Michele Tosini(Florence 1503 - 1577)

An Allegory of Fortitude


oil on panel
73 x 54.7 cm (28¾ x 21½ in)

Provenance: John Giles, Albion Street, London;
his sale, London, Christie’s, February 2, 1881,
lot 635 (as Andrea del Sarto), for 3,312 pounds, where acquired by the great-grandfather of a private collector;
by whom sold (‘The Property of a Gentleman’), London, Sotheby’s, December 11, 1996, lot 34 (where the image was reversed in the catalogue);
anonymous sale, New York, Sotheby’s, January 22, 2004, lot 15.



This compellingly beautiful bust-length painting of a woman in classical costume represents an allegory of Fortitude, one of the four cardinal virtues as defined in Greek philosophy. She is identified by her two most common attributes, the column which she grasps with both hands, and the lion, whose head is emblazoned on a decorative clasp at her chest. The figure’s strength of character is evident and her monumentality is heightened by the manner in which she dominates the space within the panel. Her smooth alabaster skin is enlivened by the pinkish hue of her cheeks and her hair is arranged in an elaborate, plaited coiffure.

In his representation of Fortitude, Michele Tosini, followed the Renaissance iconography developed by artists such as Paolo Uccello (c.1397-1475) and Sandro Botticelli (1444/5-1510) in depicting her as a woman holding a fragment of a column. Botticelli’s Allegory of Fortitude painted in 1469 for the Court of the Mercanzia in Florence, showing Fortitude enthroned and grasping a miniature column, was much praised and no doubt would have influenced generations of Florentine artists such as Tosini. The seven virtues, comprised of the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude, were a popular theme in Christian art and were most often personified by female figures. For example, Tosini painted Charity,¹ the most significant of the theological virtues, as a mother nursing and caring for her children, and this work is contemporaneous to An Allegory of Fortitude.

Dr. Heidi J. Hornik, the foremost scholar of Michele Tosini’s work, has dated this ‘elegant and finely executed painting’ to the late 1560s or early 1570s.² At this point in his career, Tosini painted many bust-length female portraits, and An Allegory of Fortitude is consistent in terms of style and quality with much of his best work during this period. For example, Leda, (c.1565, Galleria Borghese, Rome) which Hornik considers one Tosini’s finest works in the bust-length format, carries the same grace and elegance that is such a prominent feature of An Allegory of Fortitude.³ Although Leda has her back turned to the viewer, in both works the figure has twisted her neck against the movement of her torso, and this pose adds vitality to the compositions. This movement also emphasises the graceful lines and curves of the slightly elongated necks. The column and the swan are merely attributes, and the focus in each case is on a portrayal of elegant beauty.

This poised elegance, which such a feature of works such as Leda or An Allegory of Fortitude, demonstrates the influence of Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) on Tosini’s art. Their first documented collaboration was in 1557, when Tosini was employed by Vasari to work on the decoration of the Palazzo Ducale.⁴ This was the first of many occasions that Vasari called upon Tosini to work upon important projects, which ‘resulted in Tosini’s being in the forefront of Florentine artistic activity during the mid-sixteenth century’.⁵ The two artists were friends as well as colleagues, and although Vasari did not use the bust-length format to depict female figures, his Mannerist style was enormously influential on Tosini’s mature work. For example in Vasari’s The Annunciation, which is contemporaneous to An Allegory of Fortitude, the coiled pose of the Virgin as she twists her torso, creates a similar sense of movement as that found in the present work. The sinuous lines, created by placing figures in contrapposto, is typical of the Mannerist style practised in Florence during this period by artists such as Tosini and Vasari.

It should be stressed that Tosini was not merely a follower of artists such as Vasari and Francesco Salviati (1510-1563), ‘but rather an artist deeply engulfed in the Mannerist elegance with its vibrant colors[sic], rich textures and sumptuous jewels’.⁶ This is evident in works such as An Allegory of Fortitude, or Mary Magdelene in Houston. In both cases the figures are clothed in a variety of luxurious shot silks, which shimmer under the strong white light which ripples over them from the left-hand side of the composition. Each figure wears a large, ornate brooch, further adding to the impression of fabulous wealth. The elaborate hairstyles on display are also typical of Tosini. In the Houston painting, a concession is made to the traditional Magdalene Iconography by having some hair tumble over her shoulders. However, the complex plaits and tight curls intertwined with silk ribbons are archetypal features of Tosini’s mature style. Often the coiffures are embellished still further with ornate headpieces, such as that seen in Leda. In fact, in the present work a pentimento is visible on the forehead, suggestive of a headband, which would indicate that at one point Tosini was considering giving Fortitude perhaps a crown or tiara.

As already mentioned, depictions of female figures in the bust-length format, whether they be portraiture, religious or allegorical, reflect Tosini’s mature style at its best. The source for this format is identified by Hornik as the work of Michelangelo (1475-1564), and in particular his famous drawing Ideal Head (Zenobia?), (1524, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.) Michelangelo’s drawing was well know in Florentine artistic circles and was clearly a significant source of inspiration for Tosini.⁷ This is most clearly seen in direct interpretations, of which several are known, although even here Tosini feminises his subject, making her features softer and her expression coy rather than serious. A work such as An Allegory of Fortitude, can be seen as a culmination of this interpretation, as it maintains both the monumentality and extravagance of Michelangelo’s work, whilst infusing it with the grace and elegance of Florentine Mannerism.

Tosini initially studied under Lorenzo di Credi (c. 1459-1537) and Antonio del Ceraiolo (fl. 1520-1538), before entering the workshop of Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (1483-1561). Ridolfo was the son of Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), and indeed eventually took over the running of the famous family workshop. Thus Tosini, in joining the Ghirlandaio workshop, was training in the same environment that had nurtured some of the great Florentine painters, most notably Michelangelo. Ridolfo became Tosini’s ‘adopted father, teacher and collaborator’, their closeness evidenced by the fact that younger artist took his master’s name.⁸ Their professional relationship also deepened over time, as Ridolfo increasingly relied upon the input from Tosini into their collaborations.

Initially Tosini received a third of Ridolfo’s earnings, but according to Vasari over time they began to share the profits equally. David Franklin says that ‘By the 1540s, as Ridolfo approached his sixties, we can assume that Tosini played a more crucial role, and it is this period that the two artists’ names appear together for the first time in archival documents’.⁹ After Ridolfo died in 1561, Tosini became the sole leader of the Ghirlandaio workshop and the Mannerist elements in his art, which he had begun to introduce during the previous decade, became increasingly prominent. Under his leadership the Ghirlandaio workshop ‘not only succeeded but thrived in one of the most competitive ages of artistic production in the history of art’.¹ During the 1560s Tosini participated in many of the major Florentine artistic public projects, and major commissions in his later years included the fresco decoration of three city gates of Florence, the altar in the Chapel at the Villa Caserotta, near San Casciano Val di Pesa, and the paintings on the back and sides of the tabernacle of the high altar of Santa Maria della Quercia, Viterbo. High profile projects such as these also helped him to secure numerous private commissions, of which An Allegory of Fortitude was presumably one. When Tosini died, in 1577, his eldest son Baccio (1534-1582) took over the workshop, and continued his father’s artistic legacy.

We are grateful to Dr. Heidi J. Hornik for confirming the attribution of the present work, and for dating it to the late 1560s or early 1570s.

¹ National Gallery, London, NG652.
² Written Communication, March 2013.
³ Hornik, H. J., Michele Tosini and the Ghirlandaio Workshop ni Cinquecento Florence (Sussex Academic Press, 2009), p. 99.
⁴ For a full discussion of the relationship between Tosini and Vasari, see Hornik, p.34-40.
⁵ Ibid., p.36.
⁶ Ibid., p. 95.
⁷ Ibid., pp.95-99.
⁸ Hornik, H. J., ‘The Strozzi Chapel by Michele Tosini: A Visual Interpretation of Redemptive Epiphany’ in Artibus et Historiae (vol. 23, no. 46, 2002), p. 97.
⁹ Franklin, D. ‘Towards a New Chronology for Ridolfo Ghirlandaio and Michele Tosini’ in The Burlington Magazine (vol. 140, no. 1144, July 1998), p. 451.
¹⁰ Hornik 2009, p. xv.