Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy

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

The Women Patrons of Neri di Bicci

Rosi Prieto Gilday

Neri di Bicci's Ricordanze can be considered a microcosmic model of artistic patronage in fifteenth-century Florence.1 This record of his clients' commissions for paintings between 1453 and 1475 reflects a cross section of professions, classes, and economic levels in Florentine society. His patrons came from virtually all walks of life, from members of the Signoria to artisans such as bakers, cobblers, and tailors. The text also mentions the cost of many commissions, their subject matter, their material specifications, and often the destination of the finished products. It also reports a variety of Neri's personal transactions, including his rental of property, the induction of assistants into his workshop, and the purchase of clothing for his children. The document is unusual not only because it is voluminous, but also because it records the activities of a number of female patrons.

Neri lists twenty-four commissions from women. These patrons can be categorized into two groups: religious and secular. Fourteen of these requests were from nuns, whose patronage is outside the scope of this paper.2 The remaining ten orders were from lay women who can be further classified: five were widows, one was married, and four are listed without marital status. Most, but not all, of these women sponsored paintings jointly with a mundualdus—a court-appointed male guardian who helped a woman conduct legal transactions.3

This paper analyzes the commissions of Neri's ten secular female patrons to elucidate the patronage practices of fifteenth-century Florentine lay women. The work requests are examined in terms of the women's marital status, social class, and spending patterns, which are then compared with various aspects of Neri's commissions from secular men.

Neri's commissions from secular women are listed in chronological order below and are abbreviated for clarity. Extant information regarding these commissions from sources other than the Ricordanze are included in each citation.


1. Bianca degli Spini

On 28 March 1455, a group of executors commissioned an altarpiece on behalf of the late Bianca degli Spini. They requested from Neri a painting depicting the Assumption of the Virgin with the twelve apostles (fig. 1).4 The work was to measure approximately six braccia tall by five long;5 it was also to have a classicizing frame, and three scenes from the life of the Virgin in the predella. Perhaps the executors at some point requested changes in the commission, as the painting has an old-fashioned Gothic frame and angels in the predella. Bianca's altarpiece, which cost 480 lire (96 florins)6 and was to be paid for in installments, is found today at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. It was originally ordered for the Spini family chapel at Santa Trinita, which, according to Neri, Bianca founded.

-51-

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