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Fortini-Brown Discusses the Role of Children in Renaissance Art

In her lecture “Seen But Not Heard From” Patricia Fortini Brown
discussed the role of children in Renaissance art at Lisser Hall on
Sunday. Student response to the lecture was enthusiastic; senior,
Phaedra Gauci described the topic as “very intriguing because it’s
one that’s not been covered much and leaves a lot of open-ended
questions about the arena of family life. It also incorporates many
different forms of art.”

Brown was asked to lecture on her extensive research and
knowledge on the subject of domestic Italian life as well as her
close ties to Mills and the Bay Area. The lecture was open to the
public; many of Brown’s family and friends as well as students from
the Art History department were there.

The lecture focused primarily on child portraiture, and most of
the portraits shown depicted children as miniature adults, dressed
in full adult clothing. Brown described one of the roles of
Renaissance children as being replicas and replacements for their
parents. This can be seen both through family portraits showing
children in the same dress as their parents as well as in the
naming of children after older family members. Brittony Girton felt
this was the most interesting point of the lecture. “I think it’s
an interesting subject because oftentimes children are not
portrayed as children, more as miniature adults,” she said.

Using the artwork of the time, Brown was able to draw
similarities between childhood in the Renaissance and childhood
today. She explained that during the Renaissance, children were
seen as parts of the larger family unit, not as individuals unto
themselves. Today, children are often seen as extensions of their
family and not counted as individuals until they are older. In
addition to the treatment of children in daily life, the schooling
and playtimes for children of the Renaissance was similar to those
of today. Children began school around age five, taught either at
home by a tutor or in a school run by the church. Girls were given
some form of education in the Renaissance; wealthier girls were
given more schooling than those of lower class families. Although
the subject matter was different from today, the general time
period of schooling was the same. Children played similar games
with each other and were given the same sorts of toys; girls played
with dolls and boys with hobbyhorses and balls. From the artwork of
the period, it is clear that, different though society was,
childhood in the Renaissance was comparable to childhood today.

Through looking at historical documents, child portraiture, and
various other related works of art, Patricia Fortini Brown
accurately describes her views on children in the Renaissance,
though she does recognize that not all assumptions are true. In
speaking with Brown after the lecture she said, “Art mediates
between what is there and what people want to be there,” making it
clear that although her ideas were quite convincing, they are not
necessarily complete.

Patricia Fortini Brown has been a professor of Art and
Archeology at Princeton University for 20 years and head of her
department for five. She grew up only a few miles from Mills and
taught her first Art History course here when substituting for
JoAnne Bernstein. She has written four books and is currently
preparing for an exhibition of the Italian Domestic Interior
1400-1600 to be displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in
London in 2006.