Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy

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

Matrons and Motives:
Why Women Built in Early Modern Rome

Carolyn Valone

Giorgio Vasari, in the first edition of The Lives of the Artists, includes the biography of only one woman, the Bolognese sculptor Properzia de'Rossi; in effect, she stood for all women artists.1 Until recently art historians dealing with art patronage in Renaissance Italy have done much the same with Isabella d'Este—they let her stand for all secular women patrons. Happily, this collection of essays and other works in the past ten years demonstrate that it is possible to go "beyond Isabella." If we wish to reconstruct the role played by women patrons in early modern Italy, we must go beyond female tokenism which relegates women patrons to the category of "exceptions" when compared to that historical myth, the "Renaissance Man."

The necessity of reintegrating women patrons into their historical context is particularly important in the area of architecture—that most expensive and visible form of art.2 The commissioning of a work of architecture is an extremely public act because buildings mold both the physical and cultural environment of a given place. Architectural patronage is an outward expression of ideas, motives, taste, wealth, and status; it is a means of constructing the patron's public persona.

Secular women from antiquity to the early modern period had no public persona, if we are to believe philosophers, writers, jurists, statesmen, and clerics from Aristotle to Alberti.3 The realm of women was the private household, and their role was to serve their husbands and families with obedience and modesty. Nonetheless, running parallel to this male notion of a woman's place was another tradition: that of matron as patron of public architecture. From the Hellenistic world to early modern Italy, women built. They used their own money to commission civic and religious buildings which functioned in the public realm, giving them a public voice, which was recorded by their contemporaries and "heard" by other women in later periods who modeled their own patronage on the matrons of the past.4 It is only in the modern period that this tradition has been largely overlooked by historians.

To some extent, the neglect of female patrons can be linked to the mistaken assumption that secular women rarely had the economic or legal autonomy necessary for architectural patronage. That approach makes each female patron an exception who, through strength of character or otherwise, managed to overcome the patriarchal system set against her. This image of matron as heroine is appealing, and not altogether false, but it obscures the richness of the tradition of female patronage and prevents us from reintegrating a wide range of women into the historical narrative. It also perpetuates another stereotype: the woman as victim of the male figure—her father or her husband—who controlled her access to her wealth. To be sure, women did have to work within a patriarchal system that denied them equal economic rights. However, few legal codes from antiquity to the seventeenth century completely ex

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