Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy

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

Two Emilian Noblewomen and
Patronage Networks in the Cinquecento

Katherine A. McIver

"Wherever courts existed as centers of wealth, artistic activities, and discourse, opportunities abounded for intelligent women to perform in the role as patron of the arts and culture."1 Margaret King's statement is particularly relevant for north Italian noblewomen, even though modern studies of the patronage of Renaissance women have been dominated by Isabella d'Este of Ferrara.2 Treated as an exception instead of the rule in modern literature, Isabella has remained "la prima donna del mondo" with regard to patronage issues and the Renaissance woman. Although Isabella pushed the boundaries well beyond the limits imposed on women by Renaissance society, an examination of several women from feudal courts such as Mantua and Ferrara reveals that Isabella was not unique. In the literature of the period, for instance, Veronica Gambara of Correggio was often put on equal ground with Isabella as a woman and as a patron of the arts. Furthermore, in northern Italy during the early sixteenth century, women from feudal courts at Correggio, Fontanellato, and Scandiano had the connections and influence that allowed them to extend commissions to prominent north Italian artists, including Antonio Allegri (called Correggio), Francesco Parmigianino, and Nicolo dell'Abate.

While there were a number of women patrons active in the area now known as the Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy, the focus of this paper will be on two noblewomen, Veronica Gambara (1485–1550) and Silvia Sanvitale (c. 1512–84). My intent here is to present a preliminary exploration of the systems of patronage in the feudal courts to which these women belonged.

Like Isabella d'Este, Veronica Gambara of Correggio was interested in collecting exotic fabrics and fashionable objects and, as her letters to Ludovico Rossi, her agent in Bologna, suggest, she was concerned with her self-image and with keeping in touch with the latest trends.3 Of special interest to Gambara was the promotion of the career of Antonio Correggio; through her friend Scipione Montino della Rosa, the artist received commissions in nearby Parma.4 While Gambara's patronage and attitudes were similar to those of Isabella d'Este, Silvia Sanvitale of Scandiano seems to have worked largely behind-the-scenes in promoting the aspirations of her husband, Count Guilio Boiardo (d. 1553). Sanvitale was instrumental in defining the subject of the frescoes for Boiardo's Camerino dell'Eneide (1540s) in the Rocca Nuova at Scandiano, and documents show that Sanvitale withdrew funds from her private account in Bologna to pay Nicolo dell'Abate for painting the Camerino. Evidence suggests that this commission was a cooperative one between husband and wife. A similar case might also be made for Paola Gonzaga of Fontanellato, whose husband, Gian Galeazzo Sanvitale (1496–1550), is generally credited with commissioning Francesco Parmigianino to paint the so-called stufetta in his Rocca in the 1520s.5

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