The allure of Eleanor …

31 January, 2010

You will find her in the fourth room of the Regional Gallery of Sicily, located in Palermo’s imposing 15th century Palazzo Abatellis:  a ‘gentlewoman said to be Eleanor of Aragon’, beautiful, refined and serene.   

The work is small, no more than 50cm or so high, and made of white marble.  Its purity and perfection is striking. There is a stillness and quiet dignity about the face –a  delicacy and ‘completeness’ about the work.   Perhaps that, in itself, should have been enough, and in a way it was.  But Palazzo Abatellis is a favourite place; I visit quite often and the more I saw this work, the more I wanted to know about it; about the sculptor, Francesco Laurana, and about Eleanor herself.

So I set about doing some investigation.  I didn’t find all I was looking for, but at least I know a little more than I did before – and the exercise has been an interesting one. 

Eleanor’s image, or, more precisely, that of Francesco Laurana, has become something of an icon of Palermo.  Reproductions appear regularly on book covers and travel brochures, and, in 2005, when Palermo’s waterfront area was being beautified after almost sixty years of neglect and abuse, Eleanor’s profile was even reproduced in the colourful little ceramic bollards that line the grassy areas.   It has taken me some time to see the likeness, but finally I think I’ve done it.  (See the image below).

Given that the image has become so popular, it was surprisingly difficult to get behind it.     

It was easy enough to find information about Francesco Laurana (1430 – 1502), who is a well-known sculptor of the period, famous, in particular, for his marble busts of women.  He was born in Dalmatia and spent time working in France and various parts of Italy, including some time working in Sicily.  The bust of Eleanor of Aragon seems generally to be regarded as one of his finest works. 

Bollards at Foro Italico

Identifying Eleanor of Aragon proved more difficult.  Because Sicily was ruled by the powerful ‘Spanish’ state of Aragon in the 14th and 15th centuries, I assumed that Eleanor would be part of the ruling family and easy to identify.  Not at all!  I found numerous ‘Eleanors’ of Aragon; several had connections to Sicily, but none seemed to be the Eleanor of Aragon I was looking for.   Then I discovered that some scholars have concluded that the sculpture is not, in fact, a representation of Eleanor of Aragon at all, but, rather, of a Neapolitan princess. 

I seemed to be going round in circles, getting nowhere, when I came upon what seems to me, at this stage at least, to be the most likely story:  the bust represents an Eleanor of Aragon who was the granddaughter of the King of Sicily, King Frederick of Aragon. 

Although this Eleanor of Aragon had died in 1405, i.e. long before Laurana’s bust was created, the work was commissioned by a powerful Sicilian called Carlo Luna who regarded Eleanor as an illustrious ancestor because she had been married to Luna’s ancestor, the Count of Caltabellottante.  The sculpture was originally placed on her tomb at the Abbey of S. Maria del Bosco di Calatamauro,  in the south of Sicily, where it remained until the end of the 19th century when it was transferred to the Museo Nazionale of Palermo.   

According to this explanation, the idealised and formal nature of the sculpture is partly explained by the fact that the subject was long deceased. 

This is the most likely explanation I have found so far, and it will do for the moment.  Still, I’m not totally convinced and will keep investigating.  In the end, though, I don’t really care.  However this little sculpture came about, and whoever its subject, I will continue to visit it from time to time to experience and admire its haunting beauty.

14 Responses to “The allure of Eleanor …”

  1. Sally F Says:

    This is an exquisite piece of work, as you say – her calm and gracious dignity shines out and it would be wonderful to live with the piece – though I guess it is good that we can all enjoy a glimpse of her from time to time. The explanation you describe does make sense and, who knows, it may be right …

  2. kateludlow Says:

    Yes, wouldn’t she be wonderful to live with – hadn’t thought of that! As for the explanation, it’s the best I’ve got at the moment, but there are still a few loose ends. Many thanks for the comment.

  3. CateM Says:

    She certainly is alluring and I agree that she would be wonderful to live with. I think she would be a calming influence. You are lucky to be able to visit her often. I love that her profile was reproduced in the bollards by the waterfront. She is obviously much loved in Palermo and I can see why.

    • kateludlow Says:

      I do feel lucky to be able to visit often – also that she is so beautifully displayed in Palazzo Abatellis, which recently reopened after restoration. You’ll have to make a visit! Many thanks for the comment.

  4. Colin B. Says:

    I can feel the excitement in your writing – you hunt down your quarry in the manner of a classic detective story! Your insight that the formality of the sculpture may be a consequence of its being realised from a description or a painting since the subject was deceased, makes good sense to me, and will help me in my appreciation of other art works.

  5. Antonio Says:

    A fascinating explanation for the bollards – I would never have guessed!

    An exquisite piece. I look forward to seeing it. Given that the probable Eleanor died 25 years before Laurana was born, I wonder if he used a model or her serenity etc came solely from his mind.

    • kateludlow Says:

      It’s true that Eleanor doesn’t immediately spring to mind when you see the bollards – but I think she’s there! I imagine that Laurana might have seen a likeness of her, but my guess is that. if he did, he used it only as a starting point.

  6. Louise F Says:

    What a beautiful sculpture and what fun you must have had discovering her history. I am sorry that when I was in Palermo in September I did not have time to visit her in Palazzo Abaellis. I shall just have to come back!

    • kateludlow Says:

      I really did have fun finding out what I could about Eleanor’s background. It occurs to me now that maybe it was only Carlo Luna who thought of her as ‘Eleanor of Aragon’. When you were here in September, Palazzo Abatellis would have been closed for restoration. You will have to come back! Many thanks for the comment.

  7. N Says:

    Most of us would have paused for a number of seconds before the small bust of Eleanor, appreciating, with a quick eye, the serene and inscrutable image, before passing on to the next item on display. A few may have paused a little longer before the image. But there are many beautiful works of art, and not many would have returned. Fortunately you did.

    The history of the figure helps give meaning to it. To know it is a sculpture of a granddaughter of a King of Sicily, commissioned long after her death, then placed on her tomb as a final resting place adds a layer of meaning to the image. How many years did they sit together, alone? What is the relationship between the small marble image, and the decaying body of Eleanor? Over time, can the qualities of the one move to the other?

    You say the sculpture is ‘beautiful, refined and serene’. Can we infer the subject was a woman who possessed the qualities which are reflected in the image, even though, as you point out, the representation may be idealised?

    I will never see the image, but I am moved by your story, and I will try to remind myself in the future not to hurry too quickly past works of art.

  8. kateludlow Says:

    Thank you for this comment – it raises lots of interesting issues!

    It occurs to me that the fact that many would take only a quick look before passing on to the next item might say as much about galleries and museums as it does about those who visit them. I often find these places overwhelming and not really conducive to appreciation of what it there. When I can, I restrict myself to a few items and go back often to get to know them.

    The relevance of background is an interesting subject in itself – and your thoughts on the relationship between this work of art and its subject sound like the beginning of a short story!

    I haven’t seen any other image of Eleanor so I don’t know whether the sculpture resembles the actual person at all. I have the feeling, though, that when Laurana starting chipping away at the marble he was working with the angels.

  9. jan w Says:

    I want to touch her! What a face! Why did I miss her when I was there (limping with my broken foot thanks to your slippery stairs!)

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