By Ellie Doran (@Elena_Doran)
Figure 1 (left): Agnolo Bronzino, Ritratto di Eleonora di Toledo con il figlio Giovanni, (c.1544-45), oil on panel, 115 x 96cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, 1890 n.748. Available here: https://www.uffizi.it/opere/%2Feleonora-di-toledo
Figure 2 (right): Unknown English artist, The Armada Portrait, (c. 1588), oil on panel, 97.8 x 72.4 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 541. Available here: https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw02077/Queen-Elizabeth-I
Elizabeth I, Queen of England and Ireland (b.1533-1603), and Eleonora di Toledo, Duchess of Florence (b.1522-1562), were both sixteenth-century ruling women with a proclivity for pearls. Whilst both women chose to be depicted in their favourite accessory, they used pearls to construct two very different images. On the one hand, Elizabeth used pearls to emphasise her image as the ‘Virgin Queen’, legitimising her role as an unmarried female monarch. On the other, Eleonora, the mother of eleven children, used pearls to highlight her fertility, which ensured dynastic and political stability. To better understand these two different examples of self-fashioning, it is necessary to look more closely at pearls, and their ‘profoundly complex, often contradictory meanings and associations’.
The Armada Portrait(s) of Elizabeth I show the queen bedecked in ‘a bushel of pearls’. They adorn her gown and hair, numerous pearl necklaces cover her abdomen, and an especially large pearl hangs from her stomacher. The other two versions of the Armada Portrait (located respectively at the National Maritime Museum, London, and the Woburn Abbey Collection) depict a crown on the queen’s right-hand side also decorated with pearl.
Figure 3 (left): Detail of Elizabeth I, 1533-1603 (the ‘Armada Portrait’), (c.1588), oil on panel, 112.5 x 127cm, © National Maritime Museum, London, ZBA7719. Available here: https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/rmgc-object-1096108
Figure 4 (right): Detail of the Armada Portrait, (c.1588), oil on panel, 105 x 133cm, © Woburn Abbey Collection.
Similarly, although perhaps more subtly, Bronzino’s famous Portrait of Eleonora and her son Giovanni depicts the duchess adorned in pearls. The snood covering the duchess’s hair and the partlet covering her shoulders are both embellished with pearls at the joins of the mesh. Eleonora also sports two pearl necklaces, pearl earrings, and the tassel of her girdle (held in her left hand) is fashioned from hundreds of ‘seed’ (small) pearls. Furthermore, records from the Guardaroba Medicea (inventories of the Medici wardrobes) reveal that Eleonora owned several dresses embroidered with pearls.
These portraits, both conscious acts of self-fashioning and tools of statecraft, were intended to project specific images of the two women. The presence of pearls in both portraits attest to their wealth and status, but this is where the similarities end.
As an unmarried female ruler, Elizabeth used clothes, jewels, and cosmetics to carefully construct an image of herself as the ‘Virgin Queen’. Women were considered incapable of controlling their sexuality, and therefore, Elizabeth’s reputation for sexual virtue demonstrated not only her commitment to England, but also her ‘masculine’ self-control, thereby validating her rule. Pearls were key to this self-fashioning, as they symbolised virginity, chastity, purity, and were often associated with the Virgin Mary. Furthermore, the ‘round shape and opalescent color’ of pearls is reminiscent of the moon, connecting them with Diana, goddess of chastity.
By contrast, Elenora’s use of pearls constructs an image linked to marriage and fertility. Eleonora’s husband, Cosimo I de’ Medici (b.1519-1574) had become Duke of Florence in 1537 following the assassination of Alessandro de’ Medici. The young couple must have been keenly aware that to ensure the survival of the Medici dynasty and bring stability to Florence they needed to produce an heir. Luckily, Eleonora proved to be extremely fertile. By the time the famous Bronzino portrait was painted (c.1544-45) Eleonora had produced a child annually since her marriage in 1539, including two all-important male heirs: Francesco and Giovanni.Eleonora’s fecundity brought great happiness to the family and was a source of rejoicing for the people of Florence.
Eleonora’s pearl accessories attest to this fertility and dynastic stability. Pearls were not only associated with virginity, but also marital chastity. In early modern Florence, pearls were popular marriage gifts given by husbands to their new brides as part of a ‘counter-dowry’. The giving of such nuptial gifts visibly displayed a husband’s ownership over his wife (who was herself a form of property) and any children she might produce. Chastity within marriage was equally important as chastity before marriage as it ensured legitimate offspring and protected a ‘patrilineal system of inheritance’. The pearls in Eleonora’s portrait not only mark her as Cosimo’s wife, but also highlight her marital chastity, confirming that she has performed her duty as a wife and duchess by producing legitimate offspring. Furthermore, despite the fact that Eleonora had already produced an heir and a spare, the pearls perhaps indicate the couple’s continued fertility, with the seed pearls in Eleonora’s lap testifying to Cosimo’s potency. 
Overall, an examination of these two portraits demonstrates that pearls held multiple, and often contradictory, symbolic meanings and associations in the early modern imagination. By choosing to be depicted in their favourite pearl accessories, Elizabeth I and Eleonora di Toledo used the pearl’s diverse associations to construct two very different images, each benefitting their respective political situations.
 Karen Raber, ‘Chains of Pearls: Gender, Property, Identity’ in, Bella Mirabella, ed., Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011): 159-181, p.160.
 Horace Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting in England, vol. 1 (London: Milford
Press, 1937), p.151, as quoted in Raber, ‘Chains of Pearls’, p.159.
 For more on the pearl hanging from Queen Elizabeth I’s stomacher and its links to the clitoris/female sexual pleasure see Valerie Traub, The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p.129.
 Roberta Orsi Landini and Bruna Niccoli, Moda a Firenze, 1540-1580: lo stile di Eleonora di Toledo e la sua influenza (Firenze: Pagliai Polistampa, 2005), p.119.
 Gabrielle Langdon, Medici Women: Portraits of Power, Love, and Betrayal in the Court of Duke Cosimo I (Toronto: Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), p.161.
 Orsi Landini and Niccoli, Moda a Firenze, 1540-1580: lo stile di Eleonora di Toledo e la sua influenza, especially pp. 58, 83, 90, 91.
 Catherine L. Howey, ‘Dressing a Virgin Queen: Court Women, Dress, and Fashioning the Image of England’s Queen Elizabeth I’, Early Modern Women 4 (Fall, 2009): 201–8, p.202.
 Raber, ‘Chains of Pearls’, p.159.
 Langdon, Medici Women, p.86.
 Offspring belonged to the husband’s lineage.
 Raber, ‘Chains of Pearls’, p.169.
 Langdon, Medici Women, p.86.