Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Women on the margins: the ‘beloved’ and the ‘mistress’ in Renaissance Florence


I record that on July 31, 1383, there died the ill-famed Letta, daughter of Federigo di Pierozzo Sassetti, in the house of Giovanni di Noldo Porcellini, in the Borgo Ogni Santi. She was buried by the friars of the church of Ogni Santi at the hour of vespers.   May the devil take her soul, for she has brought shame and dishonor to our family.   May it please God to pay whoever was blameworthy. And this is sufficient to describe this evil memory, which has dishonored us all. But man cannot change that which God, for our sins, has willed. But we are contemplating a vendetta which will bring some balm to our feelings.[1]



This quotation concerns a woman from the wealthy Sassetti house, Letta di Federigo di Pierozzo, who died in 1383 while in the in house of Giovanni di Noldo Porcellini.   The attitude of the Sassetti family is typical of attitudes concerning women who placed themselves (or were placed) outside the sanctioned family structure. Letta is described as ill-famed due to her presence in the house of a man who was neither her husband nor her relative. She was the bearer of dishonour to the family, her sin tainted all. Most of all, the Porcellini family had transgressed against the property of the Sassetti family, a transgression which would be avenged. The report points out that Letta was buried in the church of Ognissanti, which was not the burial place of the Sassetti. She was thus excluded from family memory and ritual for ever.



This article will discuss women who found themselves in irregular relationships in late medieval and Renaissance Florence.    It will look both at women who were idealised as love objects and women who were in fact involved in pre- or extra- marital sexual relationships. Numerous histories of women have been written in the last thirty years or more. Social history has examined the roles of women in the family, the convent, in urban trades and as peasants. Woman as wife, mother, homemaker has been studied with regard to the formation of early modern ideology of the state, where the home or family can be seen as a microcosm of the state. Historians of art and literature have shown how images were gendered and also how male artists/writers mediated female forms or types. The space of the Italian city state has been studied in terms of public ritual and display by Richard Trexler[2] and Edwin Muir,[3]and in terms of its relationship with gender by Robert Davis,[4] Sharon Strocchia,[5] Patricia Simons and others.[6]   Renaissance historians now know a great deal about wives, widows, mothers, nuns, tertiaries, anchoresses; even, although to a much lesser degree, about women who were poets and artists. However, despite histories of mentalitŽand feminist scholarship, women who did not fit into such clearly sanctioned, or perhaps it is more true to say, clearly defined roles have received little attention.   If gender ‘has been the most important factor in shaping the lives of European women’ and ‘women have traditionally been viewed first as women, a separate category of being’, then how much more difficult is it took at the life of an ‘Other Woman’ than the life of ‘Woman as Other.’[7] This is partially due to the difficulty in accessing source material.   The term ‘mistress’ is unsatisfactory and gendered, as neatly encapsulated in the title of Pollock and Parker’s work on feminism and art history ‘Old Mistresses.’[8] Nevertheless, due to the lack of a suitable alternative – the word ‘lover’ is equally problematic, implying a reciprocity and depth of affection that cannot be shown in the majority of cases – the word mistress will be used to indicate women who were sexually active outside wedlock. The lives of women who were mistresses and not wives have been approached, like their more regular sisters, through the lives of the men they were involved with or the children they mothered. This article is a short enquiry into the reality of the lives these women led; it is based on primary sources such as ricordanze,letters, baptismal registers, and on secondary literature on subjects such as Renaissance love, illegitimacy and slavery. It will contrast the platonic/chivalric ideal of the Beloved with the mistress. For the most part it will look at sexual unions outside marriage but will not address the related area of prostitution.


However difficult it is to retrieve information on women who lived socially approved lives, it seems almost impossible in the case of those who suffered exclusion from that world. Helen Ettlinger addressed the topic in an important article on mistresses in the Italian Renaissance courts.[9]   A view of the Renaissance court mistress can be found in the literature (and occasionally, the painting) of the courts. Studies of illicit relationships, liminal groups and sexuality have been undertaken in recent years. Thomas Kuehn has examined the legal status of illegitimate children in the Florentine city state.[10] As in many cases the identity of the mothers was disclosed in legitimation petitions, their names are available through his detailed work. The names of women can be retrieved from the criminal records were used by Serena Mazzi and Richard Trexler in their examinations of prostitution in Florence.[11]    Michael Rocke used similar records in his analysis of the large number of prosecutions for sodomy, again, in Florence, while Guido Ruggiero has examined questions of sexuality, criminality, marriage and concubinage in Venice.[12] Studies of slavery by Iris Origo and A. Zanelli have shown that slaves were usually female and vulnerable to the sexual appetites of their masters and others.[13]    The relationship of women and criminality has been examined by Samuel K. Cohn Junior[14] and presented in a range of documents by Gene Brucker.[15] Brucker has also presented a micro-history of Giovanni della Casa and his disputed betrothed, Lusanna, in which the validity of a marriage is discussed through a Renaissance court case.[16] Ideas of perfect female beauty and portraiture was the subject of a recent exhibition in Washington.[17] The intersection of the poetic construct of the ideal love and the reality of women’s lives was examined in the seminal article by Joan Kelly, ‘Did Women have a Renaissance?’.[18]


The Beloved

These poetic constructs were frequently composed around a lady celebrated for her chastity and beauty, often married, and hence unavailable.   The lady would symbolise a courtly, or, depending upon the period and the poet, a Neo-Platonic ideal of perfect goodness and her virtue would have a salutary effect upon the man, although he was tormented by the pangs of love.   Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura were frequently the models for these courtly affairs.   The ideal courtly love was rarely consummated, thus enabling it to be celebrated in public without, in theory, endangering the virtue of the lady.    Medicean Florence, with its large number of public festivals, jousts, processions and pageants, had a number of women who were venerated as love objects. The contradictions inherent in chivalric romances are of course seen in the story of Guinevere, which was the downfall of Dante’s Francesca da Rimini.


Platonic love could be overt as it was little more than a poetic game, perhaps epitomised in the medal presented to Giovanna degli Albizzi, wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni. In the medal there is an image of the Three Graces designed after a medal owned by Pico della Mirandola. Her medal answers his by reversing the emblem: instead of Pico’s PULCHRITUDO-AMOR-VOLUPTAS, it reads CASTITAS-PULCHRITUDO-AMOR. Therefore, according to Wind, in place of the Platonic male definition of Love : Love is Passion aroused by Beauty, we have a female response ‘Beauty is Love Combined with Chastity’.[19] These elaborate rituals confined women within a paradigm of male desire and female chastity; woman was the object of the male gaze but could not return the gaze; their desirability was only possible if they resisted the pleadings of the poetic lovers. ‘It is not, in fact, Beauty that arouses desires; but the justification of lasciviousness proposed by the Platonic theory of love is hypocritical. ..”The nude is chaste,” declare those old gentlemen who collect obscene photographs under the name of “artistic nudes”.[20]


In Florence, the high-born ladies that were the objects of affection for individuals such as Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici and their friends are similarly shown as objects in art.   If the writing forms part of the literary or artistic canon, as in the case of the poetry of Lorenzo de’ Medici or the painting of Botticelli, the identity of the women concerned forms part of a search for biographical information on the author. The courtly nature of the love affair can be fleshed out by the letters and ricordanze of contemporaries, as in the case of Lucrezia Donati, the love of Lorenzo de’ Medici.   Lucrezia, along with Simonetta Vespucci and others form the subject of Charles Dempsey’s The Portrayal of Love: Botticelli’s “Primavera”.[21]


As Dempsey demonstrates, contemporary views of Lucrezia Donati show tensions between the poetic ideal and the reality of chastity and marital fidelity.    The story of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s pledge to Lucrezia Donai is related inPulci’sStanze per la Giostra.   At the wedding of Braccio Martelli to Gostanza de’ Pazzi Lucrezia wove a garland of flowers for Lorenzo de’ Medici and asked that he wear them in the joust out of love for her.[22]   Martelli was one of Lorenzo’s youthful brigata.    Lucrezia’s sister, Costanza, is also referred to in Pulci’s Giostra. She had been wooed by Braccio Martelli but was rejected in favour of Costanza Pazzi.[23]   At the joust, which was held in 1468, Lorenzo carried a banner with Lucrezia’s image, painted by Verrocchio.[24]   By this time Lucrezia had been married for three years to the merchant Niccol˜ Ardinghelli.[25]   Although the relaionship between Lucrezia and Lorenzo appears, from literary evidence, to have been a courtly ideal, a letter of Ardinghelli’s relative by marriage, the widow Alessandra Strozzi, makes the caustic remark that as Lucrezia hardly sees her husband due to his absence she diverts herself with balls and feasts.[26]       While Lorenzo was in Milan his brigata wrote letters in which the activities of Lucrezia and her friends were described.   One letter tells of Ardinghelli’s absence and implores Lorenzo to return to Florence so as not to leave ‘sweet terrain unplowed’.   Another, this time from Braccio Martelli, describes how a friend has spied on Lucrezia’s wedding night and makes fun of Ardinghelli’s physical endowments.   Pulci and Bernardo Rucellai wrote of how pale Lucrezia had become, attributing this condition to remorse.   The poem Da Che’l Lauroreminds the reader that Lucrezia is of the same blood as a Piccarda, presumably the Piccarda Donati that Dante met in Paradise, a woman who had been torn from a convent and forced into marriage.[27]    This imagery recalls the violated chastity of Piccarda Donati and, perhaps, equates the marriage of Lucrezia to Ardinghelli with that of Piccarda.


Other women were idealised in a similar fashion. Ginevra de’ Benci (1457-1521) was known as a beauty in Florence, she was depicted in Ghirlandaio’s Visitation in the Tornabuoni chapel, S. Maria Novella as well as in the famous portrait by Leonardo da Vinci.[28] Ginevra, the daughter of a Medicean banker, inspired two sonnets from Lorenzo de’ Medici and another two from Bernardo Bembo.[29]  She was a poet in her own right, although only one line of her poetry survives.    In 1474 she married Luigi di Bernardo di Lapo Niccolini, and at some time between then and 1481, had her portrait painted by Leonardo. The portrait shows Ginevra with a frame or halo of juniper, a device which plays on the Italian for juniper, ginevra. As Mary Garrard has shown, the historiography of the portrait has downplayed Ginevra’s identity in its celebration of Ginevra as the platonic or romantic love of Bernardo Bembo and the subject of poetry by Braccesi and Landino. Garrard redresses this balance and shows that the individuality of Ginevra herself both as a poet and as a person is portrayed by Leonardo.[30]   Ginevra’s very name may have contributed to this mythology, it is worth noting that the less chaste but courtly ideal of King Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, is known in Italian asGinevra.[31] This portrait shows Ginevra as the ideal lady, pure, desired but chaste, and framed by a secular reminder of the Virgin Mary’s halo.

Leave a Reply