It is said that “Every picture tells a story”. Some may want to qualify the idiom and add, “but it’s not always clear what story is being told.”
The marriage scene above presents several narratives and characters. It was painted by Giorgio Vasari sometime between 1559 and 1562 for the room in the Palazzo Vecchio dedicated to Pope Clement VII.
Notice that the picture is generally divided into two areas – men on the left, women on the right – except for the kneeling male figure at the right edge of the frame and for the man with the heavy moustache and hook nose behind the Pope’s shoulder and looking towards the group of women.
The latter is Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan until his assassination on December 26 1476. From this it can be clearly understood that he was not present at the marriage of Henri and Catherine fifty-five years later. So why has he been given such an important place at the Pope’s shoulder in Vasari’s painting?
It is the first of many clues and links to the work that was the source of inspiration for Vasari, the painting by Botticelli known as Primavera.
Botticelli gave more than one identity to the figures he painted in Primavera. The figure referred to as Mars, has several identities, one of which is Giuliano de’ Medici who, like Galeazzo Sforza, was assassinated in a cathedral some sixteen months later.
Notice the Mars-Giuliano figure in Primavera stands in a contrapposto pose with his back to the women in the painting and facing the edge of the frame. Vasari places Galeazzo Sforza in an opposite direction facing the group of women. Unlike the Giuliano figure, only the head of Galeazzo is shown and is covered by a cloth cap similar to the one worn by the woman next to him, Fioretta Gorini, the mother of Pope Clement VII.
Galeazzo was the son of Francesco I Sforza, a condottiere who founded the Sforza dynasty in the duchy of Milan, hence the name given to Galeazzo (meaning ‘helmet’) and the helmet shape of the cloth. But there are other reasons why the head of Galeazzo is depicted in this way.
When he was assassinated at the entrance to Milan Cathedral, three men took part in the attack, led by Giovanni Andrea Lampugnani who attempted to escape by crossing over to the seating in the cathedral reserved for women where he was caught and killed (see the red-handed figure fleeing towards the group of women in the illustration above). His head was cut off and with those of the other assassins displayed on the cathedral bell tower.
So now it can be understood why the Duke of Milan is partly disguised wearing a woman’s headdress, and why Vasari gave him a moustache to also identify him as a male with his head turned to the women’s side of the painting. The head placed on the Pope’s shoulder is also a pointer to the severed head of Lampugnani – a double-head feature borrowed from Primavera and located on the shoulder of the Flora figure.
The bell-shaped headdress refers to the bell-tower. Galeazzo is depicted in shade which indicates the dark side of his sadistic personality and the biblical reference to not hiding one’s light – or Lamp(pugnani) – under a bushel. That Galeazzo is portrayed as both a man and a woman refers to the claims of him being bisexual and who raped both women and men.
Galeazzo’s features are modelled on his portrait painted by Piero Benci which is now housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Vasari has also referenced and connected the portrait in another part of his painting which I will explain in future post.
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