Women and Gender in Trecento Art & Architecture I + II

Organized By Judith Steinhoff, University of Houston

Women and Gender in Trecento Art & Architecture I:

“Women as Emotive Models in Giovanni Sercambi’s Chronicle.”

Péter Bokody, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Plymouth, UK 


The paper examines the role of female historical models in Giovanni Sercambi’s Chronicle. The first part of the chronicle on the history of Lucca is accompanied by 651 images. A member of the General Assembly from 1372 and of the Elders’ Council from 1390, Sercambi was an active player in the political life of the city and held a number of important positions. Although the imagery usually illustrates the narrative context, in some instances the author includes allegorical meditations on the nature of politics and power. Some of these models relate to historical women, and they are meant to explain the emotional aspects of an event. In this respect, the images and mediations give us a glimpse into the stereotypical use of women for contemporary ideological purposes in history writing.

“Fruit of the Vine: Pacino di Bonaguida’s Lignum Vitae and Clarissan Visual Literacy.”

Michael Shane Harless, PhD Candidate, Rice University


This paper will focus on Pacino di Bonaguida’s Lignum Vitae executed for the Clarissan convent of Monticelli in Florence around ca. 1310-1315. While the original position of the dossal within the convent is uncertain, Pacino’s painted expression of Bonaventure’s theology functions as a relic of the past, attesting to the devotional life that once thrived within the Florentine convent.Although misogynistic attitudes often questioned the spiritual acumen of medieval women, a comprehensive analysis of the painting’s arboreal design reveals an advanced visual literacy operating within the Clarissan community at Monticelli. By thoroughly examining Pacino’s trailblazing work, this study attempts to illustrate how the panel’s corporeal sensibility enhances the devotion of the cloistered viewer, as the branches that spring forth from the sacrificial tree and the continual intersection of Christ’s body function as steppingstones in the ascension of spirit, aiding the Poor Clare in her contemplation of the sacred mysteries.

“Holy Men and Artful Nuns: What Paintings Reveal about the Lived Experience of Trecento Women.” 

Karen E. McCluskey, University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney


Sometime shortly after 1350, a group of nuns entered the dim sanctuary of their convent-church. They clutched a small bundle of miniver brushes and a range of pigments, mostly black, the colour of their habits. In silent partnership, they reached a painted Vita panel. One nun, nominated as the most competent in the art of painting, set to substituting three noblemen depicted on the panel with a trio of female Benedictines. Mission accomplished, the nuns stealthily retreated. This is how I like to imagine the moment an overpainting was executed on Paolo Veneziano’s Vita panel of Leone Bembo (c.1350). The suspect nuns were the custodians of Bembo’s relics. They were wealthy and powerful yet forced to live under patriarchal control. Taking this incident as a point of departure, and drawing on the History of Experience methodology, this paper puts the lived experience of these women into sharp focus by interrogating their motivation to “rewrite” their history.

Women and Gender in Trecento Art & Architecture II:

“Virgin Martyr, Sage Doctor, Christ’s Bride: Regendering Saint Catherine of Alexandria.”

Ioanna Christoforaki, Assistant Research Fellow, Academy of Athens


Although the portrayal of Trecento women was heavily gendered—often in a negative way—by the male gaze, some female saints managed to eschew this fate. Catherine of Alexandria was an exceptional young woman who lived in fourth-century Egypt but gained popular recognition and enhanced visibility in the later Middle Ages. In Trecento images of the saint, a book, signifying her wisdom over the pagan philosophers, became her standard attribute, together with the spiked wheel of her martyrdom. Her vision and mystic marriage were also compositions introduced during the Trecento. Focusing on specific visual portrayals of Saint Catherine as a sage and a bride of Christ, I will argue that the Dominicans were instrumental in the shaping of these images. As the Order of Preachers par excellence, they were keen to promote her on account of her erudition and reasoning with which she spoke in defense of the Christian faith. 

“Female Actors and Gendered Spaces Inside the Florentine Home between Trecento and Quattrocento.”

Lorenzo Vigotti, Postdoctoral researcher at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Italy


My paper summarizes the most important findings of my survey of 1,100 unpublished domestic inventories listed by the Magistrato dei Pupilli in the Archivio di Stato in Florence, covering the period of the Albizi oligarchic government of Florence, between 1384 and 1432. 

This unprecedented wealth of information describes in detail the architectural spaces where women (both old and young members of the family, servants, and slaves) operated independently or as part of the household. Different aspects of their lifestyle emerged through their possessions, the location and iconography of works of art, the devotion of women’s books of prayer, the wealth of exotic items, the strategies of display, the tools used for their daily tasks not only in Florentine homes but also in countryside villas and residences scattered around Tuscany, providing an unprecedented chance to reveal the gendered spaces in the Tuscan house between Trecento and Quattrocento.

“Giotto and the Oratrix, or What Maddalena Saw.”

Laura Jacobus, Senior Lecturer Emerita, Birckbeck College, University of London


Maddalena Scrovegni (c.1360-1429) lived and wrote in Padua for much of her life, making daily use of the chapel built there by her grandfather and decorated by Giotto. For cultural historians she constitutes a triple rarity: an articulate witness to Giotto’s frescos during the century they were commissioned; a female writer amongst the North Italian humanists of the late fourteenth century; and a woman who has left an unusually large historical footprint for someone of her era and class. We can read what she wrote, and what people wrote about her, and (crucially for this paper) we can see what she saw. This paper considers the frescoes of the Arena Chapel in conjunction with Maddalena’s epistolary output, suggesting that she found visual inspiration for her writing in Giotto’s frescoes, and that her writings can tell us some surprising things about her reception of Giotto’s work. 

Risky Business: Dangers Faced by Artists and Patrons

Organized by Jonathan K. Nelson, Syracuse University, Florence

Chair:  Diana Bullen Presciutti

Respondent:  Christopher J. Nygren

“Lost in Translation: Misunderstandings in Art, Across Cultures and Media.” 

Jonathan K. Nelson, Syracuse University, Florence


Risk, the possibility of losing something of value, was discussed by many Medieval and Renaissance authors, but early modern scholars employ the concept primarily to study gambling and marine insurance. Recent studies in translation theory indicate a model for analyzing the risks of communication across languages. This paper extends that framework to the translation of word into image, to explore an important but unexplored risk in Renaissance art patronage. Mangled messages impaired communication from patrons and artists, and then again to audiences. In many misguided commissions, patrons provided incomplete or incomprehensible requests to artists. Moreover, patrons and audiences often misinterpreted artistic solutions, such as a kneeling Christ (Caroto), a youthful Christ (Michelangelo), or a smiling Louis XIV (Bernini). Documented misunderstandings provide a basis for considering translations across continents, such as Italian artists employed by Ethiopian royalty or Mesoamericans working for Jesuits.  

“Risk and Risk Aversion in Sculpture Shipments: The Case of Pompeo Leoni’s Sculptures for the Escorial.”

Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio, University of Vermont


Shipments of sculpture from Italy to Spain were not infrequent, but depending on the medium, size, and style, they presented a multitude of challenges. Sculptures could easily be damaged, stolen, sunk, and lost along the arduous journey overland, down rivers, and across seas. In addition to the dangers facing the sculptures themselves, the labor force required to manage the shipment was also at risk. Moreover, political negotiations were often necessary to ensure safe passage, and the entire enterprise was weather dependent. This paper explores the largest shipment of bronzes in early modern Europe: the Escorial retable sculptures that were sent from Milan to Madrid in the late 1500s-early 1600s. It discusses the many risks that had to be considered in this enormous undertaking, based on detailed records found in the archives in Simancas and Milan.

“Assaying Risk in Metallic Reproduction: Error and Technical Fallibility in Giambologna’s Aftercasts.”

Sharifa Lookman, PhD candidate, Princeton University


As Giambologna’s fame reached new heights in the mid-to-late sixteenth century, so did the extent of his material output. Alongside his more monumental commissions, smaller bronze statuettes regularly exited the artist’s studio, initially made by the artist himself but subsequently as workshop reproductions. The design of these replicas – so-called aftercasts – varied in origin, some as reductions of Giambologna’s large-scale sculptures, others miming the artist’s smaller preparatory models, and still others made using the original mold. All these aftercasts evince the labor, inconsistencies, and material risks implicated in alloyed reproduction, from replicating casting flaws to using compromised materials. Usually studied as decontextualized markers of the artist’s cross-continental reach, the aftercasts also real a wide constellation of risky endeavors involved in metallic replication. This paper explores how the aftercasts – in their varied materials, production, and authorship – modeled imperfections in multiplicity.

New Affordances of Digital Visualization and Simulation in the Arts of Italy

Nicola Camerlenghi, Associate Professor, Dartmouth College
Kelli Wood, Assistant Professor, University of Tennessee

Chair and Respondent: Nicola Camerlenghi

“Digital Lenses and Renaissance Readings: Reimagining Raphael in the Library of Julius II.”

Tract Cosgriff, The College of Wooster

Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura, once the private library of Julius II, manifest a monumental thesis on Renaissance theories of word and image. The rediscovery of the Stanza’s collection of deluxe volumes demonstrates that the chamber was animated by a recursive chain of media, from painting to text. Using 3D technologies to reunite the books and the frescoes, this panoramic reconstruction illuminates new dimensions of the Stanza’s experience for its early visitors and elucidates the synergistic intellectual web on which the room’s design was predicated. It asks: How was the Stanza engaged by its early modern audience? How might the spatial analysis of the pope’s literary collection shape our interpretation of the chamber’s meaning? How does the relationship of text and image inform our understanding of Renaissance cultures of reading? And how do these investigations inform current urgent discussions about what a library has been and could become?

“The Archipelago Project: Venice’s Early Modern Lagoon in a Semantic and Geospatial Infrastructure.”

Ludovica Galeasszo, I Tatti – The Harvard University Centre for Italian Renaissance Studies

From the 16th century, Venice became critically conscious of the granular nature of its hinterland, constructing a governance that involved the islands. Lagoon sites were systematically included in the net of capillary infrastructures for the city’s supply, defence, and healthcare as well as civic rituals. The socio-political events in the aftermath of the Republic’s fall (1797) profoundly changed this understanding and altered the reading of the city as an organic entity that encompasses the watery ecosystem. The Archipelago project reconstructs and visualizes the ancient configuration of these places along with the network of relationships that once defined the Venetian lagoon through a transdisciplinary approach, which combines history, architecture, social studies as well as advanced semantic web technologies. This entails the development of a geospatial and time-based research infrastructure that enables the intersection of historical data with georeferenced maps, and digital reconstructions to express the urban processes that shaped the city.

“Digitizing Early Modern Board Games.”

Kelli Wood, University of Tennessee 


This paper will present the preliminary findings of the NEH-Mellon sponsored project Digitizing Early Modern Board Games. Building a virtual interface from engines and platforms currently used for web-based games and collections management will facilitate a heretofore unprecedented analysis of the complexity of board games produced in the late sixteenth century in Italy. Booming print production, alongside cultural and social developments, led to the production and proliferation of new styles of games that featured novel combinations of diagrammatic construction, imagery, literary quotations, and game mechanics. A digital platform that not only enables simulation, but also provides a scholarly apparatus, will shed light on the multiple meanings and narratives that unfold as players trace changing connections between text, image, and rules during various iterations of the game. Games functioned not as static likenesses, but rather as active systems that encouraged performative manipulation of signs in order to create meaning through play.

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