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Women Worth Remembering: Depicting Ancient Famous Women in Renaissance Art

Tutor: Claudia Daniotti

This module explores the reception of ancient Famous Women as it developed in Renaissance Europe, particularly in France and Italy, between c. 1350 to c. 1650. From the mid-fourteenth century, a flourishing textual and visual tradition grew up around the figures of ancient heroines like Medea, Cleopatra, Lucretia, and Judith, whose stories, whether edifying or controversial, provided Renaissance women with exemplary models of how to (or how not to) behave. Selected from Greek and Roman myth and history, and from the pages of the Bible, ancient Famous Women were depicted in the visual arts (e.g., painting, marriage chests, illuminated manuscripts, earthenware, tapestries) as well as in collection of biographies and educational treatises. What model did they provide for Renaissance women? What kind of contribution did they make to the developing notions of female identity between the medieval and early modern periods, and the changing role of women in society?

While our focus will be on the visual tradition, the module will discuss this material in dialogue with textual and literary sources. It will be divided in two parts (see the provisional outline below): in the first part (Weeks 1 to 5), we will look at how ancient Famous Women were appropriated in the Renaissance, while the second (Weeks 7 to 10) will focus on three notable women from late medieval to early modern times who played a prominent role in redefining female identity.

The module is offered to students based at the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance, but will also be of interest to those pursuing a degree in History of Art and in Classics, and more generally to PG students interested in reception studies and the classical tradition. This class can be taken for credit or *audit.

Assessment on this module requires that you produce one 5,000 word essay at some point after the end of the module, submission dates are yet to be confirmed.

*Auditing a module allows a student to take a class for which no assessment of the performance of the student is made nor grade awarded. A student who audits a course does so for the purposes of self-enrichment and academic exploration. This option is offered ONLY on a space-available basis with the approval of the class tutor / personal tutor or DGS.


Module outline:

The Reception of Ancient Famous Women in the Renaissance

Week 1: The Past as a Repository of Stories: Famous Women from Ancient Myth and History

Week 2: Creating a Female Canon: Giovanni Boccaccio and Christine de Pizan

Week 3: Depicting Stories of Ancient Famous Women in the Renaissance: Painting, Sculpture, Tapestries and Domestic Art

Week 4: Unconventional Women from Antiquity: Amazons and Women in Arms

Week 5: Morally Ambiguous Women from Antiquity: Tomyris from Scythia; Judith and Jael from the Bible

Week 6 [Reading Week; no class]

A Female Renaissance: Notable Women of Renaissance Europe

Week 7: Christine de Pizan, the First Female Writer

Week 8: Joan of Arc, Saint and Warrior on the Battlefield

Week 9: Artemisia Gentileschi (and Other Notable Female Artists)

Week 10: A Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Giving New Voice to the Women of Troy in Contemporary Novel


Preliminary bibliography:

  • Mary Beard, Women & Power: A Manifesto, London 2017
  • Charlotte Cooper-Davis, Christine de Pizan: Life, Work, Legacy, London 2021
  • Margaret Franklin, Boccaccio’s Heroines: Power and Virtue in Renaissance Society, London and New York, 2006
  • Joan Kelly, ‘Did Women Have a Renaissance?’, in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz, Boston 1977, pp. 137-164
  • Stephen Kolsky, The Ghost of Boccaccio: Writings on Famous Women in Renaissance Italy, Turnhout 2005
  • Glenda McLeod, Virtue and Venom: Catalogs of Women from Antiquity to the Renaissance, Ann Arbor 1991
  • Gerry Milligan, Moral Combat: Women, Gender, and War in Italian Renaissance Literature, Toronto 2018
  • Letizia Treves, Artemisia (exhibition catalogue, London, National Gallery, 2020), London 2020
  • Marina Warner, Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, Oxford [1981] 2016
  • Women in Italian Renaissance Culture and Society, ed. Letizia Panizza, London 2000