The originality of the city-state of Florence during the Renaissance lay not only in its remarkable artistic accomplishments but also in the brilliance of its political structure. The Renaissance fostered forms of individuality that historians believe to have been the foundation of modern society. However, this movement went backwards before it went forwards because the individuality achieved during the Renaissance flourished for the most part in men because the male-dominated society considered women too weak to rule a community or to make decisions with respect to their lives. Legally, women remained subject to men because their fathers forced them into a marriage not of their choice, society denied them a higher education, and handicapped by a judicial system that favoured men Florentine women suffered in silence.
The values and demands of a society structured around a male- dominated hierarchy placed women in a subjugated position. This essay examines the writings of Christine Klapisch-Zuber, Benjamin G Kohl, Stanley Chojnacki, Gene A Brucker, and Francesco Barbaro and their views on the position of women in Florentine society.
In Florentine society, the family was the basic unit and blood ties were the most powerful cohesive agent. Florentine marriages were no different in design from the culture of the early middle ages and the society of late antiquity that was so admired. Women seldom married for love, due to the father’s personal interests in finding an ideal marriage partner, inevitably to strengthen the family’s position in the community. “Therefore, marrying into a respected house such as the Medici or Strozzi was a mark of honour and distinction, because it elevated the prospective marriage partner’s family to a higher social status.” This is proof that the father’s honour was valued more than the daughter’s personal feelings towards a potential marriage partner.
It seemed that a woman’s only purpose was to produce an heir for her husband. Young women never experienced a period in life when they only dated, and attend parties. A woman could only trust that her father would find a handsome or suitable husband. Florentine marriage proposals were like bidding for a prize racehorse, as exemplified in “the marriage negotiations of the Strozzi family in 1464-65. This matter concerned Francesco Tanagli who proposed marriage of his daughter to a man in exile from the city of Florence.” Francesco Tanagli sold his daughter in the guise of a marriage because he had a large family, so he could only afford a small dowry. A father would use a daughter to strengthen his fortune by marrying her to a rich man. It is easy to compare the position of a Florentine woman to a pawn in a political chess game.
Women had no personal option in the choice of a marriage partner. The role of women continued to be to serve their husbands because the church, communal laws and judicial laws at this time favoured the ambitions of men. It seemed that Renaissance women were cast into a subservient state from the time of birth. Many families viewed girls as a liability because they needed a dowry.
Women were only seen as guest in their father’s house. If the father died, he would leave instructions about the daughter’s future with no regard for the girl’s thoughts on the matter. This picture is very different from the love of women and romantic stories associated with Renaissance Florence. It is not wrong to assume that the Renaissance may have reduced a woman’s social freedom because it seems that all the opportunities were open to men.
Marriage presented no great freedom. Confined to the house, women could never venture out alone in public. In the case of an elite or aristocratic woman, the only functions she attended were church, weddings of her husband’s family or private functions at her husband’s estates. Women did not form friendships with other men or women. A woman dressed to please her husband or family as opposed to herself. Everything she did took into account the honour of her husband and his family. This is further proof that women had no personal identity or the individuality so experienced by men living in 15th century Florence.
Female children were a liability because of the dowry presented during a betrothal. If a father had many daughters, he could find himself in financial ruin. Some fathers would enter their daughters in convents. Life in the convent provided some escape because they were places of study. Women living in convents studied all the subjects acquired by young men attending the university. Women living in Florence during the Renaissance were the most educated in Europe although opportunities to serve assembly government, teach at the universities or to produce books of personal perspective on life were restricted to women.
On the contrary, artisan women differed from elite women because they were able to work within the community. Working outside the home enabled artisan women to form friendships with people other than their husbands or families. These women would have received a far lower salary than their male counterparts would therefore: proving the theory that Renaissance culture did not provide equal opportunity and education. The Renaissance did not break the chains of bondage. These restrictions “were embedded,” in the laws of the Florentine, communal and ecclesiastical system. The position of women was constricted due to the various laws instituted to solidify a male hierarchy.
According to Renaissance Florence, it was a man’s world. “Men made “Houses” and male branching of genealogies drawn up by historians shows determined kinship towards men and little importance was given, after one or two generations, to kinship through women.” In Florence, inheritance was through the male line only. The ancient medieval communal laws practiced in the Renaissance era stated that only men were groomed for a leadership role in the organizations of the Florentine republic. Florentine laws restricted women from writing books on their thoughts on the political situation of Florence and their social and economical situation in comparison to men. Only personal letters of Florentine women and legislative proceedings are our knowledge of the history of Florentine women. The Florentine culture was clearly a masculine oriented one. Marriage pushed a woman out of the house and widowhood brought her back home.
“Nonetheless, women had some choice. She could live with her husband’s family, by her children’s side; or she could live independently close to her children, or she could also remarry and leave her first husbands family.” Women never lived alone; she never had full control of her dowry to experience the pleasures of single life like women of the 21st century experience. Widows were welcomed home if they were young, but if they were older they were advised to stay with their family of her husband. A widow living with her husband’s family did not earn the freedom to make her own decisions or decisions for her children. The eldest male member of the family became the head of his kin’s estate. This arrangement was set until the oldest male child of the widow had reached an age of maturity. Elder widows had no claim to their husband’s assets, if they chose to leave, it was with the dowry they came into marriage with.
Florentines structured their laws to restrict women’s legal rights to their children, when they left the house in order to remarry. All contact was lost with maternal children. Under no circumstance would a woman be able to manipulate the situation in a case of her husband dying. Once she became a widow, she relinquished a great deal of power in her own home. If her husband had instructed her to raise the children to adulthood in lieu of his death, this would have been appropriate to the husband’s family. Even after death, a husband could control the movements of his wife. Florentine laws blocked women from inheriting or receiving their dead husband’s property and the widowed wife would only be able to raise her children to maturity. This was how a 15th century Florentine male oriented judicial system served to protect the economic power of men, therefore, restricting a woman’s ability to control her own life.
If a widow were young and beautiful, her family would take her back and arrange another suitor immediately. Women who left their children in search of a new husband were cruel mothers. Florentine laws were not designed to support women in widowhood. Even the church supported a movement of suppressed female sexuality. Widowed women living independently presented a problem for church and community. Florentine society had strong ties to the Church. From the beginning of its conception in the time of the Roman emperor Constantine, Christianity had a system skilfully set in place to suppress the female gender.
The role of women continued to be to serve their husbands or, in some cases, their lovers. Florentine law urged a woman not to seek compensation in a courthouse, because a judicial court was no place for elite man yet still an elite woman to bring legal actions against a man. This was the subject of the primary document dealing with Giovanni and Lussana, researched by Gene Brucker. Lusanna has taken her supposed husband to court because he married another woman. “Lusanna is a rich artisan woman who caught the eye of the elite Giovanni.” Lusanna is initially married but it was common for established men to have concubines between peasant, servant, and artisan women. During the court case, one realizes that Giovanni might escape prosecution. Brucker describes “Giovanni as young, handsome, virile and rich; Lusanna was old (at least forty, he claimed) she was sterile, and her social condition was vastly inferior to that of her lover. A marriage between these two individuals would have been unthinkable.” The judgement was in favour of Lusanna but Giovanni had the marriage annulled because of class status.
“Marriage in 15th century Florence was a legal contract between the families. A marriage involved expensive gifts such as clothes, jewels, and perfumes. These gifts were kept in a [cassoni] or treasure chest.” For a marriage to be legal in Florence there was a procession where the groom would serenade his wife through his neighbourhood streets to show the community that he has taken a wife. In the Lussana and Giovanni trial, Giovanni tells the judge that he never presented Lussana to the community because he realized that his father would never approve of the marriage.
If Giovanni had accused Lausanna of adultery, the court could have ordered her banishment from the city of Florence or imprisoned. Though rare, it was within a man’s right to stone a woman to death for adultery. “Florentine law and culture required wives to be perpetually silent whenever there is an opportunity for frivolity, dishonesty, and impudence.” A woman accepted her role and position in society. A woman’s role implied that she not challenge the laws of Florentine society because these laws were established for men to maintain their dominance over women. Fifteenth century Florence was the most unlucky city in which a woman could have been born because the church laws, judicial laws, and communal laws only enslaved women.
This paper provides a feminist stance in analyzing the world of Renaissance Florence. This world of great merchants, humorists and painters, was not a feminine city. From the time they were born women were in a submissive role to men. Women could not distinguish themselves in the artistic, political, and scientific movement of the Renaissance world. There are very few primary documents from the Renaissance period written by women. This is definitive proof that the Renaissance only served to eradicate the mind of the Florentine woman.
By Courtney Duncan