Pontormo (called by the name of his birthplace) was esteemed by the Medicis for his ability to capture the individuality of his sitters, while emphasizing their aristocratic demeanor. Maria Salviati was the wife of famous military leader Giovanni delle Bande Nere de’ Medici (d. 1526) and the mother of Cosimo I (1519-1574), grand duke of Tuscany. The little girl holding her hand here is probably Giulia, a Medici relative who was left in Maria’s care after the murder of the child’s father, Duke Alessandro de’ Medici (1511-1537). As Alessandro was born of a liaison between a Medici cardinal and a servant who, tradition has it, was African, this formal portrait may be the first of a girl of African ancestry in European art. The child was painted over sometime during the 19th century but was rediscovered during a 1937 cleaning of the work.
Although Maria still wears the clothing of mourning for her deceased husband, Pontormo’s elegant style conveys her aristocratic grace through her impossibly long fingers and her fashionably pale color (indicative of a life led out of the sun), which she shares with Giulia.
This painting will be featured in the Walters’ upcoming exhibition Face to Face, the African Presence in Renaissance Europe (opening October 2012).
Be sure to search out and follow the excellent work by Mario Valdes on the African presence in European history.