The feminist revolution that began on canvas.
The history of art is a masculine story to which few women have had access. Certain conventions were an obstacle, the possibility of attending the workshops where they could learn techniques, as well as the prejudices about what suited them. Family was the only vocation granted to women. However, some succeeded in establishing themselves, even if history has neglected them. Even the famous Artemisia Gentileschi owes her fame more to the fact that she was raped than her artistic talent.
The Prado Museum is working to fill this void during the bicentennial celebrations since its foundation, with an exhibition dedicated to two painters who lived before Artemisia. In autumn, the exhibition “Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana” will be open to the public from October 22nd, 2019 to February 2nd, 2020.
Few know that in a certain sense it was a talented painter, Sofonisba Anguissola (1532 -1625), who made it possible for women to imagine a career in art, paving the way for women to pursue a career in painting. Her father, a Cremonese aristocrat, was an open-minded man, an amateur artist himself who encouraged his daughters to study art. For Sofonisba, the eldest, he even promoted her career by sending her drawings to the legendary Michelangelo, seeing that she was the most talented daughter. As a young girl, she also took lessons from Bernardino Campi, a mediocre local artist with whom she specialized in portraiture, achieving such notoriety as to arrive at the Spanish court of Philip II, where she entered in 1559 as a dame with Queen Elizabeth. At court, contemporaries were intrigued, describing her as an elegant woman, with a strong personality, a lover of dance.
Her portraits were quite successful, even painting the sovereign and his wife and was so appreciated that she received, unusual for a woman, an annual income. She would remian in Spain until her marriage to Fabrizio Moncada, brother of the viceroy of Sicily with whom she then moved to Sicily in 1573. However, five years later her husband disappeared in the waters of Capri after a pirate attack. The fleet was saved but Moncada drowned, and the body was never found.
Sofonisba was never able to bury him, so she did so with painting. In fact, she created an altarpiece which she donated to the Franciscan Friars of Paternò, a town of the Moncada fiefdom. This was the Madonna of Itria, however the image is quite unusual. The Virgin is sitting on a coffin carried by the Franciscans. The coffin that her husband never actually had, so she paints it and, in a particularly moving way, she puts him under the protection of the Madonna. In the background, the ships recall the circumstances of his tragic disappearance.
Against her family’s wishes, a year later she would marry Orazio Lomellini, almost 15 years her younger. She was a determined woman. With the new groom he went to live in Genoa, where she continued her fruitful career as a portraitist. Always restless, she would spend her final years in Palermo, in her beloved Sicily and where she had spent the happiest days of her life. Shortly before his death, although quite old and blind, she provided valuable advice to Van Dyck, who had gone to visit her in 1624. He immortalized her in a sketch that has been thankfully preserved. A great painter until the end, she was an unusual figure who had shown that it was possible for a woman to become a true painter.
Perhaps it will surprise you to know that she never received cash, but only gifts or something in exchange for her work. From some documents, it seems that there were cash payments for her works. Instead, these sums were paid to her father and brother. Obviously, it was not enough that sovereigns and aristocrats wanted to be portrayed by her or an awareness of herself as an artist. She was still a woman who moved in a world of men. However, her numerous self-portraits prove that she was aware of her worth. In one of these, Bernardino Campi portrays Sofonisba Anguissola as she is a painting in the picture. In a game of mirrors, the painted Sofonisba and the painter look towards the royal Sofonisba that the painter’s pose makes us imagine that she has just arrived. Reality and fiction exchange roles long before Velázquez. The difference between her painted image, rigid and posing, is deliberately accentuated. Campi portrays her so alive and spontaneous, in such a way that we forget that he too is an image.
A generation later in 1552, Lavinia Fontana was born in Bologna. Her artistic preparation was received at home from her father, who was also a painter. This allowed her not only to learn techniques, but also meet with the many artists who attended her father’s workshop, including the Carraccis, who later moved to Rome, becoming one of the leading exponents of Baroque classicism.
Here too there was a father who supported his daughter, and in a more concrete way than that of Anguissola. In the girl’s marriage contract, an unusual clause was added: the bride had to be allowed to be able to continue painting. The future husband was a rather weak painter, Paolo Zappi. He was not upset about this situation, and in fact, over the years he would manage his wife’s work on a commercial level.
In addition to great talent, and unlike Anguissola, Lavinia also knew the world of painting. In her father’s workshop, she had learnt how to deal with established apprentices and artists, while also managing relationships with clients. Moreover, her husband was “of the trade“. The combination of these factors would give them public commissions, marking the first time for a woman to do so. At the beginning of the 1600’s her career took off. She was called to Rome by Clement VIII, the enlightened patron of Torquato Tasso, but also the intransigent head of the Church who had condemned Giordano Bruno to the stake for heresy. These were difficult years, and the Roman Church was trying to counter the proliferation of Protestant movements with a prestige policy aimed at giving back to the Papacy its central role, also through the Arts. However, Lavinia was not concerned with politics, and in the capital of Catholicism, the centre of diplomacies and intriguing personalities from all over Europe, her resounding success was that of a portraitist. She would become the “pontifical painter”. Only a few years before, her colleague Anguissola had officially gained the role of a dame of the court in the Spain.
However, Lavinia was different. She was a calmer soul. As her biography also shows, she would never leave Rome. Like her colleague, she also specialized in portraits. That said, she also made many works with religious and mythological subjects. Lavinia’s painting is sharp, precise, attentive to the details of which her paintings are rich. Particularly admired was her ability to make lace and jewels as well as the verisimilitude of faces. However, she lacked the psychological subtlety and introspective abilities of Anguissola, who had studied Leonardo’s work on the “motions of the soul” and also put them to good use. Sofonisba’s portraits are striking due to their psychological introspection, the faces are not only similar, but rather return the psychology dimension of the individual by managing to represent even the slightest nuances of their expressions. Anguissola also loved experimenting and specialized in showing transitional moods, those moments of change between one emotion and another. Instead, Lavinia’s painting is more restrained, focusing mainly on showing the rank of the subjects through the splendid reproduction of all those elements that defined their social role, such as fabrics, jewels or objects.
Lavinia would then end her life in a convent where she retired with her husband after a mystical crisis, after having given birth to 11 children and numerous paintings.
However, as was the case with Anguissola, Fontana was also forgotten after her death. In life they were greatly appreciated, and many aspired to be portrayed by them without however paying tribute to the economic worth they would have given a man. Death would then tarnish their memory.
For these two women, it is evident that only their extraordinary talent allowed them to assert themselves – a talent that neither gender bias nor slander, hostility or jealousies could obscure, so great was the admiration for their painting.
It is no coincidence that there are works by these painters at the Prado, including portraits of sovereigns. In different eras, they were so talented in their art, as women, to portray popes and sovereigns. This was a privilege granted to few, and who knows what kind of jealousy that had aroused in their fellow men! The exhibition is a rightful tribute to their talent, and we can get to know them not because they are women, but because they are simply great painters.
Anna Maria Calabretta