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Women of the Italian Renaissance

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This essay deals with some of the different ways in which women have been represented in Italian Renaissance. It attempts to place these images of women within the cultural context of the artist who painted them and of the patrons who commissioned them. It also tries to make accessible to the modern viewer some of the meanings which were the common currency of the period, and to uncover some of the problems with which artists grappled. A careful selection has been made from the vast range of representations of women produced from the early fifteenth century to the second half of the sixteenth, and these are examined in order to demonstrate the immensely complex and varied landscape of the past.

The images are grouped according to their ‘functions’ – the ways in which they were used, and the reasons why they were commissioned. Considering functions helps us to shift the emphasis from the present to the past, and to highlight the differences between a modern viewer’s perception, assumptions and expectations, and those belonging to the culture in which these paintings were produced.


Man may be the expression of the perfect proportions of the universe, as Leonardo’s famous image of the Vitruvian man implies, but to the average tourist visiting the Uffizi or the Louvre it is images of women which embody the ideals of beauty and harmony of the Italian Renaissance. Women are the subject matter of paintings, so well known that they are in fact part of the visual baggage even of people who have never entered a museum or an art gallery. Who is not familiar with the grace and ethereal beauty of Botticelli’s Primavera and of his naked Venus? Who cannot recognize the smile of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa? Who has not seen in reproduction the maternal sweetness of a Raphael Madonna, or the opulent Venetian sensuality of Titian’s Venus of Urbino? From the public’s point of view, the terms ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Woman’ seen to be synonymous.

The familiarity of the images and the painters’ mastery of technique may lead the viewer to believe that these paintings are like mirrors which reflects the reality of the past. It is easy to be ‘tricked’ into believing that, when we look at a painting produced during this period, we are looking at ‘the real world’. Leon Battista Alberti, humanist, writer, painter and architect, wrote in the mid 1430s in his treatise On Painting that “the painter is concerned solely with representing what can be seen”. Alberti expresses the notion that knowledge is derived from sensory perception, and that painting is based on the observation of objects made visible by light.

The images of women discussed in this report are not direct representations of ‘reality’, or of ‘what the painter saw’. They are the embodiment of a set of ideals and values, both aesthetic and social, shared by the artists and by the patrons who commissioned the paintings. The culture in which they were made was very different from ours; we need to learn their language in order to understand what they are saying.

The nude

The representation of the nude figure, male and female, was central to all renaissance art, and ample visual and written evidence testifies to this concern. Any study of images of the female nude opens up a number of problems which yet again centre on questions of intentions and functions, representation and perception. ‘The nude’, however, was not only a supreme test for artists: there is much contemporary evidence showing that these images of the naked body were openly recognized to arouse sexual feelings, in women as well as in men. The thoughts and feelings we find expressed in conventional descriptive set-pieces, in more casual and spontaneous observations about the paintings as well as in the treatises and pronouncements of churchmen on the dangers inherent in the representation of the naked human body, are interestingly complex. To understand them we must forget the dichotomy which exists in the English language between “naked” and ‘nude’. The use of these two terms tells us mush more about Anglo-Saxon attitudes to art and to the body than about Italian Renaissance viewpoints.

This distinction does not exist in the Italian language, and both ‘nude’ and ‘naked’ are translated, today as during the Renaissance, by the same term, nude. By forgetting about the difference between the two English terms, it will be easier to understand how the representations of male and female naked figures painted in Italy during this period could embody a complex range of impulses and thoughts, at times contradictory, such as lust, platonic ideals of goodness and perfection, memories of the antique past, erotic pleasure, and delight in the sensuous appreciation of the surfaces and colors of the paintings. These pictures were perceived as ‘art’, but they did not occupy a rarefied sphere of the mind, separated from the life of emotions and of physical responses.

These images are erotic, but they had a very different position, in the culture of the sixteenth century, from the modern throwaway images of seduction, such as advertisements and soft-porn photographs, to which John Berger compared them in his ways of seeing of 1972. According to Berger, common conventions of representation which encourage voyeurism link these images produced in different centuries by different cultures. In spite of what Berger wrote, in this case the medium is the message, and there is no better reply to his argument than Ludovico Dolce’s letter to Alessandro Contarini published in 1559, which describes, through rhetorical conventions, one of Titian’s famous female nudes. Dolce claims that at the core of the ‘seriousness of intent’ of the representation of the nude lies the authority of antique art, and the qualities. Dolce stresses that all the knowledge and all the artistic skills the painter possesses are used, and this is a constant aspect of Renaissance art, to produce images which can move the viewer. In the case of representations of the nude, they will often knowingly move the viewers to lust.

Religious images

A discussion of the representation of women in Renaissance painting cannot ignore the importance that religion had in the lives of people from all strata of society. Religion was so rightly enmeshed with all aspects of life, that it is often impossible to separate it from the secular. Images of the Virgin Mary and of female saints can help us to gain an insight into the way in which women, and men too, experienced religion. Yet again we find that emotion is a key element in the relationship between the faithful and the saints, a relationship mediated through the use of images which were used in order to help to concentrate the mind on devotion and prayers.

In a perceptive essay on the role of images of the Virgin Mary, Julia Kristeva examines the way in which the presence of the feminine operates in a culture at the level of psychological needs. Kristeva asks ‘what is it about the representation of the Maternal in general, and about the Christian of virginal representation in particular, that enables it not only to calm the social anxiety and supply what the male lacks, but also to satisfy a women, in such a way that the community of the sexes is established beyond, and in spite of, their flagrant incompatibility and permanent state of war?” Kristeva’s analysis of the needs fulfilled by the Virgin Mary and her representations could be extended, under certain aspects, to the role which the protection and consoling powers provided by female saints had in the interior lives of both men and women. For women, female saints offered examples of womanly virtues and religious dedication which were difficult to equal. At the same time, the church opened up to women important possibilities of self-realization where were absent in other areas of social life.

Women and art during the Renaissance

During the last two decades, probably in response to the work carried out by historians of sexuality in France and in Britain, the representation of women as subject matter in nineteenth century art has attached the attention of a large number of art historians, resulting in exhibitions and books directed also to the general public. By contrast, the effort of Renaissance art historians has, on the whole, been confined to articles published in scholarly journals and to collections of essays destined for the specialist reader. No curator, for example, has been tempted to organize a thematic exhibition centered on the representation of the Renaissance women using an approach similar to the 1989 exhibition ‘Degas – Images of Women’ at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool and at the Burrell Collection, Glasgow.

Since the early 1970s, an attempt has been made by a number of art historians to challenge the status quo of art historical scholarship, and to consider the possibility of changing the perspective from which to reassess the representation of women in Renaissance art.

The most interesting and successful work on women as subject matter in Italian Renaissance painting has been produced by those scholars who have firmly anchored their thorough analysis to the discourse of Renaissance treatises and debates about women. The discussions on beauty, from the writings of Petrarch to the treatises by writers such as Firenzuola in the sixteenth century, for example, are the context for the work carried out by Mary Rogers and by Elizabeth Cropper on women’s portraits on paintings representing beautiful women with no specific identity. Sharon Fermor looks at the importance given, in contemporary writing, to the concept of ‘grace’. Using dance manuals as additional source material, she relates the graceful movements advocated by writers as being appropriate to women of a certain status to the poses of the female figures in the works by Botticelli and Ghirlandaio.

Famous women of the Era.

Lucrezia Borgia is regarded as one of the most notorious women of the Renaissance, Lucrezia Borgia (1480 – 1519) was at once the pawn of her powerful father and brother and an astute political actor in her own right. After disturbed life, Lucrezia left Rome, never on return, on January 6, 1502. Among the records concerning her move to Ferrara is a list of books in her own private library. The list offers an insight into Lucre Zia’s interests. It includes a book of the Gospels in Italian; a printed romance of chivalry, Laquila volante by Leonardoi Bruni; a Latin world history and many other books of a religious or philosophical nature. After a journey filled with fine hospitality and great display, Lucrezia finally joined her husband in Ferrara.

She quickly impressed the Ferrarese with her kindness, good sense, and political astuteness. She became patron of the arts and entered into close friendships with several Italian poets, including Ludovico Ariosto who composed a poem for her wedding and featured a portrait of Lucrezia in his masterpiece. Writers eulogized as Lucrezia Borgia as the “most beautiful virgin” and helped her to promote an image very much at odds with her turbulent past.  As duchess Lucrezia fulfilled the many roles required of her. She maintained a magnificent and cultured court and governed Ferrara in the absence of her husband. Indeed, from 1509 to 1512, she was the de facto ruler in Ferrara owing to the incessant wars and political intrigues that occupied her husband. She also provided moral leadership during periods when Ferrara was in danger of being taken by its enemies.

Catherine De Medicis

Catherine De Medicis (1519-1589) exerted considerable influence on French politics during the reign on her husband. The forty two years since the death of her husband in 1559 had been fraught with political and religious unrest. Catherine worked relentlessly to secure and promote the rights of her children, the stability of France, and the survival of the Valois monarchy. She arranged marriages for her daughters that were designed to protect and increase the power of the French throne. She mediated between the many contentious factions within France and negotiated several edicts and treaties. She served as regent of France on numerous occasions and was an astute political adviser to her sons. For several years she promoted a policy of religious tolerance and conciliation. However, at times, most infamously during the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, she approved persecution and murder as a means of achieving her desired ends. It was Isabella’s dream to make Grotta a place of retreat from the world. Where she could enjoy the pleasures of solitude or the company of a few chosen friends, surrounded by beautiful paintings and exquisite works of art. In this sanctuary, from which the cares and the noise of the outer world were banished, it was Isabella’s dream that the walls should be adorned with paintings giving expression to her ideals of culture and disposing the mind to pure and noble thoughts.

While a number of Renaissance female patrons of art served the conventions of the late Victorian biography, only Isabella d’Este has been of interest to recent art historians. One reason for this is that Isabella d’Este. This, at least is the one aspect of her activities that has received most attention, particularly her dealings with painters such a Mantegna. Bellini and Perugino. Another incentive has been the wealth of documentation on this patron which includes a detailed inventory of her collection and its manner of display, as well as correspondence already mentioned. But since these written sources do not concur with the art historical tendency to privilege panel painting over other arts, they have been used to define Isabella d’Este as an anomaly among Renaissance patrons.

Isabella d’Este herself was a determined collector and, in a typically feminine way, her enthusiasm was especially aroused by objects d’art. At first sight, the Mantua archives, which are rich in information about the paintings, might not suggest this was so: yet, on closer inspection, we soon realize that the bulk of the collection consisted of bronzes, medals, gems and the like: the painting play, as it were, a supporting role. Moreover the amount of money which Isabella paid, and was prepared to pay, for these pieces was certainly greater than it was for her paintings.

Yet Isabella d’Este desire for antique medals and gems, as well as her willingness to spend more money on these objects than on paintings, is in no way inconsistent with the attitudes and practices of other Renaissance collectors. The most celebrated case is that of Lorenzo de’ Medici whose apparent lack of interest in painting has always been rationalized by linking his enthusiasm for gems and cameos to humanistic endeavors.

Isabella d’Este collecting activities were instrumental in departing from the prescribed activities of the consort, and in inserting herself in spaces traditionally allotted to men. Not only did she collect on a much larger scale than other consorts, but more to the point she departed from the types of objects – religious painting, decorative arts – usually patronized by women in her position. In acquiring mythological paintings and antique statuary. Isabella d’Este seems to have been quite exceptional among Renaissance court women.

After looking at the ideal roles of women as heroines in fifteenth-century secular narrative paintings, we then examine another version of the ideal women, this time through portraits which represents ‘real’ women – women who actually existed, and about whom we may have some historical information. These images of women, however, still appear to the viewer through the screen of the ideals of the society in which they were produced: ideal of beauty, of behavior, of display. In them we still see not an individual, but a cipher, and we have to be aware of the conventions which guided these modes of representation followed throughout the fifteenth century by, among others, Pisanello, Filippo Lippi, Piero della Francesca and Ghirlandaio.

We have already seen how, during the fifteenth century, painters developed skills which helped to convey a sense of emotion and of inner life, so that the viewer could experience an apparent communication with the image. This interaction with the spectator was at the core of artistic problems related to the perception and representation of reality – of the physical appearance of the natural world – which were explored in Italy, and especially in Florence. During the second half of the fifteenth century, all these problems became linked to the function of the portrait, as shown by the works produced by Leonardo Da Vinci during the last decades of the century and the beginning of the next.

The profile portrait, which in the representation of women had continued for decades more or less unaltered, was abandoned in favor of poses which allowed for eye-contact between sitter and viewer. the size of portraits, the ways in which they were displayed, and the reasons for commissioning them, changed and diversified during the sixteenth century, as Italian society shifted towards one in which the more formal and etiquette-conscious behavior of the courts dominated. From the small- scale female profile busts of the fifteenth century, to the imposing portraiture of the sixteenth produced by painters such as Raphael, Titian and Bronzino, display of wealth through detailed representation of jewellery and cloth was always a crucial sign of status. A display of diner was not an empty gesture of vanity, but a significant means through which women made their position visible to the eyes of society.

Beauty and especially the beauty of women, was a subject of great interest in the milieu of the educated elite, and it became fashionable not only to read and write poems about beautiful women, but also to commission and collect paintings representing imaginary beauties. The erotic charge of these images, which play with the representational conventions of portraiture, leads us to explore questions related to the perception and to the function of these paintings of beautiful women.


The Italian Renaissance: The Essential Readings,2002, Paula Findlen

The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy,1990, Jacob Burckhardt, Peter Burke, S. G. Middlemore, Peter Murray

The Italian Renaissance, 1992, By Peter Mantin

The Italian Renaissance,1993, Werner L. Gundersheimer, Renaissance Society of America

The Italian Renaissance: The Essential Sources, 2003, Kenneth Gouwens

Contributor Kenneth Gouwens

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