The women of the Renaissance, like women of the Middle Ages, were denied all political rights and considered legally subject to their husbands. Women of all classes were expected to perform, first and foremost, the duties of housewife. Peasant women worked in the field alongside their husbands and ran the home. The wives of middle class shop owners and merchants often helped run their husbands' businesses as well. Even women of the highest class, though attended by servants, most often engaged in the tasks of the household, sewing, cooking, and entertaining, among others. Women who did not marry were not permitted to live independently. Instead, they lived in the households of their male relatives or, more often, joined a convent.
A few wealthy women of the time were able to break the mold of subjugation to achieve at the least fame, if not independence. Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Pope Alexander VI, was one such woman. As pope, Alexander VI attempted to use Lucrezia as a pawn in his game of political power. To further his political ambitions he arranged her marriage to Giovanni Sforza of Milan when she was thirteen, in 1493. Four years later, when he no longer needed Milan's political support to as great a degree, he annulled the marriage after spreading false charges of Sforza's impotence. Alexander VI then married Lucrezia to the illegitimate son of the King of Naples. The Borgia legend stipulates that Cesare Borgia, Lucrezia's older brother, murdered Lucrezia's son produced by this marriage. In 1502, at the age of 22, Lucrezia was again divorced and remarried, this time to the duke of Ferrara, Alfonso d'Este. She remained in Ferrara until her death in 1519, where she became a devoted wife and mother, an influence in Ferrara politics and social life, and a noted patron of the arts.
Lucrezia's sister-in-law, Isabella d'Este, was perhaps the strongest, most intelligent woman of the Renaissance period. She mastered Greek and Latin and memorized the works of the ancient scholars. She frequently gave public performances, in which she demonstrated her skill at singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments. In 1490 she was married to Francesco Gonzaga, the duke of Mantua, and the pair shared a happy and loving relationship. Isabella exerted a great amount of influence over the Mantua court, and it was due in great part to her presence that Mantua became known as a major center of wit, elegance, and artistic genius. After her husband, the duke, was captured in battle, she ruled Mantua herself. She also influenced the economic development of the region, encouraging the development of the textile and clothing industry that became the cornerstone of the Mantua economy. As a patron of the arts, Isabella collected many paintings, sculpturres, manuscripts, and musical instruments, and encouraged Mantuans to support the arts.
The theme of the life of a Renaissance woman was subjugation. A woman was controlled by her parents throughout her childhood, and then handed directly into the hands of a husband, whom she most likely had not chosen herself, and who would exercise control over her until her death or his. Women who did not marry for whatever reason were likewise granted no independence of thought and action, living under subjugation in the home of a male relative or in a convent, where a woman could become a nun, the only career accessible to the gender. Women were frequently discouraged from participating in the arts and sciences, and thus the world will never know the full literary and artistic potential of an age in which the spirit of expression was perhaps the defining characteristic.
Only women of the highest class were given the chance to distinguish themselves, and this only rarely. For the most part, the wives of powerful men were relegated to the tasks of sewing, cooking, and entertaining. In history, women provide no more than a backdrop to the political and social story of the Renaissance. For example, one can find very little written about the women of the Medici line, though there must have been women if the line were to continue. Thus, one concludes that even access to the most powerful men in the world did not necessarily allow a woman to distinguish and express herself.
The case of Lucrezia Borgia is interesting in that it seemed to her contemporaries that she was one of the most liberated and empowered women in all of Italy. Certainly, her mobility, from place to place and husband to husband, was more than any Renaissance woman could hope for. The details of her marriages garnered for her the common perception as both a powerful and devious woman. However, upon historical review, it becomes quite clear that Lucrezia was not in control of her life so much as she was a pawn in Alexander VI's master plan for the success and wealth of the Borgia family. It is most likely that she resisted the pattern of marriage and annulment which her father forced upon her during her early life, despite the advantages of mobility and influence it bestowed upon her. In fact, history shows that Lucrezia only truly exercised power after she had entered into a happy marriage with Alfonso d'Este, who allowed her to participate to a great extent in the politics and society of Ferarra. Thus Lucrezia Borgia's life may be looked on as demonstrative of the situation of women in the Renaissance, in that even the illusion of power which surrounded her inhere early years was created by a man, her father, who controlled her life, and the small measure of actual power which she was eventually granted grew out of her traditional position as a devoted wife and mother.
Isabella d'Este differed from Lucrezia Borgia in that she broke down the barriers to power and influence by virtue of her own independent spirit, strength, and talent. One is led to believe by accounts of her character that she needed the approval of no man to live in the style that she chose. Isabella was remarkable in that she was one of few women who expressed themselves in the arts to any extent, and, even more so, in that she in effect became the first female head of an Italian city state after her husband was captured in war. Isabella gladly assumed the role of devoted wife, but did not allow that role to restrict the realm in which she held influence, proving herself capable in many fields. Isabella stands out as one of the only strong female representatives of the spirit of humanism.