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Adrian Randolph In the Eyes of the Beholder

Adrian Randolph

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The Italian Renaissance has been studied and written about perhaps more than any other era in art history, and yet Adrian Randolph faces a dearth of material.

Randolph, an expert on the art of 14th and 15th century Florence, is interested in how gender affects the creation and viewing of art. And therein lies the problem: Almost everything modern scholars know about Renaissance art comes from an implicitly male perspective.

“There weren’t many women artists then, nor many women who wrote about art,” says Randolph, an Associate Professor of Art History. While women do appear as subjects of Renaissance portraits and sculpture, art historians have tended to focus on providing modern critiques, rather than looking at the objects in their original context.

In his current work, Randolph examines another dimension of the relationship between gender and art during the Renaissance. His work focuses on spectatorship, or how viewers affect the creation and interpretation of images. He builds upon a concept called the “Period Eye,” first described by art historian Michael Baxandall in the 1970s. Baxandall theorized that people within a culture share experiences and ways of thinking that influence how they perceive images. These common ideas also determine what visual qualities people find appealing. In Renaissance Italy, for example, a growing emphasis on arithmetic and geometry could have “primed the pump” for the development of systematic linear perspective, says Randolph. “Society was thirsty for something that was spatially credible and visually effective,” he says.

Anon. (Paolo Schiavo?), Diana and Acteon

Anon. (Paolo Schiavo?), Diana and Acteon, c. 1440, diam. 58 cm (71 cm with frame), tempera on panel, Bequest of Frank Jewett Mather, Class of 1889, Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown (photo: Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown)

Randolph is taking the “Period Eye” concept a step further by examining how this culturally determined point of view was affected by the viewer’s gender. The conditions of women’s lives were substantially different from those of men, and he believes their experiences would influence visual culture in ways dissimilar to men’s experiences. His first step has been to ask some very fundamental questions. “Under what circumstances did women view art? Did they have particular viewing habits? What objects and spaces did they have access to?” he asks.

While women did not have a substantial role in creating “high” art, Randolph suggests that examining the era’s material culture can tell modern viewers much about the women of the time. For example, from the late 14th to early 16th centuries, pregnant women often received deschi da parto—birth trays—upon which women were served special foods thought to be beneficial during pregnancy. These double-sided, polygonal or circular trays were illustrated on both sides with images drawn from mythology and literature. A common theme was “the triumph of love,” which typically showed men being subordinated by women.

“The images are often humorous, inverting dominant gender hierarchies,” says Randolph, citing examples ranging from the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah to a racier image of Phyllis, the consort of Aristotle, sitting astride the renowned philosopher. Although the paintings might be just playful representations of stereotypes, Randolph suggests they also carried potentially liberating messages for women of the era.

The trays also might have played a symbolic role. Societal taboos forbade women who had recently given birth from entering churches, which meant that mothers could not even attend their own children’s baptisms. Since birth trays were often octagonal, the same shape as church baptisteries, Randolph suggests they might have served a symbolic purpose, providing the mother a way to participate in a private ritual in lieu of the public baptism ceremony.

The way the trays were used is important as well, he adds. Unlike other genres of painting which establish a distance between viewer and object, the birth trays were passed from person to person. “Here the images are bodily engaged with multiple spectators,” he notes. The trays were viewed from many perspectives and even turned upside down to display the reverse side. Viewership was fragmented, with each person approaching the images from a different angle; at the same time, it was a communal experience everyone could participate in, Randolph says.

Jewelry was another significant part of 15th-century Italian material culture that was experienced very differently by men and women. When she married, a woman could expect to receive jewels from her betrothed as a sort of “counter-dowry.” “If something happened to her husband, a woman’s jewels were her financial security,” Randolph explains. The quality and impressiveness of the jewelry were believed to be indicators of a couple’s social status. But images can sometimes be deceiving. “The pressure to present an affluent face grew so strong over time that husbands began renting the jewels their wives wore in public. The true family jewels, usually smaller and less impressive, were kept out of the public eye,” he says.

In Renaissance portraiture, women are often shown wearing their jewels. “These paintings have been the focus of sharp feminist critiques; they’ve been seen as objectifying women, as putting them on display like the jewels they wear.” Randolph seeks to build on such analyses by asking, “What feminine social ideal these images might represent to the women who saw them? Could it be that the wearing of jewels was a performance of a particular type of femininity that women would have understood when they saw it in a portrait?”

Another common motif in Renaissance portraiture was of a woman sitting at a window. Again, Randolph wants to look beyond modern analyses of these portraits, which suggest the window frame is a “trap,” symbolizing women captured by the male gaze. “There was a popular trope in Florentine poetry of presenting oneself to the lover. I think we can potentially see the woman at the window taking on a similar, active role, as maybe presenting herself actively to the viewer like an actor on a stage.”

Randolph hopes his work will offer a fuller understanding of the relationship between art and gender during the Renaissance. “My focus in this project falls on women's experiences of visual and material culture, but, more broadly, I hope to be able to reconsider the way in which art historians have assumed a default masculine visuality—a ‘Period Eye’—in constructing an ideal Renaissance.”


Randolph examines another dimension of the relationship between gender and art during the Renaissance. His work focuses on spectatorship, or how viewers affect the creation and interpretation of images.

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