A 'Her-Story' of Renaissance Art

WE'VE all heard of the Renaissance Man, the quintessential example of which was Leonardo da Vinci - painter, inventor, philosopher, and designer of war machines and mechanical toys. But was there a Renaissance Woman? Feminists are quick to point out that historians write "his-story" and "her-story" is still very much untold. This is true in the art world. Although no woman with anything remotely resembling da Vinci's achievements has surfaced, as "her-story" is more closely investigated, we are realizing there have always been women painters. There are some references to women artists in the classic Greek and Roman periods.

In the medieval period, when life was mostly agrarian and the arts were dominated by the pervasive religious life, the women artists whose names have come down to us were nuns or their abbesses. When towns became more settled and trade brought wealth, secular applications of the arts came to be more widely appreciated.

But this was not necessarily an advantage to women. In the 14th century, guilds were formed, and regulations were developed for the artisans who were members. Previously, talented wives, daughters, and maidservants had been incorporated into painter-artisans' workshops, but the new regulations stated that a maidservant could do no more than "poke the fire." This seems to indicate that these restrictions were based on instances when talented women had painted in family ateliers without having gone throug h the formal, rigorous apprenticeships regulated by the guilds.

By the 16th century, the liberating forces of the Italian Renaissance spilled over somewhat to include women. Sofonisba An guissola is an interesting example. She was one of seven children of a noble family in the northern Italian state of Cremona. Six were daughters, all of whom were painters to some degree. The date of her birth was either 1528 or 1535. Her father, a widower, extended the same educational privileges to all his children. Sofonisba Anguissola studied painting with two well-known artist s and was also an accomplished musician and a scholar.

Giorgio Vasari, who was the self-appointed chronicler of the artists of the Italian Renaissance, visited the Anguissola household and found her portraits so vivid that for him they "lacked only speech." Michelangelo himself commended her paintings. She seems to have been one of the first to formulate the domestic group portrait with a painting of three of her sisters with their old nurse looking on.

A beautifully painted example of her work appears on this page. Through an inscription on the back, the subject of the painting was recently identified positively as nine-year-old Marchese Massimiliano Stampa. His likeness speaks to us across the centuries - a child, solemn-eyed with grief for the loss of his father. Perhaps he is also sobered by the under-standing that loss meant the loss of his childhood. He has been given a sword and holds gloves in his right hand which also indicate power. The sleep ing hound may be a symbol of melancholy.

From the compositional point of view, the dog defines the space around the slender figure as solidly as the stonework on the opposite side. The style is Northern Mannerist portraiture - straightforward and quite unadorned. The clothing is elegant and simple. The striking flat green background harks back to an earlier mode which may still have been popular in northern Italy. The portrait compares favorably with those of Moroni and Bronzino, who are the best-known mannerist portraitists.

IF those who give the date of Anguissola's birth as 1535 are correct, this painting, dated 1557, would indicate a precocious painter, as she would have been only 22. However, the painter Anthony van Dyck made a quick line sketch of her, and around it he wrote, "Portrait of Signora Sofonisba, a woman artist, drawn from life in Palermo on July 12, 1624, when she was 96 years old, still possessed of a good memory, a fresh spirit and a friendly manner." This dating would make her 28 at the time she painted the young marchese.

Van Dyck also wrote about his visit, "While I painted her portrait, she gave me advice as to the light, which should not be directed from too high as not to cause too strong a shadow on her wrinkles, and many more good speeches.... One could see that she was a wonderful painter after nature."

Anguissola had gone to Rome from her native Cremona but only stayed there briefly as she received an invitation to the court of Philip II at Madrid to paint the queen. This portrait was sent to the pope, who commended her "marvelous talent."

She spent many years in Spain as lady-in-waiting to the queen and court painter to the king. Philip gave her a lavish dowry when she married a nobleman from Sicily, where they went to live. After his early death she married again. Although invited to return to Spain, she excused herself and remained in Italy painting vigorously until her eyesight failed.

Lavinia Fontana, who lived between the years of 1552 and 1614, was a junior contemporary of Sofonisba Anguissola. Her father was an artist in Bologna who recognized her talent and assiduously nurtured it until her fame quite surpassed his. Bologna was an enlightened city. Its famous university had opened its doors to women as early as the 13th century.

Fontana also went to Rome and found an encouraging reception there. She obtained a prestigious post as one of the official painters of the papal court in Rome, which she kept under three succeeding popes. She painted exceptionally beautiful altarpieces and religious canvases, as well as portraits. She was also fortunate in her choice of a husband: She married fellow painter Gian Paolo Zappi, who, like her father, was supportive in the most modern sense.

Zappi did not pursue an independent career but helped his wife paint the sumptuous garments of her wealthy and noble sitters, like the one on the opposite page. He undertook the framing of her paintings and cared for the household, inclu-ding their three children. She was elected to the Roman Academy.

As she was one of the most popular portrait painters of her day, it is probable that portraits ascribed to contemporary men painters are, in fact, hers. Her style of portraiture differs from Anguissola's introspective handling of the subject. Fontana delighted in detailing the jewels and the elaborate textures of the rich costumes of her sitters, more than in delineating character and feelings. This method was popular for some time to come.

THE careers of these two women illustrate both the possibilities and the limited access to art for women in the 16th century. Both were able to become painters only because of their family circumstances. Sofonisba Anguissola was a noble lady who had the good fortune to have a liberal-minded father who was eager that his gifted daughters share in the benefits of the Renaissance equally with their brother; Lavinia Fontana was born into a family of painters and had her father's guidance in drawing and pain ting, and later, the active support of her husband.

The restrictive atmosphere of the 16th century was to ease gradually, and by the 18th century, there were considerably more women pursuing active careers in painting. But to this day art historians continue to neglect the contributions that women painters have made, although specialized art historians and museums that give women artists recognition are helping to rectify this.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A 'Her-Story' of Renaissance Art
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today