Women Patrons in Renaissance Italy

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What concerns the perception of art, people usually imagine an artist, who is deeply engaged in the creative process with all the stereotypic attributes like an easel, brushes or a chisel of a sculptor. However, the artists are obviously not the only participants in the process of creation of an artwork. In fact, it is especially true for earlier periods in the human history, when art materials were rather expensive and the art market was not as developed and active as it is now. Actually, the work of an artist was almost impossible without the help of the patron; a person, who commissioned the work of art, not only paid for it but also supported the artist in a number of different ways. The institute of patronage became especially important during the Renaissance. The majority of patrons were males and the cases, when a woman became an art patron, were rather rare.
This paper examines the conditions of female patronage in Renaissance Italy, explores the relations between female patrons and male artists, and studies whether female patrons preferred to order works of art from female artists.
The study of several cases of women patronage all over Italy will prove that the activities of female patrons were limited by the social norms and it will argue that the gender of an artist did not play a key role, when women chose the artist to execute their order.
In fact, the institute of patronage existed since early times. The ancient Greek and Roman civilizations had an extensive system of patronage that allowed creating a great number of outstanding sculptures, buildings, vases, mosaics and other works of art. However, the Renaissance idea of patronage differs significantly from the idea of previous periods of time.
1. The changes in mentality and social conditions had an enormous impact on the very nature of the relations between an artist and a patron. First of all, it is necessary to highlight that the status of a Renaissance artist was different, for example, from the one of a medieval artist. In the Middle Ages, the artists represented “nameless” craftsmen in most cases, whose image did not differ from the imag of a shoemaker or a bookbinder. The Renaissance characterized by a new humanistic approach to understanding of human nature began to treat the work of an artist as something powered by his/ her genius, something unique and individual.
2. The reputation and prestige of the artist began to possess higher value than the materials needed for the creation of a work of art. Actually, the art historians highlight “the rapid development of visual idioms within an explosively prolific culture of image production” during that period.
3. Therefore, the role of the artists in the relations with patrons became more significant and they could influence the perception of the order. Nevertheless, in most cases, the patrons were very precise about what work of art they needed to get. Such a situation could be partially explained by the rising prestige of humanitarian education; so, almost all the nobles were rather knowledgeable about arts and general tendencies in the sphere. For instance, in a letter of Isabella d’Este to Perugino (1503), she tells him that “to add more expression and ornament to the picture, beside Pallas let there be the olive tree dedicated to her, where her shield with the head of Medusa shall be placed, and with an owl placed in its braches since this is the bird proper to Pallas.”
4. Moreover, it is necessary to take into account the social, economic and political circumstances, while analyzing patronage in Renaissance Italy. Italy was not a unified country and consisted of city-states ruled by dukes, marquises, etc. Although they were considered the vassals of the Pope or the Holy Roman Emperor, they were highly independent in their actions.
5. The cities were closely connected to the links of military affairs, politics and marriages. Therefore, patronage (and as a result, art) represented a tool of diplomacy, as the status of a good patron meant that the person was rich, educated and determined to do good for the community. Actually, such features were very important for the creation of an image of a “proper” Renaissance ruler. Special focus was paid to the public spaces during the decoration of the buildings, where the rulers or other patrons could receive and entertain guests. Placing paintings and sculptures of prominent artists at such spaces represented a significant contribution to the public image of the patron. If the works of outstanding artists of the period were seen at the person’s palace or church, they signaled that the patron belonged to the elite of the state.
Women became patrons rather rarely, as the activities of a patron required the actions that were not compatible with the social norms of a female behavior.
6. Renaissance women were not supposed to be active outside their home. Their duties were limited to managing the house and going to church similar to many patriarchal societies. Placing a commission for the creation of artwork required finding an artist suitable for the order, negotiating over a price and the terms and conditions that usually took a long time, controlling the process on spot and many other activities a woman of high social status could not do during that period. Married women had low level of freedom in such aspects and became patrons less frequently than, for instance, widows or nuns. “A prime factor determining the position from which a laywoman could commission was her marital status – because there was a considerable legal difference between the wife, who could commission only with the assent and assistance of the husband, and the widow, who had more freedom in law.”
7. A married woman could commission only if her husband gave consent to it or if he did not pay much attention to the social norms and allowed his wife to enjoy more freedom than usual. One of such examples represented Eleonora di Garzia di Toledo, also known as Dianora de Medici after her marriage to Don Pietro de’ Medici, a son of Cosimo I de’ Medici. The woman was an active patron of arts funding Accademia degli Alterati and commissioning paintings to Agnolo Bronzino and others.
8. The case of Eleonora di Garzia di Toledo can be explained by the fact that she lived at the court of Cosimo I de’ Medici, who was quite libertarian in terms of social norms, as his primary concern represented political and economic benefits for his family and the state. Thus, he tended to accept some “deviations” from the social norms if they did not spoil the image of the family.
9. Moreover, “Dianora had been a particular favorite with Cosimo, who was paternal in his protection of his late wife’s niece during her short miserable marriage to his unstable son.”
10. The Grand Duke allowed his wife and Dianora to be active patrons of art, as he believed that their activities only strengthened the image of Florence as a powerful state. However, Dianora lost her protector and stopped patronizing after the death of Cosimo.
As it has already been mentioned, the widows had more freedom than married women, who were supposed to be controlled by their husbands. The historians argue that “the death of a husband often required a woman to be more active outside the home than expected or possible when the husband was living.”
11. However, it is important to highlight that the freedom implied the existence of many limitations that regulated the activity of the widows. If the women did not marry again, piety should have become the primary quality of their image in the society. The widows did not have to report to their husband regarding their actions, but their public life should have been minimized to the religious sphere exclusively – going to church, taking part in religious organizations or commissioning works of art for the churches, monasteries, etc.. In the Renaissance culture, to construction and decoration of the family burial chapel was of a great importance. The widow usually performed such duties after the death of her husband. The woman was responsible for both the construction and decoration of the chapel in case it was absent, or she may only commission some alternations or additions to the decoration of the building to commemorate the death of her husband. Actually, there are many examples of such cases – “Maria Bufalini, who decorate a burial chapel in San Salvatore… to honor her husband and his father, and Elena Baiardi, who commissioned Paramigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck for her husband’s burial chapel… in Parma” .
12. The widows often ordered the portraits of their sons, who became their guardians. The commemoration of some dates and figures related to the husband’s family was more common for the widows to be interested in rather than the commemoration of the family, where they were born. Despite relative freedom, the widows were restricted in terms of the things they should buy. In order to meet the social norms, the women commissioned the works for private chapels in most cases, the portraits of their family members or, quite rarely, their own portraits.
In fact, the nuns, who lived in female convents, also became patrons of art. However, it does not mean that they enjoyed complete freedom, as the female convents were subjected to a board of religious authorities, who consisted of male representatives of the church.
13. However, the sphere of decoration of the convents was the prerogative of nuns and their abbesses in most cases. As the decoration of churches, convents, basilicas and other religious buildings was one of the leading areas of the Renaissance art world, it is obvious that nuns played a very influential role among female patrons. The religious institutions paid much attention to the decoration, as they did not underestimate the significance of images and architecture as a means of producing the desired impact on the people. Some of the most notable and large-scale decorations of the religious institution were patronized by nuns. If the nun came from a relatively wealthy family, she usually got allowances called vitalize.
14. Therefore, if the sum of vitalizi was high enough, the nun could afford to pay for the commissions independently (however, the abbess should have approved them in any case). Vitalizi was not a part of the dowry that was paid by the nun’s family, when she entered the convent, and it could be managed by the nun herself in contrast to the dowry that added to the general funds of the convent. Actually, the number of female convents and nuns was rather significant. “Around 1338, the Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani estimated that his native city supported 500 nuns out of an urban population of roughly 100,000 to120,000, or 1 religious woman for every 220 inhabitants.”
15. For instance, the female convent and the church di San Pier Maggiore that was located in Florence made particular focus on commissioning the most famous and respected painters of that period. Long negotiations allowed them placing orders for the decorations of their premises to such influential artists as Sandro Botticelli, Perugino, and Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio.
16. As the cases are documented in the convent archives, it is possible to compare the prices paid by the nuns to the painters and the average prices for the corresponding works, when commissioned by civic patrons. In almost all the cases, the prices were rather comparable with the average and some prices exceeded the average. Such a discovery can lead to the conclusion that rich convents were considered very good patrons regardless of their sex.
Another example is the Order of Poor Clares that was found by Clare of Assisi. One of the first churches of the Order of Poor Clares was San Domiano near Assisi. The nuns controlled the decoration of the church, since they occupied the monastery that belonged to it. In fact, the church has a number of frescoes that portray the nuns as the donators. Saint Catherine of Bologna (Catherine de’ Vigri), who was both a female artist and a patron, also belonged to the Order of Poor Clares. In 1432, together with some other women of Ferrara, she founded a monastery that belonged to the order.
17. Saint Catherine of Bologna was chosen to be an abbess of the convent and she became in charge of the convent administration, as a result. Catherine de’ Vigri contacted many painters from the School of Ferrara to decorate the church and monastery premises. Therefore, the nuns of Renaissance Italy represented a social category of women, who were relatively free in their actions, especially, if they came from wealthy noble families. The reputation of female convents as art patrons was rather good; female patrons were reliable and could afford the work of the most popular artists and sculptors.
Due to a significant number of limitations imposed on women during the Renaissance, the relations between a female patron and male artists were not similar to the case, when the patron and the artist were male. First of all, the difference in sex influenced the way a female patron chose the artists to place the order. If the woman had a male guardian or protector (known as mundualdus), she could ask him to start the search of an appropriate candidate, as the preparatory stage required many negotiation activities outside home.
18. If the woman did not have a guardian or could not use his services, she usually chose an artist, who had a connection to her or her family. Wealthy and noble female patrons had a large circle of acquaintances, so they could approach famous and influential artists in order to ask whether they would agree to work for them. Actually, the search of an appropriate candidate also depended upon the scale of the city. In smaller communities, female patrons often contacted local painters or sculptors; in large cities, like Florence, Naples, or Rome, the art market was more developed and women could even find a way to invite an artist from another part of Italy. Female patrons rarely controlled the process of the creation of artwork in the same manner men did.
19. Female patrons could not go to the artist’s studio in order to check whether the work was in progress; thus, they usually wrote letters with inquiries or instructions. Such a fact was true even for such noble patrons as Isabella d’Este, who had a large proportion of numerous letters devoted to the negotiations or the control of patronized work. Therefore, the social norms influenced the relations between a female patron and a male artist and did not allow the woman to act in a similar manner to male patrons.
One of the most interesting and well-documented examples of female patronage in Renaissance Italy is Isabella d’Este (1474 – 1539), who was named Marchesa of Mantua.
20. In fact, she was recognized to be one of the leading and most influential patrons in Italy. Isabella d’Este was a daughter of Ferrara’s duke and she received a brilliant education at the court of her father. She studied Latin, music, literature and many other disciplines. In 1490, at the age of sixteen, Isabella was married to Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua and the Captain General of the armies of the Republic of Venice.
21. However, Marchesa of Mantua spent much time alone in their family palace, as Gonzaga had to travel to Venice and different military campaigns; so, the woman got used to be quite independent. In 1509, Francesco Gonzaga was captured and held hostage in Venice; thus, Marchesa got control of Mantua’s military and political affairs.
22. Actually, the woman was quite successful at her new post and she managed to protect the city from the invaders. When Gonzaga was released, the successes of his wife irritated him to a huge extent, their marriage broke, and they began living separately. In 1519, Isabella d’Este became a regent to her small son Federico, when she was forty five.
23. Therefore, this noble woman possessed all the qualities necessary for becoming a patron – she came from upper social class, she enjoyed quite much freedom, and she was relatively rich.
Isabella d’Este was an avid collector. She had a large collection of antiquities – coins, medals, sculptures. For example, she possessed a statue of Cupid by the great ancient Greek sculptor Praxiteles and many other unique ancient objects. However, Isabella also commissioned a great number of artworks to contemporary Italian painters, sculptors and architects. Several years after the marriage to Gonzaga, she started to work closely with her court painter, Andrea Mantegna. As she was often without her husband in Mantua, she performed the commissions herself. For instance, Isabella asked Mantegna to decorate her camerino, a private room, with several painting on mythological subjects. Moreover, she ordered Mantegna to create the first two canvases of the cycle, Parnassus, 1497 and Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, 1502.
24. Actually, those large paintings (159 cm x 192 cm) were of a very complex composition. However, Isabella was very ambitious about becoming one of the greatest patrons of her time and, apparently, she could not be satisfied with commissioning only to her court painter. Thus, she decided to create a studiolo in Castello di San Giorgio and, in addition to two large paintings, she asked painters that are more famous to work for her. The very purpose of this room illustrates the way Renaissance humanism has changed the life of people. Actually, the fashion of small rooms for intellectual studies called studiolo was wide-spread all over Italy; thus, Isabella wanted her room to be the best. She contacted Leonardo da Vinci, but he refused to work for her, as he was busy with other projects. However, the artist promised to create a portrait of Isabella. In fact, it is not clear whether he managed to paint the portrait, but his preliminary drawing is currently exhibited at the Louvre.
25. Isabella often contacted Da Vinci in order to finish his work, but no documented evidence of his agreement exists. The relations between Isabella d’Este and Leonardo da Vinci prove that female patrons might have met some resistance from the male artists, who did not want to cooperate with them. For example, Isabella’s negotiations with Perugino lasted about ten years. However, Isabella commissioned many paintings to other famous painters of that time. In order to decorate her studiolo, she ordered the paintings from Correggio. Actually, the paintings, Allegory of Virtues and Allegory of Vices, were impressive and thought-provoking. Lorenzo Costa, who became the court painter after Andrea Mantegna, also performed Isabella’s commissions for studiolo. It must be also mentioned that Isabella did not forget her ambitions to have her portraits done by the most prominent artists of the epoch. Thus, Titian and Giulio Romano created several portraits.
In order to analyze the idea why female patrons did not prefer female artists, it is necessary to pay more attention to the work of women in the sphere of art during the Renaissance. One of the best illustrations of this aspect is life and work of Lavinia Fontana (1552 – 1614), who is regarded to be one of the pioneers in European art.
26. Actually, she was the first woman, who painted female nudes and created large publicly commissioned paintings.
As it has already been mentioned, the women had a wide range of limitations in terms of their activities in the Renaissance society. As upper and middle class women were supposed to spend nearly all their time at home and could leave it only to go to church, it was almost impossible for a woman to get art education, as it implied not only a regular appearance at public places but also the studies of the male anatomy. Therefore, women became artists only in the cases, when either they came from a family of the artist or they learned to paint independently. Lavinia Fontana studied art from her father Prospero Fontana, who was quite a popular painter of the School of Bologna.
27. At first, the genre of her paintings was typical of the female artists of that period – she specialized in small and middle-sized portraits. However, she was commissioned to create paintings on religious and mythological subjects, when she became more popular.
In fact, it is important to analyze the way Fontana developed the circle of her clientele. At first, she received commissions from the patrons of her father or the people, who addressed her thanks to father’s reputation. When she got married, her husband became her partner in the job and assisted her in many matters. Therefore, she could either represent herself or ask her husband to act as her agent. Fontana had many high-status male patrons; for example, Philip II of Spain, who needed a work to decorate the Escorial Palace in Madrid, commissioned her to paint an altarpiece.
28. She also received several orders from other male patrons for similar altarpieces; such a work was not typical of a female artist, as it was usually granted to men. In spite of the fact that male patrons outnumbered female patrons in the case of Fontana, she had a few commissions from women. Actually, a group of women, who represented a charitable organization, commissioned the painting titled Crucifixion and also known as The Dead Christ with Symbols of the Passion to Fontana. The marital status of those women was different – they represented both married women and widows. However, the nature of the organizational activities related to the church allowing married women to have relative freedom of actions within the frames of the organization. Another example, when Fontana had a female patron, was her work on the painting titled Portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi Hercolani (1595, oil on canvas).
29. The woman depicted at the painting commissioned it several years after the death of her husband. She did not re-marry and the society demanded that such women were faithful to the memory of their husbands; so, they were not allowed to have an active public life and to have any affairs with other men. Therefore, the portrait that Ginevra Aldrovandi Hercolani commissioned to Lavinia Fontana represented not only the means of capturing the appearance of the patron, but also the means of signifying her commitments to the society. Ginevra is portrayed in a modest black cloak that covers a dark dress with a minimum of decoration. She pets a small dog that has always been considered as a symbol of fidelity and loyalty. Thus, this portrait tells much information about one of the most popular cases, when a female patron (widow) has commissioned a portrait of herself. The case of Lavinia Fontana demonstrates that female artists received a number of commissions from female patrons, but they were not numerous.
Other aspects of relations between female patrons and female artists can be studied by analyzing the example of Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532 –1625)
30. Sofonisba was born in a noble family, but her father did not have enough funds to represent the category of upper social class. Nevertheless, Sofonisba’s father provided his daughters with a very good education. Actually, Anguissola studied art from a male painter that was unprecedented for that period. She became the first official female students of art to a male teacher in Italy. At first, she painted mostly portraits of her family members – her father, mother and sisters – but she began receiving commissions from other sources later. In 1558, she finished the portrait of Duke of Alba; he enjoyed the work so much that recommended Sofonisba Anguissola to King Philip II of Spain.
31. Thus, the woman was invited to the Spanish court to be a teacher of art and a lady-in-waiting to the new queen Elisabeth of Valois, Philip’s wife. Later, she became a court painter and she got commissions from both the king and the queen. When Elisabeth of Valois died after fourteen years, the king arranged a marriage for Anguissola to a Sicilian noble. Two years after the death of her husband, she fell in love with a sea captain, who she married despite the reservations of her brother. Anguissola was quite a rich woman at that time, as she received the fortune of her first husband and a pension from Philip II; so, she could allow painting quite freely. In fact, she became a wealthy patron of the arts after her sight weakened during her late years. Therefore, Anguissola’s case is very interesting, as she both received commissions from female patrons during her active artistic career and became a patron, when she was unable to paint. No documented evidence states that Anguissola ordered any paintings from younger artists, but she helped them with advice and funds. Moreover, she was always open to discuss art; thus, a number of painters, such as Anthony van Dyck visited her.
32. The situation with female patrons in case of Anguissola was similar to the case of Fontana – they did not outnumber male patrons. Some art historians offer a hypothesis that women may prefer female artists, as modeling for a female artist was less “intimidating” than if the painter was male. However, the analysis of available records about Anguissola’s clients does not prove this idea, as the women, who ordered portraits from Anguissola represented her acquaintances or the acquaintances of her husband in most cases. Therefore, taking into account the cases of Fontana and Anguissola, it becomes evident that social networking was much more important for granting commissions to female artists rather than their gender. As Renaissance Italy did not allow women socializing in the similar manner to men, the female artists could find rather few commissions without the support of male agents or relatives; the same was true for female patrons.
Overall, the analysis of the art world in Renaissance Italy showed that men mostly dominated the institute of patronage, as women were significantly limited in their rights in the patriarchal society. In fact, it was a very rare case, when a married woman commissioned an artwork; the widows or nuns, who belonged to the categories that enjoyed relative freedom, commissioned the painting more often. The analysis of such influential art patrons as Isabella d’Este and some other cases showed that women were restricted in their choice of the subject matters for the works they commissioned and they could also experience some difficulties in the process of negotiating with male artists. However, female patrons did not pay less than male patrons did; it is especially true in the case of rich female convents.
The research did not find any evidence that female patrons preferred to grant commissions to female artists during the Renaissance. The study of the oeuvre of Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola concluded that, in general, their patrons were male and the women, who ordered paintings from the artists, did not choose them because of their gender, as it was rather a case of social links or the artist’s good reputation. Therefore, it would be a mistake to argue that the role of female patrons was significant during the Renaissance.
In fact, it was an exception rather than the rule. However, it is obvious that the number of female patrons increased at that period in comparison to earlier times that can be explained by the new humanistic approach to the social sphere. Actually, increase in the number of female patrons of art proves that the society has experienced very important shifts that have paved the way for future changes in terms of women’s rights. Thus, despite the small scale of female patron, the changes allowed the women to take part in the revival of art world that was a crucial part of the Renaissance.

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