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Books: Looking at women in Paola Tinagli's "Women in Italian Renaissance art"

No great women artists? But they star in all the pictures

Every publisher’s dream is to produce a best selling introduction to Renaissance art. Few succeed.

Paola Tinagli’s survey of representations of women in Renaissance Italian art deserves to succeed.

The famous question, asked decades ago now, why were there no great women artists, drew attention to a fairly discouraging minority of women artists in Renaissance Europe. It was the wrong question to ask and most writers took Vasari to task for concentrating on masculine achievement, although he may have been more perceptive than twentieth-century feminists in acknowledging the achievement of Properzia de’ Rossi, to whom he dedicated an entire biography.

Much more valuable has proven the analysis of Renaissance imagery where women get the main parts. This is Dr Tinagli’s main emphasis and she focuses on four main areas of investigation: painted furniture in relation to marriage customs; profile portraits of women interpreted according to their roles in dynastic succession and virtue; the function of paintings of the nude in various contexts; and finally, an analysis of religious exempla, the Virgin Mary and female saints, as models for women.

Although such a book would be impossible without the theoretical concerns of twentieth-century historians, one of the many virtues of Dr Tinagli’s book is that she recognises the importance of the rich tradition of theory created by Renaissance writers to which Renaissance artists responded and contributed. Accompanied by vivacious footnotes and thoughtful selective bibliography, Dr Tinagli’s book is student-friendly, and likely to become a much used book in teaching.

Dr Tinagli complains that no curator of Renaissance art has attempted an exhibition like the 1989 Degas’ “Images of women” (Liverpool and Glasgow), but in so doing she ignores the pioneering and excellent show organised by H. Diane Russell, “Eva/Ave: woman in Renaissance and baroque prints” at the National Gallery of Washington in 1990, the result of decades of scholarly investigation in gender studies in Renaissance art. And there have been others such as the exhibition around Piero della Francesca’s “Madonna del Parto” at Monterchi (1991) which explored female patronage, and the triad of shows at Vienna organised by Sylvia Ferino Pagden, just to mention a few.

It is an often repeated fallacy that Renaissance art historians are not interested in gender studies or theory, but in many ways Renaissance art has always been deeply concerned with theoretical questions, and writing in this area is often more perceptive and intelligent than in contemporary art history.

Paola Tinagli, Women in Italian Renaissance art (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1997) 224 pp, 68 col. ills, £45; $59.95 (hb) ISBN 0719050531 £15.99; $19.95 (pb) ISBN 071904054x

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Looking at women'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 74 October 1997