The Empress's New Clothes: Northern Italian Wives and their Classical Exemplars
This thesis defines a new vision of the wife that developed in Northern Italy in the sixteenth century. Northern Italian patrons commissioned a range of objects, from domestic wares to paintings, that reinterpret and adapt two classical female figures, Venus and the empress, who served jointly as exemplars for the role of the wife. Although Renaissance brides are most often viewed in relationship to traditional, self-sacrificial exemplars like Lucretia, the prevalence of Venus and the empress in Northern Italian visual culture indicates that patrons were attracted to alternative classical female models. Working in tandem with ancient conceptions of the interrelation between Venus and the empress and the construction of public and domestic roles, these depictions present the bride as a contemporary embodiment of desirable traits: learnedness, stability, and grace. The opening chapter provides a comprehensive survey of objects with images or attributes of Venus and the empress made for domestic settings and personal adornment. Brides were paired with their exemplars not only through the idealized images intended for their viewing, but also through personal items that allowed them to assume a tangible connection with their models. Decorated girdles, for example, render the Renaissance woman a new iteration of Venus; Venus also appears in the bedchamber, most frequently inside the lids of cassoni, the quintessential nuptial item. In belle donne majolica dishes, idealized feminine profiles represent the codified images of empresses crafted for ancient Roman imperial portrait coins. I then consider two divergent case studies of specific women for whom Venus and the empress served as exemplars: Isabella d Este, the Marchesa of Mantua, considered a prudent and powerful ruler in her own time, and Faustina Cassotti, the wife of a bourgeois merchant s son in Bergamo. Isabella d Este s use of these exemplars bolstered her public image, as seen in her studiolo, redolent with Venus imagery as epitomized in Mantegna s Parnassus, and filled with antiquities relating to ancient imperial consorts. Her collection of a wide range of objects related to female imperial image-making, including coins, medals, and a bust of Faustina the Elder, confirms that she was interested in portraying herself as a Renaissance incarnation of this group of classical ideals. Faustina Cassotti is known only through the two paintings commissioned by her father-in-law in 1523 for installation in the rooms that belonged to her and her husband, including a double portrait of the couple yoked by Cupid by Lorenzo Lotto. We view her solely through the lens of two exemplary doubles, Saint Catherine and the empress Faustina the Elder. These secularized exemplars cast Faustina as a socially elite and dignified woman who contributes positively to her husband s reputation.