Feminism and Renaissance Studies

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14 La Donnesca Mano

Fredrika Jacobs

In the congenial arts I see us still obliged to renounce sculpture
and even painting The “decency” that excludes us from study-
ing the human form, everything in our ethos opposes our
progress Thus we are limited to music, dance and banal
versifying. Meager resources, which lead nowhere.

(Mme Louise d'Epinay, 1771)

Is an image reflective of its maker and does it reveal something about the individual who produced it? Leonard da Vinci's well-known aphorism, “Every artist paints himself [ogni dipintore dipinge se]” suggests it does. In fact, examples of the reflexivity of art are not hard to find in early critical writings. Giorgio Vasari's description of frescoes in the church of Santa Maria Nuovo, Florence, illustrates the point. Accepting as fact the story of Andrea del Castagno's purported murder of a rival painter, Vasari claims the “malignant” Castagno unwittingly “painted himself with the face of Judas Iscariot, whom he resembled in both appearance and deed.”1 Although this example implies a oneto-one relationship between the artist and the subject he paints, reflexivity was also perceived in the artist's style. In essence style was viewed as a type of signature which, among other things, disclosed the gender of the maker. Accordingly, critics scrutinized images and objects for signs of strength and vigor (ardito, furioso, pugnato, virile, etc.) or indications of timidity and excessive care (arrendevole, stento, tenero, feminile, etc.). Not unexpectedly, these critical terms carried qualitative weight. Looking back at the cinquecento, the seventeenth-century critic Carlo Cesare Malvasia compared the style of the Bolognese painter Elisabetta Sirani (1638-65) to those of her forebears. Sirani,

From Fredrika Jacobs, Defining the Renaissance Virtuosa: Women Artists and the Language of
Art History (Cambridge University Press, 1997), 85-122. © Fredrika H. Jacobs. Reprinted with


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