1B. Women, according to the unmarried Leon Battista Alberti in his Della Famiglia, should be chaste and largely invisible to the public. Their sphere, he thought, was household management, with which they were expected to be docilely contented while men labored about public business. (Atchity, 34-36) Alberti’s opinion was typical of his time and indeed of all times until quite recently. However, despite the best efforts of men to restrain their women, many in fact became very public figures, whether it be locally or even beyond the borders of their language.
It must not be concluded that because Renaissance men wished to keep women out of sight that women had no value to them. Women were central figures in the family, around which Renaissance life revolved, and the sheer number of portraits featuring women indicate their place in society. Women were not wholly dependent on men for their financial support; they owned their dowries, which in many cases were quite substantial. They also could bequeath their dowries, which gave them considerable power during their lifetimes. (King, 156)
Many women engaged in activities that took them far beyond the realm of the domestic, in spite of men’s wishes. Christine De Pizan, having been left a young widow, supported herself and her children by writing. In La cite des Dames, De Pizan imagines a feminine utopia, where women’s’ talents are encouraged and developed. She discusses at length the achievements of women from the past and speculates on the motives of men who try to suppress them. (Atchity, 25-29) Another female author, Isotta Nogorola of Verona, debated the culpability of Eve in her Of the Equal or Unequal Sin of Adam, which exposed the hypocrisy of those who wished to label women as both unreasonable and yet simultaneously capable of leading Adam into the original sin. (Atchity, 52-59)
Others rose to even greater heights. Isabella D’Este became the defacto ruler of the small city of Mantua while her husband was off at war. A great patron of the arts, she was a prolific writer of letters, and many of them have survived. In her letters, D’Este is shown to be a demanding taskmaster of artists, an aggrieved spouse and a shrewd political observer. (King, 122) Poetry was the vehicle chosen by the rabid feminist Anna Bijns, a Dutch nun who reviled marriage, Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. (Atchity, 150-154) Holding an opposite opinion of Luther was Catherine Zell, whose letters point toward a time far in the future when religious tolerance might be extended to all. (Atchity, 194-196)
Religion itself was a well-traveled path for many women who achieved public fame in the Renaissance, an era when far more women saints lived then did male saints. In this era, especially pious women were held in great public esteem, and many women were considered “living saints”, though they were never canonized by the Church. (King, 181) Because women in the Renaissance could display their sanctity at home or in public, it became possible to garner public approval in this fashion. (King, 181)
Some women made a public name for themselves as working artists, such as Caterina Vegri, a fifteenth century nun who painted devotional scenes and wrote devotional books. A hundred years later, Venetian painter Jacopo Tintoretto apprenticed his daughter Marietta, who gained notice in her own right. At the end of the sixteenth century, Sofonisba Anguissola a commissioned portrait painter, became the modern era’s first woman artist to gain international renown. (King, 129-130) Artemisia Gentileschi, a Baroque-style artist, depicts women in her works as having legitimate ambitions and “striving for security and dignity.” (King, 247)
Not all public women strove for dignity however, and in Florence, a city where men married late in life, prostitution was quite common. The city priors, attempting to mute and tax the practice, established communal brothels in 1415, which they tried to confine to certain “suitable places” of the town. (Brucker, 190) This, however, did not put an end to independent purveyors of the trade, who sometimes ran afoul of the law. Angela, a Florentine wife, was convicted of operating as a prostitute without donning the appropriate attire; Niccolò di Giunta was convicted of recruiting “honest women” into the craft. (Brucker, 196-198)
Another path to infamy was through the occult arts, which was apparently practiced by some women in such a way as to become publicly known as “enchantresses”. This was a dangerous trade, as those convicted of consorting with the devil could soon find themselves burned at the stake. (Brucker, 260-261)
Men may have wished to push women into the shadows of domestic simplicity during the Renaissance, but to varying degrees, many women took their place in the public sphere regardless. From poets to peddlers to prostitutes, women of all classes and abilities created for themselves personalities outside the home, in an era when doing so was a difficult and precarious endeavor.
2D. In the Renaissance, a wife, having left the family in which she was raised, became part of a new family, the husband’s. While she lived with her parents, they, and particularly her father, were responsible for her well-being. When she married, this obligation moved with her to her new husband, who took her into his family. It must be understood that her connection with the new family, in this highly patriarchal society, was embodied in the husband, even after the birth of children. Should her husband predecease her, the new widow might find herself alienated from her adoptive family and a stranger in her own house, even though the couple’s children would continue to be accepted. This strain caused many widows to take their dowries and strike out on their own, perhaps remarrying, taking the children with them and away from the husband’s family. (King, 156)
To ensure that the widow (and thus the children) would remain in the husband’s family line, thus ensuring the continuation of the husband’s family name, men often added enticements to their wills, hoping that their widows would choose to remain in the awkward situation and raise the children. There was also an element of charity (not a bad thing for one’s fama) in ensuring that one had provided for one’s widow. Of course, as a disincentive, the widow would lose all of the enticements should she decide to break with the husband’s family and remarry. (King, 156)
In the case of the testament of Andrea di Feo, the husband has provided a continuing income for his wife Simona in the proceeds from a rental property. In addition, he stipulates that should no children survive him, and thus Simona is left with no one to support her, she is to receive an additional “24 bushels of grain and 10 barrels of wine each year during her lifetime.” Clearly, this husband cares deeply about what happens to his wife, and his interest extends beyond merely keeping her in the household. In this document, Di Feo has ensured that Simona will be well provided for, no matter how long she may outlive him. (Brucker, #27)
Of course, should she remarry, his obligation to her would have ended, and the need to see to her welfare would shift to her new husband. In this case, she would take with her only her dowry (which she possesses by law) and a token set of household goods. The testament recognizes this possibility by tying the continuing income from Di Feo’s estate to her status as an unmarried widow.