Press release

Portrait of Machiavelli’s mistress detained in Britain

Minister Ed Vaizey stops Puligo portrait from leaving the United Kingdom.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government


A fascinating half-length portrait, widely regarded by many to be of Barbara Salutati, celebrated courtesan and the mistress of Florentine writer and statesman Niccolo Machiavelli, faces being exported from the UK following its sale to a foreign buyer. Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has imposed a temporary bar on the painting leaving our shores in the hope that a buyer comes forward with a matching offer to keep it in the UK.

As well as being an exceptional example of female Florentine Renaissance portraiture, the likely identity of the sitter adds significantly to the importance of the painting. Although described by Vasari (and Borghini) as ‘Barbara the Florentine’, she was in fact Roman by birth but often resided in Florence, where she was famed for her musical gifts, poetry and acting ability as well as for her beauty. The painting contains numerous references to these talents, such as the open music book, adding further to the evidence that it is indeed one of her.

Barbara first met Machiavelli in 1523 when he was 54 and she not yet 30, and it is this portrait of her that experts believe is the painting referred to in the second edition of Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists”, (1568):

‘[Puligo] also painted a portrait of Barbara the Florentine, a famous and beautiful courtesan of the time, beloved of many not less for her beauty than for her fine manners, and especially because she was a good musician and sang divinely’.

The painting comes from an exceptionally important collection of pictures formed in Florence by an English resident, the 3rd Earl Cowper, in the 18th century. The collection was then brought to the UK shortly afterwards - one of the finest groups of Italian Old Masters ever assembled and brought to Britain.

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey took the decision to defer granting an export licence for the painting following a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), administered by Arts Council England, on the grounds it is of outstanding importance for the study of female portraiture in the Renaissance and for the study of British collecting in the 18th century.

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said:

I hope that placing a temporary export bar on this magnificent painting of such a fascinating Renaissance individual allows time for a UK buyer to come forward and ensure it remains in Britain.

RCEWA Chairman Lord Inglewood said:

This remarkable renaissance portrait perhaps takes us as close as we are ever likely to get to the man who was Niccolo Machiavelli - one of the most influential and demonised figures of the Florentine Renaissance who has exercised a pervasive influence over subsequent history.

The decision on the export licence application for the painting will be deferred for a period ending on 30 December 2013 inclusive. This period may be extended until 30 March 2014 inclusive if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase the painting is made at the recommended price of £1,787,695.

Further information

Published 1 November 2013