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Gender, women and commemorative portraiture during the Italian Renaissance

*Note: the Renaissance was a long period and its start and end are the subjects of much debate. For this article, the period in discussion is the Italian Renaissance.

The role of gender and specifically women during the Italian Renaissance, as viewed through portraiture, was severely under-researched until the late 1970s and remains a controversial topic amongst art historians. It is, however, undeniable that gender had an effect on numerous aspects of portraiture, such as the sitter’s pose, the decision of what characteristics to apply to the subject and the impression that the intended viewer was to walk away with. During the Italian Renaissance, the majority of portraiture depicting women served the purpose of using women as a tool to display wealth and lineage.

Despite the fact that commemorative portraits of men served the exact same purpose to men that portraits of women did, they were not painted through remotely the same lens. In commemorative portraiture, the woman was a tool used to showcase the man’s wealth, or to showcase a man’s fine lineage. However, portraits of men served to display the wealth and the virtues of the sitter, rather than the virtues of someone else, to the viewer. This important distinction grants us a glimpse into the world of the Italian Renaissance and outlines the differences between the way portraits of men and women were painted.

Commemorative portraiture was arguably the most common form of Renaissance portraiture women were featured in. This can be attributed to the fact that commemorative portraits depicted women as they were to be married; the only time they were to be seen, as publicity was necessary to legitimize a marriage. The rest of the time, femininity was viewed through the lens of the patriarchy, necessary for women to have, but undesirable save when it served the purpose of male pleasure. The commonality of this style of portraiture relative to other styles produces a large sample pool of work which can be observed.

To start, we can look at the role of women and femininity in the Renaissance by analyzing the positions they were made to sit in when posing for portraits. Commonly, when women were painted, a profile view was used. It was rare to have women painted looking at the viewer. Art historians disagree about why this is, but it can potentially be explained by the idea that women were painted as objects with determined value to be viewed, and not as active subjects. The woman is only as important as whatever she is painted to be wearing, or whoever she is being painted for, almost painted as an object to adorn the reputations of men rather than a living, breathing subject.

In the end, despite being vastly different in terms of power dynamics, portraits of men and women did share the commonality that they were meant to be viewed thoughtfully and analyzed. Now more than ever, we can take advantage of our growing understanding of the Renaissance period to view portraiture mindfully and keep in mind that although the art itself may be beautiful, the lives and human rights of the subjects and artists were often anything but.

By Kiran Bassi


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