Thursday, December 5, 2013

It's a Man's World

Portrait of a woman attributed to Ghirlandaio.

In case you’re thinking that Florence sounds like a good first stop when you build that time machine, consider that it was strictly a man’s world during the early Renaissance. Florentine women were not afforded anything like the freedoms that men enjoyed. As evidenced in the tightly framed and compact portraits of buttoned and bodiced women of the time (above), they suffered under the yoke of the ‘fallen Eve’ archetype. Considered untrustworthy creatures, they were deemed better off indoors. In 1610 a French traveler commented after a visit to Florence that "women are more enclosed [here] than in any other part of Italy; they see the world only from the small openings in their windows." You'd never accuse Ghirlandaio's woman of looking happy.

Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora, "Chaste Women in a Landscape," 1480s

These "chaste" women do look a little surprised to find themselves wandering about outside. No wonder they're in battle formation. One of the most highly regarded humanist scholars of the age, Marsilio Ficino, uttered the shocking revelation that, "women should be used like chamber pots: hidden away once a man has pissed in them." The exchange of women was a conversation between men. As Florence prospered, a bride offered in matrimony had to convey increasingly exorbitant sums as a dowry upon the groom: everybody knew that men, as the true source of value, were worth more. In exchange, grooms would offer their new bride some jewelry or fancy clothing (preferably something with lots of buttons to assuage their untrustworthiness), or perhaps a pin with his family crest so that everyone would know that she literally belonged to him now. Trussed up in corsets to temper their “irritating volubility,” they were nevertheless prized in the way of a peacock. 

Lorenzo Lotto (b. Venice, ca. 1480-d. Loreto, 1556), Venus and Cupid, late 1520s
"The male gaze" anyone? The great painter Taddeo Gaddi, oblivious to his own idiocy, paid dubious compliment when he said: “I do not think Giotto or any other painter could color better than [Florentine women] do; even a face which is out of proportion and has goggle eyes, they will correct with eye’s like to a falcon’s. If they have jaws like a donkey, they will correct them.” [“The Living Age,” Volume 197, Eliakim and Robert S. Littell, Littell & Co. (1893) page 265]

“Those poor Florentine mothers had to be contented with such humble activity as the tyranny of their husbands permitted to them, and to live, or rather drag out, their lives in those gloomy squalid houses, taking care of the children.” [“Private Life of Renaissance Florentines,” Dr. Guido Biagi, R. Bemporad & Sons (1895)]

If it seems as though not much has changed between then and now, at least consider infant mortality: 75% of children did not live to see their sixteenth birthday, and if your dad died you were as likely as not shipped off to your paternal grandparents, watching as your mother was sent packing back to hers, never to be seen again. To have twenty or more children was quite normal. Female children who lost their mothers might receive a knitting needle or doll of hers to remember her by, but everything of monetary value went straight to the men.

Portrait of an African Slave Woman is attributed to Annibale Carraccicirca 1580s

Not to mention that the slave trade between East and West was already a thriving business by the fourteenth century in Florence. A little-spoken-of stain on the proud name of the morally haughty Florentines, there is ample evidence of its existence. The distinguished Florentine painter, Alessio Baldovinetti, who belonged to a wealthy family of good standing in the community (and was said to have been a pupil of Paolo Uccello), kept a memorandum containing entries for three slave girls that he bought including one, ‘“Veronica, sixteen years old, whom [he] bought almost naked from Bonaroti [sic], son of Simon de Bonaroti.” That is to say, an ancestor of Michelangelo himself.” [Quoted in “Blackwood’s Magazine,” Volume 153, page 333 (1893)]


  1. So you mean it wasn't at all like TV's "The Borgias!"

    I love the expression on the last portrait. She's so like - "Whateva ..."


  2. Anachronism at its finest. ;)

  3. Before I took a trip to Florence several years ago, I read up on its history. It astounded me to realize that while da Vinci and Michelangelo were busy producing beautiful art, the rest of the city was a tremendously violent place with regular battles between neighbors. Think of Capone's Chicago multiplied. That might have been a good reason for anyone to stay indoors!

  4. Thanks for this, Alan. Great images, too--especially the last two!