The information on a label accompanying a work of art in the galleries conveys compelling information about the work and the artist. But sometimes the background story is just as fascinating. Such is the case with Portrait of a Lady, a painting from about 1580 that offers visitors a much richer representation of the complexities of Florentine Mannerism.
The Museum received the painting in 1996 as a bequest from the estate of Mary Plant Faust. While Museum staff realized the painting would significantly enrich the collection of Florentine Mannerism, formal accessioning into the collection would not occur until April 2017 as further research, technical investigation, and cleaning were required. That complicated and time-consuming work accelerated after the 2012 hiring of Claire Winfield, associate painting conservator. Winfield and Judith Mann, curator of European art to 1800, began the extensive research and conservation processes, discovering unknowns about the artist and this work.
Originally titled Portrait of a Medici Princess, the painting initially was attributed to the Mannerist painter Agnolo Bronzino. Upon researching its ownership history, a photograph of the portrait was discovered by Mann with a notation attributing the work to a different artist—Alessandro Allori.
Allori trained under Bronzino, and he often adopted his master’s style of painting elegantly posed sitters with alabaster skin tones. Mann consulted with other art historians, and the scholars agreed that Allori likely was the creator noting a style reflecting that of his master. But those suspicions couldn’t be confirmed until Winfield conducted extensive conservation work.
During that process, it was discovered that the painting was in stable structural condition but was compromised aesthetically, including water damage that caused vertical ridges. In addition, the painting’s detailed brushwork and vibrant colors were obscured by old, synthetic varnish, which becomes gray and matte over time.
When the varnish was removed, new details emerged. Several areas of pentimenti—or changes by the artist—became visible on the surface. With the use of infrared reflectography areas of underdrawings and changes were revealed. Most significantly, the sitter’s right hand was redrawn and moved—apparently to add an opulent, jeweled pendant on the necklace.
The conservation project also led to another discovery—the sitter was identified as Camilla Martelli de’ Medici, the mistress and, eventually, second wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Florentine nobleman who would become the first Grand Duke of Tuscany. Camilla enjoyed a lavish and ostentatious lifestyle until her husband’s death, at which time Cosimo’s son ordered her to be sequestered in a convent for the rest of her life. She was described as vain, superficial, and often adorned with copious amounts of jewelry. The square-jeweled pendant that was added to this portrait suggests Allori took pains to record not only his subject’s features and luxurious wardrobe, but also to immortalize her focus on worldly possessions