A Woman’s Place: Visualizing the Feminine Ideal in the Courts and Communes of Renaissance Italy

  • Margaret Franklin
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In fifteenth-century Italy, at a time when secular and ecclesiastical authorities saw women only as virgins, wives, and mothers, certain visual representations celebrated women’s heroism, leadership, and even military prowess. Two cycles that include donne illustri [famous women]—that by Andrea del Castagno for a politically prominent Tuscan patron, and the other by Ercole de’Roberti for Eleonora d’Este, duchess of Ferrara—depict idealized femininity in dramatically divergent ways.


Fifteenth Century Picture Plane Ruling Family Gold Ball Idealize Femininity 
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  1. 1.
    In most cases heroines depicted in Renaissance art were selected independently of the medieval literary tradition of the Neufs Preuses [Nine Worthy Women] that developed in the interest of preserving the memory of pre-Christian luminaries. For the only known cycle that did come from this tradition, see Paolo D’Ancona, “Gli Affreschi del Castello di Manta nel Saluzzese,” L’Arte 8 (1905): 94–106, 183–98.Google Scholar
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    Aristotle’s assertions that the male is “better and more divine in [his] nature than the material on which he works [the female]” and that “the woman is as it were an impotent male” led him to postulate fundamental differences in character and fueled the late medieval and Renaissance notion that the unequal distribution of familial, social, and political authority between men and women was the logical consequence of inborn differences. For Aristotle, see for example Generation of Animals, 4.1, 765b1 and 1.20, 728a1; and Politics 1.13, 1260a1 in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes, Bollingen Series 71 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 1184, 1130, and 1999. For Aristotle’s influence on thinking about women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, see for example Joan Cadden, The Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), and Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).Google Scholar
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    D’Agnolo Pandolfini, Trattato del governo della famiglia colla vita del medesimo scritta da Vespasiano da Bisticci (Milan: Società tipografica de’classici italiani, 1802).Google Scholar
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    Francesco Barbara, De re uxoria, in La letteratura italiana: storia e testi 13 (1952); for English translation, see Barbaro, De re uxoria (London: John Leigh and Thomas Burrell, 1677).Google Scholar
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    See for example Book Three of Leon Battista Alberti’s I libri della famiglia, ed. Ruggiero Romano and Alberto Tenenti (Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1969).Google Scholar
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    For several documented examples see Cecil H. Clough, “Wives and Daughters of the Montefeltro: Outstanding Bluestockings of the Quattrocento,” Renaissance Studies 10.1 (March 1966): 31–55; at pp. 39–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Portrait cycles representing both historical and contemporary luminaries enhanced facades and chambers of both public and private buildings in the fifteenth century; see for example Maria Monica Donato, “Famosi cives: testi, frammenti e cicli perduti a Firenze fra tre e quattrocento,” Ricerche di storia dell’arte 30 (1986): 27–42Google Scholar
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    For a different interpretation that links this cycle to a fourteenth-century preaching treatise, see Josephine Dunn, “Andrea del Castagno’s Famous Women: One Sibyl and Two Queens,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 58.3 (1995): 359–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    As defined by the mid-Cinquecento writer Agnolo Firenzuola, Dialogo delle bellezze delle donne in Opera scelte, ed. Giuseppe Fatini (Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1957, rpt. 1966), pp. 509–10. For a discussion of gagliardia and leggiadrìa as they relate to Renaissance portraiture, see Rona Goffen, “Lotto’s Lucretia,” Renaissance Quarterly 52.3 (autumn 1999): 742–81; see also Sharon Fermor, “Movement and Gender in Sixteenth-Century Painting,” in The Body Imaged: The Human Form and Visual Culture Since the Renaissance, ed. Kathleen Adler and Marcia Pointon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 129–45.Google Scholar
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    “… ma sopra tutto parmi che nei modi, manieré, parole, gesti e portamenti suoi, debba la donna essere molto dissimile dall’omo; perché come ad esso conviene mostrar una certa virilità soda e ferma, cosí alla donna sta ben aver una tenerezza molle e delicata … che nell’andar e stare e dir ciò che si voglia sempre la faccia parer donna, senza similitudine alcuna d’omo.” Baldesar Castiglione, Il libro del cortegiano, ed. Giulio Preti (Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1969), p. 251. For translation, see The Book of the Courtier, ed. George Bull (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 211.Google Scholar
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    For Renaissance iconography of Esther, see Cristelle L. Baskins, “Typology, Sexuality, and the Renaissance Esther,” in Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe, ed. James Grantham Turner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 31–55.Google Scholar
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    See Werner L. Gundersheimer, “Women, Learning, and Power: Eleonora of Aragon and the Court of Ferrara,” in Beyond Their Sex: Learned Women of the European Past, ed. Patricia H. Labalme (New York: New York University Press, 1980), pp. 43–65.Google Scholar
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    Jacopo Filippo Foresti da Bergamo, De plurimis claris selectisque mulieribus (Ferrara, 1497), CLXXVII.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    For this series, see Denise Allen and Luke Syson, “Ercole de’Roberti. The Renaissance in Ferrara,” in The Burlington Magazine 141 (April 1999): xxxii–xxxv; Ruth Wilkins Sullivan, “Three Ferrarese Panels on the Theme of ‘Death Rather than Dishonour’ and the Neapolitan Connection,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 57 (1994): 601–25; and Joseph Manca, The Art of Ercole de’Roberti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 133–39. For earlier attributions, see Manca, Ercole de’Roberti, pp. 132–36.Google Scholar
  16. 18.
    For an analysis of these attitudes, which represent a striking deviation from the traditional assessment of female virtue, see Pamela Benson, The Invention of the Renaissance Woman (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992).Google Scholar

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© Thelma S. Fenster and Clare A. Lees 2002

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  • Margaret Franklin

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