European Women Patrons of Art and Architecture, c. 1500-1650. Some Patterns

Isabella d'Este - 16th century (Wikipedia)

Isabella d’Este – 16th century (Wikipedia)

European Women Patrons of Art and Architecture, c. 1500-1650. Some Patterns

Sheila ffolliott

Renaessance Forum: Vol. 4 (2008)


To assess women’s patronage roles in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries requires the acknowledgement that women’s support of the arts transpired within a deeply embedded patron-client arrangement pervasive in European social relations and religious practice. It also requires examination of the period’s laws and gender norms. This paper surveys and attempts to categorise how and why a range of European women—from Isabella d’Este in Italy, Catherine de’ Medici in France, and various Habsburg queens, in Spain, France, and the Netherlands, to less well known patrons—acquired and made use of the visual arts and architecture in the early modern period. Women and men actively supported art and architecture in all its forms and maintained relationships with canonical artists. They operated, however, in a society that prescribed differentiated male and female roles.


In the Renaissance, unlike today, art did not occupy a separate sphere in which artists made largely non-utilitarian creations. Motivated by the desire for salvation, patrons initiated the process, hiring artists and architects to build and decorate churches and provide the liturgical apparatus central to religious practice. At the same time patronage of such works, together with civic and domestic architecture and decoration, enhanced personal and family stature. These connections are clear in an inscription accompanying a painting that Catherine King quoted in her recent book on Italian women patrons of the Renaissance:

Ad lectorem.
Nobile testata est pingi pia Brisida quondam
Hoc opus. O! nimium munera grata Deo.
Si petis auctoris nomen. Nicolaus alumnus
Fulginae: patriae pulcra corona suae
Octo quincties centum de millibus anni,
Cum manus imposita est ultima, vanuerant.
Sed quis plus meruit, quaeso, te judice, lector
Cum causam dederit Brisida et ille manum?

To the reader
The pious Brisida, now dead, willed that this noble work be painted.
Oh! a gift extremely pleasing to God. If you seek to know the artist’s
name, it is Niccolò L’Alunno of Foligno, beautiful crown of his native
land. Eight years from one thousand and five hundred had passed
when he put the finishing touches. But who is the more worthy of
merit according to you, I ask you, my reader, since Brisida gave the
commission, and he the exacting hand?

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