Women in Renaissance Portraiture (Extended Edition)

For centuries the depiction of women was kept within the confines of religious, and moral, ideological imagery until the Italian Renaissance swept up the fifteenth century to enhance and entrance the majority of the elite classes in Europe. Christianity had hindered female progress with images that encompassed the traditional values of being a woman while also aligning women as virtuous Holy Mother Mary or as demonic witches who seek to seduce men for their own gain. Portraiture for one did not include women unless they were of the supreme elite. Prior to the fifteenth century when the International Gothic movement held Europe women were painted as ethereal ‘s’ shaped figures with faces indistinguishable from each other. Portrayal of men as kings, warriors and soldiers exist in huge quantities dating back to the Ancient Greek and even further, and you are much more likely to have a visual facial representation appear to be identifiable. On the other hand women, much like their opinions and voice, as much less easily allocated to a specific woman and are less frequently found amongst historical records or art. This post will focus especially on the image of women in the Renaissance since this is a time when female representation, specifically portraits, almost treble in number.

First, we must look at why the Renaissance was such a phenomenon. The fifteenth century saw a huge upheaval in socio-political order allowing for a rise in merchant classes to gain wealth and prestige. Naturally they would want to spend this money and they did abundantly. The merchant classes were the middle ground between men at the bottom of their ladder looking to make a fortune through trade and the aristocracy who rule the land from their royal or ducal coroneted thrones. The merchants wished to emulate the aristocracy in order to make the move upwards a smoother hill to climb and this included copying and influencing the arts. Up until this point in history portraits were saved for the wealthy and powerful royals who needed to be remembered in posterity for the skilled kingship but for their image. But these new found rich men of the Renaissance also wanted to gain long galleries that contained images of their family to be seen for generations to come. All of sudden portraits of men holding the symbol of their guild start to pop up, for example the early Medici clan, alongside their aristocratic brides to signal their rise to greatness if a great lord would permit such a marriage. This was all in honour of conspicuous consumption, the merchants wanted to build and design like stamping their name across it. This is why so many churches were built in Italy with their leading families name and heraldry printed on the front starting being formed, as this was the most the church would allow before extolling the sins of pride, greed or vanity. Portraits were useful, they provided a visual image of someone before a marriage, adorned the walls of a newly gilded home and commemorated those that came before. Here is why the male family leaders starting painting their wives and daughters. It exuded wealth, power and the rise in social status. There is a snag to this growth in female imagery, they are highly idealised. The Northern Renaissance that occurred in the later fifteenth century across the Netherlands depicted men and women in a warts and all concept – nothing was hidden or edited to suit the sitter. However the beginnings of the Renaissance in Italy women were airbrushed to suit the ideals of the time.

Renaissance portraits of women generally intended to convey beauty and the social role of women. Portraits of men generally emphasized their social, political, or professional role, and these portraits were often stereotypically masculine. The function of portraits of male leaders was focussed on politics and their ideal portraits often served as some sort of ambassador of their status during their absence. This shows that men were defined by attributes of profession and social status. But female portraiture in Italian Renaissance art was not meant to be a direct representation of the individual. The purposes of most female portraiture include commemorative works, donor portraits, and images of ideal beauty. When used as a commemorative portrait, lineage and wealth were seen as the most important. Women were often painted in honour of marriage, shown by the age and costume of many subjects of portraits. Other than at the time of marriage, women were rarely seen on display as publicity was necessary to legitimize marriage during the period, and men wished to display wealth and prestige. Much of the time women were painted within the domestic sphere of the home, this included them being hard at work sewing or spinning, or rearing their many expected children.

Many depictions of women were also seen in religious paintings as donors. In Northern Italian courts, donors were portrayed in finery to publicly advertise their wealth. In other courts of Italy, this practice was frowned upon, and female donors were pictured in dark attire with heads covered in white cloth. The costume of a woman in portrait marked their parental and marital identity, and because costume and jewellery conveyed such a large amount of information, artists often focused on the wardrobe as much as the woman, who was considered to be a piece of property herself anyway.

As said before, the women pictured in the portraits of the Italian Renaissance were not often portrayed as specific individuals but as generally ideal women who shared similar facial features with the subject of the portrait. Examples of desired physical traits include a high, round forehead, plucked eyebrows, blond hair, fair skin, rosy cheeks, red lips, white teeth and dark eyes. This is shown in many portraits where they may memorialize different individual women, the images appear to differ only slightly, with many showing equal proportion and perfect symmetry in addition to the other features mentioned. In addition to physical beauty, women were expected to uphold the high moral standards of the time. The virtuous qualities most patrons and artists aimed to portray include humility, piety, charity, obedience, and chastity. The Italian phrase virtutem forma decorat, or ‘beauty adorns virtue,’ shows the common belief in Italian Renaissance society that ideal moral characteristics must be present for women to possess physical beauty, and therefore it was considered that outward appearance was a reflection of inner beauty.

Revisiting Burckhardt’s Italian Despot – The Este and Borgia Families

Once again, I have found myself revisiting some old research. You may know already that around 2010 I was particularly keen on the Renaissance  – repressed art historian at the core, what could you expect? Having spent some time analysing the different Italian factions of this period, I came across Buckhardt – as you should if you are looking into this topic!- and ended doing some research on some of the most prominent Italian families and their rulers. Therefore, today I will revisit my early ideas as a student of the Italian magnates and their power politics.

Jacob Burckhardt presents his model of Italian despot in his book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. According to him, the despotism in Italy was different from the system of tyrannies established in these states during the 13th and early 14th centuries. “The earliest firm tyrannies in important towns were achieved by feudatories who owed their position in part to alliances with Frederick II” – he says very eloquently. However with the Renaissance changes these dynamics. The despots were meant to seek for fame, have passion for arts and count scholars in their courts to give their like the other European princes. Theirs was an absolute power over their realm,  but their situation was delicate; the rule of a despot was brief. It was easy to make enemies, and family interests could be either one’s salvation or condemnation. For reasons I cannot fully remember, my investigation then went to focus on two main families, d’Este and the Borgia. So the following lines will try to compare their strategies as families, and how this is reflected by their leaders.

D’Este

They controlled a considerably big area configured by the cities of Modena, Reggio, Rovigo and Ferrara, which would be the capital of their realm. Their interest in this region grew since 1185 when Azzo d’Este married Machellesa degli Adelardi, who was the heiress of her family’s properties there. The Este developed good diplomatic skills and administrative bureaucracy which, in addition to the control of rural-agrarian economy instead of commerce, gave them a lot of power, as well as a firm grip over the rich people in their land. Furthermore, they also knew that maintaining the public order and making their citizens happy was a major issue, crucial indeed to avoid rebellions. Due to this The Este cared for the food supply, flood control and irrigation, as well as for the provision of an effective judicial system, religious and philanthropic works and entertainment of their areas of influence. The family found a strong leader in  Ercole d’Este Following Buckhardt’s teaching, it appears that he possessed many of the characteristics that later on Machiavelli would appoint in Il Principe. He was well-known for using his family members for representation, alliance and marriage, which made him a very well-connected and supported ruler.

The Este were remarkable in the flourishing art patronage of the Renaissance and for this reason their main competition were the Medicci.  Ercole’s role in this is particularly important as he promoted the revival of classical theatre, and supported the Boiardo’s poetry, and focussed on creating a magnificent ducal capital. In addition, the family also had ties with the church. In fact, Borso d’Este played a major role in the patronage of the Carthusian order in Ferrara. I guess it could be said that the spirit of the Este family based on strong family unity, patronage of the arts and religion is encompassed in the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which became their burial site.

The Borgia

The Borgia’s success was mainly due to the links they established within the church, and it is precisely Pope Alexander VI, or Rodrigo Borgia, who made them powerful. But the Borgia’s control was flawed in nature. Although it is true that the  Papal States had become a vast thanks to Alexander and his son, Cesare, the authority that the pope had varied from one city to another. Religion was at the stakes – The Reformation drew near. Meanwhile, the Borgia aimed for a centralised government, especially outside the Romagna, which they had recently conquered. This centralisation was based mostly on their ability to amass large quantities of money. Alexander managed to collect large amounts of wealth due to new taxes, heavy tithe rates, retributions from cardinals, etc. Violence was also their friend. Conquering the Romagna was no easy task, but with Alexander’s money, Cesare managed to rise an army capable of great military success. The militia from this area was meant to be an instrument of unification and a demonstration of local support, but it rather looked like forceful conscription in the modern sense. And so, the problems began…the French invasions, the rebellion in Umbria, the problematic pilgrims of the 1500 Jubilee…And yet, the crusade against the Turks was somewhat successfull.Art patronage does not seem one of their main concerns. It is known that the Pope Calixtus III, the first Borgia pope, had no dedication to art patronage rather that the eventual reconstruction of ruined churches[28], while Alexander seemed more dedicated to his iconographic project of the Virgin. So this makes one wonder, if the Borgia cause was a family business, or rather a means to complete individual pretensions. Some scholars support the idea that both Alexander and Cesare used Lucrezia Borgia (daughter and sister respectively) for their political gains through arranged marriages. Yet after two troublesome relationships, the woman ends up married to Alfonso d’Este, much to her interest rather than that of her relatives – by this union she would become duchess of Este, not just the daughter of the Pope…Alexander, and so Cesare, had been more identified in the way of a ruler of the Middle Ages rather than of the Renaissance. Despite the presence of remarkable people in their court such as Machiavelli or Leonardo Da Vinci, they seem to lack the “renaissance” experienced elsewhere in Italy. The way they took control and power seemed ruthless and aggressive. They were more alike with the so-called tyrants than despots per se.

So, upon reflecting on my work, this makes me know think that, although Buckhardt’s premises are a great basis to understand the Renaissance politics of Italy, his idea of the despot does not seem to find common ground among all these people. In addition, I do not think anymore that this is a particularly useful way of understanding the political dynamics of Italy in this period. The concept of the Italian despot seems to miss the wider picture in which these people developed their strategies that suited them best for the sake of competition and survival of their regime. Of course, this is based on just two families, but with a little research in the Medicci or the Sforza, one can only wonder if there was such a thing as the ultimate Italian despot, or rather a multiplying configuration of regional, powerful magnates driven by individual thought and family agendas.

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PS: for this I have quite an extensive bibliography of works that made me reconsider Buckhardt’s concept, and this is what my reassessment is based upon, but any comments are of course welcomed, as this is not even remotely my specialty nowadays…This is just a selection of those I perhaps found most interesting or useful/insightful.

Burckhardt, J., The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, (New York, 1960) – where you should start, preferably.

Tuohy, T., Herculean Ferrara: Ercole d’Este (1471-1505) and the Invention of a Ducal Capital, (Cambridge, 1995) – This is the real deal. Solid arguments, in-depth analysis, different perspectives on the argument.

Gundersheimer, L.W., Ferrara: a Style of a Renaissance Despotism, (Princeton; N.J, 1973) – perhaps a bit outdated now? But it does provide a nice complement to Tuohy from a more descriptive and traditional approach.

Mallet, M., The Borgias: Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Dynasty, (London, 1969) – Again, I know it’s an old book, but like Buckhardt, it does establish the grounds for the understanding of the Borgia enterprise.

Gwynne, N.M., The Truth about Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, (Sainte Croix du Mont, 2008) – quite blunt review of the Borgias, a bit sensationalist even I would say, but some interesting theories regarding personal identity and the Pope as both religious leader and head of family

Bradford, S., Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy, (London, 2004) – perhaps too focussed on her amorous affairs than her actual identity and power. However, as a biographical piece it does comprise her entire life, and explores the ambiguities of her background as a “legitimate Borgia”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Women in Renaissance Portraiture

In the past, it seems to have been more common for demonology to be associated with women. This can be seen in the later Medieval period where women were seen as more prone to witchcraft than men. This is based on traditional beliefs of what was perceived as basic female nature, much of it being seen in Christianity. Trials of witchcraft promoted discussions of gender and influenced the visual arts, and in Renaissance graphic art, particularly in northern Europe, female sorcery was a popular theme.

However, Renaissance portraits of women generally intended to convey beauty and the social role of women instead. Portraits of men generally emphasized their social, political, or professional role, and these portraits were often stereotypically masculine. The function of portraits of male leaders was focussed on politics and their ideal portraits often served as some sort of ambassador of their status during their absence. This shows that men were defined by attributes of profession and social status. But female portraiture in Italian Renaissance art was not meant to be a direct representation of the individual. The purposes of most female portraiture include commemorative works, donor portraits, and images of ideal beauty. When used as a commemorative portrait, lineage and wealth were seen as the most important. Women were often painted in honour of marriage, shown by the age and costume of many subjects of portraits. Other than at the time of marriage, women were rarely seen on display as publicity was necessary to legitimize marriage during the period, and men wished to display wealth and prestige.

Many depictions of women were also seen in religious paintings as donors. In Northern Italian courts, donors were portrayed in finery to publicly advertise their wealth. In other courts of Italy, this practice was frowned upon, and female donors were pictured in dark attire with heads covered in white cloth. The costume of a woman in portrait marked their parental and marital identity, and because costume and jewellery conveyed such a large amount of information, artists often focused on the wardrobe as much as the woman, who was considered to be a piece of property herself anyway.

As said before, the women pictured in the portraits of the Italian Renaissance were not often portrayed as specific individuals but as generally ideal women who shared similar facial features with the subject of the portrait. Examples of desired physical traits include a high, round forehead, plucked eyebrows, blond hair, fair skin, rosy cheeks, red lips, white teeth and dark eyes. This is shown in many portraits where they may memorialize different individual women, the images appear to differ only slightly, with many showing equal proportion and perfect symmetry in addition to the other features mentioned. In addition to physical beauty, women were expected to uphold the high moral standards of the time. The virtuous qualities most patrons and artists aimed to portray include humility, piety, charity, obedience, and chastity. The Italian phrase virtutem forma decorat, or ‘beauty adorns virtue,’ shows the common belief in Italian Renaissance society that ideal moral characteristics must be present for women to possess physical beauty, and therefore it was considered that outward appearance was a reflection of inner beauty.

My favourite wonders of Historical Italy

A warm welcome to: ‘My favourite wonders of Italy blog!’ During the summer of 2014 I was lucky enough to explore a land renowned for its history and beauty, Italy. This post will count down my favourite wonders of Historical Italy and feature the conventional familiarities of Italy and the added novelty!

The balcony of the Palazzo Venezia-

When I entered the city of Rome aside from wanting to visit the Trevi fountain, Spanish Steps and the famous coliseum I was also particularly interested in seeing the Palazzo Venezia. The Palazzo Venezia was originally a complex that housed the cardinals of the adjoined San Marco church and later became a papal residence to Pope Pius IV. However, as the title suggests I was interested in the balcony. The balcony was a very poignant moment of Italian history as it became synonymous with Mussolini’s most notable speeches. In particular, it was where he declared the formation of the Italian Empire in 1936 and Italy’s entering the Second War as allies to Nazi Germany. I found it was very striking to see a building in Rome, a city famous for the Romans and Michelangelo that gave a different perspective to the History of the city.

Siena Palio-

The Siena Palio is a festival that takes place in the city of Siena, Tuscany at the Piazza del Campo and consists of a horse race that mimics medieval chivalry. Both of the races honour the Madonna of Provenzano and the Assumption of Mary (Mary’s assent to heaven) respectively. The term Palio is meant to represent a banner that each horse rider wears when they race. Seventeen teams compete in order to win the trophy and the teams consist of the different districts of Siena and during the competition banners of the seventeen districts are distributed in the city. The Palio takes place twice a year on 2 July and 16 August. However, not all seventeen horses can take part at any one time, normally ten horses take part at each Palio. The seven that did not take part in the last Palio are instantly included to race for the next year. Similarly a ballot takes place in order to determine which horse would race for each district. Although the origins of the Palio are not exact it is often agreed that they have medieval origin. The Piazza hosted many public events for spectators to watch, some of which include; jousting and bull fighting. In 1590 however bullfighting was outlawed and very soon after races were established whilst still using the bulls to ride on. Eventually the bulls were replaced with horses. Even though I did not visit Siena at the time of the Palio it was a spectacle in itself to stand in the middle of the Piazza del Campo and imagining how lively the atmosphere of race day would be! So, who would you put your money on for 2015? Team Drago (Dragon) or are you more of a wise Team Civetta (Little owl).

Gelato (there was plenty of them)!-

Gelato. It is like the fish to chips or the mayonnaise to Belgian frites? Wherever you go in Italy, it is impossible to not find a Gelato parlour. Riva Del Garda? Gelato. Verona? Gelato. Venice? Gelato. Rome? Gelato. Florence? Gelato. Perugia? Yes the answer is without a doubt, Gelato. Though frozen desert making traces back to outside Italy, the history of the Gelato spans many years with its origins lying back towards Roman times. The Romans had established trade routes between the mountains and distributing the ice to settlements. The shaving of ice added to deserts occurred until Italy adopted a recipe from the Far East, whereby milk was added. During the 15th and 16th centuries the “Italian” Gelato was beginning to take shape, this was mainly due to a better understanding of refrigerating the ice cream. As the years went by and technology improved further through the use of machines making the Gelatos on a larger scale, it reached more and more Italians. This eventually resulted in street vendors selling Gelatos in the 1920s and 1930s, reaching a variety of people on the streets of Italy.

Renaissance Florence, the birthplace of perspective-

Florence is the capital of the Tuscany region and is considered to be where the Renaissance movement was established from the fourteenth century. The Renaissance was a period in history that I did not know much about before visiting Florence and the city ended up being the highlight of my trip. Of course I had heard of Michelangelo’s David and the famous Uffizi art museum, however intrigued as I was I had wished to know more about the origins of the Renaissance and was advised to visit a pair of doors by a local guide. The doors in question were at the north side of Florence Cathedral (originally east side). The guide soon elaborated the background story of how the doors came about and said that a competition was announced by the Wool Guild of Florence in order to design them. It was a twenty-one year old by the name of Lorenzo Ghiberti that was chosen to design the doors, although initially another sculptor by the name of Fillipo Brunelleschi aided him. The doors were said to depict the “Gates of Paradise” and were considered to be influential for Renaissance Humanism. However Brunelleschi is remembered for the doors but did not finish the task with him as he left Florence to reside in Rome, but he became most famous for the usage of linear perspective in artwork. This was different to previous art works before this period as he used optical linear perspective for the design of one of the panels for the Florence Cathedral. This technique aided artists to paint three dimensionally. In spite of the panels being lost just looking at the detail on the doors at the north side showed how revolutionary perspective was.

A Renaissance Court Painter

For culture month I figured I would introduce a lesser known painter in the swirl of famous and erudite men who populated the courts of Renaissance Italy with their masterpieces. The most well-known court painters of this era range from the astute Leonardo da Vinci, intricate Jan van Eyck and the marvel Hans Holbein. But very few people have heard hear of Pisanello, the court painter for the d’Este family who held the city-state of Ferrara in Northern Italy. Despite his style being relatively old-fashioned for the time in which he was living and working, his work still stands out for excellence and skill to those who venture further into studying the art history of the cultural Renaissance.

Antonio di Puccio Pisano is thought to have been born in around 1395 in Pisa, Italy and is generally known by the name given to him by the Renaissance chronicler Giorgio Vasari as Vittore Pisano or Pisanello. He was trained under the distinguished Gentile de Fabriano, a man famous for his gold leaf encrusted altar piece The Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi Gallery, 1423) in Venice to learn the difficult talent of artistry. At the age of forty in 1435 Pisanello was commissioned to live in the ducal palace of Ferrera and work for Lionello d’Este, who was the head of the family at the time. It was during his fourteen year tenure here that Pisanello made his best known works including that of the Princess of the House of d’Este (Louvre, 1436-38) which is a personal favourite of mine. He was working at a time during the Renaissance that came to be known as Quattrocento, a period of transition in which the style of painting shifted from International Gothic to Naturalism from around 1400 to 1450, (Quattro comes from the Italian for 400, therefore marking the year of 1400).

The International Gothic style is the one which identifies with Pisanello’s work in most, the movement is from the late middle-ages to about the middle of the Renaissance to coincide or over-lap with the Gothic movement in architecture. You can always tell from the first look of whether a painting is of the Gothic style due to the figures having slender ‘s’ shaped figures and are highly idealised to portray the perfect beauty. They could be shown to be almost crude in bodily shape as there is no hint of a figure under the drapery typical of a Gothic portrait. It being known as International due to it being recognised from all over Europe, from the Courts of Burgundy and France to the English Isles and down to the Mediterranean and Spanish Peninsulas.

Pisanello worked with fresco, a medium which is known for the lighter, more airy colours yet still maintaining a distinct vibrancy that lasts even after several years, particularly when working with ultramarine blue. Fresco painting is synonymous with the International Gothic movement in creating a flat appearance. While fresco was still being used right into the 16th century, it was becoming an increasingly outmoded material in favour for oil paint that was able to produce a much more realistic and pronounced tone and definition in a painting, especially that of a portrait. Pisanello is the most known for secular paintings such as his portraits completed in Ferrara which all feature an image of one of the d’Este’s family, or of someone who joined the family through a marriage alliance, covering a couple of generations. He is also known for his medals in which he imprinted a portrait design onto metal, one of which is his one of John VIII Palaeologus (1438) who he saw while visiting Ferrara. A lot of his work has since been lost or destroyed so he is less well-known for his religious pieces such as The Vision of St Eustace (1435)and St George and the Princess (c. 1433)

When studying the life of a painter, especially during the Italian Renaissance, you can see that they are known to travel the length of breadth of their country between city states and even venture into the North, a region which celebrated the beginning of the Renaissance approximately 50 to 60 years after the beginning of the Italians. Pisanello is no exception as he has works listed to have been created in Rome, Verona, Milan, Venice and Genoa and all are attributed as commissions from nobility such as King Sigismund (Sigismund of Luxemburg) (1432-33). The king himself has impressive credentials of being the King of Hungary and Croatia, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor from 1433. The king is said to have been travelling in Mantua, home of the Gonzaga family who were vested as a marquis, a middling Italian city state when he commissioned this portrait of himself from Pisanello who is thought to have just returned from a sojourn in Rome. The painting now rests in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Pisanello would have had links to the Gonzaga family as it is Margarita Gonzaga who is thought to have been the sitter for his Princess of d’Este portrait as she married Lionello shortly before Pisanello joined the d’Este household.

While being in close professional bonds with several members of the Italian nobility, you could not exactly avoid being drawn in during periods of political trouble. Pisanello was staying with the Gonzaga family when the ruler of Milan declared war against the Doge and Republic of Venice in 1438. He joined and helped capture Verona from under the Venetian authorities who eventually labelled him a rebel and sentenced him to imprisonment; however an unknown benefactor contributed to Pisanello being cleared of all charges

After finishing his time in Ferrara, Pisanello retired to Naples in 1448 and worked for the rulers of Aragon which would have brought into close courtesy with the ancestors of Catherine of Aragon whose father Ferdinand of Aragon was born in 1452. Pisanello is thought to have died around 1454 leaving works scattered across Italy and Spain and today his works, particularly his portraits and preliminary drawings, can be seen in state art galleries and museums across Europe. He thought to be one of the forerunners of the High Renaissance but is constantly overshadowed by the work of da Vinci and Michelangelo to be seen with such importance today. On a last note his most accomplished and most forgotten is the impressive fresco cycle War and Chivalry (1447) in the Ducal Palace of di Mantova in Mantua which is his biggest piece that still survives today and is the typical and most paramount example of a late International Gothic painter.