NEW RESEARCH: Abbess Piera de Medici’ and her kin: Gender, gifts and patronage in Renaissance Florence
Piera de’ Medici (c. 1400 – 1482) was one of the few daughters of the Medici family, who were allowed to enter a convent. Around 1406-10 she entered S. Verdiana, a brand new institution established around the time of her birth and moreover located in a quarter of Florence not particularly part of the Medici neighbourhood. What prompted her father, Bivigliano de’ Medici (contemporary with the first generation of powerful Medicis) to enrol her here remains a conundrum.
However, during her lifetime she became a very powerful abbess, who was able to use her position to further both the interests of her religious community and her kin-group. She did this by building a very profitable relationship with Giovanni de’ Medici, a son of Cosimo and by skilfully building a very profitable and illustrious textile-workshop in the convent.
This story is told by Sharon T. Strocchia in a new article. In the abstract she says that the essay is meant to advance “our understanding of early Medici patronage by focusing on the intriguing figure of Piera de’ Medici (c. 1400–1482), who matured into one of the most powerful abbesses in Renaissance Florence. As a religious woman, Piera used her ties to the city’s ruling family to benefit her Vallombrosan community of S. Verdiana; in turn, it was through her agency that the Medici established long-term claims on the convent, its consecrated virgins and its sacred cult.”
According to Strocchia the case study “shows how Piera combined rhetorical skills, political acumen and gift exchange to build a relationship with Giovanni de’ Medici (1421–1463), whose patronage activities are less well known than those of other family members. It also invites a reconsideration of the role Florentine women played in producing visual culture by comparing Giovanni’s donations to gifts made by his wife, Ginevra Alessandri. This perspective is especially valuable given that scholars have commented on the scarcity of female artistic patrons in fifteenth-century Florence compared to other areas of Italy.”
This is achieved through considering different classes of objects and models of exchange, primarily the production of liturgical textiles in the workshop, where she obviously was the primary entrepreneur.
One of these textiles – an altar frontal showing the Coronation of the Virgin – is preserved in the Museum of Cleveland and witness to the outstanding quality of the work produced in Santa Verdiana in the 15th century. According to the museum “this exquisite embroidered scene of the features extravagant quantities of gold thread-in the haloes, clothing, background, and circular border with three-dimensional padded areas. Gold thread is also partially covered by at least 20 shades of silk thread so that varying amounts of gold radiate, according to the design, in an exemplary technique called or nué, or shaded gold. The figures were embroidered separately and then sewed on the ground. Christ and the Virgin are surrounded by Saints Verdiana and John Gualberto and six angels playing musical instruments. In Florence, renowned for embroidery, painters usually sketched designs which professionals embroidered, most of whom were men by the 1400s. This design is attributed to the Florentine painter Paolo Schiavo.”
The essay contends that Florentine women played a more expansive role in cultural production than previously recognized, but that “modern aesthetic hierarchies” tend to privilege objects like metal reliquaries more than the textiles, which played such a prominent role in the network of patronage intended to build and tighten the social fabric of 15th century Florence. Discussing a series of these different types of artistic artefacts, the article is extremely interesting.
Sharon T. Strocchia is professor of history at Emory University and author of Death and Ritual in Renaissance Florence, published by Johns Hopkins. In 2009 she published a widely acclaimed study of “Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence”. Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence shows for the first time how religious women effected broad historical change and helped write the grand narrative of medieval and Renaissance Europe. The book is a valuable text for students and scholars in early modern European history, religion, women’s studies, and economic history. Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence shows for the first time how religious women effected broad historical change and helped write the grand narrative of medieval and Renaissance Europe. The book is a valuable text for students and scholars in early modern European history, religion, women’s studies, and economic history. The present article is a spin-off of the detailed study of unpublished archives, which this book is built upon.
Abbess Piera de Medici’ and her kin: Gender, gifts and patronage in Renaissance Florence
By Sharon T. Strocchia, Emory University
In: Renissance Studies, Article first published online: 16 DEC 2013