Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy

By Sheryl E. Reiss; David G. Wilkins | Go to book overview

Prologue

Since the late quattrocento, Isabella d'Este, marchioness of Mantua (1474–1539), has been praised for her patronage and collecting of art.1 Indeed, not only has she been exalted as a female patron, she has also been singled out as the great exception, a nearly unique example of woman as artistic patron.2 In a review article of 1995 entitled "The Progress of Patronage in Renaissance Italy," the historian Kate Lowe encouraged a reexamination of this assumption:

Perhaps, as a coda, it may be worthwhile to consider new directions in studies on
patronage, which have not been represented by the books under review. Not
one of them addresses directly the issue of female patronage.… Generally, au-
thors mouth platitudes on Isabella d'Este in lieu of giving serious attention to
this utterly neglected field. A huge body of material is available for a consider-
ation of the physiognomy of female patronage, and new studies of it would cer-
tainly add greatly to our understanding of gender relations and the place of women
in society, as well as to our comprehension of the "patronage" process.3

The present study is among the first to provide the serious attention and nuanced interpretation called for by Lowe, and along with other publications of the past decade, it suggests that women—lay and religious—were far more active as patrons in Renaissance Italy than has been previously recognized.4 We have chosen to focus here on secular women like Isabella d' Este because until recently more attention had been paid to the art patronage of female religious than to that of other women.5 This particular focus enables us to pose new questions and to provide considerable evidence for a class of women whose patronage of visual culture has, to a large extent, been neglected.

Beyond Isabella d'Este then, who were other female secular patrons in Renaissance Italy? What were their relationships with other women and with men, including kinsmen and the artists and architects whose works they commissioned? To what social classes did these women belong and how were they able to finance the undertakings they sponsored? What types of works did they request? What were the personal, familial, and societal motivations for their patronage? Did the character of patronage by women differ from that of men and what were the mechanisms of their patronage in a male-dominated culture? These are some of the many questions we asked ourselves when formulating an Italian Art Society session on secular women patrons in Italy that we jointly chaired in 1993 (at the 28th International Congress on Medieval Studies, at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo). Six of the papers collected here (those by Roger Crum, Rosi Gilday, Katherine McIver, Marjorie Och, Mary Vaccaro, and Carolyn Valone) were presented at the Kalamazoo conference, while our own contributions originated as "poster papers" associated with the session. As we began to prepare a publication based on these papers, we became aware of other scholars working on the patronage of secular women in Renaissance Italy, and we invited Molly Bourne, Bruce Edelstein, Lawrence Jenkens, Benjamin Kohl, Gabrielle Langdon, and Elizabeth Pilliod to contribute to this volume.

-xv-

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