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  • Women, Art, and Architecture in Northern Italy, 1520-1580: Negotiating Power
  • Kathleen G. Arthur
Katherine A. McIver . Women, Art, and Architecture in Northern Italy, 1520-1580: Negotiating Power. Women and Gender in the Early Modern World. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006. viii + 282 pp. + 4 color pls. index. append. illus. gloss. bibl. $99.95. ISBN: 0-7546-5411-7.

This volume offers a revolutionary account of North Italian noblewomen's participation in architecture and art collecting. Based on archival materials in Parma it focuses on palace building and domestic interiors commissioned by women from the Pallavicini and Sanvitale families. Besides exploring a lesser-known region, it presents "real women's" patronage, less glamorous and more down-to-earth than famous personages like Isabella d'Este. As family matriarchs, widows, or lay sisters, they ordered architecture and art objects appropriate to their characters. The evidence of women reshaping family palaces (traditionally associated with male patrilineal power and prestige) and working with architects to build [End Page 1196] their own residences, is the kind of new primary material that will balance gender perspectives in sixteenth-century art. The inventories (in the appendix) will be of interest to historians of domestic interiors.

The women fall into various stereotypes that illuminate the circumstances of their architectural patronage. Although claiming to focus on three cases, it presents a network of mothers, daughters, aunts, and cousins who interacted as role models. These wealthy, well-educated widows were inveterate correspondents with family and literary and religious figures like Pietro Aretino, Bernardo Tasso, and Pope Paul III. Laura Pallavicina-Sanvitale (1495-1576) became materfamilias of the Zibello branch of the Sanvitale family when her husband died on the battlefield in 1519, leaving her to defend their two sons' property inheritance. She preserved their feudal patrimony, renovated two family palaces in Parma, and championed the causes of female relatives. The governor of Parma called her "una donna terribile," due to her strong personality and her social and political power. Giacoma Pallavicina-Pallavicini (1509-75), widowed and childless, inherited substantial property and entered a convent when her husband was murdered. After founding a company of spiritual women under the influence of Ignatius Loyola, she built a modest residence for orphans and lay sisters. Inventories reflect how she managed properties and bought and sold textiles and art objects. Ippolita Pallavicina-Sanseverino (1498-1563), widowed at the age of thirty-four with three children, managed her dower lands and husband's holdings in trust. She built a family palace in Piacenza, as well an impressive private residence. Camilla Pallavicina (1515-61) of Busseto, who had a colorful life consecutively marrying two cousins and perhaps spying for the French in Venice in the 1540s, amassed a collection of jewels and artworks. Often reflecting the bilinear family structure, these widows reveal different aspects of female agency in the arts.

This study presents women's patronage with unusually thorough documentation. Ippolita built Palazzo Sanseverini in Piacenza between 1542 and 1557 in a neighborhood where her family had lived for generations. Its plan conformed to traditional Renaissance palaces, and forty documents trace how Ippolita specified models and closely supervised the construction: the workmen always wanted "to please the signora." The portal, based on Serlio's model, had her coat of arms as well as her husband's. McIver suggests that the project blurs the distinction between palace building as a public-masculine activity and interior decoration as private-feminine sphere. Laura and Giacoma's palaces in Reggio Emilia and Parma demonstrate contrasts between a family matriarch and pious lay sister's homes. Inventories refer to layouts, function, and decoration of interior spaces. Women typically had suites or apartments and "painted rooms" with elaborate literary or mythological subjects. Two Sanvitale cousins show how joint patronage between husband and wife of these camere dipinte was more common than generally assumed. Inventories and wills record women with their own incomes forming personal collections; women's consumption of goods and decoration of the domestic interiors emerges. Like palace-building, women's patronage of religious institutions gave them a public voice. The Pallavicina widows supported churches [End Page 1197] and convents where they had family ties. But particularly noteworthy...


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pp. 1196-1198
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Archived 2009
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