Culture Empowerment Fashion & Style

Women’s Body Ideals Throughout History: The Italian Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance was a cultural and intellectual boom where art, science, philosophy, literature and even politics flourished like never before. It started roughly from the 14th century and lasted up to the 17th century in Italy and it marked the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era. Humanism was the central intellectual movement of the time, where the focus was on individualism and the magnificent human potential.

The Italian Renaissance produced some of the world’s most renowned artists and architects. Figures like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael created masterpieces in painting, sculpture, and architecture. They emphasized realism, perspective, and the portrayal of the human form. Notable architectural achievements include Florence’s Duomo, Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Medici family’s patronage of art. Literature was also blooming and poet Dante Alighieri‘s Divine Comedy is considered one of the greatest works of Italian literature and not only.

The Renaissance saw significant advancements in scientific inquiry and exploration. Nicolaus Copernicus proposed the heliocentric model of the universe, challenging the geocentric view. Galileo Galilei made crucial observations with the telescope, and let’s not forget about Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions and scientific investigations that spanned various fields, including anatomy, physics, and engineering. Another great invention during that time revolutionized the world. The printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century and all of the sudden knowledge and ideas were easily spread. Books became more accessible, leading to a wider dissemination of Renaissance thought and fostering intellectual exchange across Europe.

It was also the time when explorers like Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci expanded geographical knowledge, discovering The New World and suddenly, our Earth became bigger and greater. It was definitely a rebirth on every single plan. It was the bloom of the entire humanity.

The Role of Women

Naturally, the role of women changed as well and evolved during this blooming period of time. Women in the Italian Renaissance occupied complex and diverse roles, which were shaped by social, cultural, and economic factors. While women’s opportunities were still limited compared to men, they made significant contributions to various fields and exerted influence in their respective spheres.

The social status of a woman was still a key factor in her education and overall opportunities. Only noblewomen had access to education and private tutoring, while those from low-classes were learning only domestic skills and were involved in agricultural and artisanal activities. However, some women managed to make history during these times like Isabella d’Este, Catherine de’ Medici, Vittoria Colonna, Sofonisba Anguissola or Lavinia Fontana.

Isabella d’Este, The Leading Lady of The Italian Renaissance

Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) was an influential figure in the Italian Renaissance and is often referred to as the First Lady of the Renaissance. She was born into the prominent ruling Gonzaga family in Ferrara, Italy, and married Francesco II Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua, in 1490. Isabella d’Este played a significant role in the cultural, political, and social spheres of her time. She is seen as an example of female empowerment during the Renaissance and probably one of the first true examples of modern women empowerment.

Portrait of Isabella d’Este by Titian

She navigated the male-dominated world of politics and culture with confidence and assertiveness. Isabella exercised significant influence in the political affairs of Mantua. When her husband was away on military campaigns or diplomatic missions, she acted as regent and governed the city-state effectively. She skillfully navigated diplomatic relationships with other Italian rulers and even played a role in the complex politics of the Italian Wars.

Isabella d’Este was also a renowned patron of the arts and played a crucial role in shaping the cultural landscape of the Italian Renaissance. She established a magnificent court in Mantua, which attracted artists, writers, and musicians from across Italy and Europe. Isabella collected numerous artworks, antiquities, and manuscripts, and commissioned works by renowned artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Titian. Being highly educated, Isabella herself was talented in literature and philosophy, writing poetry and very often engaging in deep and philosophical discussions with the greatest minds of those times.

Nonetheless, she had an excellent sense of fashion and style. She was the influencer of the time and the trend setter. Isabella had elaborate hairstyles, elegant clothing, and exquisite jewelry. Her taste in fashion was influential, and she was widely regarded as a fashion icon of her time.

Women’s Body Ideal

The women were no longer just a symbol of fertility, but creatures of desire and this is thanks to the Renaissance artists like Michelangelo, Botticelli and Raphael who would paint or carve their ‘ideal’ of beautiful women. 

Bodies were curvy with rounded features, because this was a sign of good health and wealth. After a dying Europe, you needed to see strong and healthy people. Their faces were soft projecting warmth, serenity and possibly a maternal quality. 

La Primavera (Spring) 1477 – 1482 by Sandro Botticelli

During the Italian Renaissance, the wife reflected the husband’s status, so a full body meant plenty of food on the table, light hair and light skin – meant she is not working outside in the sun, she takes good care of herself and she is treated nicely. Actually, light skin was seen as a superior quality many years from then. The lighter the skin, the higher the rank. It was Coco Chanel who made tanning fashionable, completely by accident in 1923, but we will talk about this in the Roaring Twenties article.

Women Seen Through Men’s Lenses

Amidst this vibrant backdrop and the influential role of some empowered women of the time, the perspectives and experiences of women often remained obscured or filtered through the lenses of male observers and creators. The ideal woman was yet again created by a man. Women were not seen as real people with thoughts, feelings and desires, but rather as muses, goddesses and objects of desires.

They were portrayed in art and literature as these dreamy creatures who don’t necessarily live in reality, but in an edenic garden of pleasure and lust. From time to time, they became mothers, the ones who give birth to the world, but again portrayed in a soft gentle light, in a calm and serene environment, without any real pain or suffering. It was almost like women were not allowed to feel any kind of pain or any brutal tragedy.

Botticelli’s Muse

Sandro Botticelli is renowned for his ethereal and idealized depictions of women. In his iconic masterpiece, The Birth of Venus, Botticelli portrays the goddess of love emerging from the sea, embodying the epitome of feminine beauty and grace. The painting exemplifies the Renaissance concept of idealized female beauty, characterized by pale skin, flowing golden hair, and delicate features. Botticelli’s women often appeared otherworldly, untouchable, and aloof, reflecting the notion of female purity and the ethereal nature of feminine beauty.

The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) by Sandro Botticelli / Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Simonetta Vespucci, the noblewoman in love with Giulano de’ Medici, was the muse of Botticelli and it is said that every female figure created by the artist was inspired by her, including Venus in The Birth of Venus. Her beauty was so incredibly breathtaking that she was considered a living Venus. She had a typical hourglass figure with flesh and curves, the ideal body that reflected health, wealth and stability.

Simonetta Vespucci's Portrait by Botticelli, 1474
Simonetta Vespucci’s Portrait by Botticelli, 1474

Botticelli had a great respect for women and their bodies. He portrayed self-confident and empowered women, even though they were ‘pure’ and ‘innocent’ in their demeanor. They were beautiful and powerful goddesses who lacked embarrassment, proud of their bodies and nudity. Thus, he managed to create the greatest works of art of that time and a beautiful depiction of the women’s body ideal during Renaissance.

The Woman as a ‘Hero’ in Michelangelo’s Art

Moving beyond Botticelli, we encounter the genius of Michelangelo, who captivated audiences with his breathtaking sculptures and frescoes. Michelangelo’s representations of women, while limited in number, offer unique insights into Renaissance conceptions of female identity. In the Sistine Chapel’s Creation of Eve, Michelangelo portrays the biblical figure as a radiant and delicate woman emerging from the finger of God.

Creation of Eve Fresco, Sistine Chapel, Vatican

The sculpture Night from the Medici Chapel depicts a serene and mournful female figure, symbolizing the eternal sleep of death. These works demonstrate Michelangelo’s ability to evoke emotion and capture the vulnerability and beauty of women, while still conforming to societal ideals of femininity. However, most of Michelangelo’s depictions of women are quite manly. He was in a constant quest for perfection and spent his entire life chasing sublime perfection that he achieved in the statue of David. But he could not achieve it with women. This is noticed particularly in his statues where women’s breasts seem so imperfect and – frankly, wrong, anatomically speaking.

Night and Day statues, Giulano de’ Medici Tomb, Medici Chapel in Florence

The reason behind all of this may have been the fact that he used male models and not real women, so he created women from his imagination and his own ‘ideal’, but he was very often far from reality. He might have seen women as androgynous, as facets of men but he also may have had another reason. It wasn’t appropriate for a woman in those times to pose naked in front of a man, especially in front of an unknown painter or a stranger, so without having female models, he had to use men. But, how come other artists from those time knew how to paint women? Like Botticelli or… Raphael.

Raphael’s Harmonious Compositions and Graceful Forms

Finally, we turn our attention to Raphael, celebrated for his harmonious compositions and graceful renderings of the human form. Raphael’s depictions of women exhibit a blend of idealization and humanization, infusing his subjects with a sense of elegance and dignity. In his iconic painting La Fornarina, believed to be a portrait of his lover, Raphael portrays a confident and alluring woman.

La Fornarina, Raphael

The attention to detail in her features and the subtle play of light and shadow accentuate her beauty and sensuality. Raphael’s Madonna paintings, too, showcase his ability to elevate the status of women, presenting the Virgin Mary as a serene and revered figure, embodying both maternal tenderness and spiritual grace.

Madonna della Seggiola, Raphael

By examining the works of Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Raphael, we aim to shed light on the multifaceted nature of female representation in the Italian Renaissance. Their artistic contributions, while influenced by societal expectations, provide valuable insights into the prevailing perceptions, ideals, and aesthetic values associated with women during this transformative period in history.

Read about the Forgotten Women of Renaissance Art

Let me know if you would like to learn more about the Italian Renaissance and explore all our posts about the women’s body ideals throughout history. Our first episode from this series is available on YouTube:

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