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‘In praise of the ladies of Bologna’: the image and identity of the sixteenth-century Bolognese female patriciate

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Throughout the sixteenth century, numerous compilations of laude were published praising the attributes, charms, and virtues of the most prominent of the Bolognese female patriciate. Lacking a court society dominated by a ruler's wife, but wealthy and conscious of its civic importance, Bologna boasted instead a galaxy of noblewomen who were perceived as incarnating in their very persons all the elegance and refinement associated in other Italian cities with a Medici, Este, or Gonzaga duchess, or with the courtesan culture of Venice or Rome. This study examines how the identity of this group was constructed both from within and without. Many had husbands who were beneficiaries of papal patronage which carried them far from Bologna. Consequently many Bolognese noblewomen were officially left in control of family finances and hence enjoyed an autonomy unusual amongst Italian women of the time.

This society is analysed as to its formal composition and kin group linkages. The analysis traces the complex patterns of sociability, with attention to both public and private links (recorded in Libri di Ricordi and chronicles of the city), and spending patterns, with attention to both artistic and charitable patronage. The analysis of this group's identity and dynamic also builds on a variety of literary documents: the laude themselves, plays produced specifically for an audience of Bolognese noblewomen, and the league table of their beauty, a favourite topic of the poetry and prose of many of the city's noblemen and academicians.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: December 1, 1999


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