Italian Women Artists Essay Research Paper Prior

Italian Women Artists Essay, Research Paper

Prior to the fifteenth century, very few works of art were signed and virtually no information on their artists, male or female, was recorded. However, beginning in the early Renaissance, the identities of artists and their stories begin to be preserved. Any study of the art of this period will undoubtedly include the study of the lives and works of the great masters such as Raphael, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci, but rarely is there any mention of their female contemporaries. While these men were unquestionably some of the greatest artists who ever lived, no study could be complete without an examination of the lives and influence of women during this period.

Fourteenth Century Italy was the first area to show a shift in culture from the feudal system of the Middle Ages to an urban economy based on commerce and the accumulation of wealth. This new cultural system was very conducive to the development of wide spread interest in the fine arts. While this increasing interest in the arts and the development of capitalism opened many new possibilities for Renaissance men, it often left women with less power than they had had under the feudal system (Kelly-Gadol, 1974). Beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing through the seventeenth century, artists were usually taught their crafts through apprenticeships. However, it was not proper for women to travel or be trained outside of the home, therefore most women were unable to pursue formal artistic training. The only way for an early Renaissance woman to receive artistic training was for her to join a nunnery. This gave unmarried women the opportunity to escape the male-dominated society and allowed them to learn and practice their art. Thus, the few women artists whose names are known from the fifteenth century were nuns such as Caterina dei Vigri (1413-1463) (St. Catherine of Bologna). Unfortunately, by the end of the fifteenth century, due to the Counter-Reformation, increasing isolation from contemporary influence caused the nun’s art to lag behind current artistic developments. While nuns like Plautilla Nelli (1523-1588) continued to produce wonderful pieces, they lagged behind the times and after this, professional women artists were usually lay women.

Fifteenth century Florence in considered the source of the ‘renaissance’ that transformed western culture. Because of this very influential role, the absence of women’s names from the list of artists from fifteenth century Florence deserves careful attention. Florence was one of the wealthiest and most conservative of the Italian city-states. Citizenship was restricted to a small elite group of wealthy men and the culture was organised in such a way that male privilege and male lines of property were strongly valued. This division also restructured art into a public, primarily male, activity (Chadwick, 1990, p.60). This may partially explain why the first successful Italian women artists are found in sixteenth century Cremona and Bologna rather than in fifteenth century Florence.

Sixteenth Century Cremona produced the most talented family of women artists in the Renaissance period. Sofonisba Anguissola (1531-1625), being the most successful of the six sisters, is considered one of the first women artists to have had a successful career. She is mentioned in several contemporary collections of artistic biographies and even had the opportunity to learn from Michelangelo for a short time. Her sister, Lucia Anguissola (1536-1568), was also an accomplished painter, but she died before she had the chance to develop much of her skill.

If women artist had a Renaissance, it surely took place in Bologna, rather than Florence or Rome, and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries rather than the fifteenth (Chadwick, 1990, p.78). Bologna was unique among the Italian city-states of the Renaissance period. Not only did it provide many opportunities for all women by allowing women to attend its university since the Middle Ages, but it was especially supportive of its women artists due to the fact that it had taken as one of its patron saints a female artist–St. Catherine of Bologna. Bologna overflowed with artistic talent during the Renaissance. Following Caterina, Bologna produced Properzia de’ Rossi (1490-1463), Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) and Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665), three of the most accomplished women artists of their day.

Even in progressive Bologna, as it was throughout Italy, many factors still conspired to restrict women’s entry into the artistic field. Nearly all professions developed guilds, most of which excluded women from membership. Cultural restrictions limited women’s access to artistic training, especially in the study of the male nude, which was crucial to the popular biblical and historical artwork of the time. Without these studies, there was no way for women to have the skills necessary to win prestigious and lucrative public commissions. In fact, most female artists had no opportunity to obtain any kind of instruction in the arts. Men were free to travel and seek out the best teachers but with few exceptions, such as the Anguissola sisters, women were not afforded this luxury. Given these circumstances, most women who received any artistic training were either daughters of established artists or were born to wealthy families who could hire private tutors. Most women artists were daughters of established artists. These women had a distinct advantage over their noble contemporaries in that in their father’s workshops they most likely had access to studies, such as that of the male body, that were not normally open to women. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652), the most famous of these daughters, was highly skilled in creating work that displayed human bodies.

Once women were able to develop the skills they need to be successful artists, they still encountered many barriers to their career. Women were expected to get married and stay at home to raise children. Running family and home left little time for artistic endeavors. Due to this fact, most of the famous women artists either never married or, like Gentileschi, had failed marriages. A few notable exceptions-Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana-had very successful marriages and husband who were supportive of their careers. One final note on the drawback of marriage for a woman artist was the lower life expectancy for married women due to death in childbirth. Marietta Tintoretto (1554-1584), daughter of famous painter Jacopo Tintoretto, died in childbirth when she was only 30 years old.

Even with all of the restrictions on their training and social disapproval of attempting to enter a ‘man’s world’, women artists grew in number through the seventeenth century and beyond. Most women stayed within the fields of portraiture, which ranked near the bottom of important artistic endeavors. However, broke new barriers by competing for public commissions or pioneering new fields, as in the cases of Fede Galizia (1578-1630) in her work with still lifes and Plautilla Bricci (1616-1690) in architecture.


Gerrard, Mary D., Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Chadwick, Whitney, Women, Art and Society London, England: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1990

Slatkin, Wendy. Women Artists in History: From Antiquity to the 20th Century. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1985.

Tinagli, Paola, Women in Italian Renaissance Art. New York: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Perlingieri, Ilya Sandra, Sofonisba Anguissola: The First Great Woman Artist of the Renaissance. New York: Rizzoli International Publishers, 1992.

Turner, Jane ed., The Dictionary of Art Volumes 2, 4, 11, 12, 22, 27, 28, 31, & 33, New York: Groves Dictionaries, 1996.

Tierney, Helen Ed., Women’s Studies Encyclopedia: Literature, Arts and Learning. Volume 2, Greenwood Press, 1989.


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