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Portrait of a lady, tempera painting on panel by Sandro Botticelli, about 1470, Florence, Italy. Museum no. CAI.100

Portrait of a lady, tempera painting on panel by Sandro Botticelli, about 1470, Florence, Italy. Museum no. CAI.100

The medieval and Renaissance collections at the V&A have many objects that reveal the lives of women. Ranging from jewellery to ceramics, most are precious items that would have belonged to the wealthy. This reflects what has survived but also what was collected by the Museum. Interest in the role of women in the medieval and Renaissance period received an upswing with the advent of feminism in the 1970s. Up to the mid-20th century historians tended to argue that women in the Renaissance, at least those who were wealthy, enjoyed more power and independence than women from previous generations.

Later writers, however, disagreed with such a positive assessment. After the publication in 1972 of Joan Kelly Gadol's article 'Did women have a Renaissance?' (in which she largely concluded that they did not), other scholars began to examine the reasons for the submergence of women in Renaissance history. Forgotten lists of accomplished women began to surface, and historians paid more attention to the role of women as patrons, purchasers and creators of art. Current scholarship reflects a wide interest in women's history, from studies of convents and nuns, to reflections on the lives of prostitutes and noblewomen, to examination of the work of female artists. It is also reassessing the degree to which women enjoyed power and independence at this period.

In Renaissance Italy, most women from the upper classes had only two options in life: marriage or the cloister. Whether marrying a mortal man or Jesus, they needed a dowry. Since well-born women did not work, the dowry offset the cost of keeping a wife and family. The husband used the money to invest in property or business, but on his death the capital was returned to the woman. The expense of a dowry led some families to marry off only one daughter, while the rest were sent to a convent as nuns' dowries were considerably smaller. Nuns needed to bring dowries to ensure that their convents would continue to run smoothly and be able to house and feed them.

The relative ages of marriage for upper-class women and men were quite disparate, especially in Florence. There most men married in their thirties while women were usually in their mid to late teens. This led to a preponderance of young widows, who were often encouraged by their families to marry again in order to create new alliances or preserve old ones. Once married, a woman was expected to take care of the home, have children and maintain a decorous and chaste appearance so as to bring honour to both families - her own and her husband's. She was also responsible for the education of their young children. These children were later sent to school, or in the case of young girls, sometimes boarded at convents. There, the nuns taught them needlework, reading and writing.

Women of the upper classes were not expected, or even allowed, to work outside the home; even breast-feeding was considered a job for a lower class woman, and babies from wealthy families were sent out to wet nurses. Women living in convents as nuns worked by producing gold and silver thread, and often selling it to secular women who used it in their embroidery. The nuns could also use the thread for devotional works of art, such as altar frontals and corporals (the cases used to bring the Host to the altar), either in their own convent churches or to be sold to others.

Women in the growing middle class sometimes worked in shops, though this was more common in Northern Europe (Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium) than in Italy. However, even in Italy women of the lower classes had a greater visible presence in the streets than did those of the upper classes, and would meet at communal wells to trade gossip and news. Church services were one place where women of all classes could appear in public. The exception was Venice, where the courtesans were urged to keep away as foreign visitors to the city had difficulty telling them apart from respectable patrician women. With a shared interest in fashion, the women of both categories dressed in equally fine gowns and jewels.

Poorer women had a hard lot in life, working in the fields or in cities as servants. Many turned to prostitution to make ends meet, or joined convents to work as servants for the nuns.

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