Five Women of the Renaissance
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Five Incredible Women of the Renaissance | Small Group Tours
The Renaissance is considered humanity’s greatest intellectual and artistic revolution and stories about the period is dominated by tales of famous men and their inventions, discoveries, and creations. Historical inquiry regarding Renaissance often overlooks women in the Renaissance and whether they enjoyed the same level of power and triumph that their male counterparts did. Women were still being denied political rights and often only had two options when it came to adulthood: marriage or becoming a nun. However, as more historians have cast their eyes back to this time period, they have found forgotten traces of women who accomplished amazing things during this era. Throughout this time period, despite being restricted by society, women were pushing back against gender norms and making their own mark on history.
- Christine de Pizan (1364-1430)
- Isotta Nogarola (1418-1466)
- Marguerite of Navarre (1492-1549)
- Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589)
- Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625)
Christine de Pizan (1364-1430)
The medieval French poet Christine de Pizan was the first professional female writer in Europe (Davis & Lindsmith, 2019, p. 19) and a proto-feminist who attacked misogyny and defended women at a time when the concept of feminism did not yet exist.
Though born in Venice, Italy, Christine spent most of her life in France after her father joined the court of Charles V as his astrologer. Christine enjoyed a comfortable childhood in the palace of the French king, but like most girls of the period, she did not receive a formal education. Her father supported her learning and encouraged her literary pursuits, but her mother wanted her to focus on ‘women’s work’ such as domestic chores.
At the age of 15, Christine married Estienne de Castel, who was later appointed court secretary. Estienne unfortunately passed away in 1389. Christine, 25 years old, widowed, and with three small children, must now find a way to earn a living to support her family.
A Literary Career
The usual course of action for women at the time would be to re-marry (or join a convent) but instead Christine chose what was typically a masculine path – she took up writing in order to support her family. She began by writing poems written to the memory of her husband, which proved successful. She won the respect of aristocrats who later became her patrons, and who provided a steady income that allowed her to support her children. This formidable list of wealthy patrons included Louis I, Duke of Orléans; Philip the Bold of Burgundy; Queen Isabella of Bavaria; and the 4th earl of Salisbury.
She proved to be a prolific writer and produced 30 volumes in total, 10 of which were written in verse. One of these is Letter to the God of Loves (L’Épistre au Dieu d’amours), published in 1399 and written as a critique of the bestselling Romance of the Rose (Roman de la rose) in which author Jean de Meun details the story of a man in his quest ‘to pluck an unopened bud’ (p. 20) – that is, bed a maiden.
Christine continued her critique and defence of women in her prose books, The Book of the City of Ladies (Le Livre de la cité des dames) and Book of Three Virtues (Le Livre des trois vertus), both released in 1405. City of Ladies was modelled on St Augustine’s City of God, written in allegory to discuss the strength of women. Three Virtues contains practical instructions for women, instructions Christine wished she had received in order to navigate her family’s finances following her husband’s sudden death.
Her last work was the 1429 piece The Tale of Joan of Arc (Le Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc), the only French-language work written during Joan of Arc’s lifetime. In it, Christine joyously celebrated Joan of Arc’s early victories: ‘Oh, what an honour to the female sex!’ (p. 21). Christine died the following year in 1430 but her legacy lived on with many of her books continuing to be translated and circulated throughout Europe after her death. Her books were revolutionary in their time, putting forward ideas about women and femininity that were incredibly progressive for a society that consistently degraded and dismissed women. An advocate ahead of her time, Christine’s work today offers a unique historical insight into how women in the Middle Ages were perceived by men and her elegant prose demonstrates valid criticism of the patriarchy that still has resonance today.
Isotta Nogarola (1418-1466)
Isotta Nogarola was born to a wealthy Veronese family and, by the age of 20 (Davis & Lindsmith, 2019, p. 78), had already established a reputation as a foremost scholar of humanism. She is often cited as the first major female humanist.
Renaissance Humanism was an intellectual movement that originated in the 13th century and dominated Europe, putting an emphasis on the study of classical texts in order to guide modern life beyond medieval thinking. It became the dominant mode of education in Italy in the 15th century, but even among members of the upper class, women rarely ventured into advanced studies of classical texts. However, Isotta’s widowed mother Bianca Borromeo Nogarola, though herself illiterate, made sure Isotta and her sisters received the best classical education under the tutelage of Martino Rizzoni,.
Isotta’s younger sister Ginevra stopped her humanist writing when she married in 1438 but Isotta continued her scholarship. She corresponded with learned men through letter-writing, as was the scholarly tradition at the time, and was one of the few women in Europe who circulated her writings (p. 79).
From Humanist to Religious Scholar
This earned her fame among scholars beyond Verona–but also earned her hostility because of her gender. One anonymous critic accused her of promiscuity because ‘a learned woman is never chaste…she, who sets herself no limit in this filthy lust, dares to engage so deeply in the finest literary studies’. In a letter to leading humanist Guarino da Verona, who taught her own tutor, Isotta lamented, ‘Why then was I born a woman, to be scorned by men[?]’ and retreated from humanist studies.
She would re-emerge later as a religious scholar. This was a field of study more acceptable for women to pursue at the time, compared to the male-dominated secular humanist field. She did not marry but did not join a convent either. Her family’s wealth allowed her to live as a single woman on her own property, studying religious texts in solitude. Her most famous work is Of the Equal or Unequal Sin of Adam and Eve (De pari aut impari Evae atque Adae peccato) written in 1451, which Isotta based on her correspondence and debates with scholar Ludovico Foscarini of Venice over the biblical dilemma faced by Adam and Eve and which of the two was responsible for the fall of humanity.
Isotta died in 1466, at 48, and it is said that she neglected her health in pursuit of scholarly knowledge. She gained recognition posthumously with the publication of many of her letters which to continue to be admired today. In the late 17th century, almost 600 of her letters could be found in a Parisian library. Her life and works shows the difficulty women interested in academia faced and the scorn they endured for choosing books and study over marriage.
Marguerite of Navarre (1492-1549)
Marguerite of Navarre is one of the most important figures of the French Renaissance. Although we know that she was not the only educated woman to write and publish verse during this time, she was the first woman of French nobility to have many different works published. Born to the House of Valois, Marguerite was the sister of Francis I (King of France from 1515-1547) and the queen consort of Henry II of Navarre. Marguerite was a celebrated Renaissance humanist like Isotta Nogarola, and a renowned author like Christine de Pizan.
(Please note that some of the names used in this article are the Anglicised versions; Francois is spelled Francis, Henri is spelled Henry, and so on.)
In her early life, she was known as Marguerite of Angoulême as she was the daughter of Charles de Valois-Orléans, the Count of Angoulême, and Louise de Savoie. Born two years before Francis, she wielded great political influence despite the fact that she could not ascend the throne of France due to being female – she was seen simply as a bride to marry off for her family’s political connections. She turned down a proposal from the ageing Henry VII of England and in 1509 married Charles, Duke of Alencon, to settle a dispute in southwest France (Davis & Lindsmith, 2019, p. 222). Marguerite, well educated by her mother (herself a voracious reader) and various tutors, did not find Charles exactly an intellectual equal, but she married him as it would be advantageous to her brother’s reign.
In 1525, when her brother was captured after the Battle of Pavia, it was she who negotiated for Francis’s safe release with the Hapsburg emperor Charles V, ‘alone [with him] in a room save for a female companion for propriety’s sake’ (p. 223). The resulting agreement was known as The Ladies Peace (Paix des Dames).
Marguerite’s husband died from his injuries in the same battle, and in 1527 she married Henry, King of Navarre. They had one surviving child, a daughter named Jeanne, whom Marguerite also educated the way she herself was educated in her childhood. Jeanne would later give birth to Henry of Navarre, the future Henry IV of France.
Humanism and Catholic Reform
Marguerite, like most upper-class Europeans, was taught the tenets of Humanism and used it to study scripture. Though not a Calvinist like her daughter, Marguerite also espoused reform within the Roman Catholic Church, believing that ‘eternal salvation could only be received, if given, from the sincerity of one’s faith and true repentance for one’s sins rather than from rote prayers, pilgrimages, good works, or religious rites’. Her non-orthodox ideas earned her enemies in the court and the Faculty of Theology of the University of Paris, but her privileged status protected her from backlash–even when she bought and read forbidden texts.
She wrote poems and religious meditations, but her most important work is the Heptaméron (published posthumously, 1558–59), modelled after the Decameron by Boccaccio. Many of the 72 published tales (she planned to write 100) featured women debating the issues of the 16th century, including the male/female divide in society (Davis & Lindsmith, 2019, p. 224). However, it was not until the late nineteenth century when more of her unpublished works were found, that her literary legacy was truly appreciated. Today, scholars recognise her significant contribution to literature due to the historical, philosphical and religious concepts explored in her work.
Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589)
Catherine de’Medici was the queen consort of Henry II of France (who reigned from 1547-59) and the regent of her France (1650-74) on behalf of her young son. The mother of three kings of France (Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III), she is one of the most formidable personalities of this time and is thought ot have been heavily involved in the the famous Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572
Born in Florence, Italy in 1519, Catherine was the daughter of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino and ruler of Florence (and to whom Machiavelli’s The Prince was dedicated); and Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne, who belonged to a French noble house that later became the royal House of Bourbon. The union of the young couple was part of a French-Italian alliance against the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I.
Both of Catherine’s parents died within weeks of her birth. She was educated and disciplined by relatives and nuns in Florence and Rome. In 1533, at the age of 14, she was married to Henry of the House of Valois, the Duke of Orléans and the second son of Francis I of France. After Henry’s older brother died, Henry became heir to the throne. He was crowned king of France in 1547.
Catherine’s marriage was not a happy one. She and Henry had a difficult time conceiving an heir (she eventually gave birth to a son, named Francis after her father-in-law, at the age of 34) and Henry openly took mistresses. The most famous was Diane de Poitiers, to whom Henry gifted Château de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley (until Catherine kicked her out–read more in our article here). French courtiers also derisively called her a ‘merchant’s daughter'(Davis & Lindsmith, 2019, p. 274), referring to her family’s non-aristocratic origins.
By 1555, Catherine had given birth to nine more children, but only seven would reach adulthood, the others beset with health problems. Henry died in a jousting accident in 1559, and Francis II ascended the throne. The 15-year-old sickly king became a tool of a rival noble house, the Guises.
Francis II would only rule for 16 months, felled by ill health. He was succeeded by his brother, 10-year-old Charles IX. Under Charles IX, the Italian-born ‘merchant’s daughter’ became queen regent of France, wresting power from the House of Guise. The Queen Regent title was one she would hold for thirty years – Charles died without male issue, and was succeeded by his brother, Henry III.
The French War of Religions
The biggest crisis of her reign was the French War of Religions. France was being torn apart by a religious civil war between the Catholics and the Huguenots (French Protestants). In the 16th century, more and more French people converted to Protestantism and joined the Reformed Church of France. Members of the church were called Huguenots and were at first treated with tolerance. It didn’t take long for this tolerance to turn to hostility.
Catherine tackled the problem as if it were simply a political crisis, failing to note the deep roots of the divide in her adopted country. In 1562, she issued the Edict of January, which called for tolerance of the Huguenots. This did not sit well with the devout Catholics, and they turned to Catherine’s rivals, the House of Guise, as their faith’s champions.
Next, she arranged the marriage of her daughter Marguerite to the Protestant Henry, King of Navarre (later Henry IV of France, crowned 1589).
St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
The Guises had been plotting to assassinate a Huguenot leader, Admiral Gaspard II de Coligny. Charles IX approved of Coligny, and Catherine, fearing the admiral’s influence, gave her approval to carry out the assassination.
The first attempt failed. Coligny was murdered in the second assassination attempt, which was carried out on August 24, 1572 in Paris, the venue of the royal wedding. However, it also sparked a chain reaction of Catholic violence. Thousands of Huguenots, many of whom travelled to the Catholic city for the wedding celebrations, were murdered by Catholics in what became known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. The massacre did not stop even after a royal order was released to halt the killings, and bloodshed soon spread beyond Paris and into the French provinces.
Catherine tried her best to hold the kingdom together, but only barely. She died in 1589 hated by the Protestants and with the civil war still unresolved. It would be her son-in-law, Henry IV of France, who would put an end to the war less than a decade later. He embraced Catholicism and promulgated the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which guaranteed religious liberties to Protestants and effectively ended the religious wars. Though Catherine is often remembered for her infamy, painted as a Machiavellian matriarch, it is interesting today to consider what her legacy might be had she been a man.
Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625)
When we think of Renaissance painters, often male painters quickly come to mind – Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo, and so on. Sofonisba Anguissola, born to a minor noble family in Cremona, achieved a status as a formidable painter during the Renaissance, at a time when virtually no women of significance painted'(Davis & Lindsmith, 2019, p. 302) or was considered a serious student of the fine arts.
Her gender still proved a barrier: as she could not hire male models, she could not produce the religious paintings that were at the top of the hierarchy of painting genres and which brought prestige to artists. She stuck to (or, more precisely, was stuck in) painting portraits, for which she became well known not just in Italy but internationally.
Sofonisba (named after a Carthaginian noblewoman) was the eldest of seven children, six of whom were girls. She and one of her sisters, Elena, were sent to board with Bernardino Campi, a prominent local painter. Campi moved to Milan after three years but Sofonisba continued her training, studying with Bernardino Gatti and even corresponding with Michelangelo.
A Painter for the Spanish Court
She began to earn a living from her portraits. About 30 of her paintings, including the one below and the self-portrait above, survived into the 21st century – the rest, unfortunately, were burned in a fire.
Her reputation spread beyond Italy. In 1559, she was invited to join the court of Philip II of Spain in Madrid as a tutor to Philip’s third wife, Queen Elizabeth of Valois, and as court painter.
Sofonisba spent fourteen years in the court, financially supported by the king. Philip II also paid her dowry in order for her to marry a Sicilian nobleman, Fabrizio de Moncada, and paid her a generous pension.
She was widowed in 1579 and later re-married. Her personal fortune allowed her to continue painting and become a patron of the arts. Her last pupil was the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, who visited her in 1624 and wrote down her advice regarding portraiture. Today she is considered one of the most significant painters of the late Renaissance. Giorgio Varsari perhaps said it best when he commented that Sofonisba had shown ‘greater application and better grace than any other woman of our age in her endeavours at drawing; she has thus succeeded not only in drawing, colouring and painting from nature, and copying excellently from others, but by herself has created rare and very beautiful paintings’.
Click the links to see further information, or check out Renaissance People: Lives that Shaped the Modern Age written by Robert C. Davis and Beth Lindsmith (Thames & Hudson, 2019) and which was used as a starting point for this article.
Our previous article “Five Female Explorers” may also be of interest, as well as:
Many of our participants in Odyssey Traveller are women, either travelling alone or with a companion. Check out our tours and travel anywhere in the whole world with Odyssey.
The following tours have special focus on the Renaissance:
- Living in the Renaissance City of Florence (22 days, based in Florence, Italy)
- Renaissance Italy, story of five families (21 days, focused on the Medicis of Florence, the Montefeltros of Urbino, the Estes of Ferrara, the Gonzagos of Mantua, and the Sforzas of Milan)
You may also want to sign up for our Summer School classes, held for seven days in January 2020 in Hobart to discover more about the splendour of this time period:
All of the tours organised by Odyssey Traveller travel in small groups and are especially designed for the mature-aged traveller.