My major complaint with the modern sexualisation debate is that it lacks historical and cultural depth. I am reminded of this constantly. As I was researching the story of young adolescent groupies I watched a documentary on a newly discovered Da Vinci on the ABC Da Vinci: The Lost Treasure. What caught my attention was the suggestion that Lady with an ermine is every bit the masterpiece that the Mona Lisa is. I must admit that I had never really looked at the Lady with an ermine.
When I did the first thing I noticed was that she was very young. I was then intrigued when I found out that this was a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, the young mistress of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. Mistress? A little further research revealed that she was first promised in marriage when she was 10 but this was annulled when she reached the age of 14. It is assumed that she met Ludovico shortly after. At the time Da Vinci was in the service of Ludovico and this portrait was commissioned. Cecilia was around the ages of 15 or 16 when this portrait was done.
Further research revealed that Cecilia was a noted patron of the arts, philosophy and poetry. She was fluent in Latin and a gifted singer and musician. While she was sitting for Da Vinci she invited him to meet with other Milanese intellectuals, poets, musicians and artists in what has been described as one of Europe’s first salons.
Say that again? A 15/16 year old adolescent the mistress of a Duke and the patron of intellectuals, musicians and artists, fluent in Latin and a gifted musician herself?
But the story gets even more intriguing. Ludovico set Cecilia aside to marry Beatrice D’Este. Beatrice was betrothed to him at the age of 5 as a part of a formal alliance. She was to marry him when she was just 15, but the ceremony was delayed for a further year. By all accounts she proved herself a skilled diplomat and politician – as well as excelling in fashion, including creating new styles. Sadly she died at age 21 in childbirth.
Again, further research into the Sforza family reveals that a secondary member (an illegitimate cousin), Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro, married the 13 year-old Lucrezia Borgia. Again, Lucrezia proved herself to be an intelligent young woman and although the marriage with Giovanni Sforza was annulled when she was 15, she continued to play an important part in the political intrigues of the day. At the age of 21 her father, Pope Alexander VI, left in her in charge of the Church when he went on a military campaign. A young woman left in charge of Rome and the Papacy? Would he have done this if he thought she was incapable?
All of these amazing and accomplished young women were contemporaries and they raise important questions for the modern sexualisation debate.
The first thing to note is that they were educated and very intelligent. Cecilia was hosting gatherings of artists and philosophers at the age of 15/16 and Beatrice was responsible for creating the glamorous court of the Duchy of Milan at the same age. A few years later, again at the same age, Lucrezia Borgia was at the centre of Papal politics.
The second thing to note is that all of them were sexually active at a young age as either wives or mistresses. It cannot be denied that these young women were considered sexually desirable and Lucrezia has an undeserved reputation for being sexually voracious (a reaction to her power and influence).
Yet today we consider girls of the same age to be emotionally unstable and immature. In short, volatile teenagers who need constant supervision.
At this point the moral conservatives might argue that times were different back then. Indeed, but were adolescent girls any different? If anything adolescents today are better educated and mature earlier. So why do we treat them as if they are incompetent?
How is it that in the late 15th century a 16 year-old girl can be the mistress of a powerful Duke and an admired intellectual, musician, patron of the arts and the subject of one of the great masterpieces of European art? This is a teenage girl who invited one of the world’s great geniuses to join her circle of intellectuals.
Can you imagine?
Perhaps we should be teaching our adolescent girls about these remarkable teens.