Among the Florentine Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale's broad holdings of fifteenth-century illuminated manuscripts is a small, striking codex catalogued as BNCF, Magliabechiano VII, 49. Its sole text is a Lombard Vita di San Giovanni Battista dedicated to Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milan between 1412 and 1447, although the embossed circles of the original leather binding herald Medici patronage, and the palle, or balls, of Florence's ruling family reappear in a coat of arms on the manuscript's splendid frontispiece (Figs. 1-3). (1) The masterful illumination of this page, composed of a historiated initial set within a swirling vine-stem frieze inhabited by playful putti and colorful birds, is clearly the work of an exceptionally skilled artist. The manuscript is markedly luxurious; an elegant humanist script graces its five gold-edged parchment quires. Illustrious provenance, artistic merit, and sumptuousness do not, however, make Magliabechiano VII, 49 unusual. Patrons requested a dizzying quantity of high-quality illuminated manuscripts from Florentine workshops during the second half of the fifteenth century, and the Medici were vigorous patrons and collectors. (2) The Magliabechiano manuscript's contents, moreover--hagiographic verse composed in the Italian vernacular--may seem unassuming in the face of the numerous classical and patristic Latin texts put freshly to parchment during the quattrocento. On its surface this codex is exquisite, yet not extraordinary, and that it has remained unexamined by successive generations of art historians comes, perhaps, as little surprise. (3) Far less expected is the outcome of an attentive visual engagement. The Magliabechiano manuscript provides a renewed opportunity for art historical reflection on the construction of women's roles in the production of images during this period.
Invoking the issue of female patronage of the arts in fifteenth-century Florence reveals a startling absence. Notable women patrons have not emerged from this period, (4) and this despite the continuing torrent of literature on female patronage of the arts in Renaissance Italy. (5) Other geographic centers and, generally speaking, later periods have proved remarkably lucrative fields for this area of research. The assumption arising from this peculiar situation--that quattrocento Florentine women were unique in their relatively insignificant role in the generation of objects--is both inevitable and unreasonable, although formulating a concrete basis with which to dismiss it requires more than mere intuition.
Recent studies of explicitly female viewing contexts have begun to forge a connection between women and image production. The female monastic environment has emerged recently as a vital area of inquiry, due to the work of Jeryldene Wood, Kate Lowe, Anabel Thomas, and other scholars who have contributed to a new understanding of the vitality of visual culture for cloistered women and of the specificity and particularity of images produced for the female gaze. (6) While communities of religious women were important patrons of art and architecture, the extent to which nuns exercised choice is difficult to discern from surviving documents (a problem compounded by the demand, most often met, for a male guardian, or mundualdus, to act on the women's behalf in legal transactions such as commissions). (7) In the context of the secular palace, Jacqueline Musacchio's encompassing study of the gendered material culture of childbirth now allows us to link that decidedly female sphere of experience with a varied and dynamic realm of object production. (8) Adrian Randolph's essay on birth trays, or deschi da parto, may come closer to articulating an argument for women's role in the production of images. (9) Setting his own sights on female spectatorship within the space of the birth chamber, Randolph genders the cultural constructedness of vision in order to propose an alternative to Michael Baxandall's "normative" period eye, implying that the artists of these painted salvers were responding to a set of viewing norms that governed an exclusively female sphere of reception. Roger Crum, on the other hand, claims an overt interest in female agency and patronage per se. (10) Crum rightly calls for methodological reflection on the suitability of the conventional contractual, or documentary, model for the study of patronage by secular women and presents the results of his own consideration of this problem: an original new model of women's "control" that bypasses the issues of production altogether to focus, instead, on the potential power of female stewardship of objects within the Renaissance palace.
Despite this body of scholarship, our understanding of women's purposeful and active roles in shaping the period's innovative and dynamic visual universe remains ill defined. A fruitful approach to filling this gap involves the analysis of image production, because art patronage has emerged, in Renaissance scholarship, as a fundamental site for the mapping of creative agency and the expression of identity. While it could be argued that the recuperation of long-neglected women belongs to a past art historical moment, I contend that this type of inquiry (as well as the very category "female patronage") retains importance in the context of the early Italian Renaissance. The artistic accomplishment of quattrocento Florence continues to guarantee it a privileged place in the history of Western art and, indeed, in the larger narrative of the "progress" of Western culture. Art historians' continued, conventional use of the very term "Renaissance," a period designation long abandoned by colleagues in other disciplines, points to a persisting conviction that early modern Italy witnessed extraordinary changes in the visual arts. The rapid development, in Florence, of visual idioms within an explosively prolific culture of image production tends to fix that city and its fifteenth-century inhabitants at the heart of this transformation.
The notions of artistic genius and stylistic progress that first gave shape to the field have diminished in importance, yet invention and individual initiative continue to be invoked as period touchstones, even in less traditional accounts. A. Richard Turner's recent survey of the Florentine Renaissance--a book that deftly replaces chronology and artistic biography with a rich thematic, contextual approach--remains committed to a new visual language forged, during the fifteenth century, by the "incomparable Florentines." (11) Turner introduces his subject by conjuring up the enduring idea of a Florence that "nurtured a constellation of remarkable persons, many of whom left an indelible mark on the city in the form of buildings and works of art." (12) Patrons now take a natural place alongside artists in this collection of outstanding people, and, while this may be something of a shell game that imperceptibly shifts the emphasis on the individual from one place to another, the notion of the Renaissance patron as a fundamental creative force behind the production of works of art nonetheless has gained momentum. (13) The paucity of archival evidence documenting instances of women's art patronage from this period serves as the basis for an assumption that individual Florentine women were not important commissioners--or designers or conceivers--of images, effectively putting this means of generative and expressive power beyond their grasp.
The tendency to interpret individual works of art in light of their patrons' tastes, views, beliefs, and agendas may be giving way to an understanding of art patronage as a means of constructing and expressing individual and social identities, but it seems clear that both approaches are factors of a broader shift toward the contextualization of Renaissance art. (14) A comparison of the initial claim of Frederick Hartt's classic survey text first published in 1969, the History of Italian Renaissance Art, with the equivalent introductory moment in John Paoletti and Gary Radke's more recent survey, Art in Renaissance Italy, demonstrates this fundamental reframing of scholarly investment in the Italian Renaissance. Hartt's assertion that "the first manifestations of an independent new style in painting and sculpture seem to have taken place in Tuscany" no longer represents the stakes of the field; a quest for origins has been tempered by arguments for continuity, and a pan-Italian approach now mitigates the traditional Florentine bias. (15) More important to the exploration of women's patronage in quattrocento Italy is the compelling, and very different, claim with which Paoletti and Radke open their book: "Art mattered in the Renaissance"--an assertion that immediately focuses readers' attention on the innate power of Renaissance art in its original moment and context. (16) This stronger art historical commitment to the power of images for Renaissance people begs the question, however, of just how art "mattered" to women. Art historians have provided some answers to this question by turning more frequently to social history and the domestic environment and by considering the ways in which women might have been affected by prescriptive images--portraits that immortalized female virtues, for example, or narrative panels painted on a cassone (a large storage chest) that engaged gender roles governing marriage and, in turn, sustained the patriarchal order it supported. (17) If we accept the notion of an inherently potent visual culture even generally speaking, it is also necessary that we explore as fully as possible women's share as agents in shaping that culture and, in the process, structuring their own identities as creators and viewers. (18)
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In moving toward the substantiation of such a role, it is useful to consider the Magliabechiano manuscript's illuminated frontispiece, in good Baxandallian fashion, as a deposit of...