On Sept. 9, 2023, the Museum of Fine Arts opened an exhibition titled “Strong Women in Renaissance Italy,” which focuses on the life and works of women and craftswomen of 16th and 17th century Italy. The exhibition was curated by Marietta Cambareri, a senior curator of European sculptures and author of the related publication, “Strong Women in Renaissance Italy.”Additionally, she assisted Simona Di Nepi, curator of Judaica at the MFA, in the exhibition. Female artists in history have not been highlighted nearly as much as their male counterparts despite their historical contributions. Cambareri aims to highlight the contribution of artists that history has left out of the narrative. Located in the MFA’s Gallery 184, this exhibition takes the viewer through fine arts and detailed crafts to show the Renaissance through the women of the time.

 Many artists of the Renaissance are famous for their contributions. Michelangelo, Raphael, Da Vinci, and their contemporaries carved a corner for themselves in the canon of art history, but women like Sofonisba Anguissola have yet to have their time to shine. The exhibition is not only about female artists, but also the lives of women in Italy during the 1500s and 1600s and the art they consumed. Anguissola is one of the first artists  introduced in the gallery. Her work is an oil on parchment: “Self-Portrait,” from  1556. This work is a declaration of her space in the art world. Anguissola paints herself in this small work with a large disc in front of her body. The disc declares her father’s name as the man who encouraged her to pursue her artistic talents, but not just that her own name is painted in Latin on the outer space of the disc, declaring her hand in the creation of the painting. There are also allusions that create a connection between Anguissola and ancient women who painted their own portraits like Iaia of Cyzicus. Her work is truly contemporary to its time and makes an impression on the viewer. 

Anguissola, who was present in the Spanish court and a contemporary of Michelangelo Buonarroti, is a master of portraiture, but her work is sadly forgotten to time by the patriarchal erosion of women in history.

A later artist, Lavinia Fontana, found artistic success as a woman in 17th century Italy. In the MFA, her piece “Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child” shows her creative abilities typically associated with the High Renaissance and the early Baroque. The painting is of the Virgin Mary in contemporary dress, protecting and observing the sleeping child, Jesus Christ. This panel is in the shape of a triangle, possibly serving both a utilitarian purpose as an insert in a larger piece, and as a religious symbol, typically associated with the Trinity. Fontana’s ability as an artist and her experiences as a mother informed this painting as well, showing the Christ Child in a limp and lifeless position on a cradle that resembles the sarcophagi of the time — a reference to her own experience losing many of her eleven children. Fontana was able to achieve notoriety in her time as a skilled painter and artist, being personally invited by Pope Clement VIII to work in Rome. Later, she joined a society of artists and intellectuals. She was as an educated woman in Renaissance Italy and defied the male-dominated perspectives of her contemporaries.

Both of these artists’ works can be seen in the MFA as a way to highlight the strength and perseverance of women during the 16th and 17th centuries. Both Cambareri and Di Nepi had the goal of uplifting women from a patriarchal time and sharing with the public their contributions to the canon of artists. This exhibition is open until Jan. 7, 2024, and is admission free with your Brandeis ID. Cambareri and Di Nepi have created a once-in-a-lifetime gallery with a fantastic audio tour that is also accessible to hard-of-hearing and visually impaired individuals with transcripts and descriptions of the pieces. Check it out!