Tracing Female Patronage Through The Italian Renaissance

Female Patronage and its Importance

The word Patron is derived from the Latin word patronus which means protector of dependents, this essentially is derived from pater, ie; father. The term patronage is thus a gendered terminology and female patrons have been limited to the confines of the patriarchal realm while pursuing their patronage throughout the ancient and medieval world. Much like female artists of the renaissance, women patrons too, have been given little to no endorsement by the archivists of yesteryear. The tale of female patronage is still largely uncharted and this essay will hope to explore and ignite a spark of interest in the reader as we foray into the depths of this subject.

At a time when the rebirth of classical ideals of beauty flourished, so too did the fervor with which art was being produced. In the time of the renaissance, it is important to note that unlike contemporary times, great importance was given to those who commissioned the work rather than just the artist who crafted, sculpted and painted the work into existence. In fact, after the publication of Georgio Vasari's Lives of Artists published in 1550, the inextricable importance placed on the patronage of art became integral to the understanding of renaissance art in its full context. After the devastation of The Great Plague in 1348 that wiped out millions across Europe, Italian cities saw an influx of migrants from the countryside. To accommodate this shift, craftsmen guilds, wealthy merchants and religious orders saw it as a part of their civic duty and as a part of the ruling urban elite, to commission and pay for churches, paintings, frescos, sculptures and luxury goods. In this way, the fervor with which art was commissioned gave artists, previously only seen as craft workers, opportunity and hope, eventually propelling their artisanal value to new heights of prosperity. The 'value of the individual' later emerged to become a major canon of the renaissance and the social mechanism of patronage can be seen as the proponent of this phenomenon.

It is easy to see then, why female patrons who commissioned works in their name or under the guise of religion were not given their due worth. In the high stakes world of the renaissance elite, enlightened women who worked towards the noble pursuit of fulfilling their civic purpose through engaging artists to actualize their visions, they were a rarity. The reason being, not many women had the financial resources required to erect buildings and commission work by the masters. As was customary at the time, a woman's time was best occupied as a mother or wife, not as a commissioner of art. On the contrary however, the era is littered with women who defied the odds and amassed such noteworthy collections they rivaled the biggest male patrons of the time. Due to the vast amount of money required to become an art commissioner, most of these women are high-born from elite families or representatives of religious institutions. Despite this, the stories behind their commissions and the iconic works they ordered are diverse.

This essay will go on to highlight such women and the work they commissioned, the social phenomenon that drove them to patronize the work that they did and to provide a broader understanding of the motives of these females who became integral to the renaissance. Broadly, renaissance patrons can be broken down into wide categories; private patrons, civic agencies, and corporate entities, although these categories all tend to overlap. While the motives behind these women's choices are nuanced and can't always be neatly categorically defined to one marker, for the sake of clarity, this essay will be structured in a way that splits female patronage into two fundamental pillars, secular and non-secular. While it could be argued that drawing such a hard-line segregation between these two sides of patronage is reductive and lacks the nuances afforded to analyses of male patrons, this is purely for structural purposes. I hope to show the variegated lives these women led which empowered their choices in the type of art and architecture they patronized.

The Pursuits of Non-Secular Female Patronage

Unlike the art of today, renaissance artists did not create art for the sake of it, rather, patrons seeking salvation siphoned large sums of money into the liturgical infrastructure of religious institutions. Erecting churches, cathedrals, monuments dedicated to the saints and at times art with religious iconography, patrons dedicated their wealth to the noble pursuits of fulfilling their civic duty as Christians. In accordance with those Christian ideals, gendered terms and ordinances put forth by the Catholic Church maintained that women were denied of resources or money with which they could pursue artistic pursuits. At times, widowhood afforded some luxuries. Thus renaissance patronage cannot be looked at without an understanding of gendered based models of the time.

Within the confines of this Christian model, a vast majority of women were thus limited to the positions of pious wife and widow, guardian, court lady, nun, and ruler. While other avenues of patronage looked closed off for many pious women of the time, religious patronage gave them access and often the typical Italian non royal female patron was a widow who ordered an altarpiece for a family chapel. The alter pieces usually included the Virgin Mary and saints who held significance with the deceased person or their family lineage. Many women sought out the services of the greats like Raphael who when not busy with the commissions from the Vatican, produced great iconic works commissioned by women patrons, especially at the beginning of his career. Some of the more notable pieces of his which were a result of female patrons are Colonna Altarpiece housed in New York at the Met Museum, The Entombment in Rome at the Galleria Borghese, and The St. Cecilia in Bologna at Pinacoteca.

Wealthy women who held some form of financial control over their families’ sums often supported religious institutions, there are many examples of women contributing funding for the building of convents and monasteries. Similarly, many of these high class women donated heavily to reformative religious orders as a form of resistance to the Roman Churches harsh control over female participation, in particular to the Church disallowing women from priesthood. Among these, Isabella della Rovere gave 90,000 scudi from the sale of her jewels to the Jesuit order while her husband was imprisoned in Naples for his own debts. Scholars state that these woman sought out reformation groups because of their focus on charity which allowed the women to have a seat at the table due to their affluence and generous donations.

In the particular case of Flaminia Margani Mattei from the 16th century in Rome whose family did not appreciate her generosity and claims to the family fortune after her husband's death, her religious patronage served her social security. Being childless and bearing no heirs, her husband's family sought out the power of the laws of the land in order to keep the wealth in the family and remove Flaminia's influence. Flaminia in turn, donated generously to the Franciscans in order to seek the favor of the court and bolster her character before it. Art historians have discovered documents detailing the fervor with which the monks drafted the necessary paperwork that ensured Flaminia's victory in the battle against her in-laws. It is unfortunate however, that despite the court rulings, She was later killed by a hired assassin at the order of the Matteis.

As is illustrated by these examples, the women who patronized in the name of religion did so for a plethora of reasons, to regain social standing, for salvation, to fight against the hold of the church or simply to gain favorable returns in the eyes of society.

The Patronage of Nuns

The honor based system of the renaissance did not allow space for women outside the bounds of marriage and at times, the burden of dowry put upon the family as a result of having a female child meant that many women were sent to live in convents. Even in wealthy household with multiple daughters it was common practice to send some of the houses women to live at convents regardless of a religious calling. Naturally, as an assurance of their cooperation, these women often expected a certain measure of autonomy after upholding their family’s financial scheme. It is estimated that from half to three quarters of Milanese women were held up in convents at one point. These numbers show that the convents were often complex systems that mimicked the power structures of the outside, with elite women in charge of management and other women relegated to basic tasks.

These institutions regularly commissioned work from artists with which they held ties. Their commissions took the form of artwork to adorn churches, to choir-stalls for the community to art with which to adorn their convents. Let's take a look at female patronage as carried out by nuns and religiously motivated patrons of artworks. The advent of Christianity brought with it, an increased participation from women, this patronage by women, was often for the fulfillment of religious purposes and was although at times carried out by regular mothers, wives and women of affluent households, nuns are perhaps the most prolific of them all when it comes to non-secular female patronage. Nuns ultimately became some of the most important patrons of the art and architecture produced at the time of the renaissance.

Exploring the roles of nuns in the Italian and northern European renaissance shows us that these religious figures were some of the most important patrons of sacred art at the heart of the Italian renaissance all the way until the 16th century. Considered some of the most famous nun-patrons, the Franciscan nuns of Sant’Antonio of Padua in Perugia commissioned Raphael to paint the altarpiece Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints (c.1504) held now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is interesting to note that Vasari explains that Raphael, in this piece, painted the infant Jesus fully dressed in order to appease the nuns’ religious sensibilities. His adherence to the gendered reception of the nuns directly affects the outcome of a truly iconic piece of art, proving once again, the powerful position the patron had of shaping renaissance art.

The Pursuits of Secular Female Patronage

Across the annals of history, the patronage of art can be seen a conduit for women's agency and expression. However, access to this world of high art and patronage was based off of socially inequitable systems so the game has always been one played by the elites, men and women alike. Women in the renaissance, lacking autonomous means unless afforded financial control through widowhood or social standing through nunhood, were until recently regarded as objects to be studied. Recent shifts however, have shown historians coming together to unearth the untapped study of renaissance women as autonomous subjects worthy researching in their own right.

Individual women patrons outside of religious orders and those following the model of the devout Christian women have given scholarship to the role of the women as cultural agents at the time of the renaissance. Among these studies roles are the place of women as guardians. Entrusted with the responsibility of domestic pursuits, art historians have now rallied for the inclusion of the buying of household wares and goods to be included in the realm of female patronage. Charged with building a familiar identity based off of the embodiment of a 'good wife' who conserves funds rather than spends, the Renaissance woman befell an economic burden which translated into creative constraints. However, crafty women took to see these limitations as an opportunity to experiment. Women like Anna Sforza, who married the Duke of Ferrara in 1491 had her wedding silverware melted down to craft objects of her own desire. Often employing thrifty means to 'redecorate' and 'freshen up' their family residences, women became masters at ordering repairs to properties neglected by their husbands. This sort of commissioning required good taste on behalf of the women patrons and it fell on them to choose artists and craftsmen whose work would endure.

The Patronage of Isabella d’Este

Dubbed Prima donna del mondo (foremost woman of the world), Isabella d'Este is considered to be perhaps one of the most prolific female patron of the Italian renaissance. The work and contribution of Isabella d'Este is well documented through letters and inventories detailing her patronage and she continues to be a point of interest to researchers and historians intent on learning about secular female patronage in renaissance women. A highly educated woman, she was a leading woman of the Italian renaissance, a fashion icon, an art collector and a demanding patron of the arts. Commissioning some of the greatest talents the era had to offer, including Leonardo Da Vinci, Isabella remains an exemplary icon of female patronage. She collected art and commissioned some of the best painters of the time to fulfill her never-ending desire for amassing it.

Isabella was among one of the very few women to have a Studioli, a dedicated personalized space where patrons kept their prized possessions. As was customary among the elite women in Europe during the renaissance, Isabella too commissioned artwork of kin and kith to show familiar ties with two strong households in order to cement ties and in order to uphold her social standing. Not only did her great collection of antiquities rival those of noteworthy male patrons, she commissioned many allegorical works and often times self-portraits for her private residences. The philosophical figures she was privy to through her humanist education were often rendered in intelligent allegories within the paintings and self-portraits she ordered. Her education allowed her to be placed in History as a woman who inspired rather than acted and she used her patronage as an act of resistance.


Ultimately, we can see that there has been a long established tradition of female patronage particularly in the quoted examples of the notable female patrons existing and commissioning work through the Italian Renaissance. Whether through individual pursuits or through monastic conventions, women have incontrovertibly been involved in the history and tradition of patronage. The role of female patrons in the Renaissance in particular, was as varied as the myriad of women involved in the practice: carrying motivations to collect and/or restore, overarching sensibilities of a secular or non-secular persuasion, they leave an indelible imprint in the history of patronage. However, their place and contributions in the historical backdrop of the modern world are often sidelined or misconstrued through the eyes of historians, and this apparent erasure can be seen to reveal certain misogynistic tendencies in our historiographies. It is thus essential for the work of female patrons to be remembered and restored to its rightful place and it is this purpose that this essay dedicates itself to.

16 December 2021
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