Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy

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

Controlling Women or Women Controlled?
Suggestions for Gender Roles and Visual Culture in the
Italian Renaissance Palace

Roger J. Crum

"Men do two important things in this life: the first is to procreate, the second is to build."1 So claimed Giovanni Rucellai, a fifteenth-century Florentine, father of seven children, and notable patron of art and architecture. Perhaps Rucellai's wife, Iacopa, shared her husband's opinion concerning bambini, but what might she and other Renaissance women have thought about buildings, paintings, statues, decorative objects, and other examples of visual culture? To go beyond the artistic patronage of Isabella d'Este was the objective of the conference session for which an earlier version of this paper was written. In the initial stages of composing that paper, my interest was to think of other, lesser-known Renaissance women whose patronage scholars had either not identified or extensively discussed. But in thinking about women's patronage, particularly in relation to the Italian Renaissance palace, I began to ask fewer questions about specific individuals than about women as a group and about the dynamics and gender politics of artistic patronage generally.2 Eventually my research came to center on three principal questions: first, what kind of documentation might constitute proof of artistic patronage in the Renaissance? Second, how is the study of women's patronage influenced and possibly limited by an adherence to the traditional patriarchal models for the Renaissance patron, which do not encourage an awareness of areas of control that women may have exercised over the patronage process? And third, did Renaissance women participate in artistic patronage with some degree of independence, or did male members of the family always control such actions? In suggesting answers to these questions my aim is to insert an element of positive uncertainty and to locate a new and more expansive place for women in conventional discussions of artistic patronage in the Italian Renaissance. I also consider ways in which this volume's discussion of secular women patrons relates to the evolution of feminist art history.


The Problem of Documentation

As for my first question, I think many would agree that when a document of commission surfaces, the matter of patronage is satisfactorily solved. Linked by a document, one patron, one artist, and one work of art constitute an indivisible whole, a trinity of sorts, that comfortably defines the parameters of patronage.3 Since the commissioning person in the Renaissance was often male, we have a certain amount of information concerning the history of male patronage. But what does this history really tell us about patronage? Are the documents telling the whole story? With regard to men, women, and the Renaissance palace, I propose initially to explore these questions by modern analogy.

Let us imagine that five hundred years from now a historian discovers my father's checkbook. Therein he or she would find entries for the house, furniture, carpet, drapes,

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