Visual Arts Review: “Strong Women in Renaissance Italy” — Women’s Lives Mattered

By Kathleen Stone

The show would have been stronger if more context had been provided, both about women’s lives and the artistic traditions that inspired and influenced artists of the Renaissance.

Strong Women in Renaissance Italy at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, through January 7, 2024.

Barna da Siena, The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, about 1340 (tempera on panel). Photo: MFA

When Giorgio Vasari published his Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in 1550, critics assailed him for focusing on artists from Tuscany, his home turf, at the expense of Venetians. He got the message, and the second edition, 18 years later, included more artists from Venice. In neither edition did he mention more than a handful of women, but that produced no blowback. Gender equity was not the public issue then that it is today, even if individual women privately grappled with the constraints put on their ambitions. Of course, gender equity is a very hot topic today, and it provides the impetus for the Museum of Fine Arts’ show Strong Women in Renaissance Italy.

The oldest painting in the exhibit, dating from around 1340, is The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, by Barna de Siena. In the painting, Catherine of Alexandria is accepting a ring from Jesus, the culmination of her vision that she would be his bride. Beneath the couple are smaller groupings — Margaret of Antioch hammering a demon, an angel wielding a knife against another demon, an angel overseeing the kiss of peace between two men who have thrown down their arms. Also, the baby Jesus is seen standing between his mother and grandmother. The message, spelled out on the museum’s wall label, is that women not only bear and nurture children but are bold enough to fight the devil, wise enough to orchestrate peaceful relationships, devoted enough to bind themselves to Jesus, and strong enough to profess their beliefs even if it means they will be tortured and martyred, as was St. Catherine. These are themes, we are told, that recur throughout the exhibition.

Only a small number of works in the exhibit were created by women whose names are known. The identities of some of the artists were lost to history; many other attributed works are by male artists. Among the women, several familiar names appear. Artemisia Gentileschi is probably the most recognizable, given the many times she has been documented, including in Linda Nochlin’s 1970 article Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?. Born in Rome in 1593, Artemisia learned to paint in her father’s workshop. She cultivated an international clientele, including King Charles I of England in whose court she resided for a while. The one painting of hers in the exhibit shows a plump and pink-cheeked baby Jesus, passed out in sleep. Perhaps that is how she, a mother, saw her own napping child.

Sofonisba Anguissola, born in Cremona around 1532, is another familiar name, represented here by a small self-portrait. She holds a roundel on which her father’s initials are inscribed, a tribute to him for supporting her artistic career, according to the wall label. What we are not told is that she apprenticed to local painters and that she eventually became a painter in the court of Philip II of Spain. Nor are we informed that Vasari was sufficiently impressed to write that she succeeded “not only in drawing, coloring and painting from nature, and copying excellently from others, but by herself has created rare and very beautiful paintings.” Regrettably, Sofonisba, like Artemisia, has only one piece in Strong Women in Renaissance Italy.

Artemisia Gentileschi, The Sleeping Christ Child, 1630-32 (oil on copper). Photo: MFA

A somewhat lesser-known artist, Diana Mantuana, is represented by five engravings, each outstanding. Very few women were trained as engravers, but she had the advantage of a father who practiced the craft. Also rare was the Pope granting her the exclusive right to market and sell her prints, a sort of copyright protection.  Her subject matter draws from antiquity and the Bible, and she employs a vigorous and dynamic style. She also displays a fine appreciation of subtle feelings. In one print, we see the baby Jesus eagerly reaching toward a basket of fruit offered by a young woman. The woman waits to see which fruit he will select, hoping to see delight on his face. Joseph is prominent in the scene, not in the background where he appears in many other art works. He is attentive and bemused while watching his son.

Diana Mantuana, The Holy Family Receiving a Basket of Fruit from a Young Woman, 1575-76 (engraving). Photo: Antiquarius

At least four of the women had fathers who were artists. Presumably the fathers trained them, and maybe even introduced them to collectors. Unfortunately, we are told almost nothing about these relationships; it’s a missed opportunity, assuming that research has uncovered some insights into their careers. Because so few women of the 16th century forged a career in art, we would have benefited from a more detailed description of the overlapping systems of workshops and apprenticeships, patronage and collecting, and how, specifically, families encouraged their daughters. These are the very social and economic factors that some scholars, such as Nochlin, argue held women back. If they also helped some women, this would have been a good place to tell us.

For many women, circumstances did not permit a career in art. Instead, a typical move for creative-minded females was to join a religious order. Some convents allowed, even encouraged, women to play music, perform in plays, write, paint, sculpt, and make textile art. The exhibition includes some truly exquisite examples of lace and embroidery, many made by women in convents, most of whose names are unknown. The lace is intricately patterned and finely stitched. Embroidered figures are stitched in shimmering gold and other metallic threads. The work, its fineness astounding, is a compelling testament to rare levels of concentration and attention, let alone skill.

Other women were collectors, notably Isabella d’Este and her daughter Eleonora, both of noble rank. With their money and prestige they assembled fine collections, primarily of works by male artists. In the section of the exhibit devoted to women collectors, we learn about two interesting books. One is Boccaccio’s On Famous Women, from 1361-62. Based on Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, Boccaccio established that women’s lives, not only men’s, were worthy of biographical treatment. On display is an illustration from the book that shows Marcia, an artist from antiquity; she was known for painting portraits of women, including a self-portrait for which she used a mirror, just as Sofonisba did. The other book of interest is Of Many Renowned and Select Women, written in 1497 by Jacopo Filippo Foresti, an Augustinian friar. His book was inspired by Boccaccio’s, so Foresti reinforced the point that women’s lives mattered. The accompanying illustration shows the author presenting his book to Beatrice of Aragon, queen of Hungary and Bohemia, an educated woman who was heavily involved in political intrigue and also promoted the Italian Renaissance at the Hungarian court.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait, about 1556 (oil (?) on parchment). Photo: MFA

As suggested earlier, Strong Women in Renaissance Italy could have been stronger if more context had been provided, both about women’s lives and the artistic traditions that inspired and influenced artists of the Renaissance. Instead, the show at times calls on viewers to conjecture. One example will suffice. An engraving that came from the collection of Isabella d’Este gives us the Biblical figure of Judith holding the head of Holofernes, which she has just cut off and is handing to her servant Abra to stuff into a bag. Art history is full of representations of this story; this particular engraving is based on a painting by Andrea Mantegna. The wall label tells us that Mantegna depicted Abra as a Black African and “this may be true here as well.” It then states that Isabella d’Este sought out African people as rarities, not as individuals, and “we know little about them.” Then it continues: “These images of Abra invite us to consider the roles that Africans may have played, or been required to play, at Isabella’s court.” Since no information is given about the lives of Africans in Italy at this time in history, nor what Isabella did to seek out “African people as rarities,” other than to collect this one print, viewers are left to speculate. It is fair to expect contemporary viewers to be inquisitive about the rare depiction of a Black figure in this artistic tradition. Posing rhetorical questions without any information does little to gratify that curiosity.

For this reason, Strong Women in Renaissance Italy’s themes seem a little contrived. The depictions of nurturing, boldness, wisdom, devotion, and strength represented in The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine are important and worth underlining, but they are too thin to firmly hold this exhibition together. In order to celebrate women’s contributions and new-found respect during the Renaissance, I would have expected more artwork by women, and more information about the art, the context in which it was created, and women’s lives in general. That said, some fine pieces, well worth visiting, are on display here.

Kathleen Stone is the author of They Called Us Girls: Stories of Female Ambition from Suffrage to Mad Men, an exploration of the lives and careers of women who defied narrow, gender-based expectations in the mid-20th century.

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