Visibilis et Invisibilis: The Mistress in Italian Renaissance Court Society

By Ettlinger, Helen S. | Renaissance Quarterly, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Visibilis et Invisibilis: The Mistress in Italian Renaissance Court Society


Ettlinger, Helen S., Renaissance Quarterly


FIFTEENTH CENTURY ITALY HAS BEEN called both the "golden age of bastards" and the "age of golden bastards."(1) But while scholars from Jacob Burckhardt to Lauro Martines have decried princely infidelity and the political problems resulting from the promotion of the inevitable bastards, they have not discussed a central character in the creation of such situations: the mother of those bastards or, more properly, the mistress of the prince.(2) "Golden bastards," male and female, could not have existed without the tacit cooperation of noble women and the men who protected them--husbands, fathers, and brothers. And herein lies a conundrum. Paternal, spousal, and/or fraternal consent to an illicit relationship which was, at best, a tenuous claim on the generosity of a prince might appear to violate the model constructed by family historians of a society concerned with preserving the honor of their women in order to enhance the family's position through advantageous marital alliances of the virgin daughters.(3) The willingness of husbands not to oppose and even to donate their wives to the prince's pleasure contradicts Martines's assertion that "courtly ladies had no such license (to commit adultery), reaching for which they faced the penalty of death.(4) On the contrary, evidence shows that adulterous wives of courtiers not only bore their bastards openly but were

never executed for having carnal relations with the prince.(5) Furthermore, these princely favorites, married or single, were openly recognized and honored ladies, some even holding property in their own right and achieving a degree of independence not normally available to Renaissance women. These data alone indicate that structures and definitions of what constituted socially acceptable behavior for women in fifteenth-century Italy were neither rigid form. Even more significant, evidence suggests that, contrary to modern belief, families found these liaisons advantageous and actively cultivated such relationships. While this current work is only a preliminary study, it is clear that further examination of the role of mistresses has the potential for revealing societal structures in cities under signorial rule in Renaissance Italy that were very different from the models of family dynamics than have been put forward for the republics of Florence and Venice.

The problems surrounding the historical study of mistresses either as individuals or as a generic group are complex. Since they have existed at all levels of society throughout history, no single set of criteria can be universally applied. Eccleslastical battles over priests' concubines went on for centuries.(6) Mistresses were kept by the respectable citizens of Florence and Venice as well as despots and princes.(7) What is common to all these women, however, is their virtual invisibility. The normal absence of women from the historical record has been taken one step further by the fact that concubines and mistresses had no legal rights whatsoever. For our period, most information concerning their lives must be adduced from indirect references in chronicles and letters, usually in association with their children.(9) Indeed, without children the very existence of most of these women would be unknown. It is primarily through her offspring that a mistress becomes visible to history, and it is precisely because of her offspring that the problem and person of the mistress must be considered to reach a better understandling of the connections between family structures, legitimacy, and power in Renaissance society.

As this article is a preliminary study, it is limited to the mistresses of Italian despots between ca. 13 50 and 1485, primarily but not exclusively at the courts of Milan, Ferrara, and Rimini. It was during this period and at these courts that the princely mistress achieved her apogee of importance for Italian history. Her bastards were routinely incorporated into the household of the prince and even recognized as legal heirs, on occasion supplanting siblings born in wedlock. …

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