Joanna of Austria (1547-1578) was the youngest child of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria. In December 1565 Joanna wed Francesco I de’ Medici, uniting the Medici and Hapsburg dynasties. Although her marriage was not a happy one, Joanna bore eight children, and one of her daughters, Maria (1575-1642), became the queen of France.
Around 1565 Alessandro Allori (1535-1607) began to assume from his master Bronzino the mantle of principal court portraitist. The present newly discovered portrait is Joanna’s earliest Florentine state portrait, and is a superb example of Allori’s painting style in the second half of the 1560s.
Although the historical sources confirm that Joanna was not a beauty, Allori shows the sensitivity and youth in the young woman’s face. Her blue eyes are complemented by her pale auburn eyebrows and apricot lips. Her sumptuous garments (with baragoni, the pleated or bunched material at the top of the shoulder) are adorned with bands of embroidered silver and gold. Her jewelry befits a duchess. In 1567-1568 her father-in-law, Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, gave her several long strands of large pearls, likely those that are looped around her neck. In her hair Joanna wears a stunning jeweled garland of alternating pearls and huge emeralds. The garland was in fact a necklace of gold, pearls and emeralds set in multi-colored enamel mounts. Documents trace its manufacture in 1567. It remained a Medici family jewel until after the demise of the last of the Medici, when like the rest of the Medici jewels it was disassembled, recycled or sold. Suspended from her pearls is the massive gold pendant set with a squared ruby, oblong emerald and giant pearl that reappears in other portraits of Joanna, as do her urn-shaped earrings. The earrings are dark green, and are made of either emeralds or green-colored enamel on gold, with gold mounts for the finial, handles and base. The body of the earrings was filled with a perfumed paste.
The portrait of Joanna of Austria exemplifies Allori’s virtuosity in painting the differing textures of garments and jewels. The filaments of silver and gold on the dark mantle are raised strokes of paint that are calculated to catch the light and shimmer. The minute gold handles and mounts on her earrings are also in relief, giving these tiny details a sculptural presence. The fabric of Joanna’s simple white undershirt is painted in thick creamy strokes, its pleated ruffle turns in and out on itself in a casual yet dazzling series of folds. The tiny dashes punctuating the hem of the ruffle twist and turn in space. These details are identical to similar passages in Allori’s Portrait of Bianca Cappello (Florence, Uffizi) and Portrait of a Noblewoman (Florence, Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti), both from the late 1560s or early 1570s.
The quality of these details is superior to that found in the copies and related paintings of the same subject. Extended versions including Joanna’s lower body were also produced. Giovanni Bizzelli, one of Allori’s students, who is the author of many of the copies, clearly had access to and utilized Allori’s original cartoon. A version in the Museo degli Argenti of the Palazzo Pitti, which traditionally had been considered the best of the versions, is now considered to be mostly the work of Allori’s assistants. In that replica Joanna’s facial features are more linear and harsh; the form of her ear more convoluted; the tiny pleats in the ruffle of her shirt are formulaic; and the wispy tufts of what appear to be fur at the juncture between the baragoni with her white undershirt are just smears of paint. The present picture is distinguished from all its replicas by the harmonious proportions of Joanna’s head and body: in the replicas her head seems slightly too small for her voluminous garments. Another factor that sets the Allori prototype apart is Joanna’s visible sleeve, a creamy satin with gold braid. It is not only unique among the various replicas but also Allori has deftly modeled the arm with shadow and light. Details such as this are lost in the many copies and replicas, which faithfully reproduce the outlines of the image, but capture none of its subtlety.