“Strong Women in Renaissance Italy,” just opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, might be a test case for truth in advertising. Exhibitions of works by women artists of the Renaissance have recently been the rage, breaking open a realm of overlooked mastery. Artemisia Gentileschi, the poster child for such pursuits, had her first-ever solo museum exhibition only in the fall of 2020, at the National Gallery in London, nearly four centuries after her death in 1652. In 2021, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford built another show around several of her major paintings and made it rich and full in the company of her many feminine peers: Sofonisba Anguissola, Elisabetta Sirani, and Lavinia Fontana, to name just a few.
So, to arrive at the MFA and find that more than half the 100 pieces in “Strong Women” are, in fact, loosely about women and by men — as conventional as convention gets — was a little deflating. But, wait. Mostly drawn from the MFA’s collection, “Strong Women” is itself an emblem of unacknowledged genius — by the MFA, and practically every other western institution — and a thoughtful reconsideration of genius itself.
Among the exhibition’s many works are fabrics and lace, their makers lost to the ages, though as masterful as the Great Men paintings that dominate our understanding of the era. The show cobbles, by disparate means, a narrative of female creativity and resilience amid the most fertile, formative moment in Western Culture, though it was a culture that subordinated women in virtually every pursuit beyond the domestic. “Strong Women,” intentionally vague for now obvious reasons, is a fair moniker; strength exists not just in grand gesture, but in women’s tireless, persistent effort, despite the odds, to do, to make, and to think for themselves.
Marietta Cambareri the show’s curator, seems to acknowledge the rift between expectation and reality; the museum’s recent notable acquisitions — none major; all small — by female Renaissance superstars hang at the exhibition’s entrance in a mustard-hued antechamber: an iPad-size painting from 1630-32 by Gentileschi of a corpulent, snoozy Christ child splayed in repose; a 1556 amulet-shaped piece that would fit comfortably in your palm, with a delicately mesmerizing self-portrait by Anguissola; what’s likely the headboard of a crib decorated with an oil painting by Fontana from around 1605 of a lovingly attentive Virgin Mary hovering over a nude baby Jesus. Look closely and you’ll see the game of catch-up the museum has had to play: The Gentileschi was acquired only in April of last year; another small painting, an undated “Madonna and Child” by Barbara Longhi, who died in 1638, was acquired at the same time.
With no clutch of major paintings, “Strong Women” has to rely on other means to unfurl the story it wants to tell. (Cambareri told me on a recent tour that she was relying on the audience to read the exhibition’s extensive wall labels to fully grasp her intentions, a strategy that will work with only the most ardent viewers.)
It’s telling, I think, that the three depictions here of Judith slaying Holofernes, an emblematic biblical revenge story of a woman beheading her rapist, are all by men. Two engravings are attributed to Girolamo Mocetto (1500-10), and Giovanni Antonio da Brescia and Zoan Andrea (1490-1507), and a 1520 terracotta figure is by Giovanni della Robbia.
Gentileschi’s claim to fame has always been her disarmingly frank, almost gleeful major paintings of the same tale, which she painted several times and at varying stages (head being severed; severed head being collected from the floor; etc.). Gentileschi felt the atrocity in real terms. At the trial of her own rapist, the painter Agostino Tassi, in 1612, when she was 17, she endured torture to prove she wasn’t lying; he was convicted, but walked free anyway (the pope was a fan of his work). Her pictures explode with the rage of that injustice. They’re as present by their glaring absence as anything here.
“Strong Women” has no such eruptive moment, and has to rely on other means. The exhibition casts women as peacemakers, protectors, and nurturers amid blood and gore battles for dominance. Alfonso Patanazzi’s large 1610 dish, of the Sabine women offering reconciliation to the Romans who had pillaged their homes and raped them, is an image of uncomfortable grace. “The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine,” from about 1340 — and by yet another dude, Barna da Siena — depicts her wedding to Jesus as a paean to woman’s gifts for fostering harmony. Painted with a shimmering, gilded tempera, it’s one of the most magnetic things here.
The show gives the museum some unique opportunities to break out pieces not seen in ages, or ever. A set of spectacular engravings by Diana Mantuana from the mid-16th century leap out; she was a rare female artist to have not only patrons but papal privilege to own and sell her own images. There are also a handful of pieces commissioned by Isabella d’Este, the Marchese of Mantua and a major patron — she’s sometimes called “the First Lady of the Renaissance” — who most likely commissioned the pensive bronze bust of Cleopatra, 1519-22, by Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi, that stands at the show’s entry.
But all this is thick exposition, to my mind and buffers the show’s real epiphany and purpose. One of its conventions is an image of a medallion, likely of Mantuana’s own hand, used to mark pieces made by women throughout the show — necessary, given their sparsity. Deep in the exhibition’s far reaches, gilded bolts of velvet drape 10 feet or more from near the ceiling; tiny, intricate lengths of lace lie unfurled in vitrines. A finely embroidered linen tablecloth — vases overflowing with droops of flowers and wheat — dazzles with its intricacy, a masterwork on cloth.
They’re dizzying in their perfection, anonymous, and almost surely made by women, who were the Renaissance textile industry’s core employees. Each sports the medallion on the wall next to it, an anonymous honor — too little, and better late than never. It made me think about canonization, and who came up with the rules (not women). Culture is a broad enterprise; strict definition by any narrow group of geniuses, self-anointed or otherwise, is bound to be wanting. “Strong Women,” at its best, breaks the Renaissance’s cultural strangleholds to establish parallel strains of mastery, however historically less-regarded. Most importantly, it asks us to consider: Why?
STRONG WOMEN IN RENAISSANCE ITALY