Self: The Individual as a Work of Art (c. 1425–c. 1525)

Reversing Burckhardt

Two of the most important elements of the paradigm that Jacob Burckhardt envisioned as distinguishing the Italian Renaissance were its discovery of the individual and its creation of the state as a work of art. More than a century of scholarship has largely demolished both evocative claims. Yet they were and are so pregnant with implications that they are often evoked today, perhaps because they seem to make the period so central to what many see as the very foundations of modern society and the modern sense of self and state. In many ways, however, one might argue that these claims actually work quite well in light of recent scholarship, if we merely reverse them: for it might well be argued that the Rinascimento discovered what we think of as the state and created the individual as a work of art.

Even if claims of discovery always seem to prove dangerous, still, as we have seen repeatedly from diverse perspectives, political power was reconceptualized during the period, becoming, if not quite public, at least envisioned in terms of an ideology that saw it as based on a shared civiltà: a type of urban civic morality melding communal and Christian values and serving a more general shared common good. Even signori felt it necessary at least to nod at such shared values, and many, including Machiavelli, wrestled with the problems created by such an ideology. In turn, especially in the aristocratic world of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as far down the social scale as such pretensions existed (and perhaps farther), the individual became a more and more carefully considered and significant cultural construct, in many ways a work of art, painted socially in a series of complex negotiations that turned around consensus realities and the various groups with which an individual lived and interacted. The key here is “negotiations,” for in the negotiations that people wittingly or unwittingly carried out with the groups that surrounded them in society, self-fashioning became a more nuanced and complex ongoing social process. And it thus fit more comfortably at the very heart of premodern social life and individuality, making both less modern and more Rinascimento. Family relationships and social solidarities – from neighbors to fellow confraternity members to friends, lovers, and imagined fellows – all played a role in the building of the individual, and increasingly, especially for the upper classes, that construction could take on the appearance of a work of art.

Suggestively, this could be true quite literally. It is an old saw, but across the period artisans, who created what we label art, and their patrons became fascinated with representing the individual in virtually all mediums – frescoes, paintings, sculpture, as well as on coins and medals. In fact, when one thinks about how the individual was represented, many portrayals tended increasingly to reflect, draw upon, and reinforce the artfulness of being an individual. From this perspective, looking at the way individuals were represented as contemporaries would have looked at them, although a highly hypothetical project, becomes one well worth the effort. For if we are correct in positing that consensus realities were crucial for constructing and maintaining a sense of personal identity during the period, it is suggestive to consider how various forms of representation play upon such ways of understanding individuals.

Of course, representations of individuals were not new, just as notions of the individual were not invented during the Rinascimento. The simple physical separateness of the body, never mind the Augustinian notion of the individual will as defining an individual vis-à-vis sin and God, are merely the most obvious examples of a tradition of recognizing the individual that endured across the medieval period. For, of course, the final goal of Christian salvation was the individual triumph of a lone pilgrim on the way to finding God, as experienced by Dante in his Divine Comedy. And, significantly, in that journey Dante’s truth was continuously evoked in his interactions with interlocutors along his pilgrimage route who reflected the opinions of many of the groups that evaluated and reinforced his sense of self; from this perspective, the work becomes virtually a literary representation of the way consensus realities worked, and Dante becomes a uniquely self-fashioned work of art.

Still, in the close and highly personal urban world of the Rinascimento the groups that measured and negotiated consensus realities multiplied as compared to what had been the case in an earlier, more rural society. In addition, the nature of that measurement changed, with community, family, honor, and virtù all sliding toward new meanings, first more in tune with popolo and popolo grosso values and later with new/old aristocratic ones. If one looks at medieval depictions of people, it seems evident that they were more often metaphors for a deeper underlying reality that stood behind the messy and particular disorder of everyday life in this world. This is especially true of the representation of holy figures: apostles, saints, martyrs, angels, and even Christ, Mary, and the Holy Family. All tended to be iconlike – that is, evocative of deeper universal spiritual realities rather than individuals, even if, in the West, the icon per se had been replaced by representations that were usually more complex and articulated. Individual physical characteristics, from this perspective, were largely irrelevant and actually threatened to distract viewers from what the image really represented. Thus images tended to be highly stylized and included signs to identify who was being portrayed, signs that at the same time stressed metaphorically the deeper spiritual truths of those depicted. A medieval viewer, as part of a Christian community – the ideal consensus reality–forming group for such images – was supposed to know the holy figures depicted in terms of their places in Christian history. To that group, the figures presented ideally represented God’s power or grace much more than individuals; for in a way every image portrayed not an individual holy figure but rather a particular moment of God himself in the world.

Yet one might wonder how well informed viewers actually were and how many actually judged such images “correctly.” Many viewers, for example, often treated iconic representations as having more immediate and particular personalities of their own, capable of exceptional deeds, both positive and at times negative, apparently quite independently of God’s greater plans or eternal truths. For some, iconic representations, much like medieval relics and saints, could have living personalities of their own and be quite willful and individualistic. Certainly there were other responses, perhaps closer to our own, but one of the advantages of thinking in terms of consensus realities is that it begins to explain the range of meanings that could be negotiated with an image and the way even images were not fixed but rather had a life of their own, over time interacting with the various groups that viewed them and judged them. The point remains, however, that aside from an occasional ruler or religious figure – themselves typically quite stylized and supplied with iconic references – most medieval representations were relatively uninterested in the physical particularities of the person portrayed.

The Individual as a Work of Art: Replacing Icons with Portraits

That emphasis on the transcendent over a particular individual began to change in Italy in the thirteenth century, although clearly it was merely a change in emphasis, for the transcendent long retained a central role in most images. The early explorations of rethinking the representation of space with various forms of perspective were also important in this respect, as they made pictures begin to seem more in and of this world. This, in turn, changed and expanded what a viewer could imagine, for as icons were replaced by individuals placed in more everyday space, a wider range of understandings became possible – familiar space left room for familiar understandings and misunderstandings. In fact, this growing negotiability of religious images may have contributed to the waves of heresy and lower-class religious enthusiasms typical of the period.

Art historians often point to painters in Rome, such as Pietro Cavallini (c. 1245–1330), and others in Assisi with close connections to Rome who used early forms of architectural perspective and modeling techniques, created with light and shadow, in order to give more attention to the physical details of the figures and spaces they portrayed. Although still far from what might be labeled portraits, one does see more individualized faces, with popes in Rome and Saint Francis in his hometown of Assisi becoming somewhat less iconic and more physically human. Significantly, the figure often associated with the introduction of perspective, Giotto (Giotto di Bondone, c. 1267–1337), was also famed for his lifelike portrayal of individuals. Born and raised in Florence, he visited Rome early on and worked in Assisi; in both of the latter cities he was exposed to the techniques of architectural perspective and more individualistic representation. Contemporaries often commented on how he made his paintings and the figures in them come alive for his viewers. It was not just the illusion of depth that he created or the modeled bodies and revealing individualistic portrayals of biblical figures that caught the imagination of his viewers; his keen attention to expressions allowed him to make the faces he depicted evocatively human, expressing emotions that reportedly did elicit spiritual responses in those who viewed, judged, and negotiated the consensus realities of the figures portrayed. In a very real way his frescoes, rather than being solely medieval windows onto another transcendent time and space, were contemporary windows that looked out at the urban world of his day.

The Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, painted in the first years of the fourteenth century (c. 1305), is often cited as an example of this (Illustration 7.1). Giotto’s frescoes there are usually seen by critics as a crucial moment in the development of both linear perspective and the representation of a more material and individualistic humanity in what was still a strongly spiritual context. The chapel was built by the moneylender Enrico Scrovegni as a form of penance for his family’s wealth, gained through what he apparently hoped was not usury. As discussed earlier, bankers and moneylenders had developed various ploys to lend money at interest without exactly doing so, but doubts always remained about how sin-free such strategies actually were. And Enrico was not the first, nor the last, to attempt to hedge his bets by performing pious deeds – usually involving the restoration of a portion of the questionable wealth gained via bequests, patronage, or holy building. A significant portion of the religious art and architecture of the period was financed by such bequests and seemed to aid in demonstrating repentance not only to a judging God, but also to the judging groups that evaluated a person via consensus realities. As far as Enrico is concerned, the local legend goes that he had the chapel built next to his family’s palace in order to avoid prosecution for usury by Church authorities.


7.1. Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, c. 1305. Photo: Gianni Degli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York.

Whether or not that was the case, the chapel features an imposing Last Judgment scene over the main entrance that portrays Enrico himself kneeling before three haloed figures and the Cross, offering up the chapel in the form of a small model that he is holding, as the Last Judgment unfolds around him (Illustration 7.2). Although donor portraits were one area in which more individual physical traits had been expressed in the Middle Ages – as if, ironically, even then money spoke of the individual – in this caseEnrico does not display much in the way of individual features. Moreover, the Last Judgment, although impressive and powerful (especially the depiction of Hell, which calls to mind Dante’s description from much the same period), seems almost traditional, with its limited use of perspective, its choirs of angels, seated apostles, saints, and the beatified all arranged on a vertical plane with the judging Deity at the center. There are individual faces in the crowds, but the transcendent and the Last Judgment definitely dominate.


7.2. Giotto, Last Judgment (detail of Enrico Scrovegni), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, c. 1305. Photo: Alfredo Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York.

At the same time, however, the Last Judgment might be seen as representing the ultimate consensus-reality measuring of an individual, with God being the final arbiter of who an individual is, saved or damned. And, suggestively, in this vision not even God stands alone, for He is surrounded by the most crucial holy groups that judged an individual, ranged in the hierarchy of their importance, consensus realities in this case literally to the last. The people in the crowds of saved and damned, however, are the people of Padua. Their faces may not be clearly individualized, but they are implicitly there, and the picture speaks to them as well, informing them and their consensus-reality judgments that Enrico and the Scrovegni will be judged in the end and judged as saved. If God and the most important groups of Heaven have decided, how could the groups that made up Paduan society form or maintain other opinions? Here the individual Enrico Scrovegni with his donation reforms himself and his family and reassures both of their correct status in their city.

Actually, when one looks carefully at the way the complex representational program of the chapel unfolds on its other walls, it returns again and again to judgments of virtù and salvation in ways that emphasize the positive nature of Enrico and the Scrovegni for his contemporaries, preempting other possible evaluations. The frescoes on the side walls are also much less traditional in their depiction of people, with many individualized faces that express a fascinating range of personal emotions and reactions to the scenes that narrate Mary’s life, the birth of Christ, and his passion and resurrection. Thus, while the scenes return to first times and depict the safely old, for a fourteenth-century viewer they must also have seemed safely innovative, making the crucial first times of Christianity come alive – as later Rinascimento commentators noted. But they did so not merely in a symbolic way, for the figures appeared to be real individuals, as did the emotions expressed and the familiar spaces in which they were expressed. Here the transcendent was coming to be located more aggressively in the individual; and, equally significantly for the religious feelings of the day, it was located not in some distant and unreachable space and time, but in the familiar everyday space in which people lived, imagined, and evaluated biblical figures, much as they did their neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens.

This is not the place to trace the development of the progressively more individualistic and detailed representation of people in the art of the Rinascimento, already well discussed by art historians. As their studies have shown, that development was also conditioned by the development of more sophisticated techniques for creating frescoes and of painting more generally, which allowed for more detail and greater modeling of forms. Earlier techniques required that color be applied in the wet plaster used to make a fresco, which meant that it was difficult to create fine details or to overpaint. In the fourteenth century, using egg yoke as a binding material for colors allowed the colored plaster to dry more quickly and thus allowed overpainting and the use of layering techniques. Unfortunately, while this made more detail possible, it was also less permanent than traditional fresco, as the binding tended to break down over time, with the plaster of the fresco peeling off in patches. In the fifteenth century the introduction of oil-based painting on canvas or wood panels – techniques copied from Flemish art at midcentury, it appears – allowed more layering of paint to create modeling effects, with light and dark and overpainting used to generate greater detail and thus more individualistic and “realistic” portraits. In addition, oil-based paints adhered better, if correctly made, and dried relatively quickly, making more detailed layering and overpainting techniques feasible.

Yet “realistic” portraits are less significant for our analysis than the way depictions appealed to consensus realities and interacted with them to help visualize the individual as a work of art. And, of course, “realistic” is an anachronistic value judgment, for a sophisticated medieval observer would have argued that an iconic figure evoking the transcendent and eternal was much more real than an image that merely represented a material body. In fact, as time passed some rich patrons and rulers even became less interested in realistic depictions of their own or their family’s physical particularities, preferring more idealized images that presented an artistic fashioning of themselves that spoke to viewers – those whose consensus realities they wished to mould – of theirvirtù, nobility, and right to be at the top of society.

Broadly speaking, however, for most of the fourteenth century the increasingly individualistic portrayal of people in frescoes was largely confined to group scenes, often holy, where donors, important locals, and even a scholar or a painter might appear. What might be called group portraiture had the advantage of using the groups portrayed and their responses to the main figures in the work as a way of suggesting the correct response to those groups viewing an image. Tommaso di ser Giovanni di Simone (1401–1428), known as Masaccio (the Big Ugly Maso), perhaps for his slovenly or aggressive ways, is often seen as having taken the individualistic representation of figures in his paintings to a new level during his short career in Florence. Many of his works have been lost, but perhaps his most impressive frescoes were also done for a chapel, the Brancacci Chapel in Florence’s Santa Maria del Carmine. In 1367, Pietro Brancacci left a bequest to create a series of frescoes in the church with a theme that would emphasize the life of Saint Peter, his namesake – once again money, the individual, and the divine intermixing. But for complex reasons, the work was not actually begun until early in the following century.

The commission was apparently first given to an older artist, Tommaso di Cristoforo Fini (c. 1383–1447), known as Masolino (the Little Maso), noted for his more traditional frescoes in what is often referred to as the Gothic style, featuring rich gold work, iconic images, and a more vertical, hierarchal representation of figures. He and Masaccio had worked together on a number of commissions, and the younger man joined him on the project in the mid-1420s. Much discussion has been given to the way the newer, more modeled, and emotionally sensitive style of Masaccio contrasted with Masolino’s more traditional style in the frescoes they did together in the chapel. Recent scholarship, however, has tended to emphasize their cooperation. Without entering into that debate, it seems clear that the frescoes, perhaps more influenced by Masaccio, show individualistic personal features often dramatically modeled by light and shade, giving them an almost sculptural feeling. In fact, it has been suggested that Masaccio was much influenced by contemporary sculptors like Donatello who were working in Florence at the time. This crossover between genres seems all the more likely given that artists and their workshops often produced work involving a range of crafts – painting, sculpture, architecture, metal casting, and the more ephemeral decorations of pageants and even housewares.

The fresco of Saint Peter Healing with His Shadow in the Brancacci Chapel is particularly interesting for our discussion (Illustration 7.3). In it we see Saint Peter striding confidently through a narrow Rinascimento urban street that recedes convincingly into the background, providing the architectural perspective that was becoming virtually required for the more cutting-edge painters of the day. Sunlight from his left not only models the saint’s body and face, it also casts a shadow, which, according to the tale depicted in the fresco, healed the cripple kneeling at his left. All the faces are individual, demonstrating different personal emotions at the passing of the apostle, including a burly and slightly disheveled figure with his hands raised in prayerful worship who has been identified by many as Masaccio himself. If his name refers to an unkempt appearance and his stature as a large man, the identification certainly may have merit. Once critics were quite sure who the figures represented were, but debate has left their actual identities uncertain. Recognizable contemporaries or just lifelike faces, as the current scholarly debate about their identities suggests, viewers apparently tended to see and evaluate them as individuals in a “realistic” urban setting. It might be suggested as well that the familiar urban setting of this fresco and many others of the period – often dismissed as reflecting a lack of understanding of the historical distance of the ancient world – actually evokes a familiarity with the ancient heritage on the part of a contemporaryciviltà, a familiaritythat says much about the way the urban groups who patronized and viewed such works felt at home thinking of and judging the first times of biblical events and figures as essentially a part of their own world.


7.3. Masaccio and Masolino, St. Peter Healing with His Shadow, 1424–1427, Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence. Photo: Alfredo Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York.

Sculpture from Remembrance to Celebration of Power

As noted earlier, Masaccio’s modeled, almost sculptured figures suggest a close relationship between sculpture and the representation of individuals. Perhaps originating in the sculptures and reliefs on tombs or family funerary monuments and death masks that commemorated important medieval figures and that recorded the personal features of the deceased, sculpture, for all its stylized nature in the late Middle Ages, had already begun to wrestle with representing the individual. This may have been because death was one of those physical realities that most called attention to the individual, especially as it evoked the crucial issue of individual salvation. Family, neighbors, community, church, and other groups and their consensus realities all played significant roles in evaluating a death, but in the end, of course, it was the individual who died and was judged by God.

In the Rinascimento, however, yet more individualized and physically detailed representations became the order of the day in statues of the living and the dead, both in marble and in bronze, with more personal features gradually overshadowing the more symbolic and iconic. Perhaps the most noted and influential figure in this transition was Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (1386–1466), known as Donatello. Over a long career he produced noted marble statues, incised reliefs, bronzes, medals, and even significant wood carvings. Reportedly in his midteens he went to Rome with Filippo Brunelleschi, his good friend and nine years his senior, to study the architecture and art of the city. If this is true, their suggestive age difference may imply that they were more than friends, something not all that unusual at the time. Whether that was the case or not, we know that in the early fifteenth century Donatello was in Florence working with his slightly older contemporary Nanni di Banco on sculptures of the twelve Old Testament prophets for the north-facing buttress of the Duomo, which would soon be domed by his friend Brunelleschi.

At about the same time the Church of Orsanmichele was also being decorated with statues on its exterior commissioned by the most important guilds in the city in competition with each other. Donatello, Nanni, and their better-established and slightly older contemporary Lorenzo Ghiberti (c. 1378–1455), noted for the bronze doors of the Florentine Baptistery, were hired to produce statues reflecting each craft. The idea of using the church to demonstrate the grandeur of Florentine guilds had originated back in the 1330s, but economic crisis, plague, and war had all led to postponing the work for more than eighty years – a good indication of the problems that went along with guild and corporate patronage of art; for when groups were flush with wealth, they were excellent pooling places for the resources necessary to tackle major projects, but when times were hard, they were much less forthcoming.

Ghiberti’s statue of Saint John the Baptist, done for the Calimala Guild (wool merchants guild), and his Saint Matthew, done for the Cambio Guild (bankers), although they display some individual features, show more attention to the details of draperies and appear fairly traditional. In this case, of course, the primary groups whose consensus reality not only judged these images, but paid for them, were the guilds; and thus, it may be that Ghiberti’s more traditional carving was exactly what they demanded. Donatello’s Saint George, done for the armorer’s guild, by contrast, looks more like an individual warrior, with an aggressive youthful face and a masculine body beneath the saint’s armor and cloak, all suggesting courage and strength. In the end, however, Nanni’s Four Crowned Saints for the stone carvers’ and woodcarver’s guild appears to outdo both his competitors, as seems only just, as that guild may well have expected the most cutting-edge work from one of their peers. The four quite individual figures seem to face each other in conversation. Classical Roman hair styles and formal stances recall ancient statues, while the individual features of each make them seem to come alive, even if the fascination with rendering the undulations of the cloth of their clothing largely eliminates their bodies. Controlled, stern, thoughtful countenances make them men of virtù, be it ancient Roman or Florentine popolo grosso – virtually the Rinascimento vision of itself, and one that would have made them come alive for those who saw them.

Donatello, however, was just finding his style. It is only with his statue of the young David, discussed earlier, that his mastery of the free-standing human body and the individual as a work of art seemed to set him apart and above his contemporaries (seeIllustration 6.7). His David is no everyman, no transcendent moment of God’s power (although he could perhaps be read in that way); instead, he is a slim, beautiful, and quite sensual youth typical of the Florentine ideal of the young male figure of the day. In this case the statue was cast in bronze, a medium that allowed for a much more detailed and articulated figure than marble. Traditionally it has been dated to the 1430s, but some have placed it as early as the 1420s and others as late as the mid-1460s. An inscription that accompanied it, now lost, but reported in a manuscript from the day, proclaimed its civic message: “The victor is whoever defends the fatherland. God crushes the wrath of an enormous foe. Behold! A boy overcame a great tyrant. Conquer, O citizens!” The reference to the ongoing wars with the tyrants of Milan seems clear, although which and when are less so. Still, the youthful sexuality of the figure merely emphasizes David’s great triumph and invokes a youthful and beautiful Florence, whether it was a fatherland, motherland, or perhaps boyland. And David’s carefully rendered and impressively realized physicality seems light years from medieval representations of iconic biblical figures.

The dating of a rather different male figure, Donatello’s equestrian statue of the noted condottiere Gattamelata, is more secure, as he completed it while he was in Padua from 1444 to 1454 working on a complex sculptural program for the altar of the Basilica of Saint Anthony. Once again this bronze statue is suggestive when considered from the perspective of consensus realities (Illustration 7.4). The first surviving equestrian statue since ancient Rome, it seems likely that Donatello based his work on ancient models he saw in Rome, perhaps that of Marcus Aurelius, still standing. Donatello’s tough, grizzled warrior is no slim feminine youth, and, astride his massive horse, he exudes the adult masculine power of an aggressive warrior commanding all he surveys. Placed before the church that contained the remains of the patron saint of Padua, his dominating gaze may not have been entirely unintended. For the warrior had served Venice in the Italian Hundred Years’ War, and, of course, Venice had conquered Padua in those same wars; thus the Venetians ruled the formerly independent city thanks to warriors like Gattamelata. Here the consensus reality that the rulers of Venice would have judged positively may well have been at odds with what many Paduans felt, even if in theory the monument merely represented a noted condottiere and Venice’s commitment to defend their city.


7.4. Donatello, Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata, 1447–1453, Santo Padua. Photo: Scala/Art Resource, New York.

Not all condottieri were so fortunate in commanding bronze equestrian statues that virtually recreated them as classical works of art. In fact, one of the most famous, Sir John Hawkwood, was promised such a statue by the Florentines in 1393, just before his death. It too was to have been placed before the main cathedral of the city as a reward for his service defending the city and its republican liberties. The cost of bronze, plus the perennial Florentine shortage of funds, however, led them to reconsider their promise. In the end they substituted a much less expensive fresco of Hawkwood on horseback painted by Agnolo Gaddi and Giuliano d’Arrigo, less ostentatiously placed inside the church. Reportedly it was judged of such poor quality that in the 1430s Paolo Uccello (1397–1475) was commissioned to do a new fresco to replace it (see Illustration 4.1). Uccello was a painter much in the tradition of Masaccio, greatly interested in perspective and sculptural modeling. Thus, although long dead, in 1436 Hawkwood finally had what most judged to be a quite exceptional equestrian statue, albeit painted by Uccello. Working in monochrome of shades of green, the fresco appears to be virtually a real equestrian statue of the condottiere in the Roman tradition, very similar to Donatello’s Gattamelata. And, nicely for the financially strapped merchant city and its ongoing costly wars, Hawkwood’s pseudo-statue was much cheaper than Donatello’s bronze.

Portraits of Status and Power

It is in images of power, celebrating the noteworthy, rulers, great families, and symbolic moments of state and Church, that we see the most imaginative use of the new techniques of portraiture and perspective in the fifteenth century. The Medici, as discussed earlier, made particular use of such images to broadcast to the various groups that supported them in Florence, and to foreign visitors and dignitaries as well, their quiet (and at times not-so-quiet) glory, religious commitment, and power. In the 1450s Piero de’ Medici commissioned one of his favorite painters, Benozzo Gozzoli (1420–1497), to fresco the small chapel in the Medici Palace, where his father, Cosimo, frequently received visitors to the city, with a crucial first-time moment of deep political significance, the arrival of the three wise kings, the Magi, to worship the newborn Christ Child (Illustration 7.5). Winding through a stylized and rather stark landscape is a procession crowded with recognizable Medici portrayed as the Magi, along with Medici supporters and even the painter himself, peering out from the crowd at those viewing and judging his work, perhaps with just a hint of concern on his serious visage.


7.5. Benozzo Gozzoli, detail of the right wall of the Medici Chapel, showing one of the Magi in arrival, Medici Chapel, Florence. Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York.

The Medici connection to the biblical Magi evoked in this series of frescoes was based in part on the fact that the young Lorenzo de’ Medici, son of Piero and future leader of the city, had been born on the feast day of the Magi, January 6. Moreover, the Medici had long been prominent members of the local confraternity dedicated to the Magi. And, perhaps most importantly, the Church of San Marco, with which they were closely associated as patrons, contained supposed Magi relics. In sum, the Magi connection was an easily recognized and powerful one; and Gozzoli represents it in a way that stresses both the family and the individuals who made it great. Even the stark landscape is somewhat domesticated by the presence of Rinascimento hunters and their dog, depicted chasing a deer, as a rabbit hides in the lunarlike folds of a hill. Once again this is a biblical first time made familiar that speaks in a way that could be understood by the contemporary groups who formed consensus realities about the Medici.

Adding a deeper meaning to the fresco is the way it echoes an earlier depiction of the Magi done by Gentile da Fabriano in 1423 for an altarpiece commissioned by Palla Strozzi, a leader of that powerful family exiled by Cosimo in 1434 when he returned to rule. Done in a more traditional Gothic style, with ornate gold work and a more hierarchal arrangement of figures, the painting also features the Strozzi family as the Magi, evoking for viewers their wealth and power. Clearly a part of the attraction of the Medici fresco was to trump the Strozzi’s Magi connection. And it did not hurt that their fresco series was larger, more innovative, and more ambitious. Now they, not the exiled Strozzi, as the real Magi, were there at the very beginning of Christianity – and not just as any family, for the individual Medici that really mattered were strikingly presented as the dramatic leaders of those who worshipped the Christ Child and Virgin.

In Venice, by contrast, both the traditions of the city and the climate conspired against the production of such paintings. The leading families there, as we have seen, stressed an ideal of selfless service to the city that made expressions of familial or individual glory suspect. Also, the stronger influence of Byzantine art encouraged a more traditional approach to painting. Finally, the damp climate of the city, built literally on the water, meant that frescoes did not dry properly or quickly enough, and many of those produced did not survive long. But in the middle years of the fifteenth century, with the introduction of oil painting on wood panels or canvas, works that aimed at representing individual figures and personalities that could be understood and judged as such took off in the city. In many ways oil as a medium was superior to fresco, for, as noted earlier, oil allowed a craftsman to build up layers of paint to create more detailed and evocative plays of shadow and light. The layering effect also allowed the painter to create a heightened sense of texture in a painting. In addition, it permitted a larger palette of colors, and Venetian paintings would become noted for their innovative and evocative use of color. Finally, oil allowed painters to overpaint, adjusting the details of their paintings to create exactly the effect sought.

Antonello da Messina (c. 1430–1479) is often credited with introducing the techniques of oil painting to Venice in the 1470s, although it seems clear that oil paintings were being produced there earlier. There is some debate about where Antonello learned his techniques, but it appears that working at the court in Naples he had encountered Flemish painters and quickly assimilated their techniques. Although he was in Venice only for a short time, his highly evocative paintings had a strong influence on better-known Venetian painters such as the Bellini family and their workshop. Recent scholarship has questioned it, but the conventional account is that the brothers Bellini, Gentile (c. 1429–1507) and Giovanni (c. 1430–1516), grew up working in their father Jacopo’s shop, creating a family tradition that deeply influenced Venetian art. Jacopo (c. 1396–1470) studied with the Florentine Gentile da Fabriano and painted at many courts of northern Italy, demonstrating an eclectic ability to work in both traditional and more innovative styles. While working at the court of Ferrara he not only befriended a painter from Venetian territories, Andrea Mantegna, briefly discussed earlier, but eventually married his daughter Niccolosa to him, thus creating a close tie with one of the most innovative painters of the day. In Venice the Bellini workshop produced a plethora of works that helped change the direction of Venetian painting, moving it toward becoming what is often seen as a distinctive Venetian tradition that used the medium of oil to foster a more adventurous use of colors, a softer modeling of shade and warm light, and a less strict, more impressionistic use of perspective.

An attention to the physical details of the human anatomy in their work enriched even their more traditional paintings of religious themes. For example, in Giovanni’s depiction of the Christ Child in one of his many renditions of the Madonna and Child, known as The Madonna Lochis (1470s), while echoing traditional iconic symbolism, the painting comes alive with a very human baby Christ Child struggling in the arms of his pensive mother, who clasps him in such a way that her robes cover, but still suggest, his genitals (Illustration 7.6). This detail, to which the movement of the figures and the folds of the Virgin’s robes direct the eye, calls attention to the humanity of Christ. For those genitals, even if almost completely hidden, insist that Christ was fully God and fully man, as the Nicene Creed taught – one of the central tenets of Christianity. It may be that they also reassured a masculine society that the Godhead was always masculine, even when he was in the hands of a powerful mother figure, one who for many had become so important in everyday perceptions as to have become almost a divinity in her own right. Her pensive passivity and his lively willfulness, while evoking real restless children, also contrasted Mary’s motherly compassion with his willfully accepted future passion and death on the Cross. And in the end Bellini’s portrait speaks in the language of everyday people and emotions, making Christ close, familiar, and fully human, as well as divine.


7.6. Giovanni Bellini, Madonna Lochis, 1470s, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo. Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York.

But the Bellini family’s brushes, like those of all painters of the day, were for hire, and the powerful patrons they depicted in their paintings also spoketo the consensus realities of their contemporaries. One of the less well-known and more interesting paintings of Giovanni Bellini using oils was a portrait of the Venetian doge, Agostino Barbarigo (1419–1501; doge 1486–1501), originally commissioned by the doge himself for the Ducal Palace, but now in the convent Church of San Pietro Martire on Murano. Known as the Votive Picture of Doge Agostino Barbarigo (1488), at first glance it seems a fairly typical votive painting in a genre often used by doges to represent themselves as committed to the Divine, whose power they merely reproduced on earth as rulers (Illustration 7.7). Even the music-playing angels that produce the celestial harmony of just rule in the background seem to echo this traditional theme. And, of course, the Christ Child blessing the kneeling figure of the doge confirms it all.


7.7. Giovanni Bellini, Votive Picture of Doge Agostino Barbarigo, 1488, San Pietro Martire, Murano. Photo: Scala/Art Resource, New York.

But for those who saw the picture and judged it via Venetian consensus realities, Bellini, undoubtedly at the doge’s bequest, had included some unsettling details – details that recalled the fact that Agostino and his brother Marco, who had been doge before him, had taken on a more princely style of rule that troubled many. That troubled sense was reinforced by a number of sculptures, paintings, and building projects they had patronized that suggested not only a more princely status for themselves, but also that their family might deserve to rule the city permanently. Ideally, of course, doges were supposed to avoid princely claims and individual or family glory, but the Barbarigo brothers and Bellini’s painting seemed to push the limit. The key to that reading was that traditionally in such paintings the doge was sponsored, as he kneeled before the Virgin and Christ Child to receive their blessings, by his name saint, who stood behind him offering him to Christ. Of course, Agostino’s name saint, Saint Augustine, was an unusually prestigious saint, and it would have seemed to contemporaries that Agostino should have been content to be sponsored by that important Father of the Church. Saint Augustine, however, is consigned to the left side of the painting, looking on from the wings.

Instead, behind the kneeling Agostino there stands a youthful, bearded Saint Mark. With his right hand positioned just behind the doge’s right shoulder, the apostle and patron saint of Venice seems to be offering the doge to Christ and the Virgin. To be sponsored by one’s name saint was one thing, to be sponsored by the apostle and patron saint of the city was quite another. To make matters worse, Saint Mark was the name saint of Agostino’s brother, Marco, the doge who had preceded him. Worse yet, Agostino does not even look at Christ and the Madonna, who are giving him his rule; rather, he looks down and off the canvas, apparently at the Venetian nobles as they entered the council chambers where the portrait was to be hung. Agostino’s carefully orchestrated presentation of himself could be judged, then, as an artfully presented claim of his princely status and his claim that Barbarigo power had been handed on from one doge to the next with the approval of the apostle Mark. A painting that traditionally presented a doge had become one that seemed, dangerously, to present a Venetian prince.

That contemporaries read the painting in this way is suggested by the fact that there was considerable resistance to placing it in the hall of the Great Council. Although this was not to occur until after his death, it may have been that Agostino, seeing the writing on the wall, avoided open conflict by willing the painting to the Convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli on the nearby island of Murano to be displayed there on the high altar. This avoided a confrontation and meant that the painting would have less visibility, even as it waited on Murano for a political climate perhaps more favorable to the Barbarigo family. Although their pretensions were never realized and Bellini’s portrait is rather lost on Murano, it does serve as a reminder that virtually every portrait of the powerful conveyed an image not just of an individual claiming to be worthy of a form of individual pictorial representation, but also of a person seeking to have himself or herself artfully represented to the consensus realities of the groups of viewers that judged and negotiated their identity.

Suggestively, even painters used their works to present themselves as important individuals and works of art in their own right. An intriguing Medici crowd scene painted by Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) in the 1470s, The Adoration of the Magi, illustrates well the way an image of the painter in a Medici crowd scene seemed to demand recognition, almost stepping off the panel surface to claim its merit (Illustration 7.8). An aged Cosimo, as the leading Magi, kneels before the Virgin and Child in humble supplication. But at the center of the picture, directly beneath the Virgin, there kneel, as the other two Magi, Cosimo’s sons, Piero and Giuliano, in rapt conversation, perhaps about the miraculous birth, but with expressions that would have been no different had they been discussing Florentine politics or bank business. Piero’s orangish-red cloak echoes the color of the Virgin’s blouse and draws attention not only to his regal figure, but also to his wealth and status, layering status sign upon status sign and glory upon glory. All three scions of the Medici clan were actually dead when Botticelli portrayed them as Magi, but they were regally resurrected in order to celebrate Medici piety and rule.


7.8. Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1470s, Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York.

Dominating the left front of the scene, in a pose that literally oozes pride and princely self-appreciation, stands the preening figure of the young Lorenzo de’ Medici, presented as more youthful than he was when the picture was painted. In virtually every way he seems visibly destined here to become the Magnificent. His sometime tutor Poliziano, in a blue cap with a hand placed on his shoulder, appears to be explaining to him the significance of the moment, as does the figure with the reddish hat identified as Pico della Mirandola, who seems to be gesturing toward the Virgin and Christ Child. Or is he perhaps gesturing toward the Medici Magi kneeling just below and to the Medici tradition that Lorenzo has taken in hand? Lorenzo’s self-assured, almost cocky stance, hands clasped over his sword, which stretches between his stocking-clad legs – the only legs so portrayed in the picture – seem to promise much more. One could go on, as it is a painting that clearly was meant to be read, negotiating consensus realities about Medici rule with its viewers, but certainly all the Medici in this group portrait seem to be carefully constructed individual works of art.

Significantly, if Lorenzo’s haughty glance is directed at anyone, it is directed at the slightly larger and slightly less haughty figure directly across the frontal plain of the picture. In fact, the two figures virtually frame the panel. That figure, dressed in rich saffron-colored robes, perfectly at home with the greats of the Medici world (never mind this crucial first moment of Christianity), looks out of the picture at the viewer, as if encouraging our judgment of him – and of his painting, for the figure is a self-portrait of the artist. Botticelli seems almost to be insisting that he is the equal, in his own creative sphere as a painter, of the rulers of Florence – no craftsman peering humbly from the background. No, he stands impressively up front with Lorenzo, detailed and large as an important individual.

There are only two other figures who look out at the viewer, both farther back in the crowd, witnessing the scene – once again as a part of a group judging and forming a consensus reality of this holy Medici moment. They too stand directly across from each other, and while the figure on the left has not been identified (as far as I know), the figure on the right is the donor, Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, a banker and Medici supporter who had commissioned the painting for a family chapel in Santa Maria Novella. The contrast is telling: the person who paid for the painting remains in a back row even as he points to himself, as if calling attention to his role in depicting this great moment, but the Medici and Botticelli dominate the scene. It seems almost as if Botticelli is preparing to step off the painting to claim his status as a work of art in his own right.

If anything, Andrea Mantegna (c. 1430–1506), one of the most notable artists of the second half of the century, took such claims even further in his artistic self-portrayal both in his art and in life. Working for most of his career for the always cash-strapped Gonzaga lords of Mantua, he was willing to take payment in land rather than money, attempting to build up estates that would give him a claim to higher status, albeit with only limited success. He did, however, hold on to some prime land in the center of Mantua, where late in life he built a stately residence and styled himself an aristocrat. In this context he also designed his own tomb and funerary chapel in the Mantuan church of San Andrea, which made clear the self-image that he wished to display to those who judged his identity after his death. As one enters the chapel one’s eye is caught by the bronze bust of Mantegna, whose stern gaze commands the viewer’s attention in a classic pose that recalls that of ancient Roman emperors, an association emphasized by the purple porphyry and white Istrian stone in which the bronze is set. Crowned by a laurel wreath, the image has an inscription that makes absolutely clear the painter’s intentions and claims to a unique glory. In Latin it proclaims: “You who view the bronze image of Mantegna, know that he is the equal if not superior to Apelles.” Thus the painter figured himself not merely as an aristocrat of Mantua or as one of the greatest painters of his day, but as the equal of the ancient Apelles, widely accepted as the greatest painter of antiquity. In such works and with such self-styling, artisans were becoming artists, a long-drawn-out transition that would gain ground as the fifteenth century closed and across the sixteenth century with figures like Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was in many ways ideally suited to being made into not just an artist, but an eccentric genius. For it might be suggested, with a touch of irony, that among his many exceptional skills he had one often-unrecognized attribute that particularly suited him to being lionized – he completed so little of what he set out to do that he was virtually a blank slate upon which others could inscribe their vision of his greatness. Yet aside from a time in Rome, where he was outshone by a group of painters and sculptors led by Raphael and Michelangelo, he always managed to shine, perhaps because he was also a consummate courtier, full of ideas and ready to offer his patrons whatever they desired, whether it be decorations for festive events, feats of engineering, military secrets, or major works of art.

Born near Vinci, he was the illegitimate son of a notary and (reportedly) a peasant woman – clearly well below the level of an increasingly aristocratic social elite. Like more fortunate illegitimate children, however, his father raised him as a regular member of the family and apparently attempted to prepare him to be a notary. His eventual rejection of that career may explain his late apprenticeship at the age of fifteen to the Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio. One of the few certain things about this period of his life is that he was still a member of Verrocchio’s household nine years later, when he appears in archival records at the age of twenty-four accused and acquitted of a charge of sodomy. Verrocchio and his shop were well known for stressing design and draftsmanship, and both played a major role in Leonardo’s career. His sketches of virtually everything that caught his interest and his intensive use of drawing and draftsmanship to represent his ideas in his much-studied notebooks suggest that he mastered these techniques early on and to impressive effect. Interestingly, however, the early paintings or parts of paintings attributed to him done with Verrocchio seem to take design in a different direction, eschewing the sharply modeled forms of his drawing for softer forms that play with light and shade and often seem to dissolve into background shadows – a technique associated with his mature style, labeled chiaroscuro (literally, light to dark or shaded).

Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) in his Vite de’ più eccellenti architetti, pittori e scultori italiani (Lives of the Most Famous Italian Architects, Painters and Sculptors), first published in 1550, which in many ways established the canon of the great painters of the Rinascimento, ever ready to make Leonardo legendary, reported that sometime in the 1470s Verrocchio asked his pupil to help him with a commission for a painting of John the Baptist baptizing Christ (Illustration 7.9). In the lower left-hand corner of the painting there are two angels painted in decidedly different styles. The angel on the right, nearest Christ, has sharply defined features and clothing; the one on the left is much more ethereal, with soft shading defining his features and clothing, demonstrating a chiaroscuro technique. They seem to cry out for the explanation that Vasari provided, or at least part of it: for he reported that Verrocchio painted the angel on the right, while his pupil did the angel on the left, an attribution that many have accepted. But he then went on to claim that Verrocchio was so depressed by the superiority of Leonardo’s angel that he never painted again. Whether true or not, this again was clearly the stuff of legend – making the artisan Leonardo both an artist and a work of Vasari’s literary art as well.


7.9. Verrocchio (and Leonardo), John the Baptist Baptizing Christ, 1470s, for the Monastery of San Salvi, now in Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York.

As much of Leonardo’s work from this early period was done in the context of Verrocchio’s workshop, it was unclear which works or which parts of works were actually by him or were merely recognized as such at the time. In fact, much of the painting that is attributed to him today was not attributed to him then; in turn, as his reputation grew, a considerable amount of work attributed to him apparently was not his. It seems, however, that from the first, Leonardo enjoyed the designing of paintings more than the actual painting; thus he produced dozens of drawings before embarking on a work and frequently lost interest thereafter, leaving the work unfinished or to be completed by others. The most noted example of this is yet another Magi painting, his uncompleted Adoration of the Magi (Illustration 7.10). It was to be a major painting on that theme so popular with the Medici in the Monastery of San Donato not far from Florence and suggests that by that date (1480) he already had enough of a reputation to garner such a commission. What remains of the project are a number of preliminary drawings and what appears to be his preparatory underpainting in monochrome variations of brown. That underpainting, now hanging in the Uffizi, seems rich with unusually intense expressions and violent movement, which, had the work been completed, would have provided a highly original and expressive treatment of the subject.


7.10. Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, 1481–82 unfinished, for San Donato a Scopeto, now in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Photo: Alinari/Art Resource, New York.

But Leonardo left it unfinished when in 1482 he moved on to one of the most promising courts of the day, the Milanese court of Ludovico il Moro Sforza. Apparently growing restless in Florence and perhaps anxious to escape the task of finishing his painting, he wrote Sforza a letter offering him those skills he hoped as an artisan/courtier would win him Il Moro’s patronage. He began by promising military “secrets,” which he knew would appeal to a ruler whose power still turned on his military abilities and whose position in Milan was rather shaky. The extensive list of military machines and techniques that he offered as secrets that he alone knew, however, eventually gave way to broader claims: “In time of peace I believe I can give full satisfaction equal to anyone in architecture and planning buildings…. I can do sculpture in marble, bronze, and clay and also painting.” He continued with a point that he knew was close to the heart of Sforza, offering to work on the large bronze equestrian statue that Il Moro was planning in honor of his father, Francesco Sforza.

Once again it seems clear that at thirty years old Leonardo already had enough of a reputation to garner Ludovico’s attention and patronage. When he arrived in Milan, Sforza entrusted him with a number of major projects, including the major equestrian statue. The project was particularly important in Ludovico’s eyes because it stressed his direct descent from the first Sforza ruler of the city, at a moment when he was not eager to give up his rule to his young nephew Gian Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the legitimate ruler of Milan, who was coming of age and ready to claim his rule. The planned statue was to have been truly monumental, over 20 feet high and requiring more than 200 tons of bronze. Drawings by Leonardo indicate that he originally wanted to innovate on traditional equestrian statues, which were modeled on Roman exemplars that featured a ruler mounted in a regal pose on a magnificent but static charger, opting instead for a much more dynamic rearing horse and warrior twisting in the fury of battle. The problem was how to arrange the weight of such a large mass of bronze with the horse standing only on its hind legs. Had he worked out the technical problems, the statue would have been a massive monument not only to Francesco Sforza, but also to the creativity and technical ability of Leonardo. In the end, however, he opted for a more traditional horse, standing safely on all four legs, and fashioned a large mock-up of the statue in clay showing what glory he had the potential to add to his patron and his court – and, in turn, showing him as an exceptional artisan/courtier. Unfortunately, it was never cast as Il Moro found he had other, more pressing needs for the bronze in the form of cannons.

During this period Leonardo also painted a number of portraits, although again more were apparently attributed to him than he actually completed. The most famous, and almost certainly his, is The Woman in Ermine, often identified as a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, Ludovico’s mistress. He also did the central panel of an altarpiece in the Church of San Francesco Grande, known as the Virgin of the Rocks. Apparently the picture was repainted in several different versions, but the one now in the Louvre displays Leonardo’s use of shadow and light to define his figures in the brooding and evocative setting of a glade bounded by strange and haunting rock formations – a picture that has evoked wonder and a wide range of interpretations (Illustration 7.11). But his most famous painting during his stay in Milan was his Last Supper (1494–1498), painted in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie (Illustration 7.12). Unfortunately, although for once he actually finished it, it began to deteriorate almost immediately. Leonardo had always been interested in experimenting with new mediums, and in this case he attempted to use a mixture of oil and tempera painted on dry plaster, which would allow finer detail than traditional frescoing techniques. The problem was that while it allowed him to repaint and develop finer detail, the paint did not adhere well to the plaster. Even in his lifetime, then, the work began to break down, with paint peeling off in spots. Still, for the short time it lasted, the picture was a marvel, especially with its masterful use of perspective, portrayal of powerful emotions, and figures in motion, all with Leonardo’s famous use of the evocative play of shadow and light in chiaroscuro to give the figures a soft human glow. Vasari, a half-century later, while declaring it one of Leonardo’s greatest works, lamented that it had become little more than a spot on the wall.


7.11. Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin of the Rocks, 1483–1508, Louvre, Paris. © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, New York.


7.12. Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1494–98, refectory, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Photo: Scala/Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali/Art Resource, New York.

In Milan Leonardo also worked assiduously on depicting and playing with his ideas in his notebooks, where one can see him working on plans for building churches, monuments, fortifications, and even cities; constructing various kinds of weapons and engines; and studying the human body based upon dissection. But he was careful to keep his notebooks secret – in the tradition of artisans keeping their technical skills secret – and thus they were virtually unknown until rediscovered in the modern era. Safely secret, however, they did indirectly add to his fame in his day as they remained secrets he could offer to his potential patrons to glorify them and their courts. In that context, the marriage of the young Beatrice d’Este to Ludovico il Moro in 1491 made his court an even more important stage for Leonardo’s growing fame as more than an artisan. Although she was only fifteen when she came to Milan, this younger sister of Isabella d’Este quickly enlivened the court life of the Sforzas. And she conscripted Leonardo as the perfect artisan/courtier to use his artistic and engineering skills to glorify the court. Pageants, great dinners, and the games and play of the court all displayed and made use of his fertile creativity. Unfortunately, much of what he created for the court was ephemeral and has left little but enthusiastic reports. Still, at the time such works also added to his reputation, especially at the courts of the Este in Ferrara and the Gonzaga in Mantua. At the latter, Isabella d’Este, sister of Beatrice, would pester him for years to do her portrait, and her pleading letters speak eloquently of his by-then impressive reputation.

Leonardo’s Milanese days and his Sforza patronage were cut short when the French invaded Milan in 1499. For a time Leonardo journeyed around Italy seeking a new court and patron. A short stay in Mantua probably provided the opportunity for him to do his sketch of Isabella now in the Louvre; he then moved on to Venice, where he seems to have served as a military engineer working on defensive works; but after a short visit to Rome he was back in Florence in 1501, about to turn fifty and securely established as one of the leading figures of his day. By the summer of 1502 he had returned to his military and engineering interests, joining Cesare Borgia as he attempted to carve out a state for himself in the Romagna. With the death of Cesare’s father, Pope Alexander VI, in 1503 and the collapse of his rule, Leonardo returned to Florence, where he worked on a number of large projects for the city, including developing plans to make the Arno navigable from Florence to the sea; designing fortifications; and perhaps even working on a scheme of Machiavelli’s to isolate Pisa by diverting the Arno from flowing through that city.

During this same period he embarked on one of his most potentially impressive commissions. After the fall of the Medici, the republican government experimented with reforms with an eye to creating a lasting republic. One of their schemes was to create a Great Council on the model of Venice; thus, in the Palazzo della Signoria they built a large chamber where the council could meet, and by the early 1500s they had decided to decorate it with large murals depicting Florence’s great victories, presumably influenced in this by a similar series of paintings in the Great Council chambers in Venice. Thus the city fathers decided to hire two of the most famous painters of the day to do major paintings depicting important moments of Florentine glory on facing walls of the chamber – Leonardo and his younger contemporary Michelangelo. Each painting was to be about twenty-three feet high and fifty-six feet wide, with Leonardo doing the 1440 victory of Florence over Milan at the Battle of Anghiari and Michelangelo doing the 1364 victory over Pisa at Cascina.

This direct confrontation caught the attention of contemporaries and suggests how their artistic reputations had lifted both, as individuals of genius, high above the common herd of artisan painters. Unfortunately, what had shaped up to be a classic artistic confrontation managed to fail on almost every front. Michelangelo did some preparatory drawings, but then the new Pope Julius II insisted that he return to Rome to work on a previously commissioned monumental tomb project. Leonardo got further, apparently even beginning to paint, but he too soon left for other commissions. The final failure was that the Grand Council, and the Florentine republican government itself fell to the Medici in 1512, as we shall see. Ironically, whatever Leonardo actually painted on the wall of the Grand Council chamber was eventually covered over by frescoes of other battle scenes, painted in the 1560s by none other than the painter/critic Vasari, who so touted Leonardo’s glory. This failed confrontation of greats did generate, however, numerous copies of the two artists’ preliminary drawings that were put on public display. Peter Paul Rubens, for example, did a powerful sketch apparently based on Leonardo’s work, which is fascinating for its depiction of the emotions of battle, for both men and horses, and the violent motion and contortions of the figures. Had the final pictures painted had this intensity, the confrontation would have been truly impressive.

Over the next few years, as a noted artist and engineer, Leonardo moved restlessly between patrons and cities, mainly Florence, Rome, and Milan, taking on major engineering projects, most of which were not completed, and painting, apparently with less enthusiasm. To this period, however, probably belong his most famous paintings: his Saint John the Baptist and Mona Lisa. Both, however, were little viewed in his own day and were known largely by reputation. In fact, scholars have pointed out that Vasari’s laudatory account of the Mona Lisa is so inaccurate that it almost seems to be describing a different picture – not surprisingly, as the painting had left Italy with Leonardo for France when Vasari was still a child. That trip to France to serve the new French king, Francis I, was the final confirmation of Leonardo’s greatness for contemporaries. Benvenuto Cellini, the noted sculptor, who had trouble accepting the greatness of anyone but himself, could not help but admit that the French king, “being extremely taken with his great virtù, took so much pleasure in hearing him reason, that he was apart from him but a few days a year.” Still, Cellini could not resist suggesting that Leonardo did not impress the king so much because of his accomplishments in “sculpture, painting, and architecture” as because he was an impressive courtier.

Those accomplishments were enshrined, however, in Vasari’s account of Leonardo, which proclaimed him as the artist who finally accomplished the rebirth (rinascita) of ancient art after two centuries of preparation. Much in the spirit of the day, Vasari claimed not only that Leonardo’s work was a gift from God and divinely inspired, but that his very person was imbued with God-given beauty, grace, and talent. Once again in such compliments physical beauty was not just an attribute, it was an outer sign of inner perfection and in this case the power to create true art – in turn making the artist a genius, unique, and almost literally a work of art. His extensive descriptions of Leonardo’s art, however, asserted Vasari’s deeper vision of what separated the artist from the artisan and the work of art from a mere painting – disegno.

The term might be translated as “drawing,” but that falls rather short of what Vasari was trying to evoke. For while he was enthusiastic about the way Leonardo’s drawing allowed him to reproduce the natural world so precisely and seemed to make his painting and the figures depicted come alive, true art and true disegno involved more. It required seeing the deeper true reality – the disegno – in Platonic terms, the true eternal Form behind the material form of an object, and literally drawing it forth in a painting; thus, it required that a painter go beyond technique to discover the deeper truth in things and in the composition of a painting. Crucially, for Vasari and his peers a mere artisan was incapable of such a deep understanding and was thus limited to technical ability at best.Disegno, however – requiring, as it did, a rare and deep understanding of the very nature of things – was the skill of the great ancient artists reborn in modern artists and their art – an artistic rinascimento in Italy that made it unique and glorious, along with an elite group of artisans who had become artists and works of art themselves.

Aristocrats as Works of Art: Dress and the Display of Power and Status

Yet for all the claims of Vasari and of figures like Mantegna, Botticelli, Leonardo, and other would-be aristocratic artists, they were merely a sidelight of a much broader tendency to fashion individuals as works of art, closely tied to the increasingly aristocratic world of the second phase of the Rinascimento. In a more easily visible way, clothing, jewelry, material accessories, along with perfumes and cosmetics – for men as well as women – all helped to materialize and create the individual as a work of art . Returning to Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, one thing that breaks down the anonymity of his small crowd of participants (along with faces, expressions, and gestures) is their clothing and the accoutrements that go with it. Hats are quite variegated, with skull caps interspersed with narrow-brimmed, multicolored hats flaunting an occasional jaunty feather, a couple of turbanlike headdresses, and a broader-brimmed hat in the background whose gold underside catches the light. The Medici, however, are hatless, as perhaps the situation warrants; and as the three Magi they sport hairstyles that are shorter and closer to the head than those of the other figures in the painting, especially Cosimo and Piero. Virtually all the others, including the young Lorenzo, wear their hair longer, covering their ears and reaching down to their collar or below, with fuller volume. Perhaps this was an allusion to a newer masculine hairstyle, underlining the fact that the elder Medici were from an earlier generation and already dead, or perhaps that they were older and more mature leaders.

The clothing of the Medici also set them apart from the crowd of their supporters. Cosimo’s dark, dignified robe is ennobled by gold work on the shoulders, while Piero wears a virtually royal reddish robe, lined, it appears, with ermine or some other expensive material that makes him seem virtually imperial. But once again the picture is framed by two figures whose clothing along with their expressions and poses make them stand apart, the young Lorenzo de’ Medici and Botticelli. As noted earlier, Lorenzo expresses a youthful magnificence that his stylish clothing highlights. Just as his father and his grandfather stand out from the crowd not just because of their positions, expressions, and poses, but also because of their clothing, so too does Lorenzo, whose short purple doublet, stylishly slitted to reveal a glimpse of his bottom; form-fitting hose, which leave no doubt about his shapely legs; and suede boots all virtually shout that he is quite a work of art. Moreover, in virtually all these things he is notably different from his father and grandfather. He is a Medici, but he is much more – virtually a Lorenzo the Magnificent – as his clothing proclaims.

Yet perhaps the most intriguingly dressed figure in the painting is Botticelli himself. Certainly, for all his foregrounding, his baggy ochre/yellow robes, which today look more like a bathrobe than the elegant costumes that surround him, appear to suggest a kind of humility that everything else about his self-portrait seems to belie. In fact, their cut suggests monkish robes and perhaps a humble religious place in a scene that is as much about political power and family importance as about religion. But his proud look and the rich border at the bottom of the robe create doubts about such a reading. A tempting but admittedly more problematic reading has been suggested, however, for yellow was the color that prostitutes were required to wear to distinguish themselves from honest women on the streets of many cities. Was Botticelli boldly distinguishing himself from the Medici by suggesting the parallel between the craftsman, who sold his labor and himself to the powerful for money, and the prostitute, who did much the same? Of course, his yellow robes might have been seen as gold or interpreted in any number of other ways by contemporaries, but in the end that is the point. Clothing also served to individuate people, and, in modes of dress, the upper classes especially found an important venue for creating themselves as individual works of art.

Of course, as Botticelli’s picture underlines, clothing and the accoutrements of dress were also crucial for family identity. In fact, most accounts of dress during the period tend to focus on the ways families used clothing to demonstrate their social place and power. Recently this way of seeing dress has been suggestively expanded by arguing that the emphasis on style and on dressing elegantly was itself the beginning of modern consumer society in the Rinascimento, with clothing becoming the first form of conspicuous consumption. Some have gone a step further and argued that things like elegant dress, along with a growing use of cosmetics and perfumes, were an important means for women to express themselves as individuals during a period that stressed female silence and passivity. Certainly these broader ways of seeing dress, consumption, and women’s relationship to both add suggestive new topics for research, even if one must always be wary of firsts of anything, especially something like modern consumer culture. It may be more useful to think simply about the role of consumption in the culture of the time and not worry about firsts. For it is clear that the way in which dressing well and using cosmetics related to upper-class women and their expression of self and power was particularly important in the increasingly aristocratic world of the day.

Any broad claims, however, are complicated by the fact that even the trajectory of the development of style and ways of dressing across the period is still difficult to trace, especially given local, class, and gender variations and the sources, which are so variegated and dispersed that it is hard to generalize. On a very general level, however, it seems that across the fourteenth and into the fifteenth century, with significant variations from city to city, men’s clothing became shorter, tighter, and exposed more and more of the body, while women’s clothing moved in the opposite direction, becoming longer and covering more of the body. Older men tended to stick with long, free-flowing robes, at times consciously compared to the ancient Roman toga, even if in fact quite different. But the younger and the more stylish tended to opt for shorter and shorter doublets over stockings that fitted the legs tightly and often incorporated leather patches under the foot that served as a shoelike protection.

Moralists worried about the exposure that such short doublets and tight stockings created; even Boccaccio noted rather delicately that when women looked “at their lower parts … it is easily understandable that they are male.” One prominent Franciscan preacher of the fifteenth century, referring to the same exposure caused by tights, was less reserved, fuming, “[B]oth in front and in back [they serve] to display the parts most obscene and dishonest, almost as disgracefully as if they were nude.” In the second half of the fifteenth century the effect was literally augmented with the addition of the newly fashionable codpiece (braghetta), which in theory covered, but often displayed, the male genitals and was often imaginatively designed to enhance them.

Women’s clothing seemed to go in the other direction, with upper-class women wearing longer and longer dresses, often with a high waist that pushed up the breasts. A great deal of legislation attempted to restrict the resultant exposure of cleavage, apparently with some success if the high necklines of women in many paintings are any measure. Preachers, however, continued to rail against the ongoing exposure and, in what might seem a countertendency, some art also suggests that breasts were seeing the light of day above fashionable dresses as never before. Long trains that necessitated hitching up the dress when climbing stairs and allowed the possibility of a brief glimpse of a shoe or even an ankle were also popular among the upper classes. They also required trailing servants to keep their expensive fabric out of the mud and dirt of the streets. “Expensive” was key, as the fine fabrics used for upper-class clothing was very costly, and the more of it a woman displayed, the richer she, her husband, and his family appeared. A layered look with expensive blouses of fine fabrics under looser-fitting overjackets, often with detachable sleeves that allowed several different-colored sleeves to be attached, created different color combinations and looks and offered the opportunity to exhibit additional wealth. Later in the period puffy outer sleeves that often grew to impressive size were added, and it became stylish to slit them to allow the high-quality fabric beneath to show through. In sum, it was display, display, display, even as, paradoxically, men became less covered and women more.

In one area, however – footwear – the trajectory was shared between the sexes, as the fascinating studies of Michelle Laughran and Andrea Vianello have shown. There had been a time, as many preachers and moral commentators were apt to recall, when more humble ancestors were content to go about barefoot or with simple wooden clogs. In the fourteenth century, if not a bit earlier, that began to change, with upper-class males adopting shoes with a long pointed toe made of leather, cloth, or a combination of both.The more delicate of these were often worn on top of wooden clogs to protect them from the dirt and grime of the streets. As the style caught on, the length of the point tended to grow to what some lamented were virtually phallic proportions. Again moralists decried these phallic shoes and lamented their impact on morality. The felt danger of such shoes, in fact, seems to suggest deeper concerns, perhaps related to uncertainties about male development and sexual performance.

Curiously, in this one area, women’s fashions followed men’s; for as the fourteenth century progressed, women in city after city began to take up this phallic shoe style as well, with the long pointed toes of their shoes sticking out from under their long, flowing robes. Perhaps to protect these expensive fashion statements or perhaps to show them off more effectively, taller and more elegant clogs were developed that, when the shoe was inserted in them, lifted the shoe and wearer above the less elegant and the grime of the streets. With time these chopines (called in various cities pianelle, zoccoli, sibre, calcagnetti, chiapinetti) grew from an original few inches to a foot or more in height, raising the women who wore them above most men and requiring yet longer dresses and trains of servants to help them move about the city (Illustration 7.13). Eventually they became fashionable throughout Europe, but they were particularly popular, famous, and infamous in Venice. Already in the fifteenth century male visitors to that city were intrigued and troubled by upper-class women who paraded regally through the streets, towering over everyone. Size clearly did matter, and not just in codpieces and pointed shoes, but also in the commanding presence of a richly dressed woman – a work of art once again – literally sailing placidly above the lesser folk who crowded the streets. Such stature involved multiple dangers in the eyes of commentators, threatening social order, gender distinctions, and merely staying erect, not just in Venice, but across the cities of the peninsula and later across Europe.


7.13. Chopines. Life-shoes. © Mark Blinch/Reuters/Corbis.

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, however, found governments giving more and more time and attention to trying to control the way people dressed and presented themselves in public. Once again consensus realities came into play, because the laws that were passed to control dress and other forms of consumption, usually labeled sumptuary laws, were almost exclusively aimed at social moments of display – banquets, weddings, parties, and even funerals – that is, the venues where groups formed consensus realities about a family or an individual. These laws were often passed in the name of civic morality, stressing that excessive display undermined the moral fabric of the city because it was immodest, sinful, and also because it wasted wealth that could be used for the betterment of society. Yet there was a deep tensionin this vision. For while too much display was a waste of wealth and potentially sinful in its appeal to vanity, at the same time clothing and festivities were seen as legitimate and virtually required markers of status in the socially more complex world of the time.

Clothing and display not only made (and identified) the man (and the woman) and the family, they were also essential in doing so in a society where status was judged and negotiated via consensus realities. Alberti expressed this tension well in hisIntercenales(Dinner Pieces), a series of short essays and dialogues presented as if they were for reading during dinner. In one of these dialogues, which discusses poverty, one of the speakers offers, “Consider what the public must think when they behold a prominent man’s family clothed with insufficient decorum, his horses neglected, and the master himself attired with not enough dignity – in short, the entire house less sumptuous and elegant … than public customs and standards require.” With the reference to “public customs and standards” we are clearly in the realm of consensus realities, judging a family and its individuals via their dress and display. Failing to display same implied that one was poor, and the speakers in the dialogue agree that appearing to be poor is a disgrace not to be countenanced: “… we must completely shun the very name of poverty. For hand in hand with an indigent condition, there goes the reputation for instability, impudence, audacity, crimes and vices…. He [the man who appears to be poor] is excluded from friendships, and driven from the intimate and habitual familiarity of other citizens…. He walks about in gloom, unwelcome, suspect, abject, and derided.” Again consensus realities determine the social reality of an individual, and not dressing and displaying oneself correctly leads to social disaster.

Of course, clothing had long served the purpose of identifying who mattered. Yet, as Alberti’s speakers reveal, what had changed was that in the more economically mobile, more socially complex, and more judgmental urban world of fourteenth and fifteenth century Italy, such evaluations had become the very measure of a man and his family; making clothing and display ever-more significant markers. Moreover, as portions of the popolo grosso became more aristocratic and intermixed with those among the older nobility who had maintained some status and wealth, and as new men and their families rose up to positions of power and prestige, the calculations of who truly belonged on top of society required a veritable social calculus to work out who really mattered. In such complex calculations, dress and display played a crucial role, and governments, while they were interested in limiting the wasteful and immoral aspects of both, recognized at the same time that both were necessary to identify true aristocrats. Thus sumptuary legislation was a tricky business, seemingly always balanced on the knife edge of a difficult-to-determine golden mean between too much display and not enough.

This may explain why it appears that while much legislation was passed and repassed, it was rarely enforced. Approximately 300 programs of sumptuary legislation survive from the forty largest cities of Italy between 1200 and 1500. More than sixty sets of regulations on women’s clothing alone exist from the fifteenth century, mainly concerned with assuring that women dressed correctly for their social position. Aristocrats needed to be aristocratic, without being unnecessarily so, although what that meant was a matter for debate, especially in the fifteenth century as competition for status became more and more intense. Display at lower social levels, however, tended to be increasingly restricted, especially when there appeared to be some danger of the lower classes dressing and passing as their “betters.” Actually, the high quality of upper-class clothes helped make this possible, as they tended not to wear out, fostering a significant market in used sumptuous clothing, which allowed some people lower down the social scale to buy the kind of finery that indicated higher status. The newer rich also could use clothing and jewelry to insist upon their new, higher status. But perhaps the most feared crimes of display, as we might call them, were associated with upper-level prostitutes, who often bought or were given by their patrons clothing that allowed them to pass as, or even seem to surpass, upper-class women. Such social confusion was anathema, not just because of its challenge to the hierarchical vision of society, but also because it threatened to undermine the moral basis of society and, once again, its civic morality.

But, crucially for our analysis, what stands out in all this is the way an individual by dressing fashioned himself or herself in a public display of personal and family identity, becoming in the end a complex work of social art presented for all to judge. It is significant in this context that sumptuary laws, often in conjunction with fire-breathing preachers, singled out women for condemnation: daughters of Eve (who, with a certain irony, supposedly committed her original sin unclothed) who in their vanity wasted the wealth of their husbands and their families in order to make themselves seductive and superior. This was the height of the negative vision of the individual as a work of art, for from this perspective an individual woman by her mode of dress was capable of threatening a host of the central tenants of civic morality and social order. She might squander the resources of her husband and his family; could seduce other males from their duties, wives, and families; might set a dangerous example for others; could disrupt the community with her vanity; and would certainly undermine its prosperity; and all that with the added danger of losing her soul for the numerous sins involved. Daughters of Eve indeed.

Obviously not all agreed with these sentiments, especially women. In 1453 the Bolognese noblewoman Nicolosa Sanuti, mistress of Sante Bentivoglio, signore of the city, and wife of Nicolò Sanuti, the count of Porretta, took umbrage at the sumptuary law promulgated by Cardinal Bessarion, papal legate to the city at the time. Bessarion, probably pressed by popular enthusiasm whipped up in the city by the Lenten sermons preached against the vanity and sinful dress of women, issued his laws in May of that year. As a result, he soon found himself the addressee of a short treatise in Latin by Nicolosa, not just defending a woman’s right to wear what she wanted, but also defending women from the unjust order of the day, as she saw it. Or at least upper-class women – for her text makes clear that the women she was referring to most directly were upper-class women like herself, not all women. Sanuti began her defense proclaiming, “[W]ho would be so weak or passive, what woman so lacking in learning, what woman so lacking in spirit, that she would not speak in favor of the restoration, defense, and preservation of her adornments.” Custom, honor, and virtù, she insisted, all required that upper-class women dress richly, and not simply for their own honor, but for the city itself: “[Given that] virtually all popolo ranking below us in fame and dignity employ these signs of virtù, would it not be dishonorable and evil for the women of Bologna who are most deserving of such adornments to be denied them [?] … If we exceed others in virtù, should we not be able to match them or even surpass them in that display which is the proof of virtù?” Cleverly, Sanuti had turned the defense of civic morality to her support and implicitly suggested not only that the requirement of having well-dressed women was necessary for the reputation of the city, but that women and their virtù were an important part of the civic community in their own right.

And not content with that implied claim, returning to first times and firsts, she outlined a number of things that women had contributed to society, including reading and writing, agriculture, and the working of cloth. But she concluded more modestly: “Thevirtù[of women] should have its due. Allow her the use of her just signs. Even conceding lesser importance [for women] their dignities should not be unjustly taken away. Offices are not given to women, nor do they compete for priesthoods, military triumphs or the spoils of war, for these are the traditional rewards of men. Still adornments and decorations we will not allow to be taken from us, for they are the signs of our virtù.” Sanuti stresses throughout her treatise that clothing serves as a sign of the most important things a woman possesses, ultimately even her virtù – no small claim. Bessarion, from the height of his masculine power, did not respond to Sanuti, but with time laxity won out over enforcement, and the most aristocratic women of Bologna continued to display the signs of their virtù, at least in dress.

To a great extent, however, attacks on women and their expenditures on clothing and vanity were a red herring. For although some aristocratic women did buy clothing, and some may have made it for their trousseaus, in most cases clothing, jewelry, and other adornments for women were bought by men. It was in their interest and the interest of their families to present their wives in public in a way that demonstrated their wealth and power. As was the case in portraits, but on a more daily level, the dress of a wife helped to create her as a work of art that spoke directly to the groups that judged individuals and families via consensus realities. Thus, although moralists and preachers tended not to focus on it, usually the men who bought women’s clothing and adornments did so carefully calculating the way such clothing served as an investment: first, obviously, in terms of the simple value of the goods involved – both jewelry and expensive clothing held their value and could be converted back into money when necessary – and, more importantly, in terms of status and display; and finally, not to be overlooked, as a sign of respect and perhaps even affection for a wife who was socialized to appreciate such gestures.

Crucial for all of this was the cost of clothing, especially the sumptuous clothing required to demonstrate upper-class status. In many ways clothing was the Rinascimento equivalent of the modern car – the area where the greatest amount of a family’s disposable income was displayed. Estimates vary, but it appears that more than a third of the expenses of an upper-class family went for the purchase of clothing, and it was not rare for a fine dress to cost more than the yearly salary of an artisan. And when decorated with pearls or interwoven with threads of gold or other precious metals, it could equal the cost of a small house. In this light it is not surprising to note that most of a wife’s clothing belonged to her husband, and unless specified otherwise in his will, when her husband died the clothing returned to his family, leaving a widow with only what she had brought to the marriage in her dowry or with what her husband decided to will to her.

For the lower classes there was obviously less opportunity to use dress to create oneself as a work of art, although sumptuary laws reveal a fear of the possibility. But there were other ways to create a distinctive self in the urban world of the Rinascimento that we are just beginning to appreciate. Most colorful, perhaps, were the many mountebanks, charlatans, and hucksters who moved on the margins of more normal society and who carefully crafted themselves as interesting works of art in order to sell their products in the squares and markets of the day. More integrated into society were the many lower-class women healers and cunning women who are virtually invisible in the historical records. All these, and undoubtedly others whose lives are largely lost to us today, survived by creating identities that set them apart in some significant way and made them valuable, respected, or dangerous members of their communities – and this often required a careful self-fashioning and negotiation with the groups that surrounded them to become individual works of art.

Constructing Scholars and Intellectuals as Works of Art

Yet it is scholars and intellectuals who seem to cry out to be labeled the most complex and significant individuals created as works of art in the Rinascimento. In some ways the rethinking of a number of outstanding artisans as artists that began in the fifteenth century, and that reached a sort of climax with the famed artists of the sixteenth century, merely followed a trajectory similar to the earlier development of the scholar and the intellectual as special categories of individuals with an exceptional virtù that warranted a certain elite status. Of course, outstanding scholars, writers, and thinkers were not a novelty during the period. In the Middle Ages there had been a flourishing group of great thinkers, writers, poets, and scholars, but they were invariably associated with the few great courts, as scribes or bards, or with the Church and its universities. In fact, most were seen as part of a clerical community that dominated the intellectual life of the day or as humble servants of princes or high nobility. Only the most prominent gained greater status, but virtually never were they confused with the social elite or the ruling classes.

With the Rinascimento that began to change. Even in the thirteenth century in the cities of northern Italy, following in the tradition of troubadour poets and southern Italian court poets, writers, often from a scribal or legally trained university background, began to make a name for themselves writing poetry in Latin and the vernacular, as we have seen. A few notaries, scribes, and others among the popolo who could write were also penning works that celebrated their cities’ past, present, and future and again making a name for themselves doing so. But it was perhaps the association of their ideas and writings with the ancient world, both Roman and biblical, that accelerated their recognition as a new form of elite, because, of course, that association made their status claims not new, but safely old, not a novelty but just another rinascimento – a rebirth of the elite scholars and intellectuals who had made the ancient world great, a claim that would be pressed still harder as humanists emerged at the end of the fifteenth century and attempted to assert their intellectual discipline and leadership.

But once again the process was much more broadly based, for across the Rinascimento universities founded in the Middle Ages in Italy and throughout Europe continued to be important centers for intellectual life. In addition, the Church not only continued to support intellectuals, but consciously expanded its support of some of the most important of the day by giving them positions in its increasingly scholarly bureaucracy. But for all this tradition that could be traced back to earlier times, a sea change was occurring, for many of the intellectuals who served in the Church bureaucracy moved in and out of that service in pursuit of scholarly careers and recognition as intellectuals that warranted an elite status in its own right, not merely as “humble” servants of the Church, as we have seen. The same was true of university professors, who moved in and out of universities as finding rich and powerful patrons permitted or as places at courts opened up. Perhaps the most significant sign of the change, however, was the way in which a number of members of the upper classes and social elites also took up intellectual pursuits – fashioning themselves as complex works of art that were to be viewed as significant for much more than their family wealth, their birth, or their power in the world. In sum, they began fashioning themselves as part of an intellectual elite and shared that status with poets, writers, and thinkers, whose intellectual accomplishments were allowing them to transcend their more humble origins. The unlikelihood of that strange alliance between intellectuals drawn from aristocratic families and intellectuals of more humble origins is often taken for granted in the Rinascimento, perhaps masking the fact that such an unlikely alliance was remarkably new and strange.

From that perspective, Petrarch’s careful and almost obsessively pursued self-fashioning takes on a richer meaning. He not only carefully revised his letters and poetry, or created his spiritual biography, to present himself to his various judging publics as a unique work of art, he literally reconstructed his entire life to this end, transforming himself from the son of a scribe into an intellectual leader of his society and his day. And, not surprisingly, his program turned on stressing his own intellect and superior sensibility via his love poetry – which often seems to pay more attention to his love of self than his love of Laura – and his search for classical texts and call for the revival of a lost ancient, noble Roman world. Notably, he imagined that world as one in which his intellectual heroes were cultural leaders and members of a singular elite, like himself. And, of course, the contemporary consensus realities that judged him as an individual largely agreed. Dante had earlier followed a similar ennobling strategy, with perhaps a bit more humility – although it must be admitted that the hubris of a member of the popolo grosso of Florence (and an exiled member accused of embezzling funds at that) imagining himself as singled out to be led by Virgil through Hell and Purgatory on the way to his own private beatific vision of God and Paradise, aided by his childhood love, Beatrice, is amazing at the least, and decidedly artful as well.

These famed writers should not blind us, however, to the fact that in the fourteenth century there was a much broader scribal world supported by other literate members of the popolo grosso who were also taken by the idea of recovering, reusing, and celebrating first times and garnering status by doing so. Local chroniclers returned over and over again to first times and celebrated the origins of their cities, earning them local recognition, fame, and sometimes even status. The Venetian Grand Chancellor Raffaino Caresini, for example, was legally granted noble status in part for his exceptional service to the city during wartime and in part for the fame he had earned as chancellor and as author of a laudatory chronicle of the city. It seems, however, that this was taken to new levels by the circle that surrounded the Florentine head of the chancellery, Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406), as we have seen. Not only was Salutati a scribe whose classical knowledge and skill in writing Latin marked him out as a cultural leader, he was recognized by his contemporaries as a powerful intellectual who created around himself an elite group of fellow scholars whose intellectual activities focused on the recovery of first times, Roman, Greek, and biblical. And significantly, that group included not only upwardly mobile scribes seeking to transform their learning into wealth and status, but also individuals who were already scions of rich and powerful families, like Niccolò Niccoli, who shared a deep interest in the same cultural revival.

Niccoli, from the perspective of the social order of his day, had no need to be considered a part of an intellectual elite, but nonetheless that goal was a driving force in his life, as was the case for a growing number of a progressively more aristocratic popolo grosso who saw in a life of classical scholarship and intellectual activity an additional elite status worth pursuing. For some already on top of society, a growing sense that status required more than wealth and family clearly contributed to this, as did, of course, the excitement of discovering a rich ancient culture that seemed capable of refashioning the very way of life of the day. For the more humble, who were, one might say, the shock troops of this new cultural elite – safely perceived, of course, as old – learning and intellectual attainment offered the possibility of status as well as the possibility of the patronage of the rich and powerful, who saw their services as increasingly necessary for their own prestige. Here in this complex mixing of status with cultural achievements and the more traditional claims of wealth, family, and power, Rinascimento intellectuals were forged as works of art on the road to that modern anomalous creature who asserts a certain elite status on the basis of intellectual merit, the scholar/intellectual.

Constructing a Few Upper-Class Women as Works of Art

It might seem an unlikely claim that women, both as rulers and as intellectuals, should be numbered among the most artfully created individuals of the day. Yet, as argued earlier, women, especially at higher social levels, were regularly dressed and adorned with care in order to demonstrate a family’s wealth and social position and in the process became works of art themselves. This use of women, as virtual billboards of status, made individual women stand out from and, with chopines, even above the crowd. But what was true for upper-class women in general was even more important at the highest levels of society, especially as demonstrating glory increasingly became a measure of elite status. Especially in two areas, this use of women to project glory or status was shifting the generally negative discourse on women in interesting directions, without, however, eliminating traditional negative stereotypes that made them the second sex. First, some families were beginning to celebrate their women writers and intellectuals as a way to increase their own status, supported in this by a few male intellectuals eager to piggyback on newfound female fame. Second, at more and more courts where male rulers earned their keep as warrior princes, women often ruled while they were at war. In doing so, a number not only gained, but also fashioned, glorious personalities of their own. As writers and rulers, then, a small but significant group of women emerged at what might be seen as the highest level of the individual as a work of art.

Virginia Cox, in her path-breaking study of women authors in the Rinascimento, Women’s Writing in Italy 1400–1600, impressively demonstrated the unrecognized depth and breadth of women’s writing during the period. But she also argued that in many ways the most noted secular women writers were often “constructions” of the male intellectuals who trumpeted their glory. Tracking this constructed vision of the female intellectual “hero” back to Petrarch’s letters and Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus (On Famous Women), she traced a tradition of male writers celebrating women, both as exceptional rulers and as writers, in large part in order to advertise their own learning and to bond with like-minded male scholars celebrating women. Although these idealizations of women also tended to emphasize traditional values and negative stereotypes, they nonetheless stressed that some women of the past, and a few in the present, were capable of exceptional deeds.

Particularly important in this promoting of women as heroic – and as practically equal to men – was the genre of the letter, a literary genre, as noted earlier, ideal for gaining wide circulation and visibility. At one level letters by men praising exceptional women tend to read as quite conventional contributions to a traditional debate on the worth of women, often labeled the querelle des femmes, which was especially popular at the time. Often they reduced the women discussed to iconic stereotypes who displayed little beyond a limited range of virtù, at times even labeled “masculine.” But therein lays the ambiguity of such writing, and its potential for creating a woman as a work of art: for even if such encomiums tended to reduce impressive women to stereotypic topoi, eliminating their actual individuality, in celebrating their exceptionality they also refashioned them imaginatively as heroic individuals, effectively as works of art, and significant ones at that. Thus, even if written down as topoi, they could walk off the page to be imagined as exceptional individuals in a society where few such women were presumed to exist.

Moreover, unlike the warrior heroes of chivalric tales, who were denizens of a distant dream-time displaying forms of virtù that were often clearly fantasy, female leaders, intellectuals, and writers were increasing recognized in letters as living among the contemporary upper classes and displaying contemporary virtù. In fact, it became important in the fifteenth century to point out that contemporary women were capable of equaling not only the accomplishments of their modern male counterparts, but also those of ancient women and men, at least in the areas where women might compete with men. This meant, however, that making them heroic and exemplary helped to refashion them as special individuals worth considering more carefully. And, of course, as men pressed this status on a number of noteworthy women, it became increasingly important for every would-be major court or city to have its own women of note. In turn, at least at the level of the upper classes, there were a number of women who were already in fact playing roles of power or writing first-rate literature who were available to fill the role of heroic woman.

Many, both men and women, were not comfortable with this more public role for women as rulers, writers, and intellectuals. Certainly there was a strong tradition that required women to be passive, silent, obedient, and private. And women who acted otherwise could be, and were, attacked aggressively. Often they were portrayed as dangerously free and public, a portrayal that easily slid into typical misogynist claims of promiscuity and sexual license. Still, among aristocratic elites and especially at the princely courts, where high status served to a degree to protect women – a significant example of the way gender and status often intermixed – women rulers required respect, and women writers, if they chose their topics carefully, could be not only recognized but lionized. And in the process, proceeding with care, they too could contribute in a more instrumental way to constructing their own heroic status as rulers, intellectuals, and writers, subtly transforming themselves from objects of art created by men to self-fashioning agents negotiating their own consensus realities as individuals.

Following Cox’s lead, the career of Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti (1445–1510) opens a masculine window on this world of power, patronage, and celebration of women as individuals and works of art. Arienti is best known today for his Novelle Porrettane, a collection of sixty-one novelle in the tradition of the Decameron told by a group of gentlemen and ladies at the baths of Porretta, dedicated to Ercole d’ Este (1431–1505), lord of Ferrara. Although for most of his life he served the Bentivoglio family of his native city, Bologna, in various roles, as a writer he carefully cultivated the Este family and their nearby court. It is even reported that in the mid-nineties, as his rapport with the Bentivoglio declined and his annual stipend was cancelled, he solidified his ties to the Este by secretly serving them as an informant about Bolognese affairs. Whether that is true or not, in later years his ties to the Este court became more open and direct. Before that open shift to the Este, however, he carefully cultivated the powerful women in the Bentivoglio family, especially the colorful (and, according to some contemporaries, often too colorful), Ginevra Sforza (1440–1507), illegitimate daughter of Alessandro Sforza and wife of the ruler of the city, Giovanni II Bentivoglio (1443–1508; ruled 1463–1506).

Ginerva’s children were myriad, with thirteen living to adulthood. And, aside from a couple of daughters who became nuns, most played significant roles as condottieri, churchmen, and consorts of important figures. Giovanni contributed another seven illegitimate sons and at least four recognized illegitimate daughters. They were nothing if not fecund. Fecundity, however, was just a small part of Ginevra’s fame in her day as she quickly gained notoriety as the real power behind Giovanni’s rule. Her fame and power, in fact, were such that she was accused of associating with witches and practicing sorcery – accusations often aimed against powerful women. She was also widely criticized for her vanity and her penchant for sumptuous clothing and rich display, once again stereotypical attacks against powerful women. But perhaps most damning in the eyes of contemporaries was the cruel council she gave her husband in suppressing two of the conspiracies against his rule. The families of the accused conspirators, the Malvezzi and the Marescotti, in each case were aggressively punished with tortures, executions, and confiscations that seemed to many excessive, even at a time when excess was the rule. And once again the cruelty was attributed to the woman behind the man (in this case not all that behind). Beyond this virtually all-inclusive catalog of misogynist stereotypes against powerful women, it is difficult to know who Ginevra actually was, but it is clear that once again she had been constructed largely by males as a work of art – a cruel, evil, grasping work of art, but a work of art nonetheless.

Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti, however, responded to her power in another way more typical of courtiers. In the 1490s he published a work he had written earlier titled Gynevera de le clare donne (Ginevra, On Famous Women). Dedicated to her, it celebrated the greatness of thirty-three famous modern women, who he claimed were as great in virtù as any women of the ancient world. In stark contrast to contemporary attacks, he proclaimed that the citizens of Bologna shouted Ginevra’s name in the streets and lauded her virtù as surpassing that of the ancients; thus he had decided to write in praise of famous modern women like her who also surpassed the ancients. Summarizing her virtù, he gives space to the “fecundity of her womb” and the promise of her many children, but concludes by praising her “prudent councils,” her manners, piety, charity, “and finally the discrete splendor of all her ornaments and regal presence,” which made their city of Bologna “shine more [brilliantly] than gems or gold.” Literally a woman constructed as a work of art, he insists that “for these reasons as a woman, you are in no way inferior to the immeasurable virtù of your family and your illustrious husband.”

Once again there is room for considerable doubt about his imaginative account, but in presenting the opposite side of the coin to misogynist attacks, Arienti provides a clearer sense of the value of the coin itself. Ginevra makes or breaks her city. She is wife, mother, councilor, and literally the image of the magnificence of her Bologna and Bentivoglio rule. Perhaps no real woman could live up to either this praise or the opposing criticism, but there was no doubt that this woman was imagined as a powerful and important individual to be reckoned with. A contemporary painting in the family chapel in San Giacomo Maggiore in Bologna suggests this well, with Giovanni and Ginevra flanking the Madonna and Christ Child enthroned with their hands joined in prayer. She stands to the viewer’s left, slightly below the Madonna, he to the right. Both are virtually on the same scale as the Madonna, and below them stand their children, seven girls on the left under their mother and four boys on the right under their father. Ginevra, richly dressed, is literally presented as the other half of the ruling couple, in no way inferior to her mate. If anything, with her dynastic fecundity on display, before the Virgin with her own fertile promise in the Christ Child on display, Ginevra almost seems to outshine her consort in virtù and certainly is presented as in “no way inferior” to him.

The thirty-three modern women whom Arienti presents as being similarly blessed with exceptional virtù include rulers, warriors, and writers. Among the literary lights he includes Battista da Montefeltro, Isotta Nogarola, Ginevra Nogarola, Angela Nogarola, Ippolita Sforza, Battista Sforza da Montefeltro, and Caterina Virgri. Isotta Nogarola (1418–1466), along with her sister Ginevra (1419–1465), followed in the tradition of their aunt Angela, a poet of some note, and while still young the sisters gained a reputation for learning. Their development suggests the way a few women of the upper classes were encouraged in their studies by their families and by supportive male intellectuals, all interested in gaining prestige by promoting their skills. While still young their father died. He came from a noble family of Verona that was no longer as important as it had once been before the fall of the city to the Venetians, but still notable. After his death their mother groomed her daughters for a future different from the norm for noble girls, sending them to private teachers to master Latin and the classics, evidently with an eye to cultivating their intellectual talents and apparently in the hope that scholarly success would single them and their family out.

Arienti depicts both young women as attracting attention early on for their exceptional abilities in Latin – literally youthful prodigies. Ginevra, however, abandoned Latin to marry a nobleman and move to Brescia, leaving Isotta to pursue her studies and fame on her own. Following in the footsteps of many of her male compatriots, she displayed her Latin learning via letters written to the more famous male scholars of her day and eventually produced a collection of twenty-six of her most important missives in Latin. Arienti reserved his greatest praise, however, for her dialogue composed in Latin as an epistolary exchange with the Venetian patrician Lodovico Foscarini, Questio utrum Adam vel Eva magis peccavit (On the Question Whether Adam or Eve Was the Greater Sinner), remarking: “[S]he was learned in theology and philosophy which she used to write a great dialogue on which was the more serious sin in eating the apple, Adam’s or Eve’s.”

Lauding her familiarity with the Bible, which he claimed she knew almost “by heart,” and the theology of Church Fathers, especially Saint Augustine, he proclaimed the work a treatise of profound significance. Isotta argues that Eve’s was the lesser sin because she was a woman and more easily led astray – hardly a strong defense of female virtù or parity with males, but a clever argument in a dialogue that is rich with clever arguments on both side of the question. In fact, it has been suggested that Isotta may actually have composed both sides of the debate, merely giving the more traditional masculine argument to Foscarini, whom she had corresponded with and may have met while visiting Venice. Arienti summed up his compliments by claiming that “this Isotta was a religious and saintly woman … full of gravity and such great learning and eloquence that I believe that she surpassed every other most famous woman of antiquity.” Claiming that the present surpassed the ancient world, and did so in the form of an unmarried female scholar living on her own – one could hardly imagine a higher compliment.

As usual, however, there were others who were not so complimentary. They portrayed Isotta’s learning as implying her promiscuity and her dangerous freedom from the ties that normally bound society; for she had avoided the discipline of marriage and the family, required for women. In fact, Arienti’s emphasis on her holiness and virginity almost certainly was meant to undercut such claims, which had circulated anonymously in the 1430s, when to most observers she had dangerously passed the age of marriage without marrying. Those attacks suggested that she was not only not a virgin, but actually living in an incestuous relationship with her brother. Cox pointed out cogently that class as well as gender played a role in such stereotypical attacks. Powerful women at court, and the daughters and wives of rulers, had a freer hand to take up intellectual endeavors, and often their successes were seen as triumphs for their families, their courts, and their cities. Lesser women, like Isotta, even if still aristocrats, had to tread more carefully. When their youthful status as prodigies passed, marriage seemed to be required; and if they failed to follow that virtually obligatory path, their chastity, religious commitment, and they themselves were doomed to be dogged by suspicion and censure.

Laura Cereta (1469–1499) and Cassandra Fedele (1465–1558) provide examples of similar difficulties faced by women below the very highest levels of society who attempted to carve a place for themselves as learned women. Once again, both were recognized as prodigies while still young and touted as great scholars by admirers eager to ride on their fame. But once they married, both were pressed to withdraw from public life. Cereta was born into an upper-class family in Brescia, an important Venetian provincial city, where her father was a lawyer. At seven she entered a convent school there, a venue that provided one of the primary opportunities for the education of girls whose families could not afford private tutors. Her serious training in the classics, however, began when she returned from the convent and expressed to her father an interest in continuing her education at a higher level. In her teens, like Isotta Nogarola she used her Latin letters as a vehicle to attempt to build her reputation as a scholar and eventually put together eighty-two of her most important as a collected work.

Unfortunately, those letters, written to the important scholars of her day, did not elicit much in the way of enthusiastic support, especially as she grew older and lost her youthful exceptionality. In fact, they did not circulate widely and were first published only in the mid-seventeenth century. Still, they blend an impressive range of classical knowledge, a practical insight into and understanding of the world around her, and a sensitivity to the problems that women faced that have led some to label her a proto-feminist. At the least she was a person, given her education and aggressive self-presentation, unusually insightful about the problems that women faced. In many areas, however, she upheld quite traditional values, even as she called upon women to support each other and pursue learning aggressively in order to play a more significant role in society. Briefly married in her teens to a merchant of Brescia who died in 1486, she spent the rest of her short life apparently lecturing in her hometown and striving, largely unsuccessfully, to gain entrance to the larger scholarly world of her day.

Among her correspondents was the slightly older and more successful Cassandra Fedele. From a family of Venetian cittadini, the legally recognized upper class, officially ranked just below the nobility, she was better placed for success. The special privileges the most powerful of that class enjoyed marked them out as a kind of elite beneath the nobility, and her family boasted doctors, lawyers, bankers, and at least one bishop. Once again she had gained note as a youthful prodigy. In her case studying with a private tutor, her mastery of Latin and Greek along with her training in rhetoric and natural sciences attracted attention. All made her quite exceptional, especially her interest in the natural sciences, and earned her a rare place as a woman in her twenties in the intellectual circles at the University of Padua, where such studies were being intensely cultivated. It appears that there was a moment when she was negotiating with rulers in the Iberian peninsula about taking up a university post there, but that fell through when the French King Charles VIII invaded Italy in 1494 and ushered in an age of warfare that disrupted Italy and Europe. It was even reported that the government of Venice attempted to block those negotiations, fearing to lose her youthful glory. Whatever was actually the case, she obviously had gained a major reputation for herself as a scholar and intellectual.

In 1499, at thirty-four – a surprisingly late age for a woman’s first marriage – she suddenly married a prominent doctor. Apparently her acceptableness as a young woman prodigy had worn thin, and she bowed to the pressure to marry and take up a more traditional role for adult women. Supporting that supposition, after her marriage she cut off ties with Padua, largely shut down her scholarly career, and reportedly held that writing and the public life of a scholar conflicted with being a wife. If that was her reasoning, traveling with her husband to Crete also distanced her from Padua and the intellectual world where she had cut such an impressive figure. On the other hand, Crete was an important Venetian colony where, drawing on her husband’s medical experience and her own interest in natural science, together they may have investigated local medical practices and cures at the behest of the Venetian government. That would certainly put her marriage and abandonment of Padua in a different light, although the archival evidence indicates that the governmental commission was his alone. Later, however, she was reported to have written a work on natural history and philosophy titled Ordo Scientiarum (The Order of Knowledge), now lost, which may have drawn upon those researches.

Their return to Venice in 1520 was disastrous. First they lost all their possessions in a shipwreck on the way back, and shortly thereafter her husband died (1521), reducing her to relative poverty at fifty-six. A woman on her own without much in the way of support, Cassandra found herself in a difficult position, one that she shared with many older women without children and limited family support. With her scholarly reputation, however, she attempted a solution not open to most, appealing to the Medici Pope Leo X, noted for his patronage of the arts, for aid – but as a mature woman, tellingly, without success. Finally, many years later in 1547, in her eighties, Pope Paul III responded to her plight, pressing the Venetian Senate to appoint her prioress of the Ospitale di San Domenico in Venice, which served primarily as an orphanage, a position that she held for the rest of her life until her death at ninety-three. But for most of her mature life, a period when a male scholar would have been at the peak of his productivity, Cassandra, a widow and no longer a child prodigy, suffered in obscurity.

Her collected letters were even more extensive than Cereta’s, numbering 113; most were written before 1499, when she married. More formal and clearly aimed at making a higher mark, they were addressed to European rulers and the leading cultural figures of the day. And once again a male figure, the prominent Florentine scholar and poet Angelo Poliziano, recognized her learning while still young with a typical mix of stereotyping and enthusiasm for a woman’s learning, addressing her, “You young girl are the only woman to emerge [as great], you work with the book instead of wool, the pen instead of rouge, writing instead of embroidery and you do not cover your skin with makeup, but instead paper with ink.” But, after years of mature oblivion, shortly before her death her city remembered her youthful glory and asked her, at ninety-two, to deliver a Latin oration welcoming the queen of Poland to Venice. Perhaps merely as a form of modesty or perhaps – as one might wish was the case – with a deep irony, she pointed out that her Latin oration could hardly add to the queen’s fame, but “I would hope that merely by honoring you, I also might be made immortal.” From star to poverty, from fame to obscurity, from youthful darling of her city to forgotten old woman, Cassandra exemplified women writers and scholars who were not from the very highest ranks of society. Like most, she was a highly fragile work of art whose fame was contingent on a careful construction of self that teetered on a knife edge between the limited forms of fame that society was willing to recognize in women and the many evils that were associated with their renown, especially when they moved outside the traditional ideal placement of women in marriage or convent.

Isabella d’Este as a Work of Art

Although she was too young to be mentioned in Arienti’s Ginevera de le clare donne, Isabella d’Este (1474–1539) was certainly one of the most visible women of the aristocratic Rinascimento. And, in fact, she was the one member of the Este family whom Arienti most assiduously cultivated. Not only an exceptional woman whose power and patronage made her worth his cultivation, she provides an excellent example of the way in which women at the very top of society were being reimagined as virtually works of art – in Isabella’s case quite literally, as from time to time she quipped that her face must be the best known in all of Europe, as it was the most painted. Even Leonardo da Vinci sketched it for a painting that, as noted earlier, he never completed. But unlike Helen of Troy, whose beauty reportedly launched a thousand ships, Isabella’s, along with her learning and patronage, launched at least that many compliments. One enthusiastic flatterer even labeled her the “first lady of the world,” no small compliment for a woman who was officially merely the wife of the lord of Mantua, a small city in the center of the Lombard plain.

And while the parallel is not worth pursuing too far, like Helen, Isabella was born to rule. Her father was Ercole I d’Este, duke of Ferrara, her mother Leonora of Aragon, daughter of King Ferrante of Naples. Under their rule the court of Ferrara flowered into one of the most important in Italy. Among other things, they supported Battista Guarino, son of the noted teacher Guarino da Verona, and his school for the studia humanitatis; built a famed library; and patronized a series of important artists and writers. They were particularly supportive of vernacular writers such as Matteo Maria Boiardo (1441–1494), who wrote a chivalric romance in Italian, Orlando innamorato (Orlando in Love), which, although it remained unfinished at his death, traced the glorious Este family lineage back to the first times of Charlemagne and the love between a Saracen knight, Ruggiero, and the warrior maiden Bradamante. This highly popular work that celebrated the aristocratic and courtly world of the day would be finished in the sixteenth century by another recipient of Este patronage, Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533), with his Orlando furioso (Orlando Gone Mad), a work that in many ways dominated the sixteenth-century literary imagination. Ercole and Leonora also supported the translation of Latin classics and were particularly supportive of a revival of the ancient Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, which were performed with great success at their court and contributed to the rebirth of comedy as a popular literary genre in the sixteenth century.

Not only was their court a fertile place for its cultural leadership, their marriage was also fertile in more straightforward ways. For, although Isabella may have become the more important, her sister, Beatrice (1475–1497), one year younger, was perhaps better educated and more successful early on. As noted earlier, at fifteen she married Ludovico Sforza, known as Il Moro, the thirty-eight-year-old powerful leader of Milan, and quickly became an important political player and patron – promoting a lively court in that city – before her early death in childbirth at twenty-two. Isabella’s first brother, Alfonso (1476–1534), was born a year after her sister and would succeed his father as duke of Ferrara, ruling the city and its increasingly brilliant court from 1505 until his death in 1534. Unwillingly, he took as his second wife yet another famous woman of the era, Lucretia Borgia (1480–1519), pressed upon him by her father, the Borgia Pope Alexander VI.

Ever fertile, Leonora gave birth next to Ferrante (1477–1540), who was considerably less successful. In his early career he served the French as a condottiere, apparently without great success, and eventually returned to serve the family by ruling some of their smaller territories. But his days ended unhappily after he and his illegitimate brother, Giulio (1478–1561), hatched a plot to assassinate their older brother Alfonso and take over Ferrara in 1506. When the plot failed, Ferrante, Giulio, and the other conspirators were condemned to die. Ferrante and Giulio were let off, however, and spent most of the rest of their lives in jail: Ferrante died there thirty-four years later; Giulio was “more fortunate,” being released at eighty-one after having been imprisoned for fifty-three years. The next legitimate Este son, Ippolito (1479–1520), enjoyed an unusually meteoric ecclesiastical career, even for a scion of a notable family like the Este. An abbot at five years old, at seven he became the archbishop of Estergom in Hungary; at fourteen a cardinal; and at seventeen added to his increasing number of church offices the important position of archbishop of Milan. He also was a patron, who most notably supported Ariosto, although the latter complained about how modest that patronage was. In addition, he was noted for his interest in astronomy and mathematics and – perhaps less seemly, given his clerical status – women and violence. The last brother of Isabella was Sigismondo (1480–1524), who lived most of his life in Ferrara in the shadow of his older brothers and in their service.

Isabella, brought up at the brilliant court of her parents, apparently studied with Battista Guarino and as a child and a young woman made her mark as a person and personality of note. At six she was officially betrothed to sixteen-year-old Francesco Gonzaga (1466–1519; ruled 1484–1519), who would become duke of Mantua two years later, at eighteen, and was a noted condottiere. They married when she was fifteen, and their first children were girls who died young, but after ten years of marriage the sons she needed to consolidate her position as wife and mother of the future rulers of Mantua began to arrive: first Federigo (1500–1540; ruled 1519–1540), who would succeed his father as duke; then Ercole (1505–1563), who, thanks to the efforts of his mother, would become a cardinal in 1527, and Ferrante (1507–1557), who would serve the German emperor as a condottiere. Several other children died early on, and two daughters were placed in convents.

Virtually from the first, the lively Isabella dominated her husband’s court and, with shrewd patronage of a number of leading intellectual figures, made it into one of the most famous in Italy. Certainly it did not hurt that she had grown up at the Este court of Ferrara, watching her mother and father enhance its European reputation with the splendor of their rule, something that Isabella carefully emulated in Mantua. Also, taking a page from her mother’s book, and out of necessity, she quietly ruled for her husband when he was off earning his keep as a condottiere. Thus at an early age she gained a reputation as an effective ruler capable of handling both the internal problems of Mantua and the confused political world of her day, dancing diplomatically with the French, the emperor, and the various Italian states all jockeying for power and advantage at the expense of smaller cities like Mantua.

Isabella’s eventual reputation as a virtually mythic figure makes it difficult to evaluate her actual life and the successes behind the legend. But as our interest focuses on her mythic figure as a work of art, it is Isabella as imagined by her contemporaries that really interests. Yet certainly reports of her as a child prodigy mastering Latin and Greek with Guarino appear to have been more imaginary than real, especially as in her letters later in life she referred from time to time to her ongoing study of Latin and her lack of success in mastering even that language at the level she wished. Evidently contemporary ideals required that she be a youthful prodigy, but, as a mere human being, she was actually more a lively young woman with wide-ranging interests and a position that she quickly learned to use to wield real power. Like her less politically powerful literary predecessors, however, her extensive correspondence played an important role in building her reputation, even if her letters were usually in Italian, not Latin.

And, significantly, those letters continued to amass across her life, running into thousands, not in the least curtailed by her marriage. Her pursuits and self-presentation there reveal her to have been a person whose interests spanned a wide range of subjects and levels that moved from the personal to the public. At one moment she could be writing to a public official to try to protect the poor or the humble women of her city, at the next to her agents to procure dwarfs for the mini-court of dwarfs that she kept in the ducal palace, or to obtain castrated boys to add their tenor voices to her choral group. Her letters also show her as an avid collector of Roman and Greek antiquities; thus (even without any exceptional ability in classical languages) helping to establish her reputation as an important collector and proponent of the cult of first times. And in the end they reveal both the positive and negative sides of the woman behind the myth that in many ways she helped to build with those very letters. She could invest considerable sums in her collecting efforts, paying agents across Italy and Europe to search out antiquities for her, but she was not above taking advantage of those in trouble when it came to securing what she wanted.

For example, when Mantegna, who had been a loyal protégée of her court, fell on hard times late in life and petitioned her for support in 1506, she was not above trading that support for an ancient Roman sculpture that was one of the artist’s most prized possessions, one that he had previously refused to sell to her. Even more telling is the way she bought an antique fragment of a statue from Rhodes along with a Cupid reputedly carved by Michelangelo that had been in the possession of Guidobaldo of Montefeltro,signore of Urbino. It seems that in 1502, in the complex intrigues that Cesare Borgia was weaving to build himself a ministate in the heart of Italy, he had seized that city, driving out Guidobaldo and his wife, Elisabetta Gonzaga. Elisabetta was both a relative and a close friend of Isabella, and as a gesture of kindness she offered the deposed couple asylum in Mantua. In the meantime, however, aware that the pieces that she wanted for her collection had been carried off to Rome by Cesare, Isabella asked her brother Ippolito, then a cardinal in Rome, to secure the objects for her, noting in her letter that Cesare was not interested in such fine things. Apparently her evaluation of Cesare was correct; pressed by Ippolito he presented them to her as a gift. When Guidobaldo and Elisabetta asked for the return of their prized pieces, their good friend and protectress Isabella responded with silence.

She also could be rather ruthless in her dealings with those she patronized. Her letters often reveal her as less than generous and short of funds. Nonetheless, her wide-ranging patronage earned her increasing fame and the compliments of many who hoped to enjoy it. One of the most important was Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529), whose famous The Book of the Courtier was set at the court of Urbino but included many figures who frequented Isabella’s court. Although it will be discussed in more detail inChapter 9, suffice it to say for now that this seminal work played an important role in elevating women who led courts, like Isabella, to an even higher level of visibility and magnificence. As a courtier himself in the service of Isabella and her family in Mantua, Castiglione was also active as a diplomat for the Gonzaga and even fought in the wars of Italy for them. Isabella’s correspondence shows that she used him as well as her agent to purchase works of art and other objects that interested her as he traveled Italy and Europe. In addition, like her other agents, he was involved in commissioning works from the wide range of artists who were well enough known to have Isabella wish to add them to her collection.

In this she was one of the more visible to pursue a newer form of collecting that would eventually change the way art was produced; for she was willing to buy already completed paintings that interested her, thus making her in a way a collector of art and the works of specific artists rather than just a patron. In fact, she was more generally a collector. For while her collections were an expression of her fascination with a wide range of things – books, antiquities, gems, musical instruments, sculpture, paintings, and even humans (dwarfs, castrati, and courtiers) – they were central for the way she presented herself as a cultural leader. Carefully displayed to the correct viewers – aristocratic visitors of note and power – they also heightened her glory and fame. In this she was again fashioning a consensus reality of herself as a unique individual, a work of art in her own right; and in this she was following in the footsteps of, and would be emulated by, a number of other princely aristocrats who were becoming a new breed: the collector.

The writers, poets, and artists who frequented her court or cultivated her via their encomiums sought, in turn, to win glory and reputation of their own, basking in her reflected light and hoping for her ennobling praise. Her monetary support in the form of patronage was also appreciated when she was able to give it. Pietro Bembo corresponded with her and sent her poems; Aldus Manutius sent her a specially printed edition of his first printing of Petrarch’s poems; Bernardo Dovizi – the future Cardinal Bibbiena – had his famous cross-dressing comedy, La Calandra, played for her in Rome; and both Boiardo and Ariosto shared their writings with her as they wrote them. The painters whose works she collected or attempted to collect were, if anything, more famous. Leonardo da Vinci visited her in Mantua in 1499, promising to paint her portrait, as noted earlier. Raphael eluded her grasp. Still, works by Bellini, Titian, Perugino, Mantegna, Bonsignori, Francia, Dossi, Costa, and a host of lesser figures graced her collection – some commissioned, some purchased after they were painted – as did musical instruments that were virtually works of art by the noted maker of same, Lorenzo da Pavia.

Once again, as was the case for aristocratic women of lesser fame, her extensive wardrobe and jewelry collection was especially important for demonstrating to contemporaries the glamour and significance of her court and herself. When in 1492 she was invited to Milan to visit her sister Beatrice and her new brother-in-law, Ludovico Il Moro, Isabella complained in a letter to her husband that she did not have a wardrobe sufficiently impressive to represent their city and court. Eventually she managed to put together clothing, jewels, and other adornments sufficient to the task, but she clearly understood that her self-presentation required careful investment – as she was quite simply a work of art in her own right who literally bought fame and wore glory. Her wardrobe and her jewelry also served from time to time in a more mundane way. When revenues fell short, jewels, expensive clothes, and even fine objects and antiquities could be pawned to secure loans to keep their rule afloat or, for example, to purchase a cardinal’s hat for her son Ercole. That cost her 40,000 ducats in 1527 as Pope Clement VII was desperately trying to raise funds to defend Rome from what would be the famous Sack of Rome, money that she felt was well invested.

Actually, Isabella was in Rome at the time of the sack. And the story of how she managed to escape it is worth a short digression, as it provides a fine example of the complex and powerful role she played in the tumultuous political world of her day. Perhaps the best place to begin is with her tense relations with her son Federigo, which had reportedly led her to move to Rome in the mid-1520s. Following the death of her husband, apparently from the syphilis that had crippled him in his later years, Federigo became duke in 1519. A condottiere like his father, Isabella had politicked for years to have him named captain general of the papal armies, a position with rich potential and prestige. Her efforts were crowned with success in 1522, but with that feather in his cap, and securely in power in Mantua, the young Federigo got taken up with other youthful interests – especially a young and reportedly aggressive mistress, Isabella Boschetti.

The youthful couple enjoyed a more sensuous courtly style reflected in their patronage of Giulio Romano (1499–1546), a noted architect and artist who designed the pleasure palace they had built on an island near the city, the Palazzo del Te. The paintings that decorated the palace, especially the Wedding Feast of Cupid and Psyche, completed in the late 1520s, portrayed an imagined pagan court that featured free-flowing wine, sensuous nudity, and a sexuality that evoked a vision of the courtly ideal quite different from that depicted in two paintings Isabella had commissioned earlier, Mantegna’s, Pallas Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Eden (c. 1499–1502) and Perugino’s, The Battle of Love and Chastity (1503–1505), where chastity and virtue are definitely the order of the day. Federigo also hired Correggio (1489–1534), earlier patronized by his mother, to give the Palazzo Ducale a more erotic tone with a series of paintings of the loves of Jupiter, the most famous of which is probably Jupiter and Io, which depicts the god disguised as a cloud enfolding the beautiful young Io in a sexual embrace.

Adding spice to tales of the sensual style of the couple and their court were the rumors, apparently untrue, that the infamous paintings of Giulio Romano known as I Modi, published as engravings by Antonio Raimondi, were actually designed for the Palazzo del Te. The original paintings, which were destroyed, are known only through the Raimondi engravings, but if they are any indication of the originals, their explicit depiction of sixteen sexual positions in classical dress – or, to be more exact, classical undress – left little to the imagination; they were certainly far distant from Isabella’s patronized ideals of courtly chastity and virtue. And although Romano seems not to have created I Modi for Federigo, it appears that, for all his classical training and cultural reputation, his interest in the erotic art he did commission was more than merely classical, as was the case with many patrons who displayed a definite predilection for erotic classical themes. Such a predilection suggests yet another, less-discussed reason for a fascination with the classical world, the fact that it was often frankly and openly erotic, making sensual pleasures safely ancient, sophisticated, and acceptable, at least for the aristocratic upper classes – and yet another rinascimento.

Isabella, in her late forties and no prude herself, nonetheless was much more conscious of her image as a chaste and pious widow, albeit still presenting herself as a beautiful and lively one. Perhaps, then, the tensions with her son turned on a conflict more of images than of values. But for whatever reason, seeing her influence on the wane in Mantua, she headed to Rome in 1525, where her second son, Ercole, was a rising power in the Church and concentrated on advancing his career. There she set herself up in a palace of her own, where she gathered a new court and deployed the courtly skills that had made her such a power in Mantua. She quickly gathered a group of courtiers whose prestige supported hers and reconfirmed her importance and influence in a Rome rich with important and influential figures. And the Sack of Rome in 1527 offered the opportunity she needed to turn her Roman glory into a cardinal’s hat for her son with the help of some ready cash.

Her negotiations with the Medici Pope, Clement VII (1478–1534; pope 1523–1534) quickly ended in success as imperial armies intent on capturing the pope approached a weakly defended Rome. Badly in need of money to hire soldiers to defend the city and himself, Clement traded five cardinal’s hats for the funds he needed, and Isabella simply bought one for her son. For Clement, as we shall see, the money was too little and too late as imperial troops, encountering little resistance, entered and sacked the city in 1527. The pope and much of his court holed up in the papal fortress on the bend of the Tiber, Castel San Angelo, and survived. But most Romans were less fortunate, as the sack was exceptional for its destruction, brutality, and terror. Isabella and her palace, however, were protected because another of her sons, Ferrante, happened to be serving the emperor and was a commander in the army that took the city. With his help and the soldiers she had hired to defend her palace, she not only held out, but reportedly gave refuge to many.

In sum, she emerged from the disaster not just successful in gaining the cardinal’s hat for her twenty-two-year-old son, but as a still more glorious figure and leader of note. Her return to Mantua was punctuated by a series of triumphant entries along the way and by celebrations of her as a leader and a personality in Italy and Europe. At home again in Mantua, she crowned Ercole with his cardinal’s hat with great pageantry and in that moment of triumph declared to all that she remained a major player even if her first son, Federigo, ruled. The lesson was underscored, if it needed underscoring, in 1529 when she traveled to Bologna for the visit of the Emperor Charles V (1500–1558; emperor 1519–1556), where many of the political and cultural leaders of the day congregated for his formal coronation as emperor in 1530. She participated in the visit and coronation as a widely recognized, powerful figure on a par with the male leaders of Europe and, as we shall see, a number of the leading women as well. Her glory was evident to all. She had fashioned it over the course of her life with her patronage and cultural leadership; with the power she had cultivated in the Church, via her cardinal son and her close relationships with many of its leaders; with her significant ties to the emperor; and with the ongoing brilliance of her family’s court in Mantua. What role she actually played at the coronation in Bologna is unclear, but it is not without significance that the emperor visited Mantua shortly after his coronation and kept a promise he had made to her by officially investing Federigo with his title of duke on the steps of the cathedral. At fifty-six, the self-styled chaste and religious widow was still a power to be reckoned with and quite a work of art.

Consensus realities and the negotiation of self in terms of self-fashioning have allowed us to begin to rethink how glory and fame worked, not just among the great like Isabella d’Este, but more broadly in the more aristocratic and courtly world of the high Rinascimento. And while Burckhardt wanted to discover the origins of nineteenth-century individuals in the glorious figures of his vision of the Renaissance, he may not have been as far off base as some have claimed. For while the individual in one way or another is a regular part of human society and certainly was not discovered in the Rinascimento, a new emphasis was placed on the way the self was fashioned, negotiated, and constructed in the intimate urban world of the day. That complex process of forming, contesting, and maintaining consensus realities became yet more significant in the more courtly and aristocratic world that progressively dominated upper-class life in the fifteenth century and thereafter and was reflected in a myriad of ways associated with more traditional ways of seeing Renaissance art, literature, and life in general. Thus, rather than discovering the individual, we might claim that the period created the individual as a work of art, in aristocrats and their courtly ways and dress, in scholars and artists, in upper-class women, and in the end, in art itself. And perhaps not so strangely, the aristocratic glory that they sought to fashion with themselves, although different in crucial ways, was not so far from the aristocratic world that Burckhardt imagined as his own. Officially old, that Rinascimento self-fashioning was decidedly new in its emphasis on glory and the individual as a work of art. Other, more troubling novelties, however, were intruding on the aristocratic self-confidence and self-celebration so central to that fashioning – and with them came storm clouds for the very idea of a Rinascimento.

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