Male Voices Defining Urban Women
Focusing on Venice and Paris—two of the most internationally visible Renaissance cities—these objects reveal how male voices in urban spaces strove to exert control over women. Treatises on women’s health, conception and childbirth were one avenue. Written by male scholars, such works stressed the natural weakness of women, who—they argued—needed someone stronger to take charge of their bodies, and their reproductive health. Attempts to control dress and ideals of beauty were another avenue. Sumptuary laws, restricting the expense and style of clothing, focused on female attire, as in a 1433 Florentine law aiming:
“To restrain the barbarous and irrepressible bestiality of women who, not mindful of the weakness of their nature, forgetting that they are subject to their husbands, and transforming their perverse sense into a reprobate and diabolical nature, force their husbands with their honeyed poison to submit to them.”
Through moralizing admonitions that women should value spiritual purity above vain ornaments, such laws propagated a specific definition of an admirable woman: virtuous, silent, and subservient to her parents and husband. Manuals of advice for women, generated by male courtly voices, rooted feminine virtues in aesthetic qualities of the body. A woman’s praiseworthy interior qualities should manifest, not through action, but through appearance, beauty and attire drawing viewers to admire the virtues a woman contained, as a gilded reliquary advertised its blessed contents. The woman, objectified as an ornament or container for virtue, would influence the world primarily by drawing the male eye to gaze upon something good.
In 1563, following both medical tradition and popular lore, Giovanni Marinello devoted over 300 pages to problems related to reproduction and the functioning of the uterus. He also included practical advice aimed at coping with the burden of infertility, which was usually blamed on woman. This treatise was freely adapted into French by Jean Liébault in 1582 to recast it for a French readership. Imbued with moral judgments, he described the sterile woman as empty (vide), a failure at fulfilling her procreative role, and proposed strategies to counter this “disease.”