Friday, September 14, 2012

Michelle Obama, The Queen of Cyprus, Eleonora of Aragon and Isotta degli Atti - what could they possibly have in common?

Andrea Mantegna, The Meeting  Camera degli Sposi, the Ducal Palace, Mantua,1471-74 
"All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players."
The last week of August and the first in September, the American political world was on stage and the Republican and Democrats were merely the players.  While I am the least political person, I do make exceptions for big events such as these. Besides, my brother, Cenk was hosting the coverage of both the conventions on Current TV so we had no choice but to watch the full four hours even if it was just out of family loyalty.  While I gave only half my attention to most of the speeches, I listened with apt attention when Ann Romney at the Republican and Michelle Obama at the Democratic Convention took the stage.  These ladies were on a mission to paint a more human, personal picture of their husbands for the delegates and the American public as compassionate, loving individuals.  They were taking their part in creating their husband's public image.  Even I was impressed with Michele Obama's amazing speech (Link)  and I couldn't help but compare the image of the powerful (in every sense of the word) First Lady with those of others from the past.

Andrea Mantegna, The Court of Mantua Camera degli Sposi, the Ducal Palace, Mantua,1471-74
(Ludovico II Gonzaga with his wife Barbara von Brandenburg)

At this time, I was working on my book review (Link) for 3PP on the exhibition catalog for The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which contained portrayals of some of the most prominent individuals from fifteenth-century Renaissance.  In contrast to the image both the first lady and Mrs. Romney portrayed of their husbands as being 'regular guys', who could understand the American people, magnificence was the attribute that was largely cultivated during the Renaissance.  Especially the highly idealized female portrait with elaborate costumes and costly jewels was a greatly utilized tool to promote the persona and the status of their husbands.  While the rights and role of women is still being manipulated in our present day political arena, I thought we might take a look at some other consorts as well as leaders from fifteenth-century Renaissance to see what kind of an image they cultivated to further their cause.

Pietro da Fano, Giovanna Dandolo, Wife of Pasquale Malipiero 
(reverse), 1452-64. Bronze, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
There was a very striking portrait medal mentioned in the catalog of dogaressa Giovanna Dandolo, wife of Pasquale Malipiero, which was the reverse of her husband's medal. Looking at the unflattering, brutally honest portrayal of this female makes one wonder why she was portrayed this way when her contemporaries in Florence and the Princely Courts were being idealized in their likenesses and celebrated for their beauty which was considered a sign of their virtue.  When we compare Giovanna Dandolo's medal with that of Isabella d'Este, the striking difference between the two becomes very evident. While Isabella had herself portrayed fresh and lovely with an elaborate Roman style hairdo (she was known to be quite heavy which is not evident in this medal at all) Giovanna is depicted with sunken eyes, as an old woman who has past her prime. (The interesting details of Isabella's medal are in my book review.)

Gian Cristoforo Romano, Isabella d'Este, 1498
(Munzkabinett, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna)

According to Peter Humfrey, who wrote the catalog entry The Portrait in Fifteenth-Century Venice, in The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini,  this was done deliberately to emphasize the dogaressa being past her child-bearing years. Even though the ancient imperial inspired medal with the portraits of the doge and his consort is considered to be a subtle attempt to promote himself, Humfrey notes, it would not do for a doge to show political or dynastic ambitions.

Gentile Bellini, Caterina Cornaro, ca. 1500
(Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest)

The other memorable portrait from Venice was Gentile Bellini's portrait, Caterina Cornaro, the dowager queen of Cyprus.  Caterina who came from a very distinguished and prominent Venetian family was married to Giacomo II Lusignan, king of Cyprus. She ascended to the throne after the deaths of her husband and son but according to the catalog entry, later was forced by the Venetian state to surrender her throne. As consolation, the state awarded her the honorary title of "Daughter of Saint Mark" and allowed her to maintain a small court in Asolo. Also mentioned is the considerable cultural influence of her court which included humanists such as Pietro Bembo, and artists like Giorgione. This intriguing portrait is exceptional for its large size and extending down to the waist of the sitter instead of the customary cutting off at or below the shoulders. However, even with her  opulent dress and jewels, Peter Humfrey refers to her as appearing to be a prisoner. It is probably due to her being confined to the picture plane with her arms on her side and her hands not visible.

Attributed to Cosme Tura,
Eleonora of Aragon, from Antonio Cornazzano's "Del modo di regere e di regnare", 1478-79
(The Morgan Library and Museum, New York)

On the dedicatory page of a treatise on governance, Eleonora of Aragon, duchess of Ferrara, (also the mother of Isabella d'Este) appears in strict profile, richly dressed, holding a scepter extended by the hand of God, recalling her divine right to rule. It is mentioned that this miniature painting, part of the treatise by Cornazzano, was composed between September 1478 and February 1479 when Eleonora took the reigns of government at her husband, Duke Ercole I d'Este's absence is very unusual since, while such a treatise might be dedicated to men, it was unheard of to be bestowed upon a woman.  The artist seems to justify Eleonora's right to rule by displaying her with a distant gaze and a serious and aloof demeanor, all the attributes of a divine ruler, according to the catalog entry.

Matteo de' Pasti, Isotta degli Atti,
ca. 1450
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Another idiosyncratic character from fifteenth-century Renaissance was Sigismondo Malatesta, the fierce ruler of Rimini.  This bronze medal is thought to be commissioned to commemorate the occasion of Isotta degli Atti becoming his mistress, who was known to be the most powerful woman in Rimini, even when Sigismondo's second wife was alive. Isotta's strict profile is accompanied with a remarkable hair arrangement calling attention to her fashionable high forehead.  Sigismondo went onto do something that was unheard of at this time, he married his mistress. Included in the catalog entry is a line from a letter Isotta wrote to Sigismondo in December 1454, imploring him to make a real marriage. It seems Sigismondo would not be swayed, not only did he marry his mistress but he also had a funerary chapel granted to her in the Tempio Malatestiano, the cathedral church of Rimini.

Michelle Obama's speech came to a close with a well-deserved standing ovation, impressing and deeply moving her audience... all for the benefit of her husband's cause... I guess we can say, in this, she is in good company.


Christiansen, Keith, Stefan Weppelmann, and Patricia Lee Rubin. The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011


  1. Hi Sedef --
    I just read your review at 3PP yesterday, so I was particularly glad to have more information about the "The Renaissance Portrait" catalog. And this is so fascinating -- that you pulled out the women -- wives and mistresses of powerful men -- from the catalog and highlighted them - such interesting parallels between then and today. Giovanna Dandolo certainly took one for the team with that portrayal (and I love the reason why), especially when it seems that portraits were so often idealized in the name of making the ruler look good. I'm thinking about the political candidates' wives trying to make them look like regular guys vs. the intention of these Renaissance portraits, but all with the goal of helping their husbands. Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

  2. Hi Karen,

    Not much has changed over the centuries because we are all human then and now. This is why I love art history so much, because it visualized this in an undeniable way.
    Also, I was so happy to see these powerful and influential women along with the 'trophy wives' described by Patricia Simons in her essay 'Women in Frames.'

    Thank you for the interaction.


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