Influential women and dress in Renaissance Italy: Power and identity in portraiture

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Stanciel, Ginger Deborah
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Reddy-Best, Kelly L Gordon, Jennifer F Kyle, Sarah R
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Apparel, Events and Hospitality Management
In this study I analyzed how portraits convey negotiations of the power and status of 16th century aristocratic Renaissance wives and mistresses in Italy. Dress and fashion as a means of communicating identity was heightened amongst the upper classes during the European Renaissance in response to the rise of the merchant class. Women of the aristocracy in particular had numerous motivations for subtle forms of identity expression ranging from declaring political affiliations to national allegiances (Muzzarelli, 2009; Rublack, 2011; Rublack, 2016). Declaring national allegiances was a frequent practice by aristocratic women that entered cross-cultural political marriages, forcing them to adopt the cultural norms of their husbands’ home (Cox-Rearick, 2009). Utilizing content analysis and the historical method, I analyzed period portraiture of influential 16th century women that were Italian born or married. The portraiture study included twenty-one portraits of nine women. Portraiture selection was informed by online accessibility (as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic) and credibility, with portraits primarily identified on museum owned databases and government/publicly funded art databases. The twenty-one portraits of Caterina Sforza, Bianca Maria Sforza, Cecilia Gallerani, Giulia Farnese, Isabella d’Este, Lucrezia Borgia, Margherita Paleologo, Eleonora di Toledo, and Bianca Cappello, concentrated in 16th century Italy convey this period’s exceptional reputation for portraiture and the display of status through dress and other forms of consumerism. Eight prominent themes emerged across the twenty-one portraits which reference the use of dress in relation to concepts of conveyed status, personal preferences, religious references and characteristics, and social and political allegiances with their birth families or their husbands’ families. Each of these nine women embodied many of the period expectations of mothers, wives, mistresses, and rulers. However, all of them found ways to communicate their personal identities through dress, in their portraits, during their lifetimes.