This recently rediscovered portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga not only constitutes an exciting addition to the corpus of portraits by the Flemish-born painter, Giusto Suttermans, but also broadens our understanding of the close political bonds between the Medici, Gonzaga and Habsburg dynasties at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The details concerning its commission and subsequent history are described in meticulous detail by Lisa Goldenberg Stoppato, who identified the present painting as the lost portrait of the empress by Suttermans that appears in several old Medici inventories (loc. cit.).
Eleonora is portrayed wearing an extraordinary gray silk gown decorated with flowers and exotic birds and adorned with seed pearls, gold embroidery and passementerie. The pointed lace ruff and cuffs, along with the cut of the gown itself, are perfectly in tune with the Italian fashions of the early 1620s, and would have cost an enormous sum. The sitter’s wealth and status are further communicated by the two large pearls that hang from her gold and diamond earrings, along with the oval pendant with the Austrian coat of arms: a double-headed, crowned black eagle. As Goldenberg Stoppato notes, Eleonora’s identity is confirmed through comparison to Suttermans’ portrait of the Empress Eleonora Gonzaga that he painted between late 1623 and early 1624, during his visit to Vienna (Florence, Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina; fig. 1). Here, the Empress has a somewhat more youthful appearance, suggesting that our portrait was painted some years earlier.
Eleonora was the youngest daughter of Vincenzo I Gonzaga (1562-1612) and Eleonora de’ Medici (1584-1611). Following the death of her parents, the young girl was entrusted to her aunt Margherita Gonzaga (1564-1618) in Mantua. When Ferdinand von Habsburg became King of Bohemia in 1617, Eleonora’s older brother Ferdinando Gonzaga (1587-1626) launched a campaign to introduce his sister to the king as a potential bride. In this endeavor, he was aided by the king’s younger sister, Maria Magdalena von Habsburg (1587-1631), Archduchess of Tuscany through her marriage to Cosimo II de’ Medici (1593-1621), who also happened to be Ferdinando’s sister-in-law. In 1618, Maria Magdalena commissioned the Florentine painter Tiberio Titi (1573-1627) to produce two portraits of Princess Eleonora, which were quickly sent to Vienna, where they won the affection of the king. After he was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1621, however, Ferdinand had yet to choose a bride from the numerous matches that had been proposed to him. Negotiations progressed well, however, and on 21 November 1621, the princess was wed by proxy to the Emperor in a ceremony in Mantua.
To celebrate the wedding, Maria Magdalena commissioned a new portrait of the young empress, turning to Giusto Suttermans, who had only recently arrived in Florence. Suttermans would only become official court portraitist to Maria Magdalena two years later, and accordingly, as Goldenberg Stoppato has observed, this commission constituted an important step in his relationship with the ducal family (loc. cit., p. 177). Suttermans traveled to Mantua in late 1621—the journey is documented by Filippo Baldinucci, Suttermans’s early biography, who records that the artist traveled to Mantua shortly after the death of Grand Duke Cosimo II, specifically to capture Eleonora’s likeness (loc. cit.)—and returned to Florence with the half-length portrait in January 1622. Since the Archduchess had already sent another portrait of Eleonora to the Emperor (almost certainly, as Goldenberg Stoppato has shown, the full-length portrait in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, begun by Tiberio Titi and adapted by Suttermans, op. cit., pp. 189-190, fig. 9), Maria Magdalena decided to keep the present portrait in her personal collection. It is recorded in the Medici Guardaroba on 5 January 1622, and is documented again in 1631, when it was transferred to the Galleria degli Uffizi, following Maria’s death in 1631. In 1678, it was transferred to the Palazzo Pitti, where it was included in an exhibition of paintings by Suttermans, organized by Baldinucci for Grand Duke Cosimo III (L. Goldenberg Stoppato, op. cit., p. 187). Precisely when and how the portrait left the Medici collection remains unknown. Goldenberg Stoppato has identified two Florentine copies (the first by Francesco Bianchi Buonavita, painted in 1622 for Caterina de’ Medici, on long-term loan to the Carabinieri station in the ex-convent of San Salvatore in Ognissanti; the second dates to the eighteenth or nineteenth century and is in the Museo Stibbert, Florence).