2024 Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, Chicago, IL
IAS-Sponsored Session

Molding Matters: Women in Early Modern Sculpture I

Organizer & Chair: Eve Straussman-Pflanzer, National Gallery of Art

Organizer: Caroline Paganussi, American Friends of Capodimonte Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow

These panels will explore the understudied subject of women in sculpture in the early modern world, broadly construed in Western Europe and beyond. While monographic studies of certain figures, such as Properzia de’ Rossi, Plautilla Bricci, Luisa Roldán, and Anna Morandi Manzolini exist, the majority of known women who worked in sculpture are yet to be fully studied. Part of this is due to the perceived hierarchy of materials with marble reigning supreme. However, other materials such as terracotta, plaster, and wax were also used to create sculpture—materials often utilized by women. We welcome papers that illuminate the work of women sculptors worldwide, including multimedia creations such as dioramas and the artwork of nuns, as well as papers that explore the role of women in the workshop or academy. We are also interested in papers that address women patrons of sculpture. In short, we seek to gather a variety of talks that help us better understand the various ways in which women participated in the early modern world of sculpture.


Anna Frasca-Rath, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg
A Quantitative Approach towards Early Modern Women Sculptors (1550-1850)

My paper discusses the results of the research project Tender Hands and Rough Stone. A Critical Rereading of the Biographies of Women Sculptors (1550-1850) at the FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg  (2021/22).The result of this project is a list of more than 370 female sculptors active from the 16th to the early 19th century, compiled through the study of published material such as monographs, dictionaries, handbooks and exhibition catalogues. The first part of my paper analyses the list statistically: where do the sculptors come from? Can we identify regional clusters, and if so, when and where? Can we identify particular career strategies? Where are they trained? What do we know about clients and networks? The second part of the lecture focusses on their respective works: How does the number of documented works compare with the number of surviving works? What do we know about the materials used? How do these relate to the surviving works? What genres of sculpture were produced by the sculptors?

The aim is to provide a statistical overview of the contribution of women sculptors to early modern art, based on sheer numbers, and to present the results for discussion in the “Molding Matters” section at the RSA.

Patricia Simons, Professor Emerita, University of Michigan/Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne
The Gender and Sexuality of Making Sculpture

Properzia de’ Rossi’s work is considered the exception that proves the rule that women were not thought suited to the medium of sculpture in marble. This paper examines the gendering of material, action and concept, of what Vasari masculinized as “the roughness of marble and the sharpness of iron” (1550). Aristotle’s influential model of sexual reproduction likened fathers and their formative semen to sculptors shaping large-scale, feminized matter. Hammer and chisel frequently appear in image and text as necessarily masculine instruments of force. The chisel is often positioned suggestively, reinforcing the notion that the tools are phallic. Like Pygmalion, the sculptor usually works on a feminine figure, and sometimes blatant sexual contact is shown. So strong was the presumption of masculine identity for the sculptor that the habit of gendering an allegorical figure as feminine is occasionally reversed, instead personifying Sculpture as a semi-naked man.

Attention will also be paid to the gendering of impressionable wax as feminine, although, as with malleable clay, we know of more women working in those materials. They practiced a different category of sculpture, what Michelangelo likened to painting, contrasting that mode with “what is done by main force in cutting off” (1549).

C.D. Dickerson III, National Gallery of Art
Luisa Roldán and the Nobility of Clay

In 1688 after moving from Andalusia to Madrid, the sculptor Luisa Roldán largely abandoned wood in favor of clay. Much has been written about how in Madrid she could not find as many customers for her expensive life-size statues in painted wood. Other explanations for her move to clay have positioned it in gendered terms—that clay was appropriate for a woman because it was easier to sculpt. Her friend and earliest biographer Antonio Palomino would seem to be complicit here. Clay is the only material he specifically associates with Luisa, and he writes that her terracottas were a triumph because she brought a special “grace” to them, as though he assumed it took a woman’s delicate touch to be able to exploit clay’s softness.

My paper will propose that any discussion of Luisa’s decision to take up clay must account for the material’s nobility in seventeenth-century Spain. This is consistently overlooked because Luisa’s terracottas are typically viewed in isolation rather than as part of an enduring tradition in Spanish sculpture. The paper will also consider how contemporary writers often described clay in ennobling terms. Finally might her decision to sign her terracottas reflect her understanding of clay’s prestige?

Caroline Paganussi, American Friends of Capodimonte Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow
Wax, Waxiness, and a Woman’s Capacity to Create: Anna Morandi Manzolini’s Portrait of Giovanni Manzolini

Around 1755, the Bolognese anatomical sculptor Anna Morandi Manzolini (1714 – 1774) fashioned a double-portrait of herself and her husband/professional partner, Giovanni Manzolini (1700 – 1755), in their preferred materials: colored wax, fabric, and hair. These busts immortalize the anatomists during an anatomical demonstration, with Morandi dissecting a brain while Manzolini attends to a human heart. Molded after Manzolini’s death, these likenesses have been understood as a clever memorial produced by his talented widow.

In the double portrait’s first art historical analysis, I propose that Morandi’s use of wax – historically gendered female, infantilized, and associated with a lack of invenzione from its similarity to human flesh – is the work’s protagonist. Considered with the couple’s models of gravid uteruses, the Portrait of Giovanni Manzolini represents Morandi’s abilities to create life, impose form on matter (á la Aristotle on human procreation), and raise the dead as a scientist, artist, mother, teacher, and wife. Furthermore, wax was associated with the heart, brain, and womb – organs the Manzolinis specialized in reproducing, and which were understood in the cultural imagination as “waxy” for their susceptibility to manipulation. I argue that all three feature prominently in the double-portrait, their presence Morandi’s subversive attestation of the nobility of wax.

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