The Birth of Isabetta



Florentine Financiers in Flanders

Posted by Isabetta on May 18, 2011

All too often it is easy to focus so much on one particular area for history, culture and society. However, in reality, trade and travel spread ideas from point to point in medieval Europe. The reality of this hit me the other day when I stumbled upon “Saint Catherine of Bologna with three donors.”

Bologna is about 75 miles north of Florence. While St. Catherine is a fascinating topic unto herself, the thing that got me most about this portrait is the two women. The lady in red is in typical Italian fashion of the 1470s. Meanwhile the lady behind her is in typical Flemish garb. After some digging and a very nifty jstor access, I devoured an article by Margaret Koster titled “Reconsidering ‘St. Catherine of Bologna with Three Donors’ by the Baroncelli Master of Bruges” and found some of these three people’s story.

The gentleman is Giacomo di Giovanni Loiani, a Bolognese merchant. Records indicate his first appeared in Antwerp in the summer of 1485. He was residing there between 1497 to 1503 with his first wife was Flemish, Marie van Stakenborch (also known as Maria Fiamminga). When Giacomo returned to Bologna in 1508, it appears Marie was already dead. In 1510, the new senator married Elisabetta Calderini. Giacomo rose in Bolognese society and died a very wealthy man sometime after 1544. It is thought the portrait was for the chapel in his “senatorial house.” In addition to the not yet canonized and recently dead Catherine serving as an intercessor, Koster postulates that Marie also was seen as being an intercessor for the Loiani family.

This mystery solved, I ended up following several strings to Florence and Bruges. Florence, as we all know, was the home of the Medici family. And how did the Medici gain their wealth and power? Banking. And what did these Medici do to extend their reach beyond Florence? Branches. Where were these branches?  Avignon, Bruges, Geneva, London, Milan, Naples, Rome, and Venice. And it is in Bruges that some of the most interesting stories of Florentines outside of the Italian penninsula come.

Angelo di Jacopo Tani became manager in 1455 of the Medici bank in Bruges. Unfortunately Angelo was ousted by his assistant, Benedetto di Tommaso Portinari, 10 years later. However he landed comfortably and was serving as the manager of the London branch, so don’t feel too bad for him. In 1466 he married Caterina di Francesco Tanagli and commissioned this alterpiece shortly thereafter.

Now, you may say, why on earth is a fine upstanding Florentine woman doing wearing a Burgundian gown? Where is the gamurra, the giornea?

Well, as they say, when in Rome… skip the Italian and put on the Flemish?

Of note on this particular piece of art. Pirates, or Hanseatic League privateer (it’s all in who’s side you’re on), captured the ship transporting the completed artwork en route to Pisa in 1473. Instead of ending up in Florence it spent the past 500 and so years in Danzig, Poland.

Now, onto the man who took over the Medici Bruges bank – Tommaso Portinari. Tommaso either was a very devout man or had a rather huge ego. We certainly don’t lack for portraits of him:

Tommaso commissioned these portraits on the occasion of his marriage to Maria Bandini-Baroncelli. It is thought that these two portraits were panels of a triptych. However, the supposed Madonna and Child between them is long gone.

But the famous Portinari Triptych – we have the whole shebang. On the left hand side we see Tomasso

with his two sons, Antonio and Pigello. Saint Thomas and Saint Anthony appear behind the Portinari men. St. Thomas the patron saint of Tomasso and Saint Anthony of Antonio. Unfortunately this means I have no idea who the saint for Pigello would be. Art historians believe the piece was begun before young Pigello was born, hence no saint for him.

The right hand side had the ladies of the family. His wife, Maria, kneels before her patron saint, Mary Magdalen. And her daughter, Margarita, kneels before Saint Margaret

But wait – Tommaso isn’t done yet.

There in the bottom corners are he and his wife.

But Tommaso wasn’t the safest person to put your money with. He probably would’ve fit in on Wall Street perfectly, honestly. He loaned outrageous sums of money to both Charles the Bold and Edward IV. He made other imprudent business dealings. He even cooked the books. By the time the bank failed and Lorenzo the Magnificent sent, ironically, Angelo Tani among others to sort things out. Unfortunately for Lorenzo, the banking family had to eat losses of more than 70,000 florins.  Tommaso returned to Florence, managing a golden parachute of a diplomat’s post. But he never financially recovered. Young Antonio Portinari  refused to inherit his father’s estate when he died in 1501. Apparently the son was somewhat wiser than his father and didn’t want to assume responsibility for all the debts that came with accepting the inheritance.

Back in Flanders, Tommaso was replaced by Pierantonio di Guasparre Bandini-Baroncelli. To illustrate how incestuous the Florentine community in Bruges was, Pierantonio was a close relation to Maria Bandini-Baroncelli Portinari.

Previously Pierantonio handled the finances of the Pazzi family in Bruges. The Pazzi were the main Florentine competitors to the Medici. In fact this rivalry came to a head on April 26, 1478 when the Pazzi, with the help of the Pope and Archbishop. The so-called Pazzi conspiracy’s failed assassination of the Medici brothers resulted in the death of another of Pierantonio’s relations - Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli. And apparently the hanging made an impression on Leonardo da Vinci:

Safe from the chaos in Florence, Pierantonio  hired the Master of the Baroncelli portraits to paint portraits of himself and his wife, Maria Bonciani:

Master of the Baroncelli Portraits - Maria Baroncelli Bonciani - ca 1489


And here we have come full circle. Whoever that mysterious artist was who painted the couple above also painted “Saint Catherine of Bologna with three donors.”

So, obviously this Italian community in Flanders patronized Early Netherlandish artists. The ladies traded in their intricate braids with sleek hennins.

How much influence Flanders had on Florence and vice versa is debatable. But at least for the Loiani family, Flemish and Florentine existed side by side.


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