Blog 66: 17/04/2018 The Renaissance Artist, Sofonisba Anguissola: A Successful Woman in a Man’s World.

Posted in on 17 April, 2018 in News

The Renaissance Artist, Sofonisba Anguissola: A Successful Woman in a Man’s World.

“Self portrait at easel.”

Sofonisba’s mother, Bianca, wearing a dress of gold brocade and holding a sable pelt, originally used to keep away the fleas.

As someone who has spent their working life in the arts, many people ask which is my favourite era. It’s a hard question to answer because they are all constitute an important part of civilisation. If I had to narrow it down, I would have probably say, after maybe Classical Greece, the Renaissance. It was an area I studied in my days at Art College and it has continued to fascinate me. Such a rich and flourishing era in the arts is often overwhelming, and one can spend a whole lifetime exploring the works of the great artists and minds of the day. Yet, as enlightened a period as it was, it was a bastion of male achievement and few women were able to break through society’s self-imposed barriers. One woman to break that mould was Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532 – 1625) one of the first known female artists and one of the first women artists to establish an international reputation.

Sofonisba’s painting of her tutor, Bernadino Campi, paiting her portrait.

“Boy Bitten by a Crab”

Sofonisba – named after the tragic Carthaginian figure, Sophonisba, was the eldest of seven children – six girls and a boy. She was born in Cremona, Lombardy, and was fortunate enough have been born into a noble family with a father who believed in educating his daughters – a true Renaissance man. In 1546, she and her sister, Elena, were sent to board with a prominent painter, Bernardino Campi, setting precedence for women at the time. Her father, encouraged all his daughters to paint but Sofonisba was by far the most accomplished and renowned. Elena abandoned painting to become a nun, and Minerva became a writer & Latin scholar. After three years, Campi moved and Sofonisba studied with Bernadino Gatti. In 1554, when she was twenty-two, her father, Amilcare, used his influence and she met Michelangelo who requested her to draw a weeping boy saying, “it is more difficult to portray the cry than the laugh.” The story goes that Sofonisba portrayed her little brother, Asdrubale, who cried after being pinched by their sister, Europa. She called the drawing: Boy Bitten by a Crab. Michelangelo told her that he could not have done better himself and encouraged her by giving her sketches from his own notebooks to draw in her own style and giving advice on the results. For at least two years, she continued to receive substantial guidance from Michelangelo.

“The Chess Game”

Before long, she began to earn a living and about 30 of her paintings from this period, including many self-portraits such as the well-known Lucia, Minerva, and Europa Anguissola Playing Chess (1555), survive. That she made a living from painting was something remarkable at the time. Although Sofonisba enjoyed much more encouragement and support than the average woman of her day, her social class did not allow her to transcend the constraints of  the female role in society. Education and training had different implications than that of men. Her training was not to help her gain a profession and compete for commissions with male artists, but to make her a better wife, companion, and mother. As a member of the nobility, under normal circumstances, such women could not sell their works and instead, offered them as gifts. There was also the fact that as a woman, it was not possible to study anatomy or drawing from life as it was considered unacceptable for a lady to view nudes. This meant that undertaking the complex, multi-figure compositions required for large-scale religious was not possible. Instead she concentrated on portraits.

Philip II of Spain

Soon after, Sofonisba went to Milan, where she painted the Duke of Alba who recommended her to the Spanish king, Philip II. The following year, she was invited to join the Spanish Court, which was a turning point in her career. She was to be lady-in-waiting and art teacher to Philip’s third wife, the fourteen year old Queen Elizabeth of Valois who was only 14 at the time. Elizabeth was an amateur portraitist and the two became good friends but when the Queen died ten years later, Sofonisba left Spain. By then, she had painted the entire royal family. Those paintings were far more demanding than her earlier, informal portraits as it took a tremendous amount of time and energy to render the many intricate designs of the fine fabrics and elaborate jewellery associated with royal subjects.

Elisabeth of Valois

Philip II took a special interest in Sofonisba’s future and wanted her to marry a noble in the Spanish Court. In 1571 she entered an arranged marriage to a Sicilian nobleman, Fabrizio Moncada Pignatelli, son of the Viceroy of Sicily. Philip II paid a dowry of 12,000 scudi for her marriage and Fabrizio was said to be supportive of her painting. The couple left Spain and lived in Paternò, near Catania, from 1573 to 1579. A royal pension of 100 ducats enabled her to continue working and tutoring. In the meantime, her father suffered financial problems and died and her private fortune helped support her family and brother, Asdrubale. Tragically, Sofonisba’s husband died two years later but whilst on a ship bound for Cremona that same year, she fell in love with the captain, a Genoese nobleman, Orazio Lomellino. They married in Pisa in 1584 and lived in Genoa until 1620. During this time, Genoa was experiencing its golden age and the richest families were moving from the old medieval quarters to a new area called Strada Nuova, where magnificent new palaces were under construction. Their home was frequented by architects and decorators of the new grand palaces being built, and artists, who come to meet Sofonisba and ask her advice. During this period she was highly productive, working on various portraits for the aristocratic families as well as some religious works.

Portrait of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia

Portrait of a Woman – Detail

Towards the end of her life, one of her last visitors of note was Anthony van Dyck, who recorded her advice to him and sketched the elderly painter in his notebook. His portrait of the aged Sofonisba can now be found in the van Dyck collection at Knole House in Sevenoaks, UK. She continuing to paint well into her eighties, until failing eyesight hindered her final efforts. He notes that she was still exceptionally sharp.

Sofanisba by Anthony van Dyck

After her death, she was buried in the Church of San Giorgio dei Genovesi in Palermo, where her tombstone can still be seen, complete with the inscription commissioned by her husband.

“To Sofonisba, my wife, who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, outstanding in portraying the images of man. Orazio Lomellino, in sorrow for the loss of his great love, in 1632, dedicated this little tribute to such a great woman— Orazio Lomellino,

Detail of Unknown Noblewoman

The painter, architect, writer, and historian, Giorgio Vasari, who saw her work in her father’s house in 1566, noted in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects Sofonisba of Cremona, the daughter of Messer Amilcaro Anguisciuola, has laboured at the difficulties of design with greater study and better grace than any other woman of our time, and she has not only succeeded in drawing, colouring, and copying from nature, and in making excellent copies of works by other hands, but has also executed by herself alone some very choice and beautiful works of painting”

In an era when female painters were not easily accepted, there is no doubt that Sofonisba’s success had a great influence on other female artists. Compared to that other great female painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter, considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation following Caravaggio and who also broke grounds by becoming the first woman to become a member of the Academia di Arte del Disegno in Florence, Sofonisba had a life that many women could only aspire to. Unfortunately, like many early female painters, her work was often attributed to male painters of the period. In Sofonisba’s case, it was Titian, Giovanni Battista Moroni, and even Leonardo.

The Duke of Parma


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