War II had it not been for the intervention of one man: Gerhard Wolf. Wolf was the Nazi Consul to Florence and used his position to work against the Nazi cause by saving many Jews, including famous art historian Bernard Berenson, as well as spiriting art away from the city to keep it out of Nazi hands. When it became clear that the Nazis had to retreat from Florence, they began to dismantle and destroy any and all modes of transportation that the Allies could use to advance, including all the bridges. Wolf managed to convince the Nazi higher-ups that the Ponte Vecchio had no strategic value for the Allies and so resources should not be wasted to blow it up. The Nazis agreed and allowed the bridge to stand. Fascinating what a single person can accomplish in the face of tyranny.
Chapel of Eleonora
This next room served as the Duchess’ private chapel, accessible via the Camera Verde. She commissioned her favorite artist, Agnolo di Cosimo, known as Bronzino, to decorate it.
Wherefore the Duke, having recognized the ability of this man [Bronzino], caused him to set his hand to adorning a chapel of no great size in the Ducal Palace for the said Lady Duchess, a woman of true worth, if ever any woman was, and for her infinite merits worthy of eternal praise.Giorgio Vasari. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Studium Publishing.
The altarpiece, Deposition of Christ, is actually a second version of Bronzino’s first, which had been gifted to Nicolas Perrenot de Granvelle, chancellor to Emperor Charles V. The Deposition is a typical pieta, showing Christ in his mother’s arms, alluding to his promised rebirth.
The apostle John is placing Christ in his mother’s arms while on the right, Mary Magdalene is holding Christ’s feet. Above the scene, angels hold the symbols of the Passion (the cross, the column, the lance, and the sponge).
This work depicts Florentine mannerism at its finest. Mannerism is typified by agitated movement, intense emotion, and deep color schemes; look at the similarities between this altarpiece and Raphael’s Transfiguration, another famous work of mannerism (albeit Roman mannerism.)
Each altarpiece has similar color schemes, disorganized movement, muscular bodies positioned in awkward poses, and emotion. The figures in mannerist art are not passive depictions, but actual actors in the scene.
The vault of the Chapel depicts the Archangel Michael vanquishing the Devil (center), St. Francis receiving the stigmata (to the right), St. Jerome in the desert (not pictured), and St. John the Evangelist (to the left).
The three-faced head in the center is supposed to represent the Holy Trinity (God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit). Although quite faded, Bronzino overlaid the three-faced head with the Medici-Toledo coat of arms.
The walls of the Chapel are decorated with scenes from the life of Moses, including the crossing of the Red Sea, the appointment of Joshua, the spring miraculously gushing from the rocks, manna falling from the sky, and the adoration of the bronze serpent.
Interestingly, those drowning in the Red Sea (in the fresco on the right) are not Egyptians, but Ottomans. The symbolism would not be lost on contemporary Florentines: Cosimo I is the “new” Moses, leading his people out of reach of the Ottomans and towards safety.
Sala delle Sabine
The rest of the Duchess’ rooms are dedicated to storied women from the past.
So in the rooms above, of which there are four, painted for the Lady Duchess Eleonora, there are actions of illustrious Greek, Jewish, Latin, and Tuscan women, one in each room.Vasari. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Studium Publishing.
The first, Sala delle Sabine, depicts the Sabine Hersilia, wife of Romulus, the founder of Rome, throwing herself between the Romans and the Sabines. According to legend, the Romans kidnapped women from the neighboring tribe, as apparently they were lacking females within their own city. Understandably outraged, the fathers of the women proceeded to attack the Romans. Caught in the middle, the Sabine women intervened between their now-husbands and their fathers, persuading each side to lay down their arms. Such decorations allude to the Duchess’ supposed talent as a mediator.
Sala di Ester
The next room, the Sala di Ester, celebrates the Jewish heroine Ester, who begged her husband, Ahasuerus, King of Persia, to spare her people at great risk to herself (King Ahasuerus was unaware of her ancestry and he had decided to destroy the Jewish race). Ester is depicted kneeling in front of King Ahasuerus, who has extended his sceptre as a sign of pardon.
Sala di Penelope
The Sala di Penelope celebrates Penelope, wife of Ulysses (Odysseus), King of Ithaca. Ulysses left Ithaca and his wife Penelope to fight with the Greeks in the Trojan war, which lasted ten years. Ulysses, however, was waylaid on his return journey, keeping him away from home for yet another ten years. During these twenty years, multiple suitors offered to marry Penelope (as it was assumed Ulysses had died). To avoid remarriage, Penelope told the suitors that she would remarry once she had finished weaving a shroud for Ulysses’ father, Laertes.
Young men, my suitors, now that King Odysseus is no more, go slowly, keen as you are to marry me, until I can finish off this web ... so my weaving won't all fray and come to nothing. This is a shroud for old lord Laertes, for that day when the deadly fate that lays us out at last will take him down.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Books.
Every day, she would weave, but every night, she would unravel all the work that she had accomplished during the day so that she would never have to remarry.
So by day she'd weave at her great and growing web- by night, by the light of torches set beside her, she would unravel all she'd done.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Books.
Thus, Penelope symbolizes fidelity and patience, two virtues Florentine men apparently prized, if only in their womenfolk.
You can see the Medici devices embedded throughout the ceiling: on the right is the Capricorn (Cosimo’s astrological sign) while on the left is a tortoise holding a sail (embodying Cosimo’s motto, Hasten Slowly).
Sala di Gualdrada
The last room celebrates Gualdrada, a Florentine woman who refused to kiss Emperor Otto IV, stating that she would only kiss her future husband. Thus, Gualdrada represented modesty and virtue, as well as Florentine independence. Interestingly, Cosimo’s marriage to Eleonora (the daughter of Don Pedro di Alvarez di Toledo, who served as Emperor Charles V’s viceroy in Naples) only served to tighten Florence’s ties with the Holy Roman Empire. Perhaps Gualdrada’s inclusion within Eleonora’s apartments was meant to assuage any fears that the Duchess lacked independence from the Empire.
Gualdrada is standing in the middle of the fresco, while the personification of Florence is depicted holding the Fleur de Lis and stretched out on a lion, two of the main symbols of Florence. Once again, Medici symbols are embedded on either side of the main fresco.