- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2007

A recently opened exhibit on female artists during the Italian Renaissance — which includes some gruesome biblical motifs and themes of women’s rights — isn’t necessarily easy fare for youngsters.

But today, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, where the exhibit is on view, is offering the most child-friendly take imaginable on the Italian Renaissance and the role of female artists during that era. During its annual Family Festival, there will be jugglers, a commedia dell’arte troupe, a storyteller, craft-making and an a cappella group. Some performers will be dressed in period garb.

“There will definitely be something for all ages even if we do aim the Family Festival at children ages 6 to 12,” says Mieke Fay, manager of youth programs.

The hands-on projects, for example, include painting your own self-portrait, making a frame, painting a mask and making a bookmark.

“The bookmark-making is an example of an activity that works for any age,” Ms. Fay says.

Bookmarks evidently became popular during the Renaissance because of the surge in printed books, she says.

The Family Festival takes place from noon to 4 p.m. and is free. For those who can’t make it today, the museum offers free family programs the first Sunday of every month. Though as elaborate as today’s event, the program May 6 will feature Dress It Up from 12:30 to 3 p.m., showcasing period costumes on loan from the Washington National Opera.

But back to today’s event: The museum also plans to have docents in all the galleries for families who want to learn more about Italian Renaissance art. The docents will tailor the tour according to age.

“I don’t think there is a too-young age group for going through the galleries, either,” Ms. Fay says. “It’s all about how you present the art. You can always play I Spy and look for various details in the paintings.”

The exhibit starts by giving visitors an idea of what Italy looked like during the Renaissance.

“It was very divided, and there was a lot of regionalism,” says Rebecca Price, curatorial assistant at the museum. “There were definitely regional [artistic] styles, too.”

The exhibit then goes on to describe the role of female artists during this period. They were referred to as “virtuosa,” which meant professional artists, but unlike their male counterparts, female artists faced many constraints, particularly when it came to balancing their public and private lives.

“This was the challenge. How could you be a successful artist and remain virtuous?” Ms. Price says.

Remaining virtuous included not leaving home without a chaperone. So how could female artists receive any training if they were homebound?

They relied on their family members to teach them, Ms. Price says.

“Women artists were often from artistic families. They learned primarily from their fathers,” Ms. Price says.

They also couldn’t portray women just any which way in their paintings. The portrayed women would have to be doing something proper, such as playing chess or an instrument, as in Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Woman Playing a Lute” from 1612.

Nudity was only acceptable if the context was biblical or classical. The exhibit, for example, shows Minerva in a sheer covering by Lavinia Fontana (“Minerva Dressing,” 1612-13), one of the big names during the era. Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom.

The Minerva is one of 64 pieces exhibited in the show, located on the second floor of the four-story building. The museum’s total collection consists of about 3,000 pieces of art. About one-tenth is on display.

There also were limitations on women earning money. Sometimes they would be paid in gifts, and sometimes their fathers would act as go-betweens during financial transactions.

“What’s most interesting to me? I think the fact they could be as successful as their male counterparts despite all they had against them,” Ms. Price says. “That’s inspiring.”

When you go:

What: National Museum of Women in the Arts

Where: 1250 New York Ave. NW.

Admission: $10 for adults, $8 for seniors 60 and older, $8 for students, free for children 15 and younger. Free community days are offered the first Sunday of every month, including today’s Family Festival: Renaissance Revelry.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday and closed on major holidays.

Parking: Limited street parking and pay-parking garages.

Metro: Red, blue or orange line to Metro Center.

Information: www.nmwa.org or 202/783-5000.

Miscellaneous:

• The museum is offering Role Model Workshops for teenagers once a month this spring. The dates and times are from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 14, May 19 and June 9. The program aims to connect teenagers with desired professions. This spring, it teams teenagers with women who have made a career in costume design, art-gallery management and writing and producing.

• The museum has a restaurant that is open for lunch on weekdays but closed on weekends. There also are many restaurant and cafe options in the neighborhood.

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