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Path 1 – Women Who Made History

The first path takes visitors on a tour through depictions of historical women who actively shaped the course of European history.

Even today, written accounts of European history, largely neglect the influence of women. This despite the fact that a great many women made significant contributions to the course of European history, with many also being immortalised in artworks for this reason. The vast majority of these women were members of privileged social classes. Likewise, the artworks in which they were depicted were typically commissioned by economic and social elites, or produced for them. At the same time, however, patriarchal structures meant that even for these women, their ability to act as powerful agents in the political or social spheres was generally dependent upon their position as a daughter, wife or mother of a famous man. Their own achievements, on the other hand, were often not reflected in these artworks.

On a Par with Popes and Emperors – Mathilda of Canossa

Financial independence was (and still is) a key prerequisite for women gaining access to liberties and power beyond the familial realm. Something that is illustrated quite clearly in the example of Mathilda, Margravine of Tuscany (ca. 1046–1115), who was a member of the powerful House of Canossa. In 1069, she married the Duke of Lower Lorraine, Godfrey the Hunchback (ca. 1040–1076), but after the untimely death of her first child, she returned to her Italian homeland without her husband. From here, initially together with her mother, Mathilda governed her territories independently. In the so-called “Investiture Controversy” – a conflict between Pope Gregory VII (ca. 1020–1085) and later Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (1050–1106) – the Margravine provided refuge to the head of the church, and successfully pitted her own troops against those of Henry IV. More than half a millennium later, a marble tomb monument was created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) in St. Peter’s Basilica, reflecting this heroic act of loyalty to the Pope. A small bronze statuette of the central figure, likewise created in the 1630s, depicts Mathilda as a determined soldier of the Holy See – a role that is normally reserved for men.  

Madame Récamier and a Woman’s Power Circa 1800

Not long after Mathilda’s passing, most European women gradually lost control over their dowry or inheritance, with ownership being transferred to their husbands. Their ability to determine the course of their lives was now restricted predominantly to the domestic sphere. In these societies – increasingly dominated by bourgeois values – marriage and motherhood came to be valued above all else. But despite these significant restraints, some women managed to secure important positions in society. A prime example of this is the salonnière Juliette Récamier (1777–1849), who today would probably be described as an influencer and trendsetter. This attractive woman, the wife of an affluent banker, had a keen understanding of how to manage her image and market herself. She regularly sat for portraits by the most famous artists in France, such as the terracotta bust in the Bode-Museum attributed to Joseph Chinard (1756–1813). These artworks convey a carefully manicured image of an innocent, pure and mysterious woman. She had an almost magical allure over the men of her time, while also being seen as a fashionable role model for the women of the bourgeoisie. In her tastefully decorated house, which was featured numerous times in periodicals of the time, an intellectual milieu gathered who were viewed with great suspicion by Napoleon Bonaparte. However, the fact that her highly political salon eventually led Juliette Récamier to be driven into exile is something that is rarely conveyed to today’s audiences in the numerous portraits that have survived.