Charlotte Catherine Patin: A Seventeenth-Century Female Art Historian?
Marquand Library recently acquired a copy of one of the earliest publications of art-historical scholarship by a female scholar, Charlotte Catherine Patin (1672?-1744). Described by a recent critic as an “imaginary museum,” Pitture scelte is an unusual catalogue, comprised of forty works of art spanning more than two centuries, by artists of different nationalities, and by the end of the seventeenth century located in various Italian and French collections and institutions. Each is accompanied by a short critical essay, often including some iconographical analysis and information about provenance, illustrated with a printed reproduction.
Born in France, Charlotte Catherine Patin, the erudite younger daughter of the physician and numismatist Charles Patin and the moral philosopher Madeleine Patin, followed her parents to Padua, where her father eventually settled after fleeing France in 1668 to escape a sentence of life in the galleys for importing seditious books. A distinguished professor of surgery at the University of Padua, Charles Patin encouraged the scholarship of women, including his daughters. In 1678, During Patin’s tenure, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia became the first woman to be awarded a doctorate at the university. Both Charlotte Catherine and her older sister, Gabrielle Charlotte, also hoped to achieve doctorates, but the university swiftly acted to bar other women from this opportunity. All four Patins were honored with membership in the Paduan Accademia dei Ricovrati (later known as the Accademia Galileiana), one of the few academic societies that admitted women at that time. In 1683, Gabrielle Charlotte published a scholarly work on Phoenician numismatics, and Charlotte Catherine delivered an oration in Latin at the Academy on the relief of Vienna from the siege of the Ottoman Turks that same year. A version of her oration is published in the Pitture scelte to accompany a painting in her father’s own collection depicting the liberation of Vienna. It is likely that Charles Patin, with his extensive contacts in the book trade, encouraged and assisted Charlotte in publishing this work to celebrate her scholarship in the only manner open to her.
The publication information on the title page is fictitious: though supposedly published in “Colognia” (Cologne), and sold in Venice, the imprint is false: “Pietro Marteau/ Pierre Marteau/Peter Hammer” was a pseudonym used at that time to deliberately hide the identity of printers/publishers. The book appeared in both Italian and Latin editions (as Tabellae selecte ac explicatae) in the same year.
Patin selected for her catalogue many paintings by Titian, Veronese, Bassano, and Tintoretto, the majority of which she had studied in situ in the Veneto. However, she described at least one work that no longer existed except as a print—Titian’s Flight into Egypt—a casualty of a shipwreck. One of the most famous paintings she discussed is Titian’s altarpiece commissioned in 1518 by Jacopo Pesaro for the Venetian church of the Frari, where it remains today. The inconsistent quality of the prints Patin used to illustrate her book, evident in the reproduction of the Frari altarpiece, by Noël Robert Cochin (1655–1695?), probably contributed to the relative lack of attention that has been paid to the publication. Patin herself alluded to the “youthful” work of some of the engravers. Nonetheless, the accompanying two-page critical essay considers questions of patronage, iconography, composition, and meaning, and the combination of careful observation, scholarship, and critical appreciation demonstrates Patin’s skills as an art historian.
Yet Patin’s publication reveals some the pitfalls still encountered by art historians – she recounted the elaborate (but unfortunately incorrect) provenance of a painting of the Madonna and Child, sold to her father as a Leonardo painted for King Francis I of France but now attributed to Giampietrino. The print was the work of Joseph Juster, one of the better engravers who produced the illustrations for Patin’s book.
Patin’s birthdate has still not been firmly established, though she is known to be the younger sister of Gabrielle Charlotte (born ca. 1666). According to the record of Charlotte Catherine’s nomination to the Ricovrati (January 27, 1683), her age then was around twelve, suggesting a birthdate of ca. 1672. She appears at the far left of this depiction of her scholarly family included at the end of the book. Her beloved father gestures toward the sphere in his daughter’s hand—one of his surviving letters mentions his hope that she would study astronomy. Her mother holds a small portrait of Guy Patin, Charlotte’s grandfather, a renowned French physician. Gabrielle Charlotte, seated at right, is holding a book, probably one of her own publications. Beginning with a brief description of the genre of the family portrait, including the Holbein study of the family of Sir Thomas More (another learned daughter with a brilliant father who was persecuted by his monarch), Charlotte’s apologia explains the inclusion of a portrait of herself in Pitture scelte: in thanksgiving for surviving a serious illness in 1684, Charles Patin had commissioned a portrait from life from the French painter Jouvenet. This family portrait was her modest concession to requests for the author portrait that usually appeared near the front of such publications. The lengthy description of the clothing and hairstyles of her family that follows, which might suggest the frivolity habitually associated with young women, is undermined by scholarly allusions and the use of a Latin motto to explain that she herself did not waste time on elaborate hair styles.
A few years after the death of her father, Patin entered a Paduan convent in 1697, and little is known about her life in the following decades, though Mitra: ou la Démone mariée, ou le malheur des hommes qui épousent les mauvaises femmes, a curious work apparently written by Patin in 1688, was published posthumously in 1745, again with a fictitious imprint (Démonopolis).
Nicola Shilliam, Bibliographer, Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology