I recall talking to a professor last year about the things that catch our eye. She observed that I seemed to be interested in objects–a statement I wasn’t quite sure of. As time has gone on, however, I have started to recognize a pattern in the kinds of works I am drawn to–be they paintings, sculptures, photographs, or otherwise. It seems, after all, that objects do interest me, but only in the way that they converse with the body. Particularly in my preferred area of study (Renaissance painting) I have found a wide variety of instances where the female body is compared to or situated around an inanimate object. One of these instances has been on my mind lately, and that is the women in windows. During the Renaissance in Italy, artists were commissioned to create portraits of young women, either married or unmarried, shown in a strict profile and seated in a domestic space. They gaze straight ahead and are often adorned with rich garments and elaborate hairstyles. They were noble women, but their rank gave them very little freedom. Today I think of them.
The above portrait of Giovanna Tornabouni by Domenico Ghirlandaio from 1489 shows the young woman immortalized in paint, her body on display. She is framed by the shelves in her home, a visual tool that literally boxes her in. Her portrait would be shown off to visitors of the house (even after her early death). She is still and beautiful, more like an object than a woman. This of course is intentional–her fine jewelry and clothing make her a fixture of her husband’s household. She is something to be owned.
The portrait of another woman also painted by Ghirlandaio, shown here, depicts a woman also in strict profile and seated in her home. However, in this work, she is placed near a window. The pastoral scene behind her may allude to the woman’s beauty–a complimentary comparison of sorts. But it does more: the window is divided up by columns, acting as a barrier between the woman and the world. She exists far away from the public sphere. Renaissance Italy was made up of very distinct realms: the public and the private. On the street–in the world–was a man’s place. A woman’s was solely the home. These portraits emphasize that division. A painting like this one, specifically of an unmarried woman, would be shown to a suitor to convey the woman’s beauty and to show how nice she looked in the domestic space. Doesn’t she just fit right in? This was her connection to the outside world–her portrait could go beyond her window, but she couldn’t.
One final example illustrates the fear of women in the public space: the Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement by Fra Filippo Lippi, painted in 1440. In this work, a richly-dressed woman yet again stares straight ahead, but a man hilariously pokes his head into the scene. The quarters are closer this time–more claustrophobic. The woman’s peek into the outside world is even smaller. The man of course, who I will say looks a bit like Lord Farquaad from Shrek, invades even the domestic space. He is a symbol of surveillance. Women need to be watched over.
It’s not hard to see why these images are frustrating. The details are gorgeous and portraits of this style are iconic of the Renaissance era. But like so much of the art made throughout history, women are objectified–and in these cases made to be literal objects. Their frames are our windows into their lives, but they do not look back at us. Their bodies are for the viewer to admire. They are cut off from the world and only able to meet the world’s gaze through their own windows, set far above the public street. Trapped.