Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series
When the subject of the Renaissance and the system of patronage comes up in discussion, inevitably it evokes images of a gilded age of art, music, philosophy and the flowering of religious thought. It brings to mind certain names, artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Palestrina, Durer, Bosch, as well as patrons such as Lorenzo de’ Medici – all of whose contributions to art are unquestionable…and all of whom are male.
This didn’t happen by chance; it was no accident or unhappy circumstance. The same social and economic systems that promoted the system of patronage simultaneously deceased access to both economic systems and the arts for women, serving not only as a gatekeeper to artists of the period, but severely influencing the narrative of the period – even five-hundred years later.
Why is this important? Certainly, the fact that women have historically been excluded from the arts is hardly new information. The issue at hand is much deeper than that, however. Aside from the fact that few people – even in academic circles – are aware of the true depth of such a vital human rights issue in history, if Burning Man is looking to the Renaissance as a potential model for future arts funding, it needs to have both sides of the patronage story.
No discussion of arts funding can afford to ignore the possibility of (even unintentional) gatekeeping and the restriction of expression that inevitably follows. Censorship often wears a subtle guise, altering the conversation not by restricting what people say, but by simply curating who gets to speak.
The Magnificent Exception
A male-dominant narrative of art and patronage in the Renaissance has traditionally put forth that women had the opportunity and circumstances yet simply never made truly significant contributions to either category, a view that was broadly accepted by scholars in the field for many decades. Though any extended consideration of that theory suggests that it is, at the very least, lacking nuance, it remained the dominant narrative, essentially unchallenged until the 1970s, when the new wave of female scholarship in art history and the Renaissance began to challenge the prevailing narrative.
Unlike many cultural narratives, this one has a definitive source: a 19th century art historian named Jacob Burckhardt, a man generally credited with having fathered the modern Renaissance scholarship movement. Burckhardt’s work, which – despite severe criticism – lately enjoys a renaissance of its own, has colored the basic perceptions of female status during the Renaissance. In his Civilisation of the Renaissance, Burckhardt states as fact that “women stood on a footing of perfect equality with men,” and further, that “there was no question of ‘women’s rights’ or female emancipation, simply because the thing itself was a matter of course.”
That’s certainly a warm, fuzzy view of the situation – a comfortable idea that excuses the lack of further examination or analysis of the issue, but which, when the period is studied in any depth, seems highly suspect. Indeed, it even contradicts descriptions written by Renaissance-era writers, themselves. One such, Giorgio Vasari (b. 1511), widely considered to be the father of art history, wrote of the challenges that faced female artists at the time, testifying both to the excellence of many female artists, while acknowledging the obstacles in their way.
In his collection of artist biographies, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori da Cimabue insino a’ tempi nostril (Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times), Vasari writes about one female artist, suor Plautilla Nelli, an abbess. Though he praises her work and discusses how widely it was distributed, he also notes that she could have achieved even greater things – “as men are able to do” – if she’d had both the time and access to the type of study and practice male artists had.
Women like suor Plautilla are often seen as the “magnificent exception” to the norm, a term used by Germaine Greer in her seminal work about the social and political issues which intersect with female artists and artistry, The Obstacle Race (1979). But is it possible that there were far more female patrons, artists and artisans than previously supposed? And if so, how did their experience differ from that of their male counterparts?
This three-part series intends to explore those questions, with the goal of giving an overview of the environment, influence and experience of the Renaissance woman in the arts. Part one, Mrs. Cellophane, will address the socio-political consequences of the philosophical movement that spawned the golden age of patronage. Part two, Take Me to Church, will discuss how male and female patronage (“matronage,” if you will) differed, and what “matronage” looked like in the Renaissance. Finally, part three, Losing My Religion, will tackle the Renaissance artist herself – content, audience, patronage, reputation and reception.