Strong Women in Renaissance Italy
Fall Exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts
By: MFA - Aug 14, 2023
The history of the Italian Renaissance has long been told through the accomplishments of famous men. This fall, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), presents a major exhibition that shifts the focus to the stories and experiences of women during this time of immense creativity. Strong Women in Renaissance Italy features approximately 100 works of art—sculpture, paintings, ceramics, textiles, illustrated books and prints—largely drawn from the MFA’s collection, alongside eight key loans from the British Library, the Dayton Art Institute, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum, the Boston Athenaeum and a private collection.
Dating from the 14th through the early 17th centuries, these objects encompass works made by well-known artists like Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi and Lavinia Fontana, art commissioned or collected by women like the influential patron Isabella d’Este, and representations of historical, biblical and mythological figures like the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra, the saint Mary Magdalen and the sorceress Medea. Organized into thematic sections, the exhibition illuminates the various facets and complexities of Renaissance women’s lives—offering new perspectives on female creativity, power and agency.
“Strong Women in Renaissance Italy” is generously supported by Tamara Petrosian Davis and Charles Howard Davis II. Additional support from Dr. Susanna I. Lee, the Cordover Exhibition Fund, the Patricia B. Jacoby Exhibition Fund, The Bruce and Laura Monrad Fund for Exhibitions, and an anonymous funder. Media Sponsor is Boston Magazine.
“The ability to present this broad view of women’s experience in Renaissance Italy, using objects almost exclusively from the MFA’s own collection, is gratifying—and even surprising. It shows that women’s stories are there to be discovered, if only we look,” said exhibition curator Marietta Cambareri, Senior Curator of European Sculpture, and Jetskalina H. Phillips Curator of Judaica.
Generally restricted to roles as daughters, wives and mothers, women in Renaissance Italy faced challenges and barriers to equity, education and influence—but they often found ways to work around the institutional structures of the period. Women became artists, writers, poets, musicians and singers. They acted as patrons and commissioned works of art. Widows often became heads of households, controlling finances and looking after family businesses. In convents, women learned lacemaking, embroidery and other handicrafts, making major contributions to the textile industry—one of the most lucrative areas of manufacturing at the time. At home, women created remedies for common ailments and served as the spiritual guides for their families. The works on view in Strong Women in Renaissance Italy highlight these many roles, revealing a much richer sense of how Renaissance women both shaped their own lives and impacted the lives of those around them.
Major highlights of the exhibition include small but powerful works by four of the most well-known women artists of the Italian Renaissance. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–after 1654), Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) and Barbara Longhi (1552–about 1638) were all daughters of artists, learning the trade in their family workshops. Gentileschi’s The Sleeping Christ Child (1630–32) and Longhi’s Madonna and Child are new to the MFA’s collection—acquired as part of the MFA’s ongoing effort to collect more European paintings by women. Fontana, who became the head of her family’s workshop—an extremely rare occurrence for a woman—is represented by Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (about 1605–10), a tender image on three small panels comprising an unusual coved shape. Sofonisba Anguissola (about 1532–1625) did not grow up in a family of artists, but went on to serve at the court of King Phillip II of Spain and paint more self-portraits than any other artists in Renaissance Italy. Her Self-Portrait (about 1556) from around age 26 shows her holding a large shield-like object boldly inscribed with her signature.
Other significant works include a bronze bust of Cleopatra (about 1519–22) made by Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi (about 1460–1528), which presents the Egyptian queen as a quietly thoughtful, heroic figure rather than as a dangerous seducer of men. It is very likely that the bust was commissioned by Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua and one of the most powerful patrons and collectors in early 16th-century Italy. A maiolica plate by Nicola da Urbino (active by 1520, died in 1537–38) that depicts the story of Perseus and Andromeda is part of a larger service that was commissioned by Isabella’s daughter Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino, as a gift for her mother. It not only allowed Eleonora to share the finest art the Urbino court had to offer with her family, but also displayed her own position as duchess of one of Italy’s most illustrious courts—a patron in her own right and not just her mother’s daughter.
Important loans include a Hebrew Prayer Book (1469, British Library) that was illustrated by Joel ben Simeon, one of the most significant Jewish artists and scribes active in 15th-century Italy. Made for a father and his daughter, Maraviglia, the book includes a number of illustrations of a young woman praying and performing religious rituals—a unique representation of the experiences of Jewish women in Renaissance Italy. Women’s central role to devotional practice in the home is also addressed in Portrait of a Widow (about 1585, Dayton Art Institute) by Ludovico Carracci (1555–1619), which shows a woman in mourning clothes finding comfort in her Catholic faith and providing a model example of piety.
The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated book, Strong Women in Renaissance Italy, produced by MFA Publications. By exploring works made by, for or about women, it aims to reconsider a period of creative ingenuity and artistic excellence from their often-overlooked perspective.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the MFA is hosting Hidden Gold: Women in Renaissance Italy (Wednesdays, September 20¬–October 25), a six-session course led by curators, professors from local colleges and universities, and other special guests to dig deeper into the hidden and unearthed stories of women in Renaissance Italy. Additionally, on September 28, curator Marietta Cambareri hosts “Learning with Strong Women in Renaissance Italy,” a panel discussion with local professors about how exhibitions like Strong Women in Renaissance Italy can help faculty explore interdisciplinary learning while rethinking canon-based art history models.