Guest Author - Christine MacNeil Sweet
The development of female artists, particularly painters, began in the northern part of Italy in Bologna. This city-state was removed from the early center of the Renaissance culture, Florence, and because of its geographical location, Bologna developed differently than its neighbor to the south. It had two things that made it uniquely suited to sustaining a culture of women painters: a local university that educated women that in itself was unusual at the time; as well as a female saint who painted. Since the guilds of which artists were part, operated under the protection of the saints and therefore sanctioned by the church – the largest patron of the arts at that time, having a female saint who also painted – Caterina dei Vigri or St. Catherine of Bologna – created new opportunities for women painters.
The cult of St. Catherine flourished in the 1500s and 1600s and was sanctioned by Pope Clement the VII in 1524. This resulted in an extraordinary amount of support for “educated and skilled women in that city.” In addition, the church named the region around Bologna as a papal state in 1512 making it easy for Bologna to claim “unique status for the city and its [exceptional] women” culminating in easier access by women to commissions for works during that time because they had papal approval.
The university in Bologna began admitting women in the 13th century and there was a close tie between the arts and the curriculum at the school. Many women wrote, taught, and were published out of the university in Bologna, again, creating an atmosphere conducive to a flourishing culture of female artists – especially painters. Women outnumbered men in Bologna at the turn of the fifteenth century which may be another part of the reason why there were so many in the painting and printing guilds at that time. There were twenty-three active women painters listed in Luigi Crespi’s Vite de Pittori Bolognesi (1769) two of which achieved international recognition: Lavinia Fontana and Elisabetta Sirani.
Conversely, those same guilds that admitted women willingly in Bologna, further south were firmly in the control of men and supported only male artisans. Outside Bologna there were plenty of men to fill positions and accept and complete commissions. The church was not as accepting of females in other city-states to fulfill commissions and most were relegated to helping their fathers in their studios rather than starting up a career on their own. The further south in Italy, the more patriarchal the culture became. The atmosphere in Naples, for example, was not conducive to a female artist creating any kind career out of the arts, no matter how minimal. Southern Italy was too firmly under the control of the church and the regional monarchy to allow women to be anything more than a counterpart to men.