Art, Gender, and the Renaissance: Where My Matrons At? – Part 3: Losing My Religion

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

(Read the entire Art, Gender, and the Renaissance here)

Separate But (Not) Equal

“It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” 

President Clinton’s famous (or infamous, depending on which side of the aisle you sit) splitting of hairs has gone down in the annals of political history as an example of nitpicking at its finest, speaking a truth that was not, perhaps, precisely honest. It raises a good point, though: What does art actually mean? When we’re talking about female artists in the Renaissance, we must re-examine the definition of art as it was defined then, rather than taking for granted that we instinctively know and understand what it encompasses.

Just as victors write the history and choose what’s worthy of recording, so too do they define the terms of the playing field. During the Renaissance, a hierarchy of art was created that still exists today, surprisingly intact, as a direct product of Humanist thought and values. This process, referred to as “canonization” by Meg Brown and Kari McBridge in Women’s Roles in the Renaissance (2005), is defined as the “social, economic and cultural forces that decide what kind of art with be designated ‘great’ and will therefore be preserved and studied.”

A modern example can be seen in fiction genres: ‘literary’ fiction sits at the top of a totem pole, from which position it looks down and sneers at ‘genre’ fiction, with romance and ‘chick lit’ – both seen as solely the purvey of women – at the very bottom. That any genre intended for women is considered lesser is merely the Renaissance hierarchy of artistic purity interpreted for our modern age.

The same goes for music: classical music, intellectual jazz and avant garde experimental music all sit in the highest places of purity, while ‘genre’ music – anything meant for the masses, or a product of a minority group, like rap or R&B, receives the highest criticism. Even jazz, a product derived from many black American musical traditions, is only worthy if it’s purified by either white performers and composers or deconstructed according to the current intellectual trends.

Even what types of creation are allowed to be ‘art’ stem from concerted efforts during the Renaissance to define who could be artists. What we think of as the ‘fine arts’ vs. ‘crafts’ (with a significant value judgment between the two) was a deliberate filtering process. Fine arts just ‘happened’ to be fields dominated by men, while the craft label was applied to fields that were produced overwhelmingly by women. A prime example of this can be seen in textile work – weaving, embroidery, lace-making, knitting and needlework of all types, all female-centric trades.

Prior to the Renaissance, needlework, particularly embroidery, was considered a fine art, commanding similar fees as paintings – with English embroidery towering in reputation above all others. The Bayeux tapestry, a visual narrative of the Norman conquest, is one such example of their output. Though its authorship is not fully known, current scholarship suggests that it was the creation of one particular group of needle workers, all female. Even a cursory examination of the piece reveals its quality; there is no question that it is indeed both art and fine.

As the Renaissance progressed, however, those fields were reduced to ‘crafts’ and the women who worked in them devalued both artistically and financially. According to Merry Wesner, author of Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (2000), in the Renaissance, “[middle]- and upper-class girls were taught to embroider because embroidered clothing and household objects became signs of class status, and because embroidery was seen as the best way to inculcate the traits most admired in a woman – passivity, chastity, attention to detail, domesticity. As more embroidery was produced in the home for domestic consumption, it was increasingly considered an ‘accomplishment’ rather than art and those who embroidered for pay received lower wages, except for male designers of embroidery patterns and the few men employed as court embroiderers by Europe’s monarchs.”

Just as with patronage, it becomes necessary to ask not whether there were female artists within the male framework of “art,” but rather, what did female artists and artistry look like? Leaving aside the “Magnificent Exceptions,” the women who had the resources or connections to work within the male-dominated sphere, who was the average female artist, what was her path to artistry and how – if at all – was she affected by patronage?

Sexuality as Currency

In a society where men held all of the financial, political, social power and privilege – the currencies both male artists and patrons used to acquire their respective places in society, there seems to be little left for women negotiate a position for themselves in the artistic world. Two primary resources are the primary currencies at their disposal: their proximity to and relationships with powerful men and their sexuality, even conscribed as it was. The most famous matrons, the names we know, leveraged the first. The majority of female artists, however, had to rely on the second.

For the female painter or sculptor, that might have meant giving up their social position to become that “in-between” of which Paolo Pino described as reminding him of “the stories of hermaphrodites.” (See the previous section, Mrs. Cellophane, for more on this.) In practical terms, this would most likely mean losing opportunities for marriage and hence, financial and social protection, or access and participation in the social sphere. For performing artists, it often meant trading sexual favors for protection or access. Any women’s public display of art, regardless of the genre, led to questions about her morality – particularly the case for female actors during the Renaissance. Abusive and discriminatory environments often meant that a female performer required protection, both politically and financially. For all but a lucky few, this meant having an affair, receiving all the judgment and loss of status incumbent with that position.

Female access to art in the convent environment is often pointed to as an example of a case where a woman didn’t need to trade her sexuality for access. In my estimation, the reality is the exact opposite of that position. To join a convent, a woman had to relinquish her body and her sexuality – access and ownership, both – to the custody of the male-run church. As chaste ‘brides of Christ,’ their access to the arts was paid for with their sexuality, in some ways far more dramatically than the woman having an affair with a patron.

The knife-edge of sexual currency cut in multiple directions, too. Jonathan Hart, in Reading the Renaissance (2014), notes that the ‘explicitly economic link between artist and patron whereby the artist’s production is exchanged for economic support made [any] woman whose patron was male vulnerable to accusations of prostitution.”

There is no small amount of irony in the fact that women of the Renaissance were required to trade on their sexuality, while simultaneously being chastised for any hint of lasciviousness or chastity. If that seems like a no-win situation…well, that’s because it is. And it was meant to be. Even some enlightened minds of the period recognized the self-serving nature of anti-female criticism. As one author, Robert Burdet (a.k.a Robert Vaughn), writes in the dedication of his poetic Dyalogue Defensyve for Women against Malycyous Detractours in 1542, this double moral standard comes about “…through avarice, the insatiable sin / detractors swarm, as bees about a hive / when wicked defamation is profitable to them.”

Female Artists & Artistry

It would take far more time and space than this series permits to even attempt a partial examination of the spectrum of female art in the Renaissance. The following examples are intended to give a sense of the environment and opportunities women artists had, as well as give a sense of the stark difference between the male and female spheres.

Literary Arts

Any discussion of female authorship during the Renaissance must first acknowledge that the opposition to female literacy resulted on an environment wherein only women of means or unusual circumstance would have the levels of education and access necessary both to write and be published.

One such example is Marie Dentière. She entered a convent, where she must have been shown exceptional potential, for she became abbess in her early twenties. Electrified by Martin Luther’s denunciation of monasticism, she left the convent at great risk to her own person and fled to Strasbourg, where she eventually married Antoine Froment, a well-known voice in the Protestant reformation movement. She herself became an ardent supporter of the reformation and wrote as an advocate for the advancement of women in theology and church roles.

Not surprisingly, this didn’t win her much support from leaders of the Reformation – men like John Calvin and Martin Luther himself. Dentière published her next work (The War for and Deliverance of Geneva) as “a merchant living in that city,” and it immediately attracted criticism. Her second work, Epistre tres utile (A Useful Letter), addressed to Marguerite of Navarre, was published…and almost immediately suppressed – most of the copies seized and burned. Though she was an exceedingly vigorous voice in the Reform debate, her works were actively discounted and destroyed. According to Thomas Head, only fragments about her life and work survive, and it wasn’t till modern times that her own publications were actually attributed to her. (Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, 1987)

She did make a lasting impression, however. After the fiery public and clerical response to her Epistre, Geneva passed laws forbidding the publication of any female writer that lasted until the 17th century.

One of the primary areas of female authorship that evolved during the Renaissance was, again not surprisingly, the defense of women against the tirades against female virtue and value. Perhaps the premiere example of this genre is the spirited rebuttal Heliésenne de Crenne offered in response to the vitriol of Gratien du Pont, he of the ‘grande tromperesse.” When, in her Epistres familieres et invectives (1539), the male accuser complains, “How dangerous are your physical allurements, the source of so much grief!” her female defender wryly responds, “I can assure you it holds no danger for any man of integrity.” (I believe the appropriate contemporary response is, oh snap!)

Much of the existing work by female authors of the period is either religious in nature (one of the few arenas in which women did have a great deal of freedom to write), written for personal use or unofficially for the men around them, rather than commissioned work for a patron. One significant – and genuinely magnificent – exception is the work of Christine Pizan, the author of a Le Livre de la Cité des dames (1404), a defense (and promotion) of rigorous education for women. Pizan drew, according to Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance (2007), an “outpouring of female patronage unprecedented in literary history.”

Pizan was an outlier, however. According to Jonathan Hart (Reading the Renaissance, 2014), it was simply more acceptable for a woman to act as a patron for male authors, than for female writers to have patrons. One way women found around this, at least in Italy during the latter part of the Renaissance, was to simply become a courtesan, trading sexuality for literary recognition. This was, he suggests, perhaps the most effective form of patronage a female author could have at the time, for in this manner, she could have multiple patrons and since her fame reflected directly on her paramours, the men would go to great lengths to enhance her reputation.

Of all the literary genres, poetry seems to have been a more socially acceptable form of expression, for much more of it has survived and there are records of the writers receiving notice and praise – just not commissions. Gaspara Stampa is perhaps the most well-known poet of the era – recognized in her own time for her complex, sensual work and her daring, openly stated ambition. “Wherever valor is esteemed and prized,” she wrote, “I hope to find glory among the well-born: glory and not only pardon.” Not just among men, though: “I hope,” she continues, “some woman will be moved to say: ‘Most happy she, who suffered famously for such a famous cause’!”

Despite her considerable achievement and the fact that she moved in the highest literary circles, rubbing shoulders with most famous patrons of her era, there seems to be no record of her ever having received a commission. The very first publication of her work came, in fact, after her death. She did what she set out to do: she has found glory rather than pardon. That it took nearly five-hundred years for her recognition to come is heartbreaking.

Performing Arts

The social strictures around female participation in music during the Renaissance were such that outside of a small handful of exceptions, most opportunities came either in or around the convent. In the secular world, there were few public performers; composers, fewer still. Much of the difficulty, as we’ve seen over and over again, lay in access to education. Most secular female musicians were trained by male relatives or friends

This was the case with Barbara Strozzi and Francesca Caccini, both composers and performers from the tail end of the Renaissance who received court exposure and patronage and probably the best known of all the female musicians from the period. Caccini went on to found a school for singers, and it was her virtuosity and the public fascination thereof, according to Diane Jezic in Women Composers, The Lost Tradition Found (1994), that opened the door to Court positions for other female singers.

In contrast to the lack of secular training, convents were – at first – the best place for women who wished to be composers or performers (singing or instrumental). In Italy, convents created choirs for orphanage girls, “training them so,” according to Brown & McBride, “that the city government in Venice […] sponsored and even made revenue from their performances. Over time, the reputations of these schools grew to the point that non-orphaned girls were taken as day students. These particular young women weren’t required to join the convent, but in return for the education, they were required to sing or play for the organization for ten years after the end of their training (usually around the age of thirty, meaning that they often still sacrificed the opportunity to marry or have children). The city of Venice made significant revenue off of the performances, and as their renown grew, often sent the most talented to study with well-known teachers.

This shining spot of opportunity came to an end in 1563, however, when the Council of Trent severely curtailed the types and frequency of convent performances. Nuns were forbidden to play anything other than the organ, leaving fewer and fewer opportunities for young women to learn. The final nail in the coffin of music education came in 1686, when papal injunction forbade any woman from learning music from any man, including relatives. As per Brown & McBride (Women’s Roles in the Renaissance, 2005),

The explanation that Pope Innocent XI gave for prohibiting even daughters to study with their fathers specifically linked music with immorality, “music is completely injurious to the modesty that is problem for the [female] sex.”

Despite that prohibition, secular music opportunities for women began to appear towards the end of the Renaissance, though it wasn’t until the 18th century that female composers and performers begin to truly enter the public sphere. The response to the entrance of women into the field is, perhaps by this point, predictable. As with needlepoint, female participation in music was cultivated as “accomplishments, rather than serious skills, and women’s performances were typically private occasions confined to a family audience.”

Theater offered more freedom for women, in certain areas of Europe – though it often came at a heavy price. The amount of abuse to which women were subjected often meant that female performers often became the mistresses of patrons or other influential men. Abuse came from without as well as within, however, and actresses were labeled as immoral and unnatural women. Still, the theater offered opportunities for literate women, occasionally as directors as well as actresses, though the necessity of literacy meant that it was primarily an opportunity taken by middle-class women in search of some kind of financial security of their own. Many performers, according to Brown & McBride, may have been women whose otherwise ‘good’ families had come into straightened circumstances.

Visual Arts

As with the performing arts, most women received their training from male relatives or similar learned and practiced on their own. Propriety forbade that women study the nude forms, particularly in relation to male anatomy. That lack was notable and obvious to the point that it was remarked on by many contemporaries. Vasari, as noted before, commented on how suor Plautilla’s lack of exposure to the male form meant that her male-centric art – the types of painting that were desired and received commissions – was far less impressive than that of female figures.

Another male artist, acknowledging the deficiency and attempting to find a way around it for female artists, wrote, “It is against propriety for [women] to draw from the nude. The best advice one can give them is to choose only the best examples to copy.” Critics of the period understood and recognized the challenges this presented and, according to Jacobs, “with purposeful regularity, […] described women’s works with words like ‘patience’ and ‘diligence’.” (Defining the Renaissance Virtuosa, 1997)

The difficulties posed in creation of the type of artwork (painting or sculpture) that received the highest social valuation (male-centric historic subjects and landscapes, primarily) meant that women often became experts in the other forms of “lower value” art, such as engraving, portraits, miniatures, still life paintings, book illustration or detailing small domestic objects, e.g., figurines, furniture, etc.

Female sculptors often found success in smaller scale works, as well as mediums or subjects that male sculptors rarely used, as was the case with Luisa Roldtin, the first recorded female sculptor from Spain. Her financial success and artistic renown came from her work with wood and terracotta, particularly in small-scale works. According to Brown & McBride, her “use of polychromy, along with her intimate details from nature, was unprecedented in terra-cotta religious forms, [and] her clay groups were so treasured that they were kept on permanent display with relics and other sacred icons in many churches throughout Spain.” Many of her extraordinary pieces can still be seen today.

Though the large-scale works had the most prestige and commanded the highest fees, there is a certain amount of irony that, as Brown & McBride note, “several of the ‘inferior’ genres to which women were relegated became so popular during the Renaissance that women still-life painters and miniature portraitists were some of the highest-paid and most-celebrated artists among the courts and monied classes of Europe” – something that the dominant narrative has, perhaps not surprisingly, failed to note.

Another point of interest: in contrast to other parts of Europe, where court commissions provided the bulk of monetary support for artists, in the Netherlands, the wealthy merchant middle-class was the biggest consumer of art in the region. In what would be derided in later centuries as “bourgeois taste,” the middle-class provided a huge market for the types of small-scale work that women primarily created and an open market – not patronage – drove supply and demand.

In this case, the free-market determined a great deal of demand…and that demand went against the cultural narrative of artistic value. This raises the question that’s often an elephant in the room: Does patronage represent the types of art that people genuinely respond to and enjoy and identify with the most, or does it simply support the art tastemakers have determined people should like?


This is by no means an exhaustive review of this complex – and sometimes controversial – topic, but my hope is that it will contribute to the continuing dialogue on patronage and commissioning models. When considering any sort of arts funding, I believe we should be asking ourselves probing and perhaps even uncomfortable questions about conditioned bias, acceptance of the dominant narrative, gatekeeping and the issues of equal exposure, education, access and opportunities. It isn’t enough to simply want to be an equal opportunity arts organization. It takes a concerted, thoughtful effort to recognize and break down the centuries of invisible barriers that are so familiar to us, we don’t even realize they exist.

Apropos of opportunity, I would like to thank Benjamin Wachs (Caveat) for the lively debate he and I have shared about patronage, the chance to share my enthusiasm for this topic with a larger audience and the motivation to create my own path of discovery through the history of art patronage. Sometimes, opportunity comes from unexpected sources, and it’s been a fantastic reminder to me to remain open to possibilities from directions I’ve never considered.


Recommended Reading

  • Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy (ed. David G. Wilkins, 2001)
  • Defining the Renaissance ‘Virtuosa’: Women Artists and the Language of Art History and Criticism (Fredrika H. Jacobs, 1997)
  • Echoes of Women’s Voices: Music, Art, and Female Patronage in Early Modern Florence (Kelley Harness, 2006)
  • Invention of the Renaissance Woman: The Challenge of Female Independence in the Literature and Thought of Italy and England (Pamela J. Benson, 2010)
  • Invisible Women, Forgotten Artists of Florence (Jane Fortune, 2009)
  • Italian Women Writers from the Renaissance to the Present: Revising the Canon (ed. Maria Marotti, 2010)
  • Reading the Renaissance (Jonathan Hart, 2014)
  • Renaissance Women Patrons: Wives and Widows in Italy, c. 1300-1550 (Catherine E. King, 1998)
  • The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and their Work (Germaine Greer, 1979)
  • Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found (Diane Jezic, 1988)
  • Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, representation, identity (Paola Tinagli, 1997)
  • Women in the Streets: Essays on Sex and Power in Renaissance Italy (Samuel Cohn, Jr., 1996)
  • Women, Art and Architectural Patronage in Renaissance Mantua: Matrons, Mystics and Monasteries (Sally Anne Hickson, 2016)
  • Women, Patronage, and Salvation in Renaissance Florence: Lucrezia Tornabuoni and the Chapel of the Medici Palace (Stefanie Solum, 2015)
  • Women’s Roles in the Renaissance (Meg Lota Brown, Kari Boyd McBride, 2005)

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.

5 Comments on “Art, Gender, and the Renaissance: Where My Matrons At? – Part 3: Losing My Religion

  • French_Pillow says:

    Thanks for all this work about a subject than I didn’t though a bit before reading you (like you said, “centuries of invisible barriers that are so familiar to us, we don’t even realize they exist”) but is undoubtly worth thinking a lot.

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  • Rhubarb says:

    What a long read and A sad story ! What dose this have to do with Burning Man ?

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      Burning Man’s theme this year is “Da Vinci’s Workshop,” with an emphasis on Renaissance Florence – so (as indicated at the top) the Burning Man Philosophical Center has launched a series using Renaissance Florence as a frame through which to examine issues of art funding and the creation of vibrant scenes.

      If that doesn’t connect it for you, I have also discretely added the words “sound camp”, “dust storm,” and “EL wire” somewhere in the text. Hope that helps!

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  • Rhubarb says:

    I see the Dust Storm now.

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