Women’s Patronage: Wielding Power in Sixteenth-Century Spain

Rosa-Helena Chinchilla gave the opening lecture in the third year of the LCL’s Faculty Lecture Series. Professor Chinchilla specializes in Golden Age Spanish Poetry and Prose, Spanish Humanism and religious life in colonial Guatemalan culture. Her talk presented the final stage of a new book project on women’s literary patronage in sixteenth-century Spain. (She received the contract from Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs-Delaware UP).

Literary historians have acknowledged the role of famous women patrons. Chinchilla looks, however, to deepen our understanding of how they acquired the influence, education, and wealth they needed to launch their own projects or to nurture the works of others. The women she described were all from prominent aristocratic or royal families, most spoke many languages and had extensive educations, some modeled on humanist ideals. All took advantage of their educations and proximity to power to contest for control over their financial affairs often in legal conflicts over inheritances with sons, as was the case with Mencía de Mendoza y Figueroa (1421-1499) and Mencía de Mendoza y Fonseca (1508-1554). Both were able to separate and restore some of the property brought to their marriages or even acquired through it, and this wealth in turn became the source of endowments, gifts and protections. Political skills were as important as wealth for patronage to be effective. Princess Joanna, who was married to Prince John of Portugal before she returned to Spain as queen regent in 1554, proved her mettle in protecting religious luminaries like the Dominican preacher Louis of Granada and the newly established order of the Jesuits. Her interventions on behalf of the Jesuits were so effective that she was secretly and exceptionally inducted into the all-male order in honor of that protection.

The abilities and energy that allowed these women to maneuver in political and legal systems designed to limit women’s power were no doubt part and parcel of why they went on to develop and support a rich array of landmark cultural projects. Chinchilla’s highlights Juana of Aragon’s patronage of the first Spanish translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy by Pedro Fernández de Villegas; Mercia de Mendoza y Fonseca’s support of the poet Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, and many works of botany and the second Spanish edition of a Greek grammar; Maria Enriquez de Luna founded institutions, the Santa-Clara convent and a colegiata both in Gandía. These women and others also supported the production of a devotional works, volumes of poetry, religious letters, books of hours. They commissioned paintings, sculpture, and buildings and in so doing helped to shape the cultural heritage of Spain. In exploring their contributions, Professor Chinchilla seeks to shed light on the vital roles women played in early modern cultural production.