Everyone has heard of those superstar Italian painters. Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo. Their works and their stature are well known – the trio helped lead Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the glories of the Renaissance.
And, they and their contemporaries produced some of the most beautiful art the world has ever seen, art financed and often commissioned by patrons among Italy’s power elite.
The contributions of women during that time — especially as collectors of art — don’t usually receive much attention. But Katherine McIver, Ph.D., an associate professor of art history, is changing that with her new book Women, Art, and Architecture in Northern Italy, 1520-1580.
McIver will look at women as collectors of precious material goods, organizers of the early modern home and decorators of its interior at a lecture Tuesday, Dec. 12, at the Birmingham Museum of Art. The event, which begins at noon, is free.
Using her subjects’ financial records, McIver provides insights into Renaissance women’s economic rights and responsibilities in her book and also provides a new model for understanding what women of the period bought, displayed, collected and commissioned.
“I selected this group of women largely because they were the ones I found substantial information on,” says McIver. “All of them are from the same family or related by marriage.”
A wealthy widow from Parma, Italy — Laura Pallavicina-Sanvitale — is one of McIver’s subjects. She spent lavishly on large-scale oil paintings, built and renovated grand palazzi and retained a secretary, six female servants and 12 male servants.
“Many women of that era commissioned domestic art for their home,” McIver says.
“There were many powerful and strong women like Pallavicina-Sanvitale who had a good bit of influence in that period.”
In the book, McIver evaluates the role of women in commissioning and utilizing works of art and architecture as a means of negotiating power in the court setting while at the same time offering insights into their lives, limitations and the possibilities open to them as patrons.
McIver, who has been teaching at UAB for 14 years, did the majority of her research in Italy. She scoured through 16th century documents, trying to learn more about Pallavicina-Sanvitale and her family.
“You really get a sense of the women’s life through their materials,” McIver explains. “There were very few portraits of the women, so it’s really through their writing that I learned who they are.”
McIver has co-edited previous books, but Women, Art, and Architecture in Northern Italy marks her first attempt at a book on her own.
She says the experience of creating her work of art was educational, fun and nerve-wracking all at the same time.
“The hardest part is probably organizing all of the research,” McIver says.
“It’s a pretty amazing feeling to get your first book complete and see it published. I guess your dissertation in school is a book in itself, but it doesn’t always get published.”