Mae Camacho: Italia America 2022

The Extents and Comparisons of Feminine Expression Between Italy and America

“The spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman”

Artemisia Gentileschi
Gentileschi, Artemisia. Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting. 1638
Expectations Under Catholicism: Italian Context

Religion has played one of the strongest roles in the suppression of women since the beginning of its history, introducing omnipotent gods and sacred texts that are often invested in women’s smallest movements and behaviors. In most organized religions, it seems that there is always something to say about the way she acts around a man, or even the way she wears her hair. And because of the way religion is integrated into daily life, in the way human nature has made social structures so deeply reliant on the rules of religion, some societies of women have accepted their roles to the fullest extent, in a way that passes down for generations. I would be inclined to say that Italian women, exposed and tied to the Roman Catholic church’s influence since 590 CE, have long since accepted a more regulated type of individual expression.

Remington, Sister Grace. The Virgin Mary Consoles Eve. 2003.

The University of South California Dornsife’s Veronica Franco Project team describes the average Italian renaissance woman to be expected to fit into 6 major traits: “Chastity, Silence, Modesty, Reticence, Sobriety, and Obedience” due to the counter-reformation movement at the time [1]. These traits come from the very limited Catholic view of women during the medieval period. This is because then, the only two female examples that the church had to form an opinion on a woman’s behavior were of Eve and the Virgin Mary [2]. One could either be seductive, malicious, and a liar, or a symbol of complete purity and devotion. Naturally, primarily catholic societies came to expect perfectly virtuous women from her example, and any behaviors outside of the expectation were worth being outlawed. Under a patriarchal/papal rule and common Roman law (the patria potestas), women were not allowed to hold office, as they were not permitted formal education or jobs, instead expected to maintain a domestic role raising children and preserving the matriarchal image of the Virgin Mary [3]. The maintenance of a virtuous reputation was stricter for women of higher classes, who were punished harshly for situations in which their family name was dishonored [4]. With this sort of restrictive life, many upper-class women or nuns turned to picking up crafts, writing, or painting outside of a formal career. However, from expectations of the domestic sphere, it came to be that Italian women were not allowed to receive an arts education and were especially discouraged from displaying their art publicly [4]- cruel in the midst of the Italian renaissance. Those opportunities were usually reserved for the few women that had the resources, such as daughters of artists. 

Expectations Under Protestantism: The American Perspective

After the protestant reformation, protestants made up a group of Christians that seceded from the Roman catholic church and spread throughout much of New England and the new world towards the west. After a history of differences in doctrine, this movement of Puritans to the new world is what kept the religiously based patriarchal ideas of a home life alive in colonial America. A seed cemented by social expectations turned into long-standing politics based on the notion that women are subservient to men, and so laws in the colonies were also heavily influenced by old Roman ideas brought abroad. 

            In New England, it was just as strong of an expectation that the female presence be restricted to matriarchal roles either in the household or in piety. Most similar to Roman laws, chastity was promoted, and sexual misconduct was heavily punished, with Puritan women being reprimanded for “absence from church and sexual offenses” more than men [5]. In a similar fashion, marriage and divorce were heavily restrictive for women. Roman ideals restricted divorce and marriage laws in fear of women with financial independence and more social responsibility, which is transformed in Puritan laws just as the Christian belief that paints divorce as a shameful and religious offense [5]. In both cases, the husband is assumed all the authority in a marriage, keeping wives mostly unable to divorce. This transformation did not change the laws. Roman common law dictated that a husband holds custody of his children after divorce or even when birthed out of wedlock, a tradition through puritan government that kept inheritances out of women’s hands and the patriarchy in power [5]. Divorce and custody laws are just a few examples of how Roman beliefs of female subordinance shaped colonial life for American women.

However, aside from legal matters, America was a less established and religiously uniform country, so women could get away with more “nefarious” behavior and were able to express themselves a little more freely. Art was never a booming industry or trade in early colonial America; therefore, women were never strictly shunned from creating or displaying publicly. In fact, the first American/colonial flag was commissioned for female seamstress Betsy Ross and displayed throughout the 18th century [6]. This can be explained as the country was so freshly founded on the principles of democracy, the validations of slavery and selective suffrage were fresh wounds and evidently ironic. The colonies were just out of tyranny and heavy taxation without representation, sworn to never return to subserviency and therefore any active restrictions put on the rights of minority groups could be justifiably and logically argued against. In fact, delegate George Mason of the constitutional convention who owned a large estate of slaves spoke out, denouncing the institution as corrupt and slave owners as “petty tyrants” [7]. It was in the era after the American Revolution that colonial women began to use this logic to echo their voices throughout the political world.

Female Expression in Renaissance-era Italy: A focus on the arts

Art seemed to be the primary outlet for suppressed women during the Italian renaissance, or at least it was what they could be most recalled for. Even then, female renaissance artists are mostly either lost to time or widely unrecognized. The few who have been credited for their works painted topics they were permitted to, barred from nudity and most masculine scenes. But female artists like Artemisia Gentileschi stuck to scenes they were used to- of tortured women and femmes fortes. Artemisia is famous partially for her trial against Agostino Tassi, her rapist [8]. In this trial, the woman was tortured as a tradition in court to force the truth out of accusers, risking her hands as an artist to let her truth be known [8]. Even so, as a friend of the pope, Tassi never saw justice and Gentileschi had her reputation tainted. She went on in spite of it all to paint scenes like that of Susanna and the Elders, which depicts sexual violence against an innocent Susanna, who was blackmailed for refusing to have sex with several men [9]. One of her most accredited paintings is that of Judith Slaying Holofernes. This scene is from another famous story, in which Judith volunteers to slay the general Holofernes, who is destroying her home city, and is aided by her servant in beheading the tyrant [10]. Artemisia is now a symbol of female strength for the American #metoo movement. There are similar female artists who rose out of prestigious families and had immense talent, such as Elisabetta Sirani, who painted the scene of Timoclea of Thebes, a woman who is shown throwing her rapist, a military captain, into a well [11]. Not pictured is Timoclea stoning the man to death. Sirani would mentor other female artists and be commissioned by locals, effectively keeping her art in circulation and safe from being discredited [12]. 

Sirani, Elisabetta. Timoclea of Thebes. 1659.

Almost all female artists of the Italian renaissance painted depictions of religious figures and scenes, but many religious art pieces were made specifically by nuns. Women religiously devout enough to become nuns, such as Caterina Vigri, were able to get a humanistic education and express themselves as dowried nuns, or professe [4]. These nuns were more accepted as artists because they mainly created art that was considered a symbol of their devotion, therefore sometimes being commissioned to make a church’s pieces. Caterina Vigri is also known as Saint Catherine of Bologna, with relics of miniature paintings and books depicting baby Jesus and other saints [13]. Saint Catherine justified her role as an artist by explaining her paintings were “to increase devotion in herself and others” [13]. 

Gentileschi, Artemisia. Susanna and the Elders. 1610.
Female Expression in early United States – A focus on politics

Being born out of a flee from tyranny planted the philosophy needed to keep Roman common laws out of the U.S.’s constitution- by dividing church and state for one of the few times in history. This movement made it impossible to argue for certain discriminatory laws being written into the constitution, such as actively banning women from office or legally keeping custody in the hands of a father. A basic foundation was made for the values of liberty through the bill of rights, securing a railing by which future minorities could argue with, and by which several female activists did argue through. Other rights were kept within the powers of state government. While this made way for selective discrimination on a local level, being able to fight a law on a smaller scale made it easier for activists to eventually bring it up to the supreme court. 

             While devoutly religious Italian women during the renaissance were able to be artistically expressive by becoming nuns, devoutly religious American women were able to be politically expressive with the extra freedoms they had. Women rallied behind their Christian morals to bring about political change when they were tired of the domestic abuse brought about by excessive drinking in the nineteenth century [14]. Women like Susan B. Anthony saw the devastating effects of alcohol (which was being consumed at a level three times as much as today) and started the temperance movement [14]. Using religious logic was one of the first ways women were able to politically express themselves in the U.S. and directly bring the ratification of the 18th amendment. The 18th amendment was a relief to suppressed women in an era when maintaining the household was made difficult by drunk husbands. The prohibition movement curved what could have been a nasty future for American wives.

Guntherz, Carl. Susan Brownell Anthony. 1895

            Both the U.S. and Italy made women’s suffrage available in local elections before making it nationally legal. Although the U.S. is a much younger country than Italy, the first female mayor in the states was Susanna Salter, who held office in 1887 [15]. This is in stark contrast to when Italian women were first allowed to hold office in 1963 and when Rome’s first female mayor was in 2016 [17][18]. The first female to hold government office in the United States was Jeannette Pickering Rankin, who was elected to the house of representatives in 1917 [16]. Representative Rankin fought and saw a seat in congress open up for her before women in Italy could even imagine her position. In overlapping the American and Italian timelines for women’s suffrage, there are clear differences that can be majorly explained by the histories and roles of religion in either country.

Her Longstanding Legacy

Because of their respective eras, Italian renaissance women and early American women shared two very different realities. Italian women, long used to the suppression by the church, remained quiet during one of the most well-known art flourishes and were forcefully kept out of politics. American women were figuratively born out of a revolution and therefore exposed to liberation logics that kept them politically involved. From both eras came unshakable shows of strength, and from both arose femmes fortes. The women that strove to express themselves under the thumb of one of the world’s oldest religious institutions, kept evolving what was socially acceptable for a woman over the centuries. As a woman I can’t explain the homage I owe to those that stood before me and made it possible to vote, to hold office, and to express myself freely. 


Citations

  1. Rosenthal, Margaret. “Veronica Franco .” Veronica Franco, University of South California, https://dornsife.usc.edu/veronica-franco/the-time/. 
  2. Tumanov, Vladimir. “Mary versus Eve: Paternal Uncertainty and the Christian View of Women.” An International Journal of Modern and Mediaeval Language and Literature, 2011, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11061-011-9253-5. 
  3. Oldham, Eagle Mary Kavanaugh, and Mary A Greene. “LEGAL CONDITION OF WOMAN IN 1492-1892.” The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893: With Portraits, Biographies and Addresses, International Pub. Co., Chicago, IL, 1895, p. 41. 
  4. Iacob, Anisia. “The Role of Women during the Italian Renaissance.” TheCollector, 20 Nov. 2021, https://www.thecollector.com/role-of-women-in-italian-renaissance/. 
  5. Kamp, John B. “Patriarchy and Gender Law in Ancient Rome and Colonial America.” The Iowa Historical Review, vol. 8, no. 1, 2020, https://doi.org/10.17077/2373-1842.1072. 
  6. History.com Editors. “Betsy Ross.” History, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, https://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/betsy-ross. 
  7. Mintz, Steven. “The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.” Historical Context: The Constitution and Slavery , Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/teaching-resource/historical-context-constitution-and-slavery. 
  8. Lewis, Helen. “Isn’t She Good-for a Woman?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 10 Jan. 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2021/01/feminist-rediscovery-artemisia-gentileschi-uk-national-gallery/617327/. 
  9. Simkovich, M. Z. (2016). The Tale of Susanna: A Story about Daniel. TheTorah.com. https://thetorah.com/article/the-tale-of-susanna-a-story-about-daniel
  10. Bhoker, Smriti. “Artemisia Gentileschi: The Artist Whose Work Is a Love Letter to Survivors and Female Solidarity.” Feminism In India, 8 Sept. 2021, https://feminisminindia.com/2021/07/27/artemisia-gentileschi-the-artist/. 
  11. Fhoghlú, Emer Ní. “Elisabetta Sirani and Her Image of Timoclea.” BadBride, 5 July 2020, https://www.badbride.com/bbbadies/elisabettasirani. 
  12. Modesti, Adelina. “Elisabetta Sirani, Bolognese Woman Painter, Printmaker & Virtuosa.” Art Herstory, University of Melbourne, 20 Nov. 2020, https://artherstory.net/elisabetta-sirani/. 
  13. Arthur, Kathleen G. “The Art of Sister Caterina Vigri, Saint Catherine of Bologna.” Art Herstory, James Madison University, 9 Mar. 2020, https://artherstory.net/sister-caterina-vigri-st-catherine-of-bologna-and-drawing-for-devotion/. 
  14. Waxman, Olivia B. “The Real History of Prohibition for Anniversary of Repeal.” Time, 5 Dec. 2018, https://time.com/5469508/prohibition-repeal-anniversary-history/. 
  15. Billington, Monroe. “Susanna Madora Salter First Woman Mayor.” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, Edited by Tod Roberts. Translated by Harriette J Jensen, vol. 21, no. 3, 1954, pp. 173–183. 
  16. “Milestones for Women in American Politics.” Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University: Eagleton Institute of Politics , https://cawp.rutgers.edu/facts/milestones-women-american-politics. 
  17. Associated Press. “Rome Elects Its First Female Mayor.” Los Angeles Times, 20 June 2016, https://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-italy-rome-mayor-20160620-snap-story.html. 
  18. European Union: European Commission, The Policy for Gender Equality in Italy: In-depth Analysis for the FEMM Committee, 2014, PE 493.052, pg.8, available at: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/note/join/2014/493052/IPOL-FEMM_NT(2014)493052_EN.pdf %5Baccessed 25 April 2022]

Author: maeteor

I make art sometimes, write always, and occasionally enjoy it

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