Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy

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

Widow, Mother, Patron of Art:
Alfonsina Orsini de' Medici

Sheryl E. Reiss

For centuries the name Medici has been practically synonymous with the patronage of culture in Renaissance Italy. Many members of this illustrious family, including Cosimo il Vecchio, Lorenzo il Magnifico, Popes Leo X and Clement VII, and Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, have achieved fame as patrons of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Their varied and widespread building and decorative programs have been the subject of much scholarly inquiry. But what of their wives, widows, and mistresses? And what of their mothers, sisters, and daughters? During the Renaissance, a number of Medici women were involved in the commissioning or realization of paintings, sculpture, architecture, and the so-called arti minori. Among Medici women patrons we may list Contessina de' Bardi, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, Ginevra Alessandri, Maddalena Cibo, Lucrezia Salviati, Eleonora di Toledo, and Bianca Cappello. Recently, scholars have begun to pay attention to the patronage activities of these and other Medici women.1 A particularly intriguing example is Alfonsina Orsini de' Medici, whose patronage of art and architecture I will consider in this essay. Topics I address include Alfonsina Orsini's collecting of antiquities, her activity as a patron of painting and the decorative arts, and especially her patronage of architecture—an area in which other Medici women were also active as patrons.2


Alfonsina Orsini de' Medici

On 13 February 1520, Filippo Strozzi, Depositor General of the Apostolic Camera, wrote to a friend with news of the funeral of his mother-in-law, Alfonsina Orsini de' Medici.3 Strozzi callously jested that, "Alfonsina Orsini, whose death no one and whose life everyone mourned, and whose burial is most pleasant and salubrious to mankind," had been laid to rest.4 Strozzi's spiteful sentiments are complemented by those expressed in the diary of Bartolommeo Masi, who, in noting Alfonsina's death, said that she died "with little good grace because she cared about nothing but accumulating money."5 There is abundant contemporary evidence for a rather general loathing of this woman, who was far from the Renaissance ideal of decorousness and dependence.6 One result of her ambition and avarice, however, was her significant activity as a patron of the visual arts.

Alfonsina Orsini, as seen in an engraving of 1761 by Francesco Allegrini (fig. 1), was born in 1472.7 Alfonsina was the daughter of the condottiere Roberto Orsini, Count of Tagliacozzo and Alba, and his second wife, Caterina di Sanseverino.8 Roberto was a member of a Neapolitan branch of the ancient Orsini family and a favorite of Ferrante of Aragon, the king of Naples.9 In the 1480s, Lorenzo the Magnificent de' Medici pursued a political agenda that maintained peace with Naples.10 A marriage alliance between the Medici and the Neapolitan Orsini was part of the strategy.11 The match settled upon was between Lorenzo's

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