Topic Essay

"Representation of Women in Renaissance Art"



In studying the history of Renaissance Florence one inevitably encounters the story of great men involved in all areas of society and culture: politics, art, science, religion. Noticeably absent in the story are women. A woman of the Renaissance was not offered the same educational opportunities and literacy was a luxury available to a selected few. Cloistered nuns for example were educated through their devotion to scripture. Aristocratic women were educated and taught to read and write to facilitate communication. Most often you meet women as the mothers or wives of these great men and thus the narrative of the Renaissance woman is told from the viewpoint of their male counterparts. Yet we do encounter women in many of Italy’s masterpieces. While women were often the subject of Renaissance art this representation was strongly influenced by the artist’s cultural context as well as the patron who commissioned the piece, therefore providing a story told from an outside perspective and most often conveying a particular message.

With this general understanding of women in Renaissance Italy, I was interested in discovering the hidden meaning of the image painted by the Renaissance artist. From face value a viewer assumes that paintings are a window to the past, and image of reality. Leon Battista Alberti, expressed otherwise: “the painter is concerned solely with representing what can be seen” (Trans. J.R. Spencer, 43). The artist most often had a set of ideals to portray in their work, ideals that were not limited by subject matter. We uncovered this in the course by learning about artists, their commissioners and the political agendas carried by commissioners. The artist was asked to express an idea and they in turn manipulated and idealized society and culture, to convey the messages. This concept was not limited to any particular subject matter; the images of women fell under the same guidelines and therefore cannot be assumed to be a direct representation of women’s reality or even what the painter saw at the sitting. The paintings of women “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” (Tinagli, 2).

In developing the exhibit I scouted collections of paintings that detailed these different portrayals of women. While walking through the endless corridors of museums as well as studying the cities numerous cathedrals I chose the images that stood out to me. In unifying the women it was essential to understand the roles of the painting types. Portraits for instance were paintings of women who existed, often with written history attached to them, but their portrait still applied to the representation of ideals of beauty, behavior, and display (4). Through research it was interesting to learn of a shift in portrait style – from profile to pose. This allowed for a wider message to the viewer. For example through the shift there was a more detailed representation of clothing and jewelry, which was a “significant means through which women made their position visible to the eyes of society” (5). These images of women that fill the Florentine museums serve as examples of the Renaissance ideals of beauty which collectors and commissioners desired to own and express – giving us an understanding to the image women should have upheld at the time.

While thinking of the representation of Renaissance ideals in art I considered the depiction of the nude figure – the figure, I thought, was simply a representation of ideal physical beauty because it did not visibly portrayed ideals of wealth and social status: it is void of precious textiles and jewels. This left me to wonder if the nude’s purpose was simply an expression of that, the physical beauty of women. While uncovering information it seems that a contemporary understanding of the nude painting is quite complex. Contemporary research shows that these images were openly recognized to arouse sexual feelings, in both men and women and that beyond that they “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 coulours of the painting” (5). For Ludovico Dolce, in his letter to Alessandro Contarini in 1559, he explains that the “seriousness of intent” in painting the nude is in the skill of the artist and the awareness of it by the viewer. That all the painter’s artistic skills are used to produce images which then move and inspire the viewer (Roskill, 212). Making the meaning/message of the painting individual to the viewer – male or female.

Lastly, it is difficult to have a discussion of women in Renaissance painting without mentioning religion. Religion played a major role in the lives of people, and therefore quite difficult to separate from the secular (Tinagali, 6). Religious iconography was a means of helping society in their devotion and prayer. Many of these painting were of feminine figures and studies have suggested that the female presence played an influential role in the ‘interior’ lives of both men and women. For women, female saints offered examples of womanly virtues and dedication to scripture and may have inspired women to the possibility of self-realizations, an opportunity unavailable in secular life (Kristeva, 101).


Works Citied:

Alberti, Leon Battista, trans. J.R. Spencer. On Paintings. 1956. Reprint. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1966. 43. Print.

Dolce, Lodovico, and Mark W. Roskill. Dolce's "Aretino" and Venetian art theory of the Cinquecento. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. 212. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. "Stabat Mater." The Female Body in Western Culture. Contemporary Perspectives. S. Rubin Suleiman ed. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1986. 101. Print.

Tinagli, Paola. Women in Italian Renaissance Art: gender, representation, and identity. Manchester, UK and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997. Print.




Portrait of Battista Sforza



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