Art, Gender, and the Renaissance: Where My Matrons At? – Part 2: Take Me To Church

Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series


(Read the prior sections of Art, Gender, and the Renaissance here)

Matronage, Patronage… What’s in a Name?

Words have power. The words we use change how we think, perceive and interpret. Words inforce or challenge the status quo. Words change the questions we ask, or whether we even ask questions at all.

Words like patronage.

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In an era marked by its overt approach to imagery, relatively few class, social or gender boundaries, and particularly in a culture that (mostly) speaks a neuter-gender language, the subtle influence of gendered words is often lost or overlooked. It is difficult for the modern-day reader to fully appreciate the wealth of subtle meaning in the choice of words used in Medieval or Renaissance writing and rhetoric. The closest example the average American might understand is the use of coded language, words like “welfare queen,” or “forty-seven percenters” – terms that imply a great deal about both the speaker and the subject.

Renaissance writers, particularly in the regions where Italian was the primary language, took the gendered roots of words quite seriously, and in turn, used them to underscore the new social paradigm. Virtuoso, that perfect specimen, is a perfect example. Its first root is obvious – virtù or virtue, which came to mean both moral and artistic excellence throughout the period, the two being intrinsically linked. Its second, and older, root goes further back, to the antiquity that the Humanists so adored: vir, the Latin word for man. Anything good, the thinking went, had to be masculine in nature. The arguments over whether women could, therefore, be virtuous went about as well as one might expect. (Defining the Renaissance Virtuosa, 1997)

A similar issue presents itself when we discuss Renaissance arts and patronage. Patron itself is derived from pater (father) in Latin, and like virtuoso, took on a whole host of symbolic meanings. The many traits associated with a patron is long: protector, father, defender, a lord or master or leader and “one who advances a cause.” A patron wasn’t, as we think of it now, simply someone who commissioned art; it was a position of leadership and protection and guidance. By that definition, not only were women of the Renaissance inherently incapable of being patrons, but records and texts from the period would only acknowledge the existence of individuals who met that very specific understanding of the word.

That viewpoint seems to have endured, for until the late 1970’s, there was no scholarship on the myriad of roles women played as patrons. Further, as scholarship on previously-neglected female artists and patronage has progressed, researchers have primarily used an “additive” approach – attempting to place women and their contributions within that male-oriented patronage structure. And at first glance, that doesn’t seem unreasonable, and challenging it has raised accusations of oversensitivity or being “politically correct.”

Yet, when we consider the additive approach with an understanding of the original definition of the word, problems immediately become apparent. Through that lens, the extent of female patronage is limited to the few “magnificent exceptions,” like Isabella d’Este, Marie de Medici and a handful of other high-ranking women with enough financial and political power to force their way into a boys-only club. “[B]ringing women into the existing disciplinary structures of art history,” historian Roger Crum contends, “[does] little to question the nature of those structures,” (Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy, 2001, ed. David Wilkins) and without that kind of examination, history will always reflect the victors’ side of the story.

Previously in this series ‘matronage’ has and will continue to be used to refer to female patrons, and an explanation is perhaps in order. The word itself – matronage is not new; it’s been around since the mid-1700s, though not necessarily used in the context of art, and it means precisely the opposite of patronage. It reflects the type of care and leadership that a woman, in her social role and experience, can provide. It may seem awkward or unnecessary, but I believe that it challenges us not only to ask new questions, but also, as David Wilkins (Beyond Isabella, 2001) suggests, to ask the right questions: Who were these women? What classes did they belong to? How did they finance their commissions? What were their motivations? Was their patronage different from that of men? And, perhaps most importantly, how did they make it happen in such a restrictive society?

Drawing the Negative Space

When historians began to question whether matronage might be more than the few magnificent exceptions, the first hurdle to be overcome was the issue of documentation…or rather, the lack thereof. In a patriarchal society, where women had little financial autonomy and illiteracy was high, the paper trail would necessarily only reflect one side of the story. To get a better picture of women’s involvement in the process, scholars would have to create an image from the negative space – both what the records say and don’t say, as well as other sources of data.

According to Roger Krum (Beyond Isabella, 2001), [w]omen in the Renaissance may often have initiated the patronage process, but their financial position and society’s dictates for their roles may have prohibited them from drafting and signing relevant documentation.” In his own work, Krum questions whether the documentation that has survived even gives an adequate understanding of what happened, saying,

“Many would agree, that when a document of commission surfaces, the matter of patronage is satisfactorily solved. Linked by a document, one patron, one artist and one work of constitute an indivisible whole, a trinity of sorts, that comfortably defines the parameters of patronage.

This, though, he continues, “points directly to the limitations of documents and to the problems of relying upon a single source for historical reconstructions.” As an example, he gives his own parents. If, five hundred years hence, someone were to discover his father’s checkbook, it would seem as though he was responsible for all the domestic purchases – house remodeling, furniture, carpet and drapes, art, china and all the other artisan goods and services that go into creating and maintaining a lifestyle according to the standards and dictates of his parents’ social status. That is the picture as drawn by the financial documents.

Anyone reading this, however, will understand immediately that that is an incorrect assessment of the situation. At the very least, the woman of the house will have some say in the selection, not to mention the placement and usage, of the items. In fact, Krum states that his mother “chose the house and everything in it, and her will is supreme – if not exclusive – when renovations are made, a chair recovered or a painting selected for purchase or removal.” His father, then, is “far from being a twenty-first-century patron; he just pays the bills. Patronage for [his] parents is a process, not a solitary act.”

Mr. Krum’s description of his parents’ situation is reflected in my own relationship as well as those of my friends and acquaintances. The process of purchasing goods, whether bespoke or mass-produced, is a joint process, in varying degrees and levels. This was not a recent change in the social dynamic, either. Writings from the period placed great emphasis on a wife’s duty to care for the material aspects of the family – knowing how to take care of items, have an understanding of their valuation (as part of their assets), and their appropriate display and use. Determining who is behind act of ‘patronage’ is more than simply asking, “Who paid for it?”

One area that has provided a great deal of insight is the artists’ own records. According to Rosi Gilday, (Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy, 2001), records from one artist, Neri di Bicci, show that he received commissions from at least twenty-four women, most of whom “sponsored paintings jointly with a mundualdus – a court-appointed male guardian who help a woman conduct legal transactions.”

Further, the women making these commissions knew the artistic tastes and standards of the day, and had very clear ideas of what they wanted. Artists’ records show that many commissions involved a great deal of artistic input from the matron, according to her personal taste and the purpose for the commission – art for the home would have very different properties than a memorial for a chapel, for example. One contract, in particular, has very clear prescriptions for the artist about the images she wanted on the altar panel she was commissioning, up to and including the appropriate iconographic and symbolism to be used. (Beyond Isabella, 2001)

Another example of drawing from the negative space comes from the art itself. For instance, outside of portraits and historic or biblical scenes, artistic standards dictated that women were not included in paintings as it violated Humanist-influenced principles of ‘virtuous’ art. Artists worked to the contemporary taste, of course, but they also understood where their bread was buttered and worked to include symbolism or other insertions that were meant to flatter or please the patron. Therefore, anonymous commissions of paintings that featured females predominantly in the imagery were most likely diplomatic attempts to flatter or please the patron…or more likely, the matron.

The Class Divide: How the Other Half Gives

The discussion of patronage, male or female, has traditionally focused on the nobility – the most visible element of Renaissance society, where there is an excess of records available to study. A closer examination, however, finds that patronage or matronage of any sort happened on a variety of levels, something that’s often left out of the common narrative.

Matronage, even more so than patronage, was influenced by class and social status. If one were to ask, “what does matronage look like,” the answer will always be, “it depends.” It depends on whether the matron was a noble or from the merchant class, whether she was married or widowed, whether she was in the secular or sacred spheres, whether or not she had financial or social autonomy, and lastly – but definitely not least – her goals.

Matronage in the Ruling Class

Matronage at the highest levels was often a form of political maneuvering. The reductions of freedom that women experienced in the Renaissance were not taken silently and there were protests from the lowest to highest levels. Women demanded representation, an “equal interest with men,” and reverses of the loss of access they’d had to trade. As women pushed for leadership opportunities, men pushed back with detractions, equating women’s attempts to speak in public as representing the drive of their wicked sexual desires, and doubling down on the idea of women’s innate lack of leadership potential.

Patronage, then, that most manly, fatherly act of protection and leadership, became one of the tools female leaders used, both to create a narrative about themselves and their reign, but also to assert their power, control their legacy and reward supporters – a trend that continued in later eras, even when female leadership was more common. By commissioning pious art, particularly that of female saints and the Virgin Mary, they demonstrated their devotion and symbolically linked themselves to holy women, both to subtly underscore their legitimacy and reassure a disturbed male populace of their chastity and purity.

The most recognizable example of this is, of course, Elizabeth I of England, who labeled herself the virgin queen (pre-empting accusations of immorality), and commissioned “verbal and painted representations of herself to construct a persona that was both authoritative and nonthreatening to a culture that found powerful women to be disturbing and unnatural.” (Women’s Roles in the Renaissance, 2005)

“For the female leader of this period,” Alice Sanger (Art, Gender and Religious Devotion in Grand Ducal Tuscancy, 2014) writes, “the balance of power and piety had to be carefully managed and even the most devout female regents were subject to criticism,” something that Maria Maddalena of Austria, wife of Cosimo II, understood quite well. She used lavish patronage to manipulate her public image and create a legacy – both during her marriage and after Cosimo’s death, when she and her mother-in-law became joint regents of Tuscany. Her approach combined both sacred and secular art from all the disciplines – painting, sculpture, architecture, theatre, music and poetry, even funding public festivals that underscored both her piety and legitimacy. (As a side note of interest, her court poet, Ottavio Rinuccuni, was the first author of opera libretti, an art form in and unto itself.)

Fina Buzzacarini, the wife and consort of Franscesco de Carrara, the ruler of the city-state of Padua, purposefully built her own fortune, a collection of estates producing a significant income – with the full knowledge, support and gifts (of money and other properties) from her husband – to become the wealthiest woman in Padua at the time. With her resources, she began a program of “gendered patronage,” (Beyond Isabella, 2005), creating a camera dominarum – a women-only space for her daughters, female servants and young women from the elite circles, educating them on the ways of power and giving her daughters large, legally protected dowries with which to enact that power. Her largesse extended to those of the lower classes who supported and worked for her.

Her greatest act of ‘matronage’ was the remaking of the Padua Baptistery (attached to the Padua Cathedral) as a future mausoleum for her and her husband, an act that would leave an indelible stamp on the city over which the couple held sway – a process that took political power, a great deal of money, her very specific details as to the art she wanted (which uncharacteristically celebrated a preponderance of female saints and matriarchs) and a well-known fresco artist. Her final stamp on the project, a way of stating to the world that she was the dominant actor in the process, was to dictate that her tomb would be placed over the main entrance, situated amongst symbolic art. “The whole Marian context for the tomb emphasizes the role of bride and mother, and thus Fina’s own status as consort and genetrix of the Carrera dynasty.” (Beyond Isabella, 2001) Her message to subsequent generations was clear: this is my work.

Patronage in the Lower Nobility & Merchant Classes

Secular Matronage

Though women at the highest levels of the nobility have received the most attention and commissioned larger-scale works, the majority of female patronage seems to have come from lower social circles – smaller commissions but in greater volume. In the Italian city-states particularly, the Renaissance was a time of great financial growth, and the emphasis on investing wealth on material objects created a large demand for artisanal work. Wealth, honor and stability – even in the merchant classes – was symbolized by the acquisition of art and other precious items, and indubitably, wives were deeply involved in that process. (For more on the Renaissance economy and the philosophy of an “empire of things,” see Richard Goldthwaite’s The Economy of Renaissance Florence, 2008.)

There were guides for the appropriate types of commissions women should make – things that would remind women of their sinful natures and the need for devotion and piety. One such, written by Cardinal Giovanni Dominici in 1446, depicts patronage as an aid to salvation, suggesting that wives should only commission religious objet d’art for churches and works for the home that would instruct and education their children in moral behavior. Compliance with these recommendations, not surprisingly, seems spotty at best.

Matronage that revolved around the family, their home and its stewardship probably made up the bulk of female commissions. However, the assumption that Renaissance women wouldn’t have had the means or autonomy to work large scale has, according to Carolyn Valone (Beyond Isabella, 2001), falsely led people to assume that women were unable to commission larger projects – particularly in architecture. She suggests that the commissioning of civic and religious buildings in the public realm was, in fact, one of the ways women gave themselves a “public voice,” and has found evidence of at least fifty architectural commissions in early-modern Italy – and more will no doubt emerge as research progresses.

Other evidence suggests that in some cases, wives may have even been involved in commissions on a professional level for their husbands. One example is of Eleonora di Toledo, who may have been deeply involved in the process of commissioning portraits intended to be diplomatic gifts. (Beyond Isabella, 2005)

According to Catherine King (Renaissance Women Patrons: Wives and Widows in Italy, 1998), widows were more likely to initiate commissions than wives, in part due to their greater independence. Representing almost a quarter of the female population in Florence in the Quattrocento, older widows had a unique position that sometimes allowed them greater access to the arts than their married sisters. How much access depended on the city; some areas had laws requiring widows to act in all legal and financial matters through a male proxy.

Widows were expected to build burial chapels or commission memorial artwork for their deceased partner and to follow through on any directions for patronage he might have left. Some simply ignored their husband’s request, however. Ms. Valone (Beyond Isabella, 2005) notes one particular example in Vittoria della Tolfa, who took the significant chunk of funds her husband had set aside for a family chapel – using it to found a nunnery instead. In her will, she left funds for a much more modest memorial for them both.

As with Vittoria’s nunnery, a great deal of matronage practiced by women at all social levels was specifically meant to benefit other women: founding or supporting hospitals, nunneries or schools that provided education for women – even creating and maintaining financial legacies meant to provide support to other women, often their daughters or other female family members.

Sacred Matronage

Despite the personal asceticism in monastic communities, convents still required artisan services: sacred artwork for the chapels and perhaps even for the cloister as an inspiration for devotion, accessories of worship (chalices, altars, tapestries, crucifixes) and instruments or musical compositions for services. Records show that nuns’ matronage for these kinds of commissions was often a group effort – banding together to choose the items and artists, perhaps reaching out to their families for assistance or funding.

Funding also came in the form of bequests from other women on occasion, leaving sometimes substantial amounts for the artistic development of the convent and its chapel. In other cases, widows would commission specific pieces of art for convent chapels – or perhaps even providing funding for the commissioning of a new funerary chapel art in the convent for her own memorial or legacy.

One category of women for whom precise documentation does exist are the sante vive – living saints. These were technically laywomen, not cloistered nuns, who were exceptionally devout and recognized as such. Though few in number, these women were able make “commissions of unusual prominence using their own wealth or the gifts of men who believed in their sanctity.” (King, 1998) Additionally, because of their reputation and social position, their female relatives were able to make larger or unusual commissions that wouldn’t normally have been open to them.

One example of a sante vive commission was the creation of a new chapel. The woman in question, beata Elena Dugliogi of Bologna, was – with the help of a papal legate – able to hire the services of Raphael for the paintings and finish the project in with astonishing speed. Because of her possible proximity to sainthood, she had clerics clamoring to be one of the ones “who knew her when,” which meant that not only was the chapel completed in record time, she was also able to acquire a relic of St. Cecilia for the altar.

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Sacred or secular, the theme that emerges from each of these narratives is one of women finding ways to give themselves some form of visibility and presence in the public sphere that was otherwise denied to them. Through matronage, they managed to shape the world around them, empower themselves, help other women and create legacies for themselves and their families. ‘Good’ art is subjective, but truly great art changes lives – and considering its impact on a disadvantaged class, the legacy of Renaissance matronage may have produced the greatest art of all.

Part 3 of Art, Gender, and the Renaissance, will post tomorrow.

About the author: 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.