“Donna prudente, donna eccellente” an Italian folk saying which translates as “A prudent woman is a good woman.”, and one of many quotes originating in the Renaissance that encapsulates the obsession with depictions of women that is emblematic of the era.
The “Renaissance” is a French word, meaning rebirth, and is used to define a period from the 14thCentury to the 17thCentury, a time of cultural revival and renewed interest in classical antiquity. This rebirth touched multiple sectors of society, namely Literature, Philosophy, Science, Music and most importantly, for the purposes of this post, Art and Architecture. This occurred in a time of growing wealth throughout Italy, particularly in the Catholic Church, and saw more and more works of art being commissioned not only by independent patrons but by Popes throughout the centuries, thus heightening the status of artists of the age. Unsurprisingly, however, despite the profound socio-economic transformation, women encountered a negligible improvement in autonomy and independence, and were often seen as extensions of their male relations – be they fathers or husbands. More on that in a moment.
Back to the Renaissance, with its style which saw stylists and artists strive for perfection, or as close to it as is humanly possible. Artists like Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci led this movement by creating highly idealised works of awe-inspiring beauty, whilst simultaneously making use of mathematical precision.
This obsession with both stylistic and realistic perfection was most visible in the Renaissance depictions of women, among which the three most common representations of women were women of court, the Virgin Mary and mythical women.
In the most obvious case of life imitating art, women at the time were essentially expected to emulate and imitate the practically perfect representation of them seen in artworks. And as the vast majority of artists at the time were men, this therefore affected their female renditions, with their works often being a projection of their own fantasy of the female form.
Consequently, there appeared a dichotomy between the different depictions of women in art works: some were sexualised and objectified – often depicted in the nude – while others were idealised in their facial features.
Due to the growing wealth and status of many families at the time, particularity those in Florence, they were more and more inclined to commission portraits of their family members which would encapsulate said wealth and status. It was not uncommon to include all members of their family and the court, and thus the female members of the family. Women of the court fell into one of two categories: wife and mother or daughter, or potential wife. Despite this distinction, both groups of women were expected to be represented in almost the same way, though in the depictions of the wives it was important to highlight their fertility and beauty. All the same, while men were portrayed as most puissant and intellectual, women were used as symbols of wealth as they were often clothed in heavily adorned dress, emphasising the status of their family. Furthermore, it was not uncommon for women to be depicted with children or animals, by way of highlighting their maternal traits and ability to care for others. For the daughters of the court, it was essential for them to be as beautiful and desirable as possible for potential suitors, hence why their facial features were highly idealised.
The Virgin Mary
The Virgin Mary, often called the Madonna, was another popular subject for Renaissance artists arising from the fact that the majority of works commissioned at the time were done by the Vatican. The Madonna was a symbol of purity, faith and maternity – characteristics expected of women at the time. Despite being held to such a high standard, her existence is in itself paradoxical as for contemporary women, the “Immaculate Conception” was an unattainable goal set for them by patriarchs.
Lastly, we have the representation of mythical female figures, with Venus as the most popularly. As the most represented mythical goddess of love and beauty, her rendition is (unsurprisingly) often in the nude, and she is portrayed as a submissive object that is worthy of admiration and desire. This objectification of the female mythical nude represents not only innocuous male fantasy but is yet another form of patriarchal oppression in how it sets unrealistic expectations for the female spectators of who view the works.
All in all, these different representations give us an insight into the way people thought of women at the time. Unlike the modern, not all women were objectified and sexualised. Although they were merely extensions of their male relations, women of the court were able to maintain their dignity and purity in a way that mythical women were not able to. These were highly sexualised and served as fulfilment for male fantasies, as male artists chose not to portray real women in the nude in order to restrict women by suggesting that their only realistic aspiration was one of incredibly wealthy and beautiful women.