Boston Museum Showcases the Power of Women in Renaissance Italy

This article is part of the Fine Arts & Exhibits special section on the art world’s expanded view of what art is and who can make it.

Platform shoes. Lush fabrics. Prolific selfies.

They sound like things you might see on a lifestyle influencer’s Instagram feed, but they are actually among the 14th- to 17th-century items shown in “Strong Women in Renaissance Italy,” an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The 100 artworks on view include fashion accessories, textiles, paintings, sculpture, ceramics, illustrated books and prints — all worn, made, used, inspired, influenced, commissioned or collected by women.

“Almost all of these objects show women’s strength and power,” said Marietta Cambareri, the museum’s curator of European sculpture and Judaica who organized the show, which is on view through Jan. 7. “The show tries to dig out the objects that tell the stories that people haven’t thought about before to create a broader picture of women’s experience in Renaissance Italy.”

A bronze bust of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra shows her as thoughtful, elegant and strong and not, as she was often portrayed, as a lustful harlot. The piece was most likely commissioned by Isabella d’Este, one of Renaissance Italy’s most influential patrons and collectors, Dr. Cambareri said. The bust, she said, “became a key to the idea that the Renaissance is actually looking at women in some different ways.”

The exhibition examines how women — artists, writers, poets, patrons, entrepreneurs, healers, nuns and more — faced barriers to equity and education but often found ways to overcome them. One of them was Sofonisba Anguissola, whose miniature self-portrait is the show’s signature image.

“She does not follow the typical path for a woman artist in Renaissance Italy,” Dr. Cambareri said. Many others were daughters of artists and learned their craft in the family workshop. But Anguissola was talented, and her father helped promote her career. She went on to serve at the court of King Philip II of Spain, “and painted more self-portraits than anybody in Renaissance Italy, male or female,” Dr. Cambareri said.

The gallery is structured in three sections: a portico entrance; a forecourt, evocative of an outside courtyard; and an interior hall. “We wanted to capture the feeling of an ideal city in the Italian Renaissance,” said Luisa Respondek, the show’s exhibition designer. “Historic spaces always have these layers and adaptations over time.” The open, fluid plan, she said, encourages visitors to “meander through the space, so they can experience a different time period while they’re looking at the objects.”

Columns throughout the gallery provide a backdrop for large textile banners and “allow these beautiful velvets to be shown in their whole length,” Ms. Respondek said. They include a silk velvet brocade embellished with gold threads used for clothing and the home, and an embroidered table cover that the museum calls “so finely crafted that it is almost impossible to determine which is the primary side.”

The artworks in the exhibit — some of whose creators are lost to history — are predominantly from the museum’s collection and include eight pieces on loan. The show is grouped in interwoven sections. “The Material Goods of Marriage” and “Fabrics for the Home” focus on domestic life; “Power and Patronage” on civic themes.

“Prayer and Devotional Practice” explores how works of art were central to women’s spiritual life. “For Jewish and Christian families, there’s a lot of ritual practice and prayer going on in the home. That is very much the woman’s sphere,” Dr. Cambareri said. “Instead of seeing that as this enclosed space where women don’t have agency, these practices show that they have a strong impact on devotional life.”

A small Jewish prayer book, on loan from the British Library, includes illustrations of a young woman practicing her faith and pointing at text, indicating that she is able to read and is educated, Dr. Cambareri said. “From the Jewish Museum in New York, we have one of the earliest known Italian Torah binders. In this period, women were given special blessings if they made textiles to honor the Torah.”

“Creative Women” includes newly acquired works by the artists Artemisia Gentileschi and Barbara Longhi, whose religious devotional paintings were rarely signed and were over the centuries mistakenly attributed to other artists; a group of five prints by Diana Mantuana, also known as Diana Scultori, whose career was given a boost when the biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote about her work in the 1568 edition of “The Lives of the Artists”; and a small-format edition of poems by Vittoria Colonna. It is the first single-author book of poetry by a woman published in Italy.

“Science and Sorcery” looks at how few women were physicians, but how many were healers. In convents, nuns were apothecaries and learned how to make medicines for their community and to sell to the public.

A tin-glazed earthenware plate, one of two on long-term loan from the Boston Athenaeum (since 1872), tells the story from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” of the sorceress Medea, shown as a masculine, muscular nude, using her magical powers to help her husband, Jason. “The fact that it presents a figure from mythology, who is most usually presented as evil, in a good light makes this unusual in the representation of a famous woman,” Dr. Cambareri said.

High platform shoes called chopines, a type of footwear specific to the Renaissance, mostly in Venice, are among the pieces on display in “What Women Wore.”

“It was long thought that only courtesans and prostitutes wore them, but scholarship has shown that noble women wore them,” Dr. Cambareri said. “The higher your shoes are, the longer your dress can be, so they become a kind of a prop for the woman to wear more luxurious garments to advertise the wealth and status of her family.”

“Learning and Creativity in the Convents” highlights how young girls and women of all classes were educated in convents. In addition to reading, writing and devotional practices, they might have also learned skills like lacemaking and embroidery. Opportunities for creative expression usually not available to them were open to convent communities. Nuns commissioned or influenced patronage of works of art for convent complexes, and were sometimes entrusted with the gold used to create golden threads, thus participating in the production of velvets.

Gold is a metaphor that runs through the show. “Women’s intellect and wisdom are like gold that’s left hidden in mines and has to be pulled out and refined,” said Dr. Cambareri, paraphrasing Moderata Fonte, a Venetian writer of the late 16th century. “It’s a call for educating women, these untapped resources — ‘hidden gold’ — capable of accomplishing great things.”

The show includes an audio guide and media table with interactive videos and Renaissance music, including the work of three women composers and songs that nuns might have sung. “Choirs would be singing from behind screens or from within their enclosed spaces, and their voices would just loft into the church space,” Dr. Cambareri said. “We’ve come to understand the lives of nuns in convents in ways that 20 years ago we had no idea about.”

Sheila Barker, executive director of Studio Incamminati, a school for Realist painting, said that shows like “Strong Women” helped to “reverse a presumption that is widespread, even in 20th-century publications, that women were not significant contributors to one of the greatest cultural moments of European history.” She added: “It’s going to overturn the notion that the Italian Renaissance was a cultural phenomenon that only involved men.”

Dr. Barker, whose research focuses on pioneering female artists, attributed recent scholarship to a strong interest in women’s history and newly digitized archives. “We’re digging deeper, stirring up the sediment of time and recuperating a lot of information about the past that is newly accessible through digital formats,” she said. “It’s a race against the clock, because the more time passes, the greater the chance that physical evidence might be dispersed or accidentally destroyed.”

But, she added, “every time I approach the archive, I feel like another false assumption could dissolve in front of incontrovertible evidence.”

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