Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series
What a Difference a Century Makes
The ideology that shaped the brave new world of the Renaissance was obsessed with the ideal: the ideal state, the ideal social structure, the ideal man and, of course, the ideal woman. We know something of the ideal man – the artist, the thinker, the statesman…but what was this ideal woman?
Stunningly, the “ideal woman” of the Renaissance was, by many measures, less free, less independent and had less access to the economic and legal systems of her time than her predecessor. “Urbanization,” according to Maria Marcotti (Italian Women Writers from the Renaissance to the Present, 2010), “and the codification of procedures regulating commerce, trade and all kinds of market relations restricted the activities of women in ways unknown in previous centuries.”
Further, accumulating evidence strongly suggests that the Renaissance women were deliberately and systematically excluded from the arts. Artistic creation in genres and trades that were primarily the provenance of women was purposefully devalued and demoted to a position of lower status.
There was no great Renaissance for women. We just aren’t aware of it – and partially, that’s because the Middle Ages get a bad rap.
Just as the Renaissance conjures up gilt frames and elegant music, the medieval period seems to prompt lurid tales of witch hunts, short brutish lives filled with superstition, silly beliefs in magic and constant oppression. Perhaps the most commonly accepted narrative in the public consciousness is that the Middle Ages were a miserable time for women, while the Renaissance allowed for greater freedom, protection and participation in society.
That, as it turns out, is not – precisely – correct. Certainly, there is no denying the dominance of the patriarchal society, women’s lack of access to political and social power or the perception of lowered spiritual and social status, particularly vis-à-vis Church doctrine, in medieval society. At the same time, however, there was often a certain amount of equality in economic status, particularly in access to both artisan trades and the general workforce.
It’s difficult to make broad statements about social conditions in Europe over any significant period of time as conditions between different cultures were often highly disparate, with great variance even within the same regions. According to Paul Kristeller (Renaissance Thought and Its Sources, 1979), “a single medieval tradition does not exist; rather, there are many different medieval traditions, some of them quite opposed to others.” Still, with that said, there is evidence of more resources and recourse for women than generally imagined, with an expansion of legal rights particularly towards late Middle Ages. For instance, in some areas of Europe, the common women could represent themselves in court without having a male to escort, protect or intercede for her. A woman who was assaulted, maligned or cheated in business could address the court themselves and often, gain redress for the slight.
Soon thereafter, though, that began to change…and not necessarily for the better.
Examination of legal and government records from various sources (specifically, the Italian city-states) indicates significant changes in female agency, protection and individuality. According to Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., in Women in the Streets: Essays on Sex and Power in Renaissance Italy (1996), “Women’s appearances in the criminal tribunals and their actions reported in these records chronical the deterioration in women’s status and power (and especially of laboring women) over the course of the Renaissance.”
Further examination of court records indicates a decline in the prosecution of violent crimes against women, resulting in a significant surge in assault and battery-related murders – as much as 300% between the 14th and 15th centuries in Florence. Cohn notes, “…as with modern ghettos today, law-enforcing agencies and the tribunals of the mid-Quattrocento [1400s], reflecting their more centralized and elitist character in Medicean Florence, simply ceased to bother with many of the normal, run-of-the-mill assaults and battery cases involving women from the artisan and laboring families.”
More relevant to this discussion is that this decrease of freedom also had an effect on other aspects of women’s lives, severely curtailing their opportunities for involvement in the arts. The review of criminal statistics, Cohn says, “suggest that women in the mid-Quattrocento were less inclined and less able to circulate as freely in the streets of Florence, meeting other women and even other men outside the home as they had in the late Trecento.”
He further notes that current research on statistics and data related to non-elite women of the era finds that there was a “sharp decline” in women’s participation both in public life and the workforce – which included the artisan class. One historian, looking at the records of one religious confraternity (religious, lay-run charitable organizations) in Florence, found that in the mid-to-late-Trecento, that 38% (136 individuals) of its membership were female artisans; by the mid-Quattrocentro, there were only four.
In less than one hundred years, a slow-but-expanding system of protection and participation in society, employment and access to artisan trades for women all but eroded away, leaving many questions – not the least of which is, simply, why?
“Traditional” Values: As Offensive Then as They Are Now
Nothing happens in a vacuum; there is always one – or usually, many – precipitating factors for social change. The impetus for this gradual loss of personal freedom for women had to come from somewhere, and the roots of it seem to have grown from the very movement that influenced the creation of a new, perfected society, and made the golden age of patronage possible – Humanism.
Renaissance humanism is not, it should be noted, the 20th century perception of humanism (secular concern with human values), which Kristeller warns has little to do with the Renaissance at all. “Renaissance Humanism,” he continues, “was […] a cultural and educational program which emphasized and developed an important but limited area of studies.” This revival of study focused on classical literature, of Greek and Roman rhetoric, and the philosophical, social and even to an extent, economic ideas of the Renaissance grew of this study, with classical antiquity forming the model for society and cultural activity.
This resurgence of Classical philosophy and renewed admiration for Greek and Roman culture – both notoriously patriarchal and even anti-female in many ways – is indisputably one of those precipitating factors for the restrictive changes to female status. Though the Church had long held that women were the source of original sin, the revival of interest in Classical literature offered new opportunities to confirm and enforce the perceived inherent intellectual, physical and moral inferiority of the female sex. (See Jerry C. Nash in Renaissance Quarterly, “Renaissance Misogyny, Biblical Feminism and Helisenne de Crenne’s Epistres familieres et invectives,” 1997)
One period author, Gratien du Pont, wrote in his Controverses des sexes masculine et femenin, that “woman is evil by nature and prone to vice,” and that the “most wicked” man is “of higher value in the eyes of his Creator […] than the ‘holiest women’,” (Nash, 1997). Du Pont included a list of references in support of his “research,” beginning with the old testament and continuing on through antiquity to modern (Renaissance) times. Du Pont’s vitriol isn’t the work of a single outlier. It is merely one example of the intellectual position on female inferiority and their appropriate place in society. Even Martin Luther, that ‘great reformer,’ had this to say on the subject:
God has created man with a broad chest, not broad hips, so that in that part of him he can be wise; but that part out of which filth comes is small. In a woman, this is reversed. That is why she had much filth and little wisdom.
(The constraints of this article do not allow the time and space to include even a representative sample of the anti-female literature of the period. Nash’s partial list of Du Pont’s pejorative terms alone runs on for several paragraphs and includes amazing gems like ‘grande tromperesse’ – which, as far as I am able to discern, is probably similar to ‘strumpet’ in English, but literally translates to “great” or “large trumpetess.” Taken in context, I presume the term refers to a loud, inappropriate woman, but even without a complete understanding of what it even means, I definitely want to be one.)
As depressing and demoralizing as it might’ve been to be given such a lowered spiritual status, that particular viewpoint had more than just religious implications for women in general, and female artists, specifically. The devaluation of female moral capacity made her more than simply unsuitable for a place in the arts, her presence tainted the purity of art, itself. Rejecting a suggestion by Plutarch that the work of the ideal woman (the “virtuosa,” in Renaissance terms) should be exhibited along with examples of art by ideal men of the era (the “virtuoso”), one author, Paolo Pino, wrote in 1541: “It displeases me to hear the woman compared to the excellence of the man in virtuosity, and it seems to me that art is denigrated by doing so.”
Further, by entering this realm of masculine privilege and excellence, the female artist loses what little social status she might have had. Pino continues on, saying that these women artists remind him of “tales told about hermaphrodites” (Fredrika Jacobs, Defining the Renaissance Virtusoa, 1997). Jacobs, commenting on Pino’s writings, notes that Pino’s “choice of analogy is insightful. Not only does it define painting as a masculine vocation, it defines the woman painter as not quite male, not quite female,” something that puts the female artist in an uncomfortable and unpopular position in society.
Still, much of this criticism comes from the scholars, the practitioners of Humanism, rather than the ruling class, so the question will no doubt be asked, how much influence could it have had on public policy and social change? The answer, not surprisingly, is a lot. Though the intellectual class itself did not necessarily hold political power, it nevertheless provided the new paradigm for those in power. According to Alfred von Martin (Sociology of the Renaissance, 1944), “the intellectual leading group supports the power position of the ruling class by provision of an ideology and by guiding public opinion in the requisite direction.”
That ideology defined the ideal woman as one who remained at home, who acknowledged her inferiority and moral deficit, who knew her place in the system as the property of first her father, then her husband, and who, of course, was educated properly (i.e., with a heavy emphasis on obedience). One example is De Institutione Feminae Christianae, written by Juan Luis Vives for in 1522 for Henry VIII’s daughter, the future Queen Mary I of England. Vives didn’t beat about the bush with his recommendations for Mary’s education. Aside from obedience, he clearly outlined the primary concern of female education: “…[H]er studies should be in those works which shape morals and virtue; the studies of wisdom which teach the best and most holy manner of life. […] chastity is a woman’s particular concern; when she is clearly taught about this, she is sufficiently instructed.” (Emphasis mine.)
One etiquette and behavioral handbook from France (Le menagier de Paris, 1393) suggested that even reading a letter (other than from the woman’s husband or father) was potentially an unchaste act. If reading a note is destructive to a woman’s virtue, one wonders what lascivious effect harpsichord or drawing lessons might have. (Once again, I felt immediately tempted to try this for myself, then remembered I’d already done all these things.)
The only role that art had for a woman in this new ideology was that of instruction: reminding her of her sinful nature and teaching her obedience and acquiescence to her place in the ‘natural order’ – another concept Humanists borrowed from the Classical era and embraced whole-heartedly. Margaret L. King, author of Women of the Renaissance (1991), points out that what Renaissance society felt about women who broke from the natural order can be understood from the placard placed on the stake to which Jeanne d’Arc (perhaps the most famous woman to defy the ‘natural order’) was bound and burned. It read: heretic, liar, sorceress.
The system, created as it was for the virtuoso, had no room for anyone else, and if one only looks at that narrative, one will find few women, artists or otherwise, in the records. As bleak as this sounds – and there’s no getting around it, it was bleak – will always finds a way. If one looks a little deeper, cutting through the ideology and the historical accounts, which, as we know, are written by the victors, something amazing begins to emerge.
Despite the oppressive conditions and restrictions (which somehow managed to grow worse in many ways as the Renaissance progressed), women found ways to work around these strictures and even, in some cases, create their own system. Once one moves past the traditional narrative, there is a rich history of female patrons and artists whose contributions to art and society are woefully unknown and unacknowledged – and in the next two sections, we’ll take a look at who these women were and how they managed to work around (or in many cases, simply subvert) the system to achieve their goals.
Part 2 of this series will post tomorrow.