Art, Gender, and the Renaissance: Where My Matrons At? (Introduction)

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.

Read Part 1 of “Art, Gender, and the Renaissance:  Where My Matrons At?”

About the author: Felicity Graham

Felicity Graham

Felicity Graham, M.A., is a performer, educator, researcher, writer and professional enthusiast. You know - a Renaissance woman. It's a living. In addition to her teaching and writing, she's also a member of the board of directors of NYSTA, a non-profit organization for voice professionals. As such, arts funding is a topic that's (usually) near and (mostly) dear to her heart. She currently lives in NYC, where she spends her time thinking up clever article titles and voluntarily paying Columbia University embarrassing amounts of money to add even more initials after her name.

7 Comments on “Art, Gender, and the Renaissance: Where My Matrons At? (Introduction)

  • Tempest says:

    I look forward to reading this series!

    Report comment

  • Maurice says:

    Why would anyone want to read this while we’re all scrambling for tickets?

    Report comment

    • Caveat Magister says:

      Presumably because they’re interested in the Renaissance, or art history, or arts funding, or the cultural construction of gender?

      If someone’s not interested in any of those things, or in reading research for its own sake, then I’m not sure why they would read it. We haven’t forced them to, have we? If we have, I’m very sorry. I thought they had the option to not click on it. My face is red.

      Report comment

    • Stealth says:

      Maurice, I didn’t get tickets either. Give it rest.

      Report comment

  • Timeless says:

    I’m stoked to see the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series! For some 10 years I’ve been one of the “self-funded” playa artists, too rogue in my ways to reach for community funding like Honorarium grants. All this time I’ve been misunderstood, even berated when I say art and money in the same sentence, but now these articles are like fresh air. (So were Larry Harvey’s insightful comments about Fundiversify, click my name for those…)

    By now I’ve researched and demonstrated a funding vehicle I call “Fundiversify”, designed to drive the production and sharing of monumental Playa Artifacts in Default while fortifying portfolios and liberating starving artists. Privately owned public art that accrues the whole while.

    I hope to attract not donors but investor(s) to my project this summer. (There, I said it…) My objective is to prove the venture profitable; a pilot for greater things.

    Got time for 1000 words that could hasten the coming Renaissance? Click my name and share the link pweeeeeze — and share your ideas too. Fundiversify is a work in progress. But then great things have small beginnings, just ask Larry.

    Report comment

    • ShamanofDrums says:

      Hey Timeless,
      Trying to help spread the word of your idea, did some posting & will con’t to let the story out there for those that can help the process of art happen. Thanks for your works. Peace Burner! Hope to see ya on the playa…

      Report comment

      • Timeless says:

        Hey thanks, ShamanofDrums! So cool. I hope people will share it lots — and as long as I’m hoping, I hope you can hook me up with a drum circle for this summer’s Timeless burn in front of the Temple? :) You can contact me through my website if you have any ideas, just click my name here and thanks again.

        Report comment

  • Comments are closed.