Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

Full view of the painting

  • Title: Beatrice d'Este from the Pala Sforzesca (Sforza Altarpiece)
  • Creator: Master of the Pala Sforzesca
  • Description:

    Ludovico Sforza ruled as regent for his nephew Gian Galeazzo Sforza, rightful heir to the Duchy of Milan, from 1476-1494 while attempting to secure the title of Duke of Milan for himself. The early 1490s saw Gian Galeazzo produce a legitimate heir and gain popular support, undermining the control Ludovico had held for nearly 15 years. In response, Ludovico began to commission a wave of portraits and religious art which emphasized his political power, connection to the city of Milan, and familial ties.

    In this altarpiece, painted the year Ludovico was named Duke of Milan, following his nephew’s death, Ludovico, his wife Beatrice , and two small children kneel in front of the seated Virgin Mary, who holds the infant Christ in her lap. Behind these figures stand the four Latin Doctors of the Church: St. Ambrose, Gregory the Great, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome. St. Ambrose, patron saint of Milan, places a hand on the Ludovico’s shoulder, symbolically both protecting the Duke and endorsing his power.

    The child on the left, aged about four, is probably an illegitimate son, born to Ludovico and Cecilia Gallerani (the subject of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Woman with Ermine) in 1491, just after his marriage to Beatrice. Earlier scholars studying the painting frequently identified the older child as Maximilian Sforza, Ludovico and Beatrice’s first legitimate son. However, more recent study of the painting has dated it to 1494, at which point Maximilian would have been only an infant. More likely, he is the child kneeling next to Beatrice, still dressed in swaddling clothes. In order to portray his rule over Milan as legitimate, Ludovico was compelled not only to highlight his own power but also make known his ability to assure the longevity of the Sforza dynasty, through his heirs. The prominent place of Ludovico’s bastard son in the painting shows that this need for heirs was strong enough to override social conventions that might otherwise discourage the public appearance of illegitimate children with their noble fathers.

    Beatrice d’Este, Ludovico’s wife, also features prominently in the painting, indicating her important political role. Beatrice was a member of the d’Este family, a well-established aristocratic dynasty who ruled over the city of Ferrara and also held lands in Germany. Through her lineage, which included ties to the royal family of Naples and Aragon through her mother, Beatrice brought added legitimacy to the newly-established Sforzas (Ludovico’s grandfather Francesco, a mercenary general, had been the first Sforza Duke of Milan) . Beatrice was known for her ability to use charm to her political advantage, and occasionally traveled with Milanese diplomatic embassies to other courts on behalf of her husband. Her sophisticated artistic taste was also well-known, and she helped bring notable artists such as Leonardo da Vinci to visit the Sforza court. Her death in childbirth in 1497 marked the end of a cultural highpoint in Milan.

    Lavish clothing is used in the painting to convey Ludovico’s political aims and display his power. All four members of the Duke’s family are dressed in some combination of gold, black, and blue-gray, which may be a reference to the colors of the Sforza coat of arms. These colors were inherited from the Visconti, Milan’s previous ruling dynasty. Through their use, rather than the use of Ludovico’s personal red and white, a connection was established with the state’s historical rulers which put the emphasis on noble lineage rather than Ludovico’s individual character, reinforcing his claim to have rightfully inherited the duchy. Beatrice is dressed in particularly ornate versions of typical clothing for the era. Her sleeves, slashed and tied with ribbon to show folds of her linen underdress, were common, but the length and quantity of ribbons demonstrates a certain extravagance. Tinagli cites contemporaries who describe Beatrice as “the inventor of new fashions,” and the letters she exchanged with her sister Isabella document their delight in luxurious clothes. Her style is echoed here more subtly on the two children. Fabric sheen was an important indicator of status in Renaissance Italy-- so much that it was regulated by sumptuary laws in some areas. Clergy in Renaissance Italy wrote frequently of their concern about the extravagance of women’s dress in church. The jeweled, reflective, and richly textured clothes of Beatrice and her family contribute heavily to the painting’s narrative of an eminently powerful Sforza family who, while pious and just, could stand above the rules of church and state when they chose.

    The Pala Sforzesca was originally commissioned for the Chiesa Sant’Ambrogio ad Nemus, which was dedicated to Ambrose, patron saint of Milan. Given the painting’s large size, it is unlikely that there were other panels included in the altarpiece.

  • Source: 1) The blog Istituto Statale d'Arte Catania, "Bocca di dama alla maniera mantovana."
    2) Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: 1) Labeled for non-commercial reuse in a Google search.
    2) Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Altarpieces Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and Saint Beatrice d'Este, Wife of Ludovico Sforza of Milan Donor Portraits Fashion Illegitimacy Milan, Milano, Italy Sforza Family
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1494
  • Related Work: Additional Representations of Beatrice d'Este:
    Bust of Beatrice, Louvre
    Marriage grant from Ludovico Sforza to his wife Beatrice d'Este, British Library, Add MS 21413, f. 1. Profiles of the couple are painted in the upper corners of the document
    Tomb effigies of Beatrice and Ludovico, Certosa
  • Current Location: Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera, Reg. Cron. 451
  • Original Location: Milan, Chiesa Sant’Ambrogio ad Nemus
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Paintings;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Wood panel; Oil; Tempera;
  • Donor: Layman; Ludovico Maria Sforza, il Moro, duke of Milan
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 230/165/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Beatrice d’Este 1475-1497. Edited by Luisa Giordano. Edizioni ETS, 2008;
    Frick, Carole Collier. Dressing Renaissance Florence: Families, Fortunes and Fine Clothing. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002;
    James, Carolyn, “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Dynastic Politics and Motherhood in the Letters of Eleonora of Aragon and her Daughters,” Women’s History Review 24, 4 (2015): 528-547;
    Lopez, Guido. Festa di nozze per Ludovico il Moro: Fasti nuziali e intrighi di potere alla corte degli Sforza, tra Milano, Vigevano e Ferrara. Ugo Mursia Editore, 2008;
    Shell, Janice, and Grazioso Sironi, “Cecilia Gallerani: Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine,” Artibus et Historiae 13, 25 (1992): 47 – 66;
    Tinagli, Paola. Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation and Identity. Manchester University Press, 1997. Page 62;
    Welch, Evelyn S. Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan. Yale University Press, 1995.