The emergence of woman was one of the brightest phases of the period. Her status in European history has usually risen with wealth, though Periclean Greece, too near the Orient, was an exception. When hunger is no longer feared, the male quest turns to sex; and if man still despoils himself for gold, it is to lay it at a woman’s feet, or before the children she has given him. If she resists him he idealizes her. Usually she has the good sense to resist him, and to make him pay dearly for the boons whose contemplated splendor swells his veins. If, moreover, she adds graces of mind and character to her body’s charms, she gives man the highest satisfaction he can find this side of glory; and in return he raises her to an almost queenly dominance in his life.
We must not imagine that this was the pleasant role of the average woman in the Renaissance; it fell to a fortunate few, while the far greater number put off their bridal robes to carry domestic burdens and family headaches to their graves. Hear San Bernardino on the proper time for beating a wife:
And I say to you men, never beat your wives while they are great with child, for therein would lie great peril. I say not that you should never beat them; but choose your time…. I know men who have more regard for a hen that lays a fresh egg daily than for their own wives. Sometimes the hen will break a pot or a cup, but the man will not beat her, for fear of losing the egg that is her fruit. How stark mad, then, are many that cannot suffer a word from their own lady who bears such fair fruit! For if she speak a word more than he thinks fit, forthwith he seizes a staff and begins to chastise her; and the hen, which cackles all day without ceasing, you suffer patiently for her egg’s sake.52
A girl of good family was carefully trained for success in getting and keeping a prosperous mate; this was the major subject of her curriculum. Till a few weeks before marriage she was kept in relative seclusion in a convent or in the home, and received from her tutors or nuns an education as thorough as that which came to all but the scholars among the men of her class. Usually she learned some Latin, and became distantly acquainted with the leading figures of Greek and Roman history, literature, and philosophy. She practised some form of music, and sometimes played at sculpture or painting. A few women became scholars, and publicly debated problems of philosophy with men, like the learned Cassandra Fedeli of Venice; but this was highly exceptional. Several women wrote good verse, like Costanza Varano, Veronica Gambara, and Vittoria Colonna. But the educated woman of the Renaissance retained her femininity, her Christianity, and its moral code; and this gave her a union of culture and character that made her irresistible to the higher Renaissance man.
For the lettered men of that age felt her attractiveness intensely, even to writing and reading books that analyzed her charms in scholarly detail. Agnolo Firenzuola, a Vallombrosan monk, composed a dialogue Sopra la bellezza delle donne, on the beauty of women, and carried off this difficult subject with a skill and erudition hardly becoming a monk. Beauty itself he defines after Plato and Aristotle as “an orderly concord, a harmony inscrutably resulting from the composition, union, and commission of divers members, each of which shall itself be well proportioned and in a certain sense beautiful, but which, before they combine to make one body, shall be different and discrepant among themselves.”53 He proceeds to examine with finesse every part of the feminine frame, laying down the standard of beauty for each. The hair should be thick, long, and blonde—a soft yellow nearing brown; the skin bright and clear, but not pale white; the eyes dark, large, and full, with touches of blue in a white iris; the nose must not be aquiline, for that is especially disconcerting in a woman; the mouth should be small, but the lips full; the chin round and dimpled; the neck round and rather long—but let not Adam’s apple show; the shoulders should be broad, the bosom full—with a gentle fall and swell; the hands white and plump and soft; the legs long, the feet small.54 We perceive that Firenzuola had spent much time contemplating his subject, and had discovered an admirable new topic for philosophy.
Not content with these gifts, Renaissance woman, like any other, dyed her hair—almost always to blonde—and added false locks to fill it out; peasant women, having spent their beauty, cut off their tresses and hung them out for sale.55 Perfumes were a mania in sixteenth-century Italy: hair, hats, shirts, stockings, gloves, shoes, all had to be scented; Aretino thanks Duke Cosimo for perfuming the roll of money he had sent him; “some objects that date from that period have not yet lost their odor.”56 A well-to-do woman’s dressing table was a wilderness of cosmetics, usually in fancy containers of ivory, silver, or gold. Rouge was applied not only to the face but to the breasts, which in the larger cities were left mostly bare.57 Various preparations were used to remove blemishes, to polish the fingernails, to render the skin soft and smooth. Flowers were placed in the hair and on the dress. Pearls, diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, agates, amethysts, beryls, topazes, or garnets adorned the fingers in rings, the arms in bracelets, the head in tiaras, and (after 1525) the ears in earrings; besides which jewelry might be studded into the headgear, the dress, the shoes, and the fan.
Feminine dress, if we may judge from the portraits, was rich, heavy, and uncomfortable. Velvets, silks, and furs hung in massive folds from the shoulders or—when the shoulders were bare—from fastenings over the breasts. Dresses were bound with a girdle at the waist, and swept the floor behind the feet. The shoes of the well-to-do woman were high of both sole and heel, to protect her feet from the filth of the streets; nevertheless the upper portion was often of delicate brocade. Handkerchiefs were now in use in the upper classes; they were made of fine linen, often striped with gold thread or fringed with lace. Petticoats and lingerie were trimmed with lace and embroidered with silk. Sometimes the dress reached up around the neck in a ruff stiffened with metal ribs, and occasionally rising above the head. The headdress of the women took a hundred forms: turbans, tiaras, kerchiefs or veils bound with pearls, hoods stiffly shaped with wire, caps like a boy’s or a forester’s…. Frenchmen visiting Mantua were delightfully shocked to find the Marchioness Isabella wearing a fancy cap with jeweled feathers, and, beneath, shoulders and bosom bare almost to the nipples.58 Preachers complained about the amount of female bosom that invited the male eye. Now and then the flair for nudity went out of bounds, and Sacchetti observed of some women that if they took off their shoes they would be naked.59 Most women imprisoned themselves in corsets that could be tightened by turning a key, so that Petrarch pitied “their bellies so cruelly squeezed that they suffer as much pain from vanity as the martyrs suffered for religion.”60
Armed with all these weapons, the Renaissance woman of the upper classes raised her sex out of medieval bondage and monastic contempt to be almost the equal of man. She conversed on equal terms with him about literature and philosophy; she governed states with wisdom, like Isabella, or with all-too-masculine force, like Caterina Sforza; sometimes, clad in armor, she followed her mate to the battlefield, and bettered the instruction of his violence. She refused to leave the room when rough stories came up; she had a good stomach, and could hear realistic language without losing her modesty or her charm. The Italian Renaissance is rich in women who made a high place for themselves by their intelligence or their virtue: Bianca Maria Visconti who, in the absence of her husband Francesco Sforza, governed Milan so capably that he used to say he had more confidence in her than in his whole army, and who at the same time was known for her “piety, compassion, charity, and beauty of person”;61 or Emilia Pio, whose husband died in her youth, but who so cherished his memory that she was never known, through all her remaining years, to encourage the attentions of any man; or Lucrezia Tornabuoni, mother and molder of Lorenzo the Magnificent; or Elisabetta Gonzaga, or Beatrice d’Este, or the maligned and gentle Lucrezia Borgia; or the Caterina Cornaro who made Asolo a school for poets, artists, and gentlemen; or Veronica Gambara, the poetess and salonnière of Correggio; or Vittoria Colonna, the untouched goddess of Michelangelo.
Vittoria recaptured, without proud display, all the quiet virtue of a Roman heroine of the Republic, and combined with it the noblest features of Christianity. She had distinguished ancestry: her father was Fabrizio Colonna, grand constable of the Kingdom of Naples; her mother, Agnese da Montefeltro, was a daughter of Federigo, the scholarly Duke of Urbino. Betrothed in childhood to Ferrante Francesco d’Ávalos, Marquis of Pescara, she married him at nineteen (1509); and the love that united them before and after marriage was a finer poem that any of the sonnets that they exchanged during his campaigns. At the battle of Ravenna (1512) he was wounded almost to death, and was taken prisoner; he took advantage of his captivity to compose A Book of Loves, which he dedicated to his wife. Meanwhile he had carried on a liaison with one of Isabella d’Este’s maids of honor.62 After his release he returned to Vittoria briefly, then sallied forth on one campaign after another, so that she seldom saw him again. He led the forces of Charles V at Pavia (1525), and won a decisive victory. Offered the crown of Naples if he would join a conspiracy against the Emperor, he thought it over for a while, then revealed the plot to Charles. When he died (November, 1525) he had not seen his wife for three years. Ignorant of, or ignoring, his infidelities, she spent her twenty-two years of widowhood in works of charity, piety, and devotion to his memory. When she was urged to marry again she replied: “My husband Ferdinand, who to you seems dead, is not dead to me.”63 She lived in quiet retirement at Ischia, then in convents at Orvieto and Viterbo, then in semiconventual privacy in Rome. There, while herself remaining apparently orthodox, she befriended several Italians who sympathized with the Reformation. For a time she was placed under the surveillance of the Inquisition, and to be her friend was to risk indictment for heresy. Michelangelo took the risk, and developed for her an intense spiritual affection that never dared go beyond poetry.
The educated women of the Renaissance emancipated themselves without any propaganda of emancipation, purely by their intelligence, character, and tact, and by the heightened sensitivity of men to their tangible and intangible charms. They influenced their time in every field: in politics by their ability to govern states for their absent husbands; in morals by their combination of freedom, good manners, and piety; in art by developing a matronly beauty which modeled a hundred Madonnas; in literature by opening their homes and their smiles to poets and scholars. There were innumerable satires on women, as in every age; but for every bitter or sarcastic line there were litanies of devotion and praise. The Italian Renaissance, like the French Enlightenment, was bisexual; women moved into every sphere of life; men ceased to be coarse and crude, and were molded to finer manners and speech; and civilization, with all its laxity and violence, took on a grace and refinement such as it had not known in Europe for a thousand years.