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The Portrayal of Women in Italian Renaissance Art

The proliferation of art during the Italian Renaissance resulted from a burgeoning appreciation for culture during rebirth, societal development, and intellectual growth. It embodied the humanism philosophy, which strove to resurrect and emulate the beauty of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. In a new age of art forms and techniques, painting remained the primary medium artists used to reflect the societal values and ideals of the time. Many political, social, and religious practices of the Middle Ages carried into the Renaissance era, particularly among women, who remained an asset and the property of their fathers or husbands (Diefendorf, 1987).

While women remained limited in social positions, they were in large part the subject of the art that came to define and symbolize societal principles. Despite not accurate portrayals of the norms and realities, paintings of women embodied the idealized notion of beauty through the enhancement of physical attributes and behaviors seen in portraiture and mythological art. Artists of the time thought creating visual forms of female beauty through eroticism and nudity was the most genuine way to capture the natural world and demonstrate skill. Though the humanist form conflicted with the values of the Church, religion was still engrained in everyday life as a source of guidance and political leadership in Renaissance Italy. With the idea of inspiring spiritual perfection, religious paintings served as a source of strength and a dignified model of feminine virtue, representing the idolized woman as chaste and submissive (Verdon, 1990). The female body was considered the mirror of the soul, encapsulating the perfect beauty, whether exploring the new humanist ideology or applying the techniques of realism to the art of the Church. Commissioned art illuminates a particular set of social and idealized beauty archetypes in women, shared by the artist and patron alike.

The female depiction in art aims to inspire women to take their expected societal role, and evoke an emotional connection through the representation of the ideal woman, using portraiture, nudity, and religion to set the standards of perceived beauty as constructed by the Italian Renaissance culture.

Portraits painted during the fifteenth century in Italy illustrated the social role and status of the women they portrayed. The women in these portraits are perceived as virtuous, beautiful, and decorative, and redefine the traits of ideal feminine beauty through the significance of their wealth and family (Hughes, 2002). Elite women of the time were celebrated through portraiture with the interest of their roles as mothers becoming increasingly linked to lineage. Their contribution to society was perceived through the lens of their family name and preservation of it, whether forged or by birthright, and through the production of male heirs (Chojnacki, 2000). Those immortalized by art were considered the culmination of the perfect woman, following new codes and roles expected by the changing structure of Renaissance culture (Tinagli, 1997). This was one of the limited means by which women could display their status, especially in formal or public fashion, as they could not participate in the city's political or social life. Their achievement of beauty and preservation of family name was recognized as the highest nobility for a woman. It was thought to inspire other women to achieve the same ideals of feminine beauty. (Simons, 2018). Though social status plays a part in the idolization of the portrait, the physical attributes depicted share a narrative of the beauty standards placed upon women among all classes.

Figure 1: Portrait of a Lady (Botticelli, 1478-90).

The traits of ideal beauty considered fashionable during the fifteenth century were shaped and developed to be represented in a profile portrait. As Renaissance culture was a display culture, respect and influence were gained through the visibility of female perfection within the paintings, which illustrated nobility and, therefore, virtue (Killerby, 2002). This idolization was typically represented through the elegance of the sitter and her clothes: the artist highlights the ornamentation and jewelry, the complexities of the head-dress, and paints the hair pulled back from the face to emphasize the woman's profile. Embroidery into her clothes is often a symbol to reflect the lineage to which she belongs, and the richness of the clothes and jewels speak for her social standing and wealth (Tingali, 1997). Moreover, painters began fabricating aspirational bodies, focusing on the physical standards to be met. (Rogers, 1986). Women were drawn to have slender figures and hair pulled back to reveal a high, round forehead with plucked eyebrows to enhance a defined jaw and cheekbone structure (Coonin, 2009). Attributes include textured hair that lusters of gold, cheeks like lilies or roses, eyes like the sun and stars, lips of ruby, teeth of pearls, breasts like apples, and white skin likened to show, marble, or alabaster (Rogers, 1986). Ultimately, the conventional aspects of the profile pose were a reflection of a constructed behavior considered to be virtuous conduct. Rather than the existence of an individual, the physical characteristics emulate the ideal beautiful woman that is collectively perceived by Renaissance culture. In the late fifteenth century, portraiture, like many art forms, began adapting to new techniques and humanistic philosophy, causing a change about the woman's function in art, as inspired by mythology and the classics.

A portrait illustrated the public face of a woman’s identity, but the development of Humanism continued to mold the principles of the beauty depicted in the woman. Though the portraits continued to represent the fabricated woman rather than actual individuals in appearance or presentation, the new age changed the representation of women in Renaissance art. To evoke an emotional response, the profile portrait “was abandoned in favor of the three-quarter pose, which gave prominence to the direction of the gaze, while the introduction of the oil medium allowed artists to explore light effects and the different textures of skin, hair, and fabrics” (Tinagli, 1997). While a woman’s gaze never met the eyes of the viewer, the artist forged an emotional connection through the beauty and representation of the natural world. Art continued to capture the ideal woman regarding her beauty and lineage, although the depiction of classical thought in paintings began to explore the shape of the woman’s body, nudity, and mythology.

From the early sixteenth century, images of nude women, generally in mythological narratives, existed in public domains like bathhouses, gathering spaces, and many private apartments belonging to wealthy patrons, aristocrats, and cardinals (Tinagli 1997).

As art took over the walls and ceilings of Renaissance architecture, beauty remained a culmination of male interpretation of desired physical traits and characteristics. In a letter to his friend Baldassare Castiglione, artist Raphael once professed that “in order to paint a beautiful woman, I would have to see several beautiful women…but because there are so few…I make use of a certain idea which comes to mind” (Haughton, 2004). For this reason, many Italian Renaissance artists use the same features when painting women, fabricating and reproducing a selection of characteristics valued by Italian society, constructing the divine woman. As the philosophy of Humanism was based on the revival of ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance artist would aim to emulate the beauty and eroticism of classical art. In discussing the significance of a painting, the visual evidence of nude women in Renaissance canvas is often ambiguous and can take on several interpretations.

Figure 2: Danae (Titian, 1549-50).

The depiction of sensuality was an artist's way of achieving the appearance of the natural world, and the constructed ideal of the woman's body provided an ambitious means of doing so. Oil paints imitated the softness and texture of the skin and hair, while depth and shadows of physical traits, delicate fabrics, and decorative elements brought a sense of realism. The illustrated body of a naked woman was thought to be the most accurate display of humanism and the natural form, with different surfaces reflecting light and inviting a sense of perspective (Padoan, 1978). Venus, the goddess of love, was portrayed by many artists throughout the Renaissance. Taking many forms, the goddess embodied the beauty of the natural world while maintaining the characteristics of the ideal beautiful woman.

Reflecting on one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance Titian, Ludovico Dolce published in his Dialogo della Pittura that the best way a painter can demonstrate his ability to improve on nature is to imitate the body of a naked woman. According to Dolce, Titian’s “skill and the viewer's pleasure depend on well-proportioned, graceful, slightly animated, and pleasingly colored figures. Each figure painted by Titian is alive; it moves, and its flesh trembles" (Barocchi, 1960). The women that Titian illustrated were not based on an actual individual but were instead the personification of beauty as he perceived it. In his reality, there would not have been a contemporary woman who encompassed such alabaster skin with perfectly symmetrical features. Ultimately, the eroticism of nudity is a means by which an artist can reveal to the viewer the essence of his art as an authentic portrayal of the ideal standards of beauty, as opposed to the notions of its sexuality as perceived in modern interpretations.

In 1514, Titian painted Sacred and Profane, Love, depicting two women, one in a white dress and one nude, leaning on a Roman fountain. A winged baby stares into the water and splashes his hand between them. The rich clothing of the woman on the left is recognized as bridal attire, and the myrtle she wears is representative of her wedding and an ode to Venus (Wethey, 1975). One interpretation suggests the women represent the two aspects of Venus; the Celestial Venus of platonic love and the Terrestrial Venus of sensual love, who is naked to depict the purity of spirituality. In the painting, "Celestial Love carries a flaming vase because it is more passionate, while Sensual Love wears a rich and ornate gown" (Tinagli, 1997). Other historians believe the painting is about a marriage, portraying the ideal archetype of a bride whom a naked Venus accompanies. Myrtle, an accessory in the bride's hair, is a plant sacred to the goddess of love and long associated with the marriage ceremony. Also carved into the relief on the water fountain is a coat of arms belonging to Niccolo Aurelio, who commissioned this piece for his wedding to Laura Bagarotta in the same year, affirming its symbolisms of marriage (Wethey, 1975). The virtue of marriage remained inextricably bound to notions of beauty, as both women in Sacred and Profane Love embody the physical traits of the ideal woman as represented in portraiture. They have high, domed foreheads, pale skin, thin eyebrows, and full red lips. The perfect proportioning and ideal features achieve both the contemporary physical attributes and the philosophical standards of beauty demanded by scholars and elites encircling Titian (Haughton, 2004). The nudity of Venus symbolized the chastity of women, bringing into the light once again the romanticized nature of their role within a marriage, one of virtue, femininity, and desirability. The sensuality and details attributed to marriage and motherhood were a way to encourage women to fit the societal morality of Renaissance Italy. This theme of marriage became prevalent in the artwork commissioned for the Church, typically in paintings that depict the Virgin Mary. Despite the ecclesiastical leaders' rejection of nudity, significant works of art were created to display images of the idealized portrayal of motherhood (Hope, 1990). Religion remained a pillar of life in the sixteenth century, using art to further illuminate the role of women as virtuous wives and mothers.

Figure 3: Sacred and Profane Love (Titian, 1514).

Religion remained tightly enmeshed throughout all aspects of life from the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century. Although the Renaissance saw the beginning of secular autonomy, religious paintings were found in churches, government buildings, and street corners, remaining a source of strength and power, mainly through the Virgin Mary. In the private homes of people from all levels of society were paintings and prints of varying quality available for private devotion (Tinagli, 1997). Usually shown sitting on a throne holding the Child and encompassed by saints, the Virgin Mary was considered a communication channel between humanity and God (Lavin et al., 1990). Through visualization and identification, these images encouraged devotion and prayer, guiding women, particularly young and impressionable children, to fulfill their role in beauty and motherhood. The emphasis of so many devotional images illuminates the praise of virginity based on a long tradition found in Christian writing but channels the expectations of society and its preoccupation with family and lineage (Honée, 1994). The well-being of society depended on marriage, and the individual interest of the woman should succumb to that of their husband.

The Virgin Mary's emotion evokes also parallels that of the beauty seen in portraiture and mythological paintings; she is the pillar of the duality of the ideal woman as physically attractive and spiritually devout (Hope, 1990).

In Fra Filippo Lippi’s Madonna with Child and Two Angels, The Virgin Mary is portrayed with the tender charms of the ideal Renaissance woman (Craven, 1972). Her gaze towards her son is gentle and adorned with the fabrics of a noblewoman, in blue to symbolize her purity and virginity. Ultimately, as the culture of the Renaissance changed, religious works adopted new techniques that allowed for depth, naturalism, and realism. Those ideals of femininity were illustrated through a rich juxtaposition of values and morals from the late fifteenth century and were reestablished through these omnipresent religious images.

Figure 4: Madonna with Child and Two Angels (Lippi, 1460-1465).

The art of the Italian Renaissance remains unrivaled, providing great insight into the roles and everyday lives of the people who lived it. Art was a means to commemorate the women that were considered the embodiment of physical beauty and virtue, as social status is only preserved through male heirs. The women who were thought to meet the standard of beauty were commissioned a portrait and immortalized, bringing to light the limited means by which women could participate in society. The female essence in art conveyed ideal traits of beauty that center around the notions of physical characteristics, nobility, and the ways by which they abide by societal ideology through their roles as mothers.

Through the development of Humanism and art techniques, paintings continued to represent the ideals and values shared by artists and patrons, both aesthetic and social. Through the use of depicted nobility, nudity, and mythology, the Renaissance artist would seek to emulate the beauty and eroticism of classical art and demonstrate skill. Thus, the use of nudity was not necessarily perceived as erotic in the commonplace of the time but as a way to capture nature in its most accurate form. Art in the form of religion followed suit, evoking the emotion of mythological work and exemplifying the duality of women as beautiful while remaining pure and spiritually devout. The need to give visual form to female beauty does not ignore the importance of religion in people's lives throughout society but instead provides a way to develop emotional bonds. For the viewer, “an effigy of the Virgin offers consolation in moments of despair, while nude in the bedroom answers the hopes for a strong and beautiful progeny” (Tinagli, 1997). Ideals of femininity in Italian Renaissance Art represent a collective ideology of ideal values, morals, and physical allure that are illustrated through painting and illuminate the standard of beauty fabricated and placed upon the women of the Italian Renaissance.

Bibliographical References

Chojnacki, S. (2000). Women and men in Renaissance Venice: twelve essays on patrician society. JHU Press.

Coonin, A. V. (2009). The Most Elusive Woman in Renaissance Art: A Portrait of Marietta Strozzi. Artibus et Historiae, 41-64.

Craven, T. (1972). The rainbow book of art. World Publishing Company.

Diefendorf, B. B. (1987). Family Culture, Renaissance Culture. Renaissance Quarterly, 40 (4), 661– 681.

Haughton, N. (2004). Perceptions of beauty in Renaissance art. Journal of cosmetic dermatology, 3 (4), 229-233.

Honée, E. (1994). Image and imagination in the medieval culture of prayer: a historical perspective. The art of devotion in the late Middle Ages in Europe, 1300-1500.

Hope, C. (1990). Altarpieces and the Requirements of Patrons. Christianity and the Renaissance: image and religious imagination in the Quattrocento, 535-571.

Kovesi Killerby, C. (2002). Sumptuary law in Italy 1200-1500.

Lavin, M. A. (1992). Peter Humfrey and Martin Kemp, eds. The Altarpiece in the Renaissance. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 1 color pi.+ 140 figs.+ xiv + 273 pp. Renaissance Quarterly, 45 (3), 557-559.

Padoan, G. (1978). Ut pictura poesis: le pitture di Ariosto, le poesie di Tiziano in Momenti del Rinascimento vento. Medioevo e Umanesimo Padova, (31), 347-370.

Rogers, M. (1986). Sonnets on female portraits from Renaissance North Italy. Word & Image, 2 (4), 291-305.

Simons, P. (2018). Women in Frames: the Gaze, the Eye, the Profile in Renaissance Portraiture. N. Broude, & M. D. Garrard (Eds.), The Expanding Discourse (pp. 38-57). Routledge.

Tinagli, P. (1997). Women in Italian renaissance art: gender, representation and identity. Manchester University Press.

​​Verdon, T. (1990). Christianity, the Renaissance, and the Study of History: Environments of. Experience and Imagination. Christianity and the Renaissance: Image and Religious Imagination in the Quattrocento, 1-37.

​​Wethey, H. (1969). The Paintings of Titian III: The Mythological and Historical Paintings. London: Phaidon, c, 75, 175-9.

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Kyra Nelson

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