The World of Renaissance Women: Representation, Agency and Identity

Today, Italy and its population embody a mixture of cultures and belief systems from ancient times through the discoveries and advances in religion, science, medicine, philosophy, and art. The Renaissance period during the 14th century that lasted until the 16th century challenged many customs from the Medieval period, including gender customs, as some women stepped out of care roles and began to enter intellectual circles. Their identity shifted as they shaped art and the culture of the Renaissance. My essay explores the representation and agency of women in the Renaissance, which paints a picture of the identity of women from the past and their successes in gendered societies.

Women in Renaissance Art

The representation of women is one of the greatest influences on Italian Renaissance art. Art historians have conducted studies on the status of women in Italian Renaissance society — gendered analyses present insights on the lives of women from the past from portraiture.  Gender in art is a carefully constructed performance, and all gendered aspects of Italian Renaissance art constructed the gender roles and virtues that are expected of women at that time such as modesty, chastity, and motherhood.

The Duchess of Urbino was painted by the Venetian artist Titian and is presented as the ideal representative of her gender. The social roles that are constructed in the painting include the containment of women to the domestic sphere, modesty, and chastity symbolized by clothed fabric that covers most of the Duchess’ skin, and the maternal role symbolized by curvaceous body line.

Portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino. Source: Galleria Degli Uffizi

Lorenzo Lotto’s painting of a husband and a wife from 1523 presents complex symbolisms that depict the role of a husband and a wife in Renaissance Italy.

The woman is painted physically resting on leaning on the husband and is represented toward the interior area of the room, signifying her place and belonging to the domestic sphere while the husband is painted sitting close to the window, the outside world hence the public sphere. The woman is also holding a dog, which is a gesture that symbolizes and glorifies the notion of fidelity (The National Arts Club, 2020).

Husband and Wife by Lorenzo Lotto. Source: Wiki Art

Renaissance art also perpetuated a traditional representation of women using iconic images from Catholicism, such as Virgin Mary as Mary was pious, devoted to her child, and obedient. This painting shows the deep emotional connection and closeness of a mother and a child. (The National Arts Club, 2020).

The Benois Madonna by Leonardo da Vinci. Source: The Hermitage Museum

Through art, women were traditionally depicted as fitting a stereotype — chaste, virtuous, and modest.

Women’s Role during the Renaissance

Women should embody the virtues of the Virgin, who “was a unique, perfect woman, she possessed qualities that could be – or should be ideally- emulated. She was obedient to God, she respected and trusted her earthly husband, she tenderly cared for and nurtured her child”

– Saint Bernadino (Russell 75)

Women in Renaissance Italian society assumed subjugated roles. “Rational men possessed [the] ability to govern subject women for the good of all society, where women would serve as a helpmate to husband-lords as wives and mothers of their children” (Credit, 1992). Women were also subjected to treatises that dictated their agency and identity. “The numerous moral treatises addressed to the medieval woman reflect her condition and character and the trend of her mental activities, as well as the solicitude of her spiritual guides” (Cannon, 1916). Therefore, women had limited rule over themselves and were entrusted to be under the wing of a male guide.

The primary female role is in the domestic sphere as a wife and a mother. Marriage was the climax of women’s purpose to create powerful families and to preserve prestigious lineage by bearing children. “Through marriage and family alliances, women became signs for the honor and wealth which defined social prestige for Florentine Citizens” (Chadwick, 1990). Marriages were seen as a tool to unite alliances for social, political and commercial benefits, and women’s ability to procreate became essential to society. Women was utilized in society only for the benefits of men — as daughters who could be a part of an advantageous marriage, or as wives who produced children to carry on a family name. Women were also expected to fully take care of the household to take on the “passive” role as a ” presever [that] complemented the husband’s active one as provider” (Romano 1989).

Against the above backdrop, women were at a disadvantage as they experienced barriers in attaining a role outside of the household and in attaining individual status, standing, and prestige. They have limited value and roles, only as daughters, wives, and mothers.

Renaissance Geography and Women Containment

The banks of the Schiavoni in Venice, painted by artist Leandro Bassano (1557-1622).
The banks of the Schiavoni in Venice, painted by artist Leandro Bassano. Source: Atlas Obscura 

The containment and regulation of women’s role outside of societal values and art also lies in geography. In Venice, urban geography encouraged male access, while at the same time enforcing female confinement (Romano, 1989). The Piazza San Marco functioned as the center of government and religion and Rialto for commerce but were made male locales and inhospitable to women due to physical and moral dangers; men did not want their wives and daughters to wander around the city’s streets. In his research, Romano noted that Fra Paolino “warned fathers that daughters who wandered about on the streets would lose their modesty” (1989). Urban spaces that Venetians commonly associated with women were houses, parish-neighborhoods, and convents. These places align with the private, domestic, and sacred roles that women were expected to adhere to. (Romano, 1989). These strictly confined places that were designated for women were physically enclosed and bounded; family palaces had “protective walls” and were locked at night, while parishes were “bounded by canals and by demarcating bridges” (Romano 1989).

Women who Thrived during the Renaissance

The various restrictions above placed on women’s agency, identity, and freedom of movement certainly stifled women flourishing outside of their designated roles. Yet, some talented women did become successful artists or patrons: they contributed to the development of culture and arts. A number of notable women of the time were able to break the socio-economic mold and could make the leap into a better station of life.

Isabella d’Este of Mantua was a major cultural and political figure in the Renaissance. Isabella came from one of the oldest families of the Renaissance, being the daughter of Ercole I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara and later became the wife of Mantuan Marchese Francesco Gonzaga (Prizer, 1985). After her marriage, she became the Marchioness of Mantua and acted as a diplomatic representative in which during her husband’s capture in 1509, she became the sole ruler of the region (Isabella d’Este the Marchioness of Mantua during Early Renaissance Italy, 2021). After the death of her husband, she became the Co-Regent of Mantua (Isabella d’Este the Marchioness of Mantua during Early Renaissance Italy, 2021). As a patron of the arts, she funded the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and “was in control of the subject matter, size, materials, and location of the piece of art” (Isabella d’Este the Marchioness of Mantua during Early Renaissance Italy, 2021).


Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi is famous for disturbing what was a central theme of Renaissance art philosophy by empowering her heroines with agency. She was born in Rome and came from a long line of Tuscan artists and artisans; her father was painter Orazio Gentileschi. Her painting Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting created “an entirely new image that was quite literally unavailable to any male artist” by identifying herself as the female personification of painting in the self-portrait (Garrard, 1980). Her success as a woman painter was coupled with women empowerment tendencies as Gentileschi’s main protagonists of her work of arts were largely biblical heroines.

File:Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene by Artemisia Gentileschi.jpg
Saint Sebastian tended by Saint Irene by Artemisia Gentileschi. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One example is Artemisia’s painting above of Saint Sebastian which featured the key figure as Saint Irene of Rome who was tending to Saint Sebastian. In the painting, who was doing an active gesture was indeed Saint Irene who was administering medicine. Gentileschi was also recorded to write to her Sicilian patron Don Antonio Ruffo in 1964, saying that her paintings “will show your Lordship what a woman can do” (Garrard, 1980).


Conclusion

The ideas of how women should act that was ingrained in the Renaissance period was able to be slightly altered due to historical women who excelled in the arts. Although some women experienced some improvement in their agency and identity, particularly through the medium of art; it is important to note that they are exceptions as historically, the women who were able to break the typical role expected of a Renaissance woman were nobles, had a good social standing in the Italian courts and were previously highly visible in the community. However, the physical and mental limitations that restricted women naturally to inferior status were not as immovable as they seemed, and selected women could become active participants of society.

References

Cannon, M. A. (1916). Education of Women During the Renaissance. Catholic University Press. https://archive.org/details/EducationOfWomenDuringTheRenaissance

Chadwick, W., & Frigeri, F. (2020). Women, Art, and Society (World of Art) (6th ed.). Thames & Hudson.

Credit, Leslie K., “Women during the Italian Renaissance : stereotypes vs. realities” (1992). Honors Theses. Paper 446.

Garrard, M. D. (1980). Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting. The Art Bulletin, 62(1), 97. https://doi.org/10.2307/3049963

Isabella d’Este the Marchioness of Mantua during Early Renaissance Italy. (2021, August 10). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmA6r9eQTj8

Prizer, W. F. (1985). Isabella d’Este and Lucrezia Borgia as Patrons of Music: The Frottola at Mantua and Ferrara. Journal of the American Musicological Society, 38(1), 1–33. https://doi.org/10.2307/831548

Romano, D. (1989). Gender and the Urban Geography of Renaissance Venice. Journal of Social History, 23(2), 339–353. https://doi.org/10.1353/jsh/23.2.339

The National Arts Club. (2020, August 25). Art Historian Explores Women’s Portrayal in the Italian Renaissance [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJ5g0NivwmI&t=858s

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