Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy

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

Caterina Piccolomini
and the Palazzo delle Papesse in Siena

A. Lawrence Jenkens

The Palazzo delle Papesse in Siena (fig. 1) is only rarely noted in the literature on Italian quattrocento architecture. It is, however, a remarkable building for it was built, as its name implies, by a woman.1 Begun ca. 1460 by Caterina Piccolomini, sister of Pope Pius II (1458–64), the Palazzo delle Papesse was intended as a residence for herself and her descendants.2 Yet although Caterina bought the land upon which the palace was constructed, engaged an architect and workers to design and build it, petitioned the city government several times (to allow the building to encroach on communal property, for tax relief on imported materials, and to take timber from public land), and paid taxes on it when it was finished, she is never numbered among the few females generally discussed as patrons of architecture in the Italian Renaissance. Despite Caterina's clear involvement with the project, the Palazzo delle Papesse is usually considered among Pius's building projects both because it was paid for with papal funds and because, more simply, there has been an assumption that women in the Renaissance period did not build palaces. My purpose here is to establish that Caterina, perhaps the first woman in fifteenth-century Italy to build such a private residence, was indeed the patron of the palace she constructed. In order to make sense of this fact, however, we must also look at why and how she built. I suggest a possible avenue by which we might understand Caterina as palace builder not so much as an anomaly, but rather within the context both of gender relationships and patterns of private patronage in the quattrocento.

It is important first to look at the palace and review what little we know about its patron and building history. The Palazzo delle Papesse was designed in three stories around a central courtyard with octagonal piers. The building's main façade, facing the Via di Città, is rusticated with roughly carved travertine bugnati on the ground floor and more finely worked blocks of the same stone above. There are three round-headed arched portals of equal size on the ground floor and five two-light windows, their arched openings slightly pointed, on each of the upper floors (figs. 2, 3). The building is crowned by an all'antica cornice of modest dimensions. The Palazzo delle Papesse is among a handful of buildings constructed in a "Renaissance"—that is, a Florentine—style in Siena in the fifteenth century.3 The Palazzo's appearance links it closely to Pius's architectural projects in Pienza and Siena and reinforces, as we will see below, the idea of a shared dynastic strategy.4


Caterina Piccolomini

We know little about Caterina Piccolomini, and the few biographical facts that do exist are somewhat confused in the literature. Caterina was one of three surviving children of Silvio Piccolomini and Vittoria Forteguerri, and she, like Pius and her sister, Laudomia, was born in Corsignano. Ugurgieri tells us, without citing a source, that Caterina married

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