Portraits of Children by Agnolo Bronzino

Wealthy families used portraits of their children dressed lavishly and portrayed as miniature adults as a form of propaganda, advertising their wealth, power, and lineage. By depicting their very young children in opulent clothing and posed with expensive objects, they are showing that this type of lifestyle is their child’s birthright.  These paintings always show the children as respectable and well-mannered. They may look like children, but their demeanor is far more adult-like.  This gives the impression of maturity and power, which are traits families would like to have associated with their heirs.  By portraying children in this light, their parents are advertising their goals and desires for the child’s future success.  

Agnolo Bronzino worked as a portrait painter for the Medici family of Florence, Italy [9].  The enormously wealthy family had made their fortune from banking.  The patriarch, Cosimo I de' Medici was the Grand Duke of Tuscany.  He and his wife Eleonora of Toledo commissioned Bronzino to paint their children in a way that reflected their reputation as affluent and powerful.[10] 



The focus in the portrait is Eleonora, but the choice to include her son Giovanni was no afterthought.  Her ornately embroidered dress, a string of pearls around her neck, and a gold and bejeweled chain around her waist complete with a tassel of hundreds of tiny pearls demonstrates the family’s wealth.  Her arm around her young son indicates not only a protective maternal gesture but a transfer of power from mother to son.  There is a similar distant look in the eyes of both of the sitters, a common convention in Renaissance portraiture of adults.[11]



Bronzino’s portrait of the third son of the Medici family, García, is a prime example of the way families would use portraits of their children as status symbols.  García, though only about eighteen months old[12], has remarkable posture and a serious demeanor.  The pudgy cheeks and disheveled hair are the only childlike traits he possesses.  Bronzino omits any gestures or expressions that would be typical of a child, encouraging viewers to see him as a capable heir to the Dukedom [13].  The way he holds the gold chain and amulet delicately as if understanding its value and showing it off does not reflect the way a child would actually hold such an object.  His stiff red and gold clothing adorned with pearl encrusted collar and cuffs seem an impractical outfit for a child of this age.  Both his clothing and his demeanor foreshadow the powerful man he will become.



This portrait features another of Cosimo I’s sons, Giovanni.  Bronzino painted human figures as accurately as a still life, which is in part what made him indispensable in the Medicean court.  Young Giovanni’s brilliant red clothing and gold chains are remarkably lifelike.  In his hand, he holds a goldfinch, a symbol of the resurrection of Christ, which indicates a strong affiliation with his religion.  Giovanni grew up to be a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church[14].  Perhaps his parents had decided his future early in his life and chose to portray him to the world holding a symbol of Christ and dressed in red.  As a Cardinal, Giovanni would wear the traditional red cassock, the color signifying the blood of Christ.



"When I look at them, I think them so many angels, and when I listen to them, they seem to be spirits from heaven"[15].

In a letter written during his time in Pisa working for the Medici family, Bronzino described the children of Cosimo I as "angelic", "wise", and "beautiful" and compares them to angels[16].  In this portrait of Cosimo I's daughter Bia, we get a sense of the grace that he saw in these children.  Bia's face relays a sweetness characteristic of a child, but her posture and dress are very adult-like.  Her faint smile is more reserved than the one we see in her brother Giovanni's portrait.  The way her hand delicately rests on the arm of the chair indicates grace and elegance, traits the family would want the public to see in their daughter.



Bronzino did not exclusively paint the members of the Medici family.  In this painting, he depicted Christ and St. John as young children.  Of the five figures in this painting, Christ is the only one whose body and gaze are oriented directly towards the viewer.  The viewer’s gaze and the other eyes in the painting are directed towards Christ.  Bronzino captures the anatomy of a child but still makes it very clear that Christ holds a tremendous amount of power.  Bronzino’s theme of using children to announce power and influence seen in his paintings of the Medici children is also evident in this devotional painting.

[9] Marco Grassi, "Bronzino at Cosimo's Court." New Criterion 29, no. 4: 17 (2010) Biography Reference Bank (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed December 7, 2017).

[10] Bruce L. Edelstein; Sheryl E. Reiss, “Bronzino in the service of Eleonora di Toledo and Cosimo I de' Medici : conjugal patronage and the painter-courtier,” Beyond Isabella: secular women patrons of art in Renaissance Italy, (2001).

[11] John Pope-Hennessy, The Portrait in the Renaissance. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989), 3.

[12] Museo del Prado, “Don García de' Medici.” museumdelprado.es, 2015, Accessed 10/20/17, https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/don-garcia-de-medici/6f8d435b-e9f4-4caf-bfed-58129b5de124.

[13] Museo del Prado, "Don García de' Medici.”

[14] “Ritratto di Eleonora di Toledo col Figlio Giovanni” uffizi.com, Accessed November 10, 2017.  http://www.uffizi.com/painting-ritratto-di-eleonora-di-toledo-col-figlio-giovanni-uffizi-gallery.aspx.

[15] Pope-Hennessy, Portrait, 184-185.

[16] Pope-Hennessy, Portrait, 183.

Portraits of Children by Agnolo Bronzino