Ladies of the Land: Propagandistic Dido Imagery Commissioned by Isabella d’Este and Silvia Sanvitale

Download 37.78 Kb.
Size37.78 Kb.


Haley Ingrum

ARH 314

Dr. Smith

22 April 2013

Ladies of the Land: Propagandistic Dido Imagery Commissioned by Isabella d’Este and Silvia Sanvitale

Visual culture in the high Renaissance demonstrated an intentional consciousness to recover the essence of pagan antiquity. Much of the artwork produced during this time was made in response to the revival of classical culture and literary traditions of antiquity by the humanists and proto-humanists of the fifteenth century. This paper considers the re-evaluated heroine, Dido, in Virgil’s Aeneid and how the prominent aristocrats, Isabella d’Este and Silvia Sanvitale, utilized the classical forms to create an authoritative image for themselves in order to legitimize their rule. 1 In Virgil’s epic the tragic heroine, Dido, is distraught over her lover Aeneas’s abandonment, and chooses to fall on her sword a top a funeral pyre as opposed to live out her days as an unchaste widow who has lost her virtue as a woman and a ruler. Virgil’s epic was re-visited by early modern humanists such as Francesco Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio who introduced a more empowered, historical, and virtuous version of Dido as tragic heroine.2 Dido imagery in the High Renaissance displays an array of iconographic types that exhibit various rhetorical, literary, historical, and gender related implications in terms of Virgil’s original text and the humanist revisions by Petrarch and Boccaccio.3

Humanist writers believed that Virgil’s Aeneid gave a fictional account of the life of Queen Dido. Petrarch and Boccaccio wrote what they considered to be historical accounts of Queen Dido modeled after ancient texts such as Justin’s Historiae phillipicarum and Polybius’s Historiae. Scholars contend there are several ancient texts that reference an “able” Carthaginian queen that had no historical connection with Aeneas.4 Specifically, Justin’s text asserts that Dido was the politically savvy founder of Carthage that committed suicide on the pyre in order to remain faithful to her late husband Sychaeus.5 In the majority of ancient texts discussing the historical Dido, she is described as being a positive example of female authority and morality. Boccaccio commemorated the historical Dido’s virtue and fidelity in his text, De mulieribus claris, where she is placed among other pagan women whom Boccaccio deemed as virtuous.6 The opposing literary traditions of the historical Dido and Virgil’s fictional Dido beg the question: how was Dido’s role construed in the High Renaissance with the presence of both readings available? It is my belief that powerful Renaissance women such as Isabella d’Este and Silivia Santivale were aware of the political resonance Dido’s symbolism would have had. The patronage and artistic commissions, concerning the historical Dido as subject, validate my claim that these women sought to legitimize their rule through the facts of Dido’s founding of Carthage and the symbolism surrounding her death. The iconographic types of Dido in response to Boccaccio and Petrarch’s literary traditions act as propaganda and moral exempla for women of power in the high Renaissance.7 I propose that images of Dido act as visual signifiers to communicate that matriarchal figures like Isabella d’Este and Silvia Sanvitale, are synonymous with the land they rule. When the didactic functions of the high Renaissance works I will analyze, are merged with the idea of the female personified as land, they serve as effective modes of propaganda for a political agenda.

In order to begin answering the question I posed earlier, a further examination of Dido’s dramatic suicide is crucial. Scholars have explored the unorthodox suicide of Dido and the curious inclusion of both dagger and funeral pyre. R. J. Edgworth offers what I consider to be a very valid argument about the symbolism in Dido’s death based on Polybius’s histories. Edgeworth claims that Virgil’s inspiration for the Dido/Aeneas drama was drawn from an episode in 146 B.C. 8 Polybius recounts the tragic suicide of an unnamed Carthaginian queen who takes the life of her children and herself after her husband, Hasdrubal, betrayed Carthage to a Roman general in order to ensure his own safety from Rome.9 The Queen is said to have thrown herself and her children into the flames of the city, making it into a funeral pyre for herself and for Carthage.10 The symbolism here is that the death of the queen is synonymous with the death of Carthage. Scholars have noted that Virgil probably used the historical Dido texts from Polybius and other ancient historians, as a model for the poetic Dido. Both women are abandoned by powerful men and in turn kill themselves in a ritualistic manner, which suggests that their death is also the death of the city they ruled. The pyre suggests a kind of veneration for the queens, but also exposes the failure of their male counterparts to provide for the people they ruled.

It was not uncommon in the Renaissance for royal women to be given some political authority in the shadows of their husbands especially when their husbands were away on military campaigns etcetera. I contend that women like Isabella d’Este used their artistic commissions to bring them out of their husband’s shadows and command their own authority. Isabella d’Este was not what many would consider an average woman of her time. Her noble birth in Ferrara provided her with a humanistic education and immersed her in the cultures of antiquity. In 1474 she married Francesco Gonzaga, the Marchese of Mantua, who was inferior to her in terms of her family’s nobility and territorial dominion.11 This may be a factor in her persistence and insistence on being perceived as a woman with the capability to command amongst men. Margaret Franklin asserts that Isabella’s, “commissioning of secular paintings and sculpture….was a decisive move towards the equating, at least in cultural terms, of her influence with that of the educated male elite”.12 Her humanistic education bestowed on her an awareness of classical and humanist texts from the likes of Boccaccio and Petrarch. Isabella had a particular fondness of Virgil’s Aeneid which most likely influenced her commission of a Dido portrait for her private studiolo by Andrea Mantegna.13

Isabella d”Este was the devoted patron to Andrea Mantegna, who painted one of the Dido portraits commissioned for the Marchesa. The Dido portrait was one of four paintings of famous historical women in the bronzi finti style with rich imitation marble relief in the background (Figure 1). Mantegna had been the court artist for the Gonzaga family since 1460 when Isabella commissioned these portraits.14 Dido, along with the other famous women like Judith, is rendered monochromatically in what appears to be gilt bronze. The viewer could have easily been fooled by the rich illusion of bronze relief sculptures that these grisailles simulated.15 Scholars have noted the close collaboration between patron and artist in the relationship between Mantegna and Isabella. It is probable that Isabella strategically instructed Mantegna to paint in the refined bronzi finti style to elucidate a certain response from the viewer. Art historian Margaret Franklin asserts that Isabella’s studiolo was a private space where she displayed her cherished antiquities and that she used this gallery-esque space to establish herself politically. She would invite foreign dignitaries into the space and also used it for scholarly conversation or artistic stimulation.16 Isabella The allegorical nature of Dido, as well as the style in which Mantegna rendered her, conveyed to viewers a certain dignified majesty that Isabella wished to imply concerning her virtue and authority as a woman.

Mantegna’s Dido is poised in a stable contrappasto stance, gracefully balancing a sword in her right hand and her deceased husband’s ashes in her left. Everything about her is posed, controlled, and dignified. The sword and funeral pyre are both represented here as in the Virgil’s story and the historical accounts of Dido’s story. Mantegna obviously has represented the humanistic historical Dido. There were multiple representations of the Dido suicide created in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. It is interesting to look at the subtle differences in the various representations that either reveal a Virgilian Dido or a non-Virgilian, historical Dido. If we compare Mantegna’s bronzi finti Dido with Marcantonio Raimondi’s, Death of Dido, along with a relief carving by Il Riccio, the propagandistic elements of these works will be more prominent. Raimondi’s Dido displays the woman overcome by anguish in Virgil’s Aeneid (Figure 2). In comparison to the majestic posture of Mantegna’s Dido, this figure’s contrappasto stance appears less stable. He arms are restlessly outstretched with a dagger pointing dramatically to her bosom. Her head is thrown backward, her mouth sensually parted, and her eyes are rolled into the back of her head as if in a moment of sexual ecstasy as opposed to tragedy. The heavy drapery she wears exposes her breasts vulnerably and the cloth is bunched up between her legs in a suggestive way that draws the viewer’s eyes to the genital area despite the tragic content of the work. Raimondi’s Dido exudes what scholars have named an, “erotic pathos,” that furthers the negative didactic message of this work.17 The dagger and funeral pyre iconography are also in Mantegna’s Dido there messages are very different. Raimondi’s Dido exemplifies a woman who has lost her virtue and fallen as a queen. She is the epitome of a woman who cannot overcome the stereotypical female passions with logic, which is the exact opposite of the persona Isabella was trying to create for herself. Isabella adopted the humanist Dido that personified virtue, strength, and self-control.

The sculptor Il Riccio created a number of bronze relief plaques influenced by Raimondi’s Death of Dido engraving.18 These reliefs provide appropriate Dido iconography from both literary traditions that strengthens my argument regarding Dido as a personification of Carthage in the artistic commissions of Renaissance women like Isabella d’Este. Il Riccio’s Death of Dido relief carving clearly displays characteristics of Raimondi’s “abandoned lover” but there are a few subtle differences that identify this work as Boccaccio’s Dido instead of Virgil’s (Figure 3). There are no iconographic elements that tie this version of Dido to Aeneas from Virgil’s epic. Though the figure’s clothing, stance, and setting, all appear to be the same as Raimondi’s, Margaret Franklin has observed that there is an overwhelming sense of strength and purpose in the details of this figure. The wild tendrils in the Raimondi’s engraving are transformed into an elegantly crafted coiffeur. She holds the dagger with purpose instead of reckless abandon while her empty hand is tensed downward. Everything about Il Riccio’s Dido is stable and purposeful.19 The sense of duty in Il Riccio and Mantegna’s Dido figures is what Isabella d’Este wanted to convey to the powerful men she accepted in her studiolo. As it was Dido’s duty to take her life to keep the vow she gave to her dead husband, it was Isabella’s duty to lead the people she ruled. If the elite men and the common people saw her as a personification of the land she ruled, her authority would have a greater sense of legitimacy.

Not all of the Dido imagery created in the Renaissance depicted her symbolic suicide but the viewers and patrons were conscious of the political message that would resonate from her story. About forty years after Isabella’s Dido commission another highborn woman, Silvia Sanvitalee, commissioned a Camerino with the dominating theme of Virgil’s Aeneid. Silivia’s mother, Laura Pallavicina, was in close relation to Paola Gonzaga, which is the family that Isabella d’Este married into.20It is likely that Silvia was aware of the matriarchal commissions and patronage of Isabella but also of her mother Laura Pallavicina. There is a common trait among these determined noble woman; they all were extensively educated in literature and humanist thought.21 Sanvitale was married to Giulio Boiardo and from what I have read, it seems that Boiardo merely held the purse for this grand Camerino commission, and Sanvitale was the brains behind it all. McIver suggests that, “the commission for the Camerino was a joint venture between husband and wife, Sanvitale was the more literary of the two, while Boiardo seems to have been more concerned with his image and his role as courtier to the Este”.22 Silvia involved herself in the creation of the space extensively. She suggested to Bioardo that the artist Nicolo dell’ Abate be the one to decorate the Camerino and she even instructed him to study the painting style of Parmigianino for inspiration.23 This is probably because she had been exposed to the frescoes by Parmigianino in the Camerino at Fontanellato commissioned by a woman, specifically Paola Gonzaga.

All twelve books of the Aeneid are included in on the walls of the Camerino and richly decorated pilasters divide the scenes. Nicolo followed Virgil’s classical tradition of separating the poetry into twelve parts that are meant to be viewed from left to right, which adds the room’s pedagogical function.24 My argument pertains to the second wall that contains the scenes involving Dido (Figure 4). Katherine McIver has noted Nicolo’s unique use of landscape in the lunettes of the wall that frame the Dido-Aeneas episodes. She asserts that Nicolo’s landscape dictates the viewpoint of the beholder and leads you through the narrative that unfolds on the wall.25 I contend that the literary nature of these landscapes visually tied Dido’s story with the land, as Silvia would have wanted to be personified as the land she ruled with her husband. This argument is strengthened by scholarly speculations about Silvia’s placement in the ceiling octagon [Figure 5] in relation to the original Dido fresco on the far left of the second wall (Figure 4). None of the paintings in the Camerino are in their original context so all speculation is based on reconstruction and the evidence we have left. Before I delve into this further a more in depth analysis of the Dido fresco in the Aeneid cycle is needed (Figure 6). Though Nicolo has represented multiple parts of Virgil’s Aeneid in this fresco, Dido is the most prominent figure standing contemplatively in the left foreground and her vast city of Carthage recedes into the background framed by a narrative landscape in the lunette. Scholars have identified this scene in the foreground as when Dido confides in her sister Anna about her love for Aeneas. She is conflicted between her love for Aeneas and the piety to her dead husband and her city.26 The passionate tryst between Dido and Aeneas is miniscule in comparison to the figure of the Queen in the front, while her symbolic suicide is not depicted at all. It is almost as if the passionate tryst was just a fantasy and Dido was still a virtuous widow and fit to rule Carthage as such. The fresco’s attention to the theme of piety, represented by Dido’s prominent figure, communicated that Dido was equal to Aeneas in duty and “dignity”.27 Scholars have even pointed out that Abate strategically depicted Dido in the same place as Aeneas is in some of the frescoes that represent different books from the Aeneid. This was just another visual cue of equality between male and female viewers cunningly commissioned by Silvia.

The octagon painted on the ceiling portrays the Giulio Boiardo, the count of Scandiano, his wife Silvia and members of their court (Figure 7).28 It is unique, and a little puzzling, that Silvia Sanvitale is the largest figure in this court portrait. She is pushed into the foreground, in front of her husband Giulio, and the gorgeous ruffles of her sleeves that take up the better part of the foreground speak to her wealth and power. I contend that the octagon, for the most part, is a portrait of Silvia surrounded by her court instead of it being vice versa. McIver suggests that originally Silvia’s sidelong glance may have been conducted to the Dido fresco, which in turn directly connects Silvia with Dido. What message was she trying to convey through this connection? I believe that she was not solely comparing her piety to Dido’s and that is a shallow interpretation of the connection. It was Dido who founded the City of Carthage before Aeneas formed the nova Troia in which his journey is based. Scholars have deemed Dido a city builder, a patron of architecture, and a leader of its people.29 The architecture in the Dido fresco is more prominent than in the other frescos on the second wall of the Camerino. I am asserting that through this imagery Silvia was visually tying herself, even transforming herself, into the land and buildings that she ruled with her husband. Not only does she hold an influential position at court; that is evident in the nature of this commission, but also she is communicating to viewers that she is the foundation and land that will keep the family strong. Furthermore, Silvia remained a widow and ruled after her husband’s death, like the historical Dido, making the message of this room even more potent.30 When she accepted people in the Camerino dell’Eneide there was no questioning about her power and authority because she was depicted as being synonymous with the land she ruled.

The pagan Dido imagery that pervaded the spaces of noble Renaissance women such as Isabella d’Este and Silvia Sanvitale validated and legitimized their claim to authority. The knowledge that Dido was a city builder, and that when she died Carthage died as well resonated with viewers in an effective way. By tying themselves to this fictional and historical character that was one in the same with the land she ruled, Isabella and Silvia made it hard for viewers to separate their gender from their authority. Though the idea of woman as land can be viewed as a negative gender stereotype, I believe that their use of it was a powerful metaphor that resounds in viewers’ minds to this day.


(Figure 1) Andrea Mantegna, Dido, 1500 A.D.


(Figure 2) Marcantonio Raimondi, Death of Dido, 1510, engraving.


(Figure 3) Il Riccio, Death of Dido, first quarter of the sixteenth century.


(Figure 4) Reconstruction and originals of Nicolo dell’ Abate’s Second Wall in Boiardo’s Camerino, 1540-2.


(Figure 5) Nicolo dell’ Abate, Ceiling Octagon from Boiardo’s Camerino, 1540-2.


(Figure 6) Nicolo dell’ Abate, A drawing after the lost original, Scene from Dido Book IV of the Aeneid, 1540-2.


(Figure 7) Nicolo dell’ Abate, Ceiling Octagon, 1540-2.


Baskins, Cristell L. Cassone Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Boorsch, Suzanne, Keith Christiansen, David Ekserdjian, Charles Hope, David Landau, et al. Andrea Mantegna, ed. Jane Martineau. New York: Royal Academy of the Arts, 1992.

De Jong, Jan L. “Dido in Italian Renaissance Art. The Afterlife of a Tragic Heroine.” Artibus et Historiae 30 (2009) 73-89.

Edgeworth, R.J. “The Death of Dido.” The Classical Journal 72 (1977): 129-33.

Franklin, Margaret. “Mantenga’s ‘Dido’: Faithful Widow or Abandoned Lover?.” Artibus et Historiae 21 (2000): 111-22.

Franklin, Margaret. Boccaccio’s Heroines. Vermont: Ashgate: 2006.

Luchs, Alison. “The London ‘Woman in Anguish’, Attributed to Cristoforo Solari: Erotic Pathos in a Renaissance Bust.” Artibus et Historiae 24 (2003) 155-76.

McIver, Katherine A. “Love, Death and Mourning: Paola Gonzaga’s Camerino at Fontanellato.” Artibus et Historiae 18 (1997) 101-108.

McIver, Katherine A. “Matrons as Patrons: Power and Influence in the Courts of Northern Italy in the Renaissance.” Artibus et Historiae 22 (2001) 75-89.

Starks, John H. Jr. “Fides Aeneia: The Transference of Punic Stereotypes in the Aeneid.” The Classical Journal 94 (1999) 255-283.

1 Baskins, Cristelle L., Cassone Painting, Humanism, and Gender in Early Modern Italy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 50.

2 Franklin, Margaret, “Mantegna’s ‘Dido’: Faithful Widow or Abandoned lover?,” 21 (2000) 111.

3 Baskins, Cassone Painting, 50-51.

4 Starks, John H., “Fides Aeneia: The Transference of Punic Stereotypes in the Aeneid,” The Classical Journal 94 (1999) 262-263.

5 De Jong, Jan L., “Dido in Italian Renaissance Art. The Afterlife of a Tragic Heroine,” Artibus et Historiae 30 (2009) 73.

6 Franklin, “Mantegna’s ‘Dido’,” 111-112.

7 Baskins, Cassone, 57.

8 Edgeworth, R. J., “The Death of Dido,” The Classical Journal 72 (1977) 130.

9 Edgeworth, “Death of Dido,” 131.

10 Ibid, 133.

11 Franklin, Margaret, Boccaccio’s Heroine’s (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2006), 148.

12 Ibid, 149.

13 Ibid, 150.

14Boorsch, Suzanne, et al., Andrea Mantegna, (New York: London Academy, 1992) 397-398.

15 Franklin, Boccaccio’s Heroines, 150-151.

16 Ibid.

17 Luchs, Alison, “The London ‘Woman in Anguish’, Attributed to Cristoforo Solari: Erotic Pathos in a Renaissance Bust,” Artibus et Historiae 24 (2003) 159.

18 Franklin, “Mantegna’s Dido,” 114-115.

19 Franklin, Mantegna’s Dido

20 McIver, Katherine A., “Love, Death, and Mourning: Paola Gonzaga’s Camerino at Fontanellato,” Artibus et Historiae 18 (1997) 102.

21 McIver, Katherine A., “Matrons as Patrons: Power and Influence in the Courts of Northern Italy in the Renaissance,” Artibus et Historiae 22 (2001) 80.

22 Ibid, 81.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid, 84

25 Ibid, 82.

26 Ibid, 84.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid, 75.

29 Baskins, Cassone Painting, 65.

30 McIver, “Matrons as Patrons,” 80.

Download 37.78 Kb.

Share with your friends:

The database is protected by copyright © 2023
send message

    Main page