Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 23, 2017
Erin J. Campbell Old Women and Art in the Early Modern Italian Domestic Interior Visual Culture in Early Modernity. Burlington: Ashgate, 2015. 216 pp.; 16 color ills.; 17 b/w ills. Cloth $120.00 (9781472442130)

In De institutione feminae christianae (On the Education of Christian Women, 1524), Juan Luis Vives wrote of elderly women, “When a woman is free of all carnal desire and has fulfilled her duties of bearing and bringing up children, she will emanate an odor that is more heavenly than earthly, and shall say and do nothing but what is of great sanctity and may serve as an example to those younger than she. ‘Then her name will begin to be known,’ as Gorgias said, ‘when her face is unknown’” (57).

Contrary to the image Vives evokes of women disappearing into old age, Erin J. Campbell describes a proliferation of portraits of old women in the second half of the sixteenth century in northern Italy, focusing on Bologna but also referencing Milan and the Veneto. In Old Women and Art in the Early Modern Italian Domestic Interior, Campbell argues that these portraits served to remind viewers of the duty of old women to model familial and civic virtue. Previously overlooked in the scholarship, the portraits coincide with a period of increased attention to the role of women in the family and in the community following the religious reforms of Gabriele Paleotti, Archbishop of Bologna, and a leading voice on the function of art during the Counter Reformation. Paleotti emphasized the didactic use of portraiture in his 1582 Discorso intorno alle imagini sacre e profane (Discourse on Sacred and Profane Images), writing that “portraits should be painted only of persons whose moral goodness or Christian sanctity may act as an incentive to others to practice the virtues” of the person depicted (91).

In her opening chapter, Campbell characterizes sixteenth-century Bologna as a “one of the most dynamic sites for the exercise of collective family power in Italy,” where noble families with increasing wealth built or renovated palaces and Paleotti’s reform was grounded in the home and family as sites for religious instruction (17). Although portraits of old women were commissioned by families to be viewed in domestic interiors, Campbell convincingly argues that their influence extended well beyond the confines of the palace to the larger civic community.

Campbell follows both Henri Lefebvre in understanding architectural spaces as dynamic and Helen Hills in conceptualizing “architecture as a material metaphor for the bodies it houses,” a “stage” where identity and relationships are enacted (29). Thus, she argues, “the home was similarly a site of the cultivation” of religious and civic virtues (21). Just as the virginity of Hills’s nuns benefitted all of Naples, so the virtue of the old women in these portraits augmented the civic virtue of Bologna. Campbell’s argument in this chapter is further bolstered by her use of Naomi Miller’s scholarship on Bolognese architecture, which emphasizes the importance of the portico in Bolognese buildings (Naomi Miller, Renaissance Bologna: A Study in Architectural Form and Content, New York: Peter Lang, 1989). Arguing that porticoes functioned as liminal spaces where the domestic and the civic merged, Campbell demonstrates how the interior of palaces extended out into the public life of the city. Since porticoes were maintained by noble families for use as gathering spaces for the public, they enhanced community within the city, creating a “corporate identity” and “a civic ideal that fostered public good” (28).

Chapter 2 focuses on case studies of Bartolomeo Passerotti’s Portrait of a Seated Old Woman (ca. 1585) and Giovanni Battista Moroni’s Abbess Lucrezia Agliardi Vertova (1556). Campbell examines these works in relation to texts published between 1523 and 1575, which instructed “women, men, and families on women’s life stages,” employing women prophets and biblical matriarchs as role models (50). In one such text, Vives cites the Prophetess Anna, who spent her widowhood in prayer at the temple, as a model for an elderly woman to serve as a source of wisdom and as a “patrona (protector)” (52).

Campbell writes that visible signs of old age were understood by contemporaries as indicating that a woman had moved beyond childbearing and should practice abstinence. Having fulfilled her duties as wife and mother, she was now “liberated from earthly concerns” and free to “turn her thoughts heavenward and direct her soul to God” (57). Campbell asserts that women who followed the teachings of authors like Vives even acquired a degree of “masculine authority” in old age, though she unfortunately does not elaborate on the nature of that authority (57).

In her third chapter, Campbell examines Leandro Bassano’s Portrait of a Widow at Her Devotions (ca. 1590–1600) alongside three family portraits by Passerotti. She notes, while “scholars have argued that across Europe during the second half of the sixteenth century, matriarchal imagery was displaced by images that stressed the patriarchal family,” the Bolognese portraits of old women emphasize matriarchal imagery, as old women figure prominently in each composition (79). Campbell argues that as grandmother, “the ideal aging spouse, mother, and pious widow,” these women were understood to parallel St. Anne, symbolizing “generational continuity” (73–74). During a period when plague and famine caused the population of Bologna to fluctuate, this matriarchal imagery “helped people negotiate the harsh realities and social dilemmas that directly confronted the early modern family” (81). The images reassured surviving family members “that come what may, piety, kin, and lineage would ensure that the social, economic, and religious functions of the family were secure and enduring” (82; emphasis in original).

Significantly, however, while these portraits show “the symbolic power of old women as moral exemplars,” the respect afforded to them was contingent upon their compliance with “a rigid code of conduct based on chastity, codes of dress, abstinence, and fasting” (83). Campbell notes, but does not elaborate upon, the idea that “the portraits, as part of an increased interest in regulating the aging female body, provide evidence that old age was perceived as a threatening and unstable phase of female life” (83). Campbell also mentions, though unfortunately does not explore, the implications of “data from the Veneto [which] suggests that the majority of the elderly were in fact men,” not women, as is commonly believed (81).

Grounded in the scholarship on Florentine marriage profile portraits, chapter 4 examines the significance of both the clothing worn by widows in these portraits and their aging skin. Campbell argues that “in the reform-minded city of Bologna, old women become one of the most potent signs of the reformed body in a culture accustomed to invoking the suffering of others to get into heaven” (92). Campbell cites Agostino Valier, who wrote that widows wore black to signify that they were “half dead to the world” following the death of their husbands, retreating into a stage of life Cosimo Agnelli called “la sua santissima vita” (100, 116). Somber black clothing was understood to signify older widows’ “inner melancholy”; for younger widows, “the dark clothing extinguishes libido” (100). Ultimately, in an era when accumulation of wealth led to increasing materialism that conflicted with contemporary religion, “portraits of old women, as representations of the de-adorned woman, offered reassurance that the order of the household was intact and the patrimony secure” (121).

Like clothing, Campbell demonstrates that skin was understood as “an outward sign of the inward state of the soul” (115). Women of all ages faced the contradictory demands of a patriarchal society that simultaneously praised women for beauty and criticized those who took “more care to ornament their bodies than attend to the health of their souls” (116). Thus, Campbell argues effectively that skin became the site of “an ethical encounter” paralleling the portraits she examines, in which “the marks of old age, such as the wrinkles, crevices, cracks, hollows, and sags, are rebranded as the dematerialization of the material achieved by chastening and purifying the inner spirit through the pious observances and mortification that characterize the spiritual path of widows and old women” (116–17).

In her final chapter, Campbell connects the visible signs of age in these portraits with contemporary texts characterizing the aging process as a time of atonement for original sin and the suffering of old age as a cleansing of the spirit in preparation for salvation. The authors Campbell cites encouraged women to suffer—even to disappear through fasting to the point of emaciation and then death—in emulation of the suffering of Christ and the martyrs. These “sacred pain performances” were understood to model piety and virtue for younger (female) family members (143).

Similarly, Vives wrote that fasting was “one of the most important activities of widowhood,” following the teachings of the ancient Church fathers (149). Moreover, the Jesuit Fulvio Androzzi taught that a widow’s fasting should include abstention from the pleasures of all the senses, meaning that she “must fast her tongue from talking, her ears from hearing, her sense of smell, her taste for sensual things, and develop a taste for ‘foods of the soul’” (149). Campbell’s analysis in this chapter might have been enriched through further exploration of the “food scarcities and famine” she mentions as common in Bologna in the later sixteenth century (154).

Noting the “hollow, sunken cheeks and thin lips” and bodies in many Bolognese portraits of old women, Campbell convincingly ties the suffering of old age to the reforms of Paleotti and the virtue of their families and their city (143). Paradoxically, as the city’s matriarchs wasted away from the self-mortification prescribed by contemporary reformers, they achieved both temporal authority and eternal salvation.

Kimberly L. Dennis
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Rollins College