Mothers and Sons: Two Paintings for San Bonaventura in Early Modern Rome

By Valone, Carolyn | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Mothers and Sons: Two Paintings for San Bonaventura in Early Modern Rome


Valone, Carolyn, Renaissance Quarterly


Portia dell'Anguillara Cesi and Margherita della Somaglia Peretti were both wealthy heiresses in late sixteenth-century Rome, and each was the patron of a fine altarpiece for the Capuchin church of San Bonaventura. Although women were widely recognized as patrons in the period, the patronage of these two paintings, which show the Virgin, saints, and the portrait of a young boy, has always been assigned to their husbands, Paolo Emilio Cesi and Michele Peretti, because the works have been related to the patrilinear, agnatic image of the early modern family, i.e., fathers and sons. Instead, the works express a bilinear, cognatic image of the family, indicating legal, economic, and affective ties between mothers and sons. Portia dell' Anguillara's will of 1587 further elucidates aspects of the bilinear family structure.

The commissioning of art and architecture has long been understood as a legitimate means for patrons to make public statements. Patronage is an outward expression of ideas, motives, taste, and wealth, and women have been as adept as men in using art as their public voice in a long tradition of matron as patron which can be documented from the Hellenistic era to early modern Eurpoe. [1] Nowhere can this tradition be seen more clearly than in early modern Rome, where both secular and religious women used their own wealth to commission art and architecture to communicate their ideas about family and religion. [2] Their patronage was neither surprising nor exceptional to their contemporaries who recorded it in a variety of printed works and painted images, and saw it as part of a continuum which stretched back to women in the early Christian church in Rome. [3] In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Rome was a city in which women patrons flourished and were widely recognized.

In spite of this favorable patronage ambience, two women did not receive their proper recognition for two large altarpieces which once hung in the Capuchin church of San Bonaventura in Rome (figs. 1, 2). [4] An investigation into the reasons for this peculiar blackout will tell us something about the discrepancy between Renaissance rhetoric about the role of women in the family and the actual legal and economic status available to women in early modern Rome. Furthermore, it will allow us to recover the voice of two women who wished to speak, via patronage, about inheritance and the relationship of mother and son.

Tracing the patronage of the two paintings is complicated by the fact that they are no longer in their intended location, the modest Capuchin church of San Bonaventura, located between Palazzo Colonna and the Trevi Fountain, which was given to the newly-founded and highly reformed order in 1536 by two Colonna women (fig. 3). When the Capuchins abandoned San Bonaventura in 1631 and took up residence in their new church, SS. Concezione near Piazza Barberini, all their paintings were also moved. The Immaculate Conception (fig. 1), painted by Scipione Pulzone in the early 1580s, was sent to its present location in the Capuchin church of San Francesco in Ronciglione (fig. 4), and the Madonna in Glory (fig. 2), by Terenzio d'Urbino, dating from the first decade of the seventeenth century; was placed by the Capuchins over the altar in their new retrochoir at SS. Concezione, where it still resides. [5]

Fortunately, the two paintings are still in their fine original frames which exhibit the patrons' coats of arms in the lower left and right corners, closest to the altar tables (figs. 5, 6). Each is the stem ma of a married woman, an impaled coat of arms, or scudo accollato, that is, a coat of arms split lengthwise, with the arms of the woman's father to the left (sinister), and of her husband to the right (dexter). The scudo accollato, which became popular in the fifteenth century, is the best heraldic expression of the married state of a woman. [6]

The arms on the altarpiece of the Immaculate Conception (fig. …

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