Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 16, 2003
Sheryl E. Reiss and David G. Wilkins, eds. Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy Kirksville, Mo.: Truman State University Press, 2000. 364 pp.; 108 b/w ills. Paper $35.00 (0943549884)

The 1990s were an exciting period for those concerned with gender issues in Italian Renaissance art. Seemingly overnight, a group of scholars emerged determined to track down how, when, where, and why women created, commissioned, and utilized works of art. Such scholarship provided access to a world in which Renaissance women were seen to have a greater measure of the autonomy history has traditionally denied them. They became subjects, not objects, and evolved beyond the limited glance-and-gaze theory that dominated feminist scholarship of the 1980s. Moreover, the large number of symposia and conference sessions convened to examine this subject across Europe and the United States provided a particularly fruitful exchange of ideas and engendered a sense of community among scholars in the field.

The title of this volume, Beyond Isabella, reveals the intent to consider secular women patrons other than the ubiquitous Isabella d’Este. The book emerges from a session held at the 1993 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Despite the fact that ten years have passed (the editors, the authors, and the current publishers, Truman State University Press, are not to blame for the delay), almost all of the essays are still fresh and original. They are presented chronologically, ranging from fourteenth-century Fina da Carrara to late-sixteenth-century female architectural patrons in Rome. A particularly useful way to place this volume into context is to consider what themes and questions, as well as opportunities for further study, these essays offer.

In order to achieve a much-needed parity with studies of male patrons, female patronage studies must provide a more three-dimensional account of the women in question, along the lines of the model produced most recently by Dale Kent in Cosimo de’ Medici and the Florentine Renaissance: The Patron’s Oeuvre (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), in which Cosimo’s commissions are interwoven with his personal, political, and spiritual aims. The two most substantially monographic essays in the volume—Benjamin Kohl on Fina da Carrara and Sheryl Reiss on Alfonsina Orsini de Medici—offer templates for such an approach.

Fina, the first well-known late medieval patroness, has been cited and studied previously by several scholars. Kohl, however, gives greater flesh to Fina by considering her within the context of her entire life, first as wife and then as mother to a family of five. Consequently, her emergence in widowhood as patroness appears as a logical part of her life cycle, underscored by the nature of her commission. Giusto de Menabuoni produced, under her direction, a fresco cycle at the Paduan baptistery. Taking cues from the nearby Scrovegni Chapel, Fina and her family are incorporated among the depictions of the life of Christ and the saints. Fina, however, went one step beyond Giotto’s patrons by turning the baptistery into her own burial chamber.

Reiss’s Alfonsina is a refreshing antiheroine of the Renaissance. By all accounts, Alfonsina was greedy and grasping. Her goal was to provide herself with the most politically advantageous and commodious accommodation within the Medici court in Florence and Rome. When her brother-in-law, Pope Leo X, planned to turn the Piazza Navona into Medici terrain, she began systematically to acquire property within the district, creating what is now the Palazzo Medici Lante, replete with a fine collection of ancient statues. Reiss argues convincingly that Alfonsina consciously appropriated male patterns of patronage. Significantly, it was only after the death of her son Lorenzo, when her own power waned, that Alfonsina engaged in one of the more traditional acts of female patronage, the commissioning of an altarpiece.

Another way to consider women as patrons is within the context of their husbands’ activities, as do Molly Bourne and Bruce Edelstein. Bourne goes beyond Isabella in the sense that she considers the Gonzaga Marquesa alongside her husband Francesco, and in doing so provides some surprising conclusions. She sees Isabella and Francesco as collaborating, in some way, in their domestic settings. Francesco, from Isabella’s perspective, modeled his private apartments at the Palazzo di San Sebastiano on those she famously created at the Castello di San Giorgio. But Bourne puts Isabella in her place by comparing her commissions to those of her less well-studied husband. She finds that Isabella’s activities were largely confined to the traditional private sphere, while those of Francesco, expansively public, included palaces and villas. In his essay, Edelstein looks at the way that the painter Agnolo Bronzino was used by both Eleonora di Toledo and Cosimo I to support their dynastic and diplomatic ambitions, in separate artistic endeavors but with a common goal. In contrast to Bourne’s Isabella, Edelstein’s Eleonora can be seen to be playing a broader political role than has been previously credited to her.

The concept of an artist linking patrons is also found in Mary Vaccaro’s essay on Parmigianino. She considers the two widows who commissioned his two best-known altarpieces, the Madonna of Saint Jerome and the Madonna of the Long Neck, and how the iconography of these paintings reflected the intentions of their patronesses. Alessandro Allori was another artist to whom female patrons were attracted. One of these, Anna di Michele Videmon, the German mistress and later wife of a Florentine merchant, is the subject of Elizabeth Pilliod’s essay. Significantly, given Anna’s dubious sexual past, the altarpiece Allori painted for her in her husband’s chapel at Sto. Spirito was a Christ and the Adulteress. A question to be explored in the future, regarding clientilismo, might be which attributes of certain painters made them appealing to women: Was it fashion, price, accessibility, pictorial style, or personal qualities that made them attractive?

It was not so long ago that confident assertions were made regarding Renaissance women’s lack of participation in secular architectural commissions. While few women had access to the substantial sums of money required to erect buildings, it is evident from this volume that this was not an art form prohibited to the female patron. Lawrence Jenkens highlights the case of Caterina Piccolomini, the sister of Pope Pius II, who built the so-called Palazzo delle Papesse in Siena in the late fifteenth century, using papal funds. Jenkens considers Caterina’s palace as a residence designed to consolidate the Piccolomini presence in Siena. Of particular interest, however, is the document he cites proving that the palace was indeed Caterina’s commission, for which her intent was to build a house “at great expense to honor this magnificent city” (79). In other words, Caterina is promoted as having a personal relationship with Siena as a civic center. This document thus becomes enormously important for ascertaining the role of women in fashioning Renaissance urban fabric, taking them beyond the traditional familial sphere.

Some of the essays provide a glimpse of women not normally considered as female patrons. Rosi Prieto Gilday has extracted the names of female purchasers from Neri de Bicci’s Ricordanze. Of particular interest from this list of ten are three who came from the artisan class, indicating an unexplored current of cultural and religious life among more ordinary women in Renaissance Florence. Katherine McIver’s essay takes us to the provincial courts of Emilia Romagna. One of the author’s two patrons—Veronica Gambara at Correggio—is well known, though still deserving of a book-length study of her own. The other, Silvia Sanvialte at Scandiano, is less so, but closer examination of the dynastic familial network of female patrons of which Silvia was part, in particular the ties among her maternal family, the Pallavicini, would be worthwhile.

A few contributions suffer from the anachronisms that a fast-moving discipline can produce. Roger Crum argues for an extension of the definition of female patronage to include the purchase of household goods, even when husbands controlled the purse strings. Such an understanding of female consumption, accurate in itself, is now firmly embedded within the study of Renaissance material culture, now evolving as rapidly as patronage studies did a decade ago. (Here one might look specifically to work by Evelyn Welch and the Material Renaissance group at Sussex University.) Other essays present somewhat ephemeral arguments for cases of patronage, perhaps worthy as tentative proposals when the study of female patronage was just beginning, but which have now been superseded by so many more concrete examples. Marjorie Och gives a plausible reading of correspondence among Titian, Federigo Gonzaga, Gonzaga’s Venetian agent, and Vittoria Colonna to determine that Colonna was the initiator of the commission of a Titian Magdalene, rather than the passive recipient of a gift. However, her speculation that the Magdalene in question is the Pitti Magdalene, the most sensual of all those by Titian—on the grounds that Colonna may have given it to Eleonora della Rovere to console her on the death of her husband Francesco Maria—is, at best, flimsy. Gabrielle Langdon’s account of the tragic life of Dianora de’Medici is absorbing in itself. Nevertheless, her proposal that the teenaged Dianora supervised the commissioning of a miniature portrait of herself with an allegory of Juno on the reverse as a nuptial gift to her unstable future husband and murderer, Pietro de’Medici, is without foundation. While portraits of brides-to-be were not uncommon in a young woman’s corredo, they would have been commissioned by her parents or guardian, not by the brides themselves. Langdon does suggest that Dianora’s guardian and father-in-law, Cosimo I, was the instigator of the miniature’s complex Junoesque iconography; it seems reasonable to assume he had more than a casual hand in the painting’s commission too.

It is fitting that this collection of essays should end with one by Carolyn Valone. This author, who coined the term matron-patron, is worthy of the title herself. Her essays on late cinquecento Roman noblewomen have been the benchmark for the study of female patronage. Valone always asks probing and provocative questions about these meticulously documented Roman matrons, deftly inserting them into the fabric of the city they helped to fashion. Her essay here presents an impressive array of women, many of whom were unafraid to defy masculine authority. Vittoria della Tolfa shifted the funds her husband had left for his burial chapel to pay for a convent for Franciscan nuns. Isabella della Rovere gave the Jesuit order 90,000 scudi from the sale of her jewels for a novitiate on the Quirinal Hill while her husband was imprisoned in Naples for his own debts. Caterina de’Nobili Sforza flouted papal ordinance by sponsoring the Foglianti, an extreme order of Cistercians, whom Pope Clement VIII had wished to disband.

In conclusion, the variety of essays presented in Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy makes it a valuable tool in seminars on early modern women and visual culture, which are now very popular with both graduates and undergraduates. At the same time, it provides a great deal of new information, of particular worth to those who can remember when the study of Renaissance women patrons was still in its infancy.

Caroline P. Murphy
University of California, Riverside

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