Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 20, 2013
Sally Anne Hickson Women, Art and Architectural Patronage in Renaissance Mantua: Matrons, Mystics and Monasteries Women and Gender in the Early Modern World.. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. 204 pp.; 21 b/w ills. Cloth $104.95 (9781409427520)

For over a century, the history of Mantua and the Gonzaga family’s role in shaping the cultural heritage of early modern Italy has comprised the subject of numerous, often excellent, scholarly publications. Most have focused on specific members of the Gonzaga dynasty—Isabella d’Este in primis—or on their court artists, or on the impact of these individuals’ activities in the fields of architecture, literature, theater, music, and the visual arts. Only recently have scholars begun to explore the social and artistic networks formed beyond the innermost circles of the Gonzaga court; a notable example is Guido Rebecchini’s 2002 volume, Private Collectors in Mantua, 1500–1630 (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura), which demonstrated the presence of significant private art collections in Mantua that both complemented and competed with those of the ruling family. Sally Hickson’s volume, Women, Art and Architectural Patronage in Renaissance Mantua: Matrons, Mystics and Monasteries, makes a similar, and welcome, break away from traditional models of secular patronage by examining networks of the city’s lesser-known women and the impact of their devotional practices. Although Isabella d’Este maintains a regular presence in the book, Hickson focuses on Isabella’s still-unexplored religious patronage, rightly challenging the traditional (mis)perception of the marchesa as a patron of exclusively secular projects. As a whole, the volume’s five chapters present a refreshingly original picture of how partnerships between Mantua’s secular women and nuns defined spiritual values while contributing to the city’s built and visual environment during the early years of the Catholic Reformation.

Hickson’s introduction provides an extended visual analysis of Francesco Bonsignori’s ca. 1519 painting Veneration of the Blessed Osanna Andreasi, originally from the Dominican female convent of San Vincenzo in Mantua. Because the altarpiece features the city’s most important female mystic, Osanna Andreasi, being venerated—according to Hickson—by Isabella d’Este, along with her nun-daughter Ippolita and two other Dominican sisters, as well as Isabella’s friend Margherita Cantelmo (Cantelma for Hickson), it provides an apt frontispiece for the book. Chapter 1 uses the Bonsignori altarpiece as a point of departure for an examination of visual and written accounts of other female saints and beatae in northern and central Italy, including the well-known saints Caterina de’ Vigri, Catherine of Siena, and Brigid of Sweden, as well as less familiar Mantuan venerables like Margherita Torchi, Maddalena Coppini, and Elisabetta Piccinardi. While Hickson brings together useful biographical information about these figures, she is not always successful in her attempts to trace the iconography of female sanctity in this period: examples are often presented without making comparisons or drawing conclusions, while some visual analyses seem plainly misfounded: Hickson’s discussion of Giacomo and Giulio Francia’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints and Six Olivetan Oblates (ca. 1518) states that “the oblates look out of the painting directly towards the viewer” (40), whereas it seems obvious to the present reviewer that not one of them makes eye contact with the beholder. A similar stumble appears later in the book, where, in a discussion of the Royal Collection’s portrait of Margherita Paleologo attributed to Giulio Romano, Hickson identifies the partially visible object resting atop the door frame in the painting’s upper right corner as an “ornamental vase” (107) when it is clearly a portrait bust.

Chapters 2 and 3 explore the “partnership in piety” between Isabella d’Este and Margherita Cantelmo, Duchess of Sora, Isabella’s lifelong friend and correspondent. Hickson traces the many ties that bound the two women, including their devotion to Osanna Andreasi and contacts with the sculptor Gian Cristoforo Romano (creator of a funerary monument to Osanna that was later dismantled) and the humanist Mario Equicola (author of writings to promote her cult); their mutual interest in the cloistered Clarissan nuns at Corpus Domini in Ferrara; and Margherita’s near-religious veneration of a portrait she possessed of Isabella by Francesco Bonsignori. What emerges is a fascinating picture of a female friendship rooted in shared devotional practices and cultural and family patronage, which is documented almost entirely through written correspondence (Cantelmo spent much of her life in Mortara, near Vigevano). The ties between the two women culminated in Margherita’s foundation in 1530 of Santa Maria della Presentazione, known as the “Casa Cantelma,” the construction of which was carried out after her death by Isabella d’Este. Little is known about this convent of Augustinian canonesses, and it is unfortunate that Hickson was not able to reconstruct more of its early history, membership, or built form. Suppressed during the Napoleonic period, “there remains little physical evidence to attest to the specific nature of the architectural fabric of the monastery” (74), according to Hickson; yet she gives no description of what remains, and confusingly adds that “in 1797 . . . the church and monastery buildings were destroyed” (85).

Chapter 4 examines two of Francesco II Gonzaga and Isabella d’Este’s daughters, Ippolita and Livia Osanna, who became professed nuns in Mantuan convents: the Dominican Ippolita at San Vincenzo and the Clarissan Livia Osanna at Corpus Domini, where she took the name Suor Paola. Little is known about these two “daughters of devotion,” making an investigation of their lives and religious careers particularly welcome, although it is a shame that Hickson relies primarily on published secondary sources that are often contradictory about facts and dates: did Livia Osanna take final vows in 1522 (according to Federigo Amadei’s Cronaca universale, cited on 94 n. 27), or in 1518 (according to Ippolito Donesmondi’s Historia ecclesiastica, cited on 96 n. 28)? Did Ippolita enter San Vincenzo in 1509 (as Hickson claims, but does not substantiate, on 90) or in 1513 (according to documents published by Barbara Furlotti in 2000 in an article which Hickson does not appear to have consulted [Barbara Furlotti, “Bernardo Bonsignori: documenti e ipotesi attributive,” Annuario della Scuola di Specializzazione in Storia dell’Arte dell’Università di Bologna 1 (2000): 24–49])? While Hickson’s investigation of mother-daughter ties in the context of religious patronage represents an original approach in Isabellian studies, she destabilizes the importance of her findings by noting that “there is little evidence to suggest that Isabella visited her daughters with any regularity, and no correspondence survives to attest to her involvement with, or interest in, their early lives in their respective communities” (96). Hickson’s discussion also precludes any contributions by Isabella’s husband Francesco, whose promotion of the cult of Osanna Andreasi through the publication of multiple printed editions of her biography, as well as the completion of her funerary chapel in San Domenico, receive no mention.

In chapter 5, the focus shifts from the religious patronage network of Isabella d’Este and her friends and daughters to that of Margherita Paleologo (Paleologa for Hickson), who became duchess of Mantua in 1531 when she married Federico II Gonzaga. Special attention is given to Margherita’s widowhood in Mantua from 1540 to her death in 1566, a period traditionally defined by her stewardship of Gonzaga secular assets and political interests, but which Hickson suggests was equally enriched by the spiritually based relationships she formed with her sisters-in-law Suor Ippolita and Suor Paola, as well as the influence of female Catholic Reform role models like Vittoria Colonna, to whom Margherita was connected through the marriage of her daughter Isabella Gonzaga to Francesco d’Avalos, cousin of Colonna’s husband Alfonso d’Avalos and heir to his territories of Pescara and Vasto. The book concludes with three appendices of archival documents: the last will and testaments of Margherita Cantelmo, Isabella d’Este, and Margherita Paleologo; selected letters exchanged between Isabella and Cantelmo; and selected letters of Margherita Paleologo. These letters are a useful resource for scholars, although one is left wishing that Hickson referred more frequently to them in her own discussions of the lives of these women.

Considering the novelty and importance of Hickson’s argument, it is unfortunate that the book suffers from sloppy editing and errors of fact that undermine the author’s authority. Isabella dies in “1540” (4) when the correct date is 1539; Monferrato is located “north of Lombardy” (12) when it is to the west, in Piedmont; Mantua is a “city cradled at the confluence of three rivers that issue from the River Mincio” (17), when only one river, the Mincio, broadens to form three lakes as it flows past the city. Names are frequently misspelled: the scholar “Gabriella Zarri” becomes “Gabrielle” and “Gabriele” on page 8 alone, and Lucrezia Pico della Mirandola becomes “Lucrezia Piccola della Mirandola” (67); place names are given inconsistently: modern-day San Matteo delle Chiaviche is referred to on page 47 as “San Matteo in Chiaviche,” “San Matteo di Chiaviche,” and “San Matteo Mantovano,” and then becomes “San Matteo dei Chiaviche” on page 157. Artworks become sources of confusion: on page 26 a painting of Maddalena Coppini is tentatively attributed to Antonio da Pavia and correctly described as tempera on canvas, but on the following page becomes “the panel by [Niccolò] Solimeno”; the lovely female portrait bust attributed to Gian Cristoforo Romano in the collection of the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth is reproduced as such on page 51, but migrates to Detroit on page 52.

Despite these criticisms, Hickson’s book makes an important contribution by elucidating a web of spiritual ties between women in Mantua, and demonstrating how Gonzaga mothers, daughters, friends, and consorts, whether at court or in convents, helped to shape civic religious identity during the earliest years of Catholic reform through their artistic and architectural patronage. While the reader is left wishing that archival sources had been more fully exploited, Hickson has nonetheless paved the way for future scholars interested in the history of gender, religion, and patronage to make further contributions to this still-neglected field of investigation in Mantuan studies and beyond.

Molly Bourne
Department of History of Art, Syracuse University in Florence

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