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Sofonisba Anguissola the "Miracolo di Natura"
“…it is only too true that those who do not possess great invention are always poor in grace, perfection, and judgment”
Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 1568
The above statement, made by the “father” of art history, is perhaps one of the most revealing assertions pertaining to the art theory of the Italian Renaissance. ‘Invenzione‘, was considered the hallmark of the artists and works listed in the third and final section of Vasari’s ’Lives’ which was, the author claimed, initiated by Leonardo DaVinci and ended with Titian (1). This idea was further crystallized by another theorist/artist of the time, Giovanbattista Armenini, when he said: “One can hardly be said to have good style (buona maniere) without first being a fine inventor (un bello inventore)” (2). Indeed, invention, was the crucible in which the artists of that time worked and the quality which patrons, connoisseurs, and theorists regarded as the sign of excellence denoting Divine inspiration.
By the late 15th and 16th centuries, artists had already mastered and improved upon the techniques of earlier Renaissance masters whose work achieved greater naturalism in the depiction of emotion, forms, and spatial depth. What began to inspire later artists, especially in portraiture, was a new interest in human motives and human character (3) revealed in ever more subtle facial expressions, gestures, and body movements. Leonardo DaVinci labeled this internal psychological phenomenon the “motions of the mind” and the “soul’s intention” in his notebooks. He emphasized that the highest calling of the artist was an attempt to reveal it even if those “intentions” or “mind movements” remained enigmatic to the viewer; without this achievement, figures were viewed as being wooden and soulless. To the Renaissance artist-theorist, if the spark of intention or animation was not manifest in a work, there was no invention in the work, and if there was no invention, there was no ‘art’ in the highest sense of the word, rather a mere copying from nature, or rittrare. Works which failed to attain this life-charged quality lacked the imitation of God’s creation of Nature, or imitare on the part of the artist. Imitare was what separated the virtuoso/virtuosa from the amateur, and reflected a Renaissance analogy between the power of the Divine giving life to Nature through the substance of matter and the ability of the artist who was seen as giving life to a creation via the material of marble, bronze, or paint. Invention, however, was not purely circumscribed to the artist’s capacity to depict the mind beneath the forms; it was also understood as the artist’s ability to introduce innovations of design, or desegno. Thus, invenzione was a combination of true-to-life naturalism, expressed through a spark behind the eyes and motivated gestures, along with new design conventions. These factors were what determined an artist worthy of recognition. This abridged background on Renaissance art theory is crucial to understanding the work of the only female artist of this period who was credited with having these abilities, Sofonisba Anguissola.
Out of over 160 notable male artists, Giorgio Vasari does mention several women (4). Only one, however, the sculptor, Properzia De Rossi, receives her own biographical section. Near the end of De Rossi’s section we find an exception being made for one woman artist, a painter, who stands above all other female artists of the day:
“But Sofonisba of Cremona, the daughter of Amilcare Anguissola, has worked with deeper study and greater grace than any woman of our times at problems of design, for not only has she learned to draw, paint, and copy from nature, and reproduce most skillfully works by other artists, but she has on her own painted some most rare and beautiful paintings.” (Vasari 343)
As the eldest of six daughters from a noble family of the north Italian city of Cremona, Sofonisba’s achievements must be seen against the backdrop of Renaissance humanist thought regarding the education of noblewomen. In the early 16th century, the widely circulated publication, The Courtier, by Baldesare Castiglione, became the foremost proponent advocating the same education for aristocratic women as that offered to aristocratic men. For noblewomen like Sofonisba this meant instruction not only in Latin, classical literature, history, philosophy, math, and sciences, but also training in the court arts--music, writing, drawing, and painting (5). Sofonisba’s family took her training further by providing three years of private instruction in the studios of two Cremonese artists, Bernardino Campi (1522-1591) and later Bernardino Gatti (c.1495-1576)(6). In her lifetime, she painted more self-portraits than any other artist between Durer and Rembrandt (7). Her self-portraits became collectors items among the aristocratic families of Italy; the Este, Medici, and Borghese are all said to have obtained self-portraits of her for their collections (8). Sofonisba was restricted to portraiture as opposed to the highest form, history painting, because of her sex and she was prohibited from selling work because of her social status. Her fame, therefore, had to spread by virtue of the fact that her self-portraits and family portraits were circulated within elevated social circles where they were given as gifts (9). This exposure finally lead to the great literary acclaim of writers and poets like Angelo Grillo who had seen her work in these social settings and proclaimed she was a “miracolo di natura” (10). Praise for her accomplishments was epitomized by an invitation in 1559 from King Philip II of Spain for Sofonisba to attend his court. Here she served as both court painter and lady-in-waiting to the successive Queens, Isabel of Valois and Anne of Austria until 1573 (11). As Whitney Chadwick summarizes:
“Thus the first woman painter to achieve fame and respect did so within a set of constraints that removed her from competing for commissions with her male contemporaries and that effectively placed her within in a critical category of her own.” (Chadwick, 79)
We can see how Sofonisba carved her own special niche through the constraints of portraiture when we look at the way she depicted herself in these portraits and the way she injected new compositional features which were considered by her contemporaries to exhibit ‘invenzione’.
Fig. 1. Two of Sofonisba’s many self-portraits.
In her self-portraits, Sofonisba was careful to create a self-image that was “dignified, serious, and self-possessed” (12). She avoided any ostentatious display of vanity or wealth commonly associated with women of her class. Her hair was always shown neatly combed, braided and fastened closely to the back of her head. There were no loosened or stray golden curls, a widely recognized quality of ideal feminine beauty, and she wore no jewelry for her self-portraits. Black jackets with a high white lace collar were her consistent uniform in these pictures. Her own self-image when compared with portraits of other young noblewomen of the day was a study in contrast.
In the 16th century, the black color Sofonisba adopted was increasingly worn by noblemen but not very frequently by noblewomen (13), and though Castiglione encouraged the ideal courtier to wear black, this was a prescription given for men. Castiglione offered no advice for what women should wear (14). In his art treatise, Paolo Pino recommended this sober style of dress for artists since it connoted noble status and engagement in the liberal arts and cultural pursuits. Again, since art as a profession was considered man’s work, this was suggested for men. Though black was the color of choice at the severely religious court of Philip II of Spain, Sofonisba had been painting herself in this manner well before she moved to that court. (15)
Fig. 2. The artist holds a book that contains her signature which reads: “Sofonisba Anguissola, virgin, made this in 1554“.
Not only does she present herself in this decorous fashion but she embraces the term ‘virgo’ as part of her signature in at least eight of her paintings (16) (Fig. 2). In 16th century art theory, female beauty and art became interchangeable ideas in a portrait of an idealized woman. These courtesan portraits carried with them the suggestion of objectified female sexuality. Highlighting the idea of female beauty as an equivalent of art, is the fact that it was a common practice in those days for a male writer or connoisseur to request miniature portable self-portraits from female painters in order to exhibit “two marvels”, one, the novelty of a woman painter, the other, the image of a beautiful woman, a marvel of nature herself (17). Indeed, Sofonisba encountered such a request herself when the writer Annibale Caro wrote to her father asking for such a picture and for the very same reasons (18). Mary Garrard states: “…the word virgo also carried in the Renaissance the implication of independence and self-possession” and was not just the emblem of female constraint (19). In this sense, Sofonisba assumed an empowering moniker. She very tactfully appears to have appropriated all the physical accoutrements of the male-courtier model that were still within the boundaries of femininity, as well as the descriptor ‘virgo’ in a self-protective effort to separate herself from paradigms of beauty, or courtesans, and undesirable associations (20). Instead she chose to emphasize features that related to her independence, self-possession, and maturity. (21) Interestingly, Sofonisba’s first marriage did not take place until she was around forty years old when King Philip II of Spain had arranged for the marriage and paid her dowry. It seems she wanted to hold on to the source of her autonomy (at least in word) as long as she possibly could.
Fig 3. The pupil and the teacher.
In the stunningly innovative double portrait of Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola (Fig. 3) we can see that Sofonisba either consciously or unconsciously grasped the irony of her status as both a noblewoman and a working female artist. Whitney Chadwick claims this painting “suggests that not only was she aware of her own image as an exemplar of female achievement, but also that she understood the importance of the artistic lineage between pupil and master, and her unique role as a producer of images of women” (Chadwick, 78). While this statement has truth to it, there is an even bigger message staring the viewer right in the face. Sofonisba has made herself central, higher and larger than her master teacher who is somewhat marginalized to the side of the picture plane. Furthermore, her master, Campi, is shown using a mahlstick to steady his hand as he paints Sofonisba. Garrard notes: “In Renaissance art, the mahlstick sometimes connoted artistic timidity or preoccupation with detail. Anguissola depicts herself using this device in her early self-portraits, but never again after she matured as an artist” (22). In his 1548 treatise for artists, Paolo Pino considered the use of the mahlstick a disgraceful tool that was never used by the ancients (23).
Why would she choose to depict herself and her teacher in this fashion? This painting has been dated to the late 1550’s which was a full ten years after her apprenticeship with Campi had ended and he had long since moved away from Cremona to Milan and other north Italian courts (24). He went on to paint portraits for moderately distinguished North Italian princesses while she went on to work at the court of the most powerful monarch in Europe (25). Her contemporaries may have seen a two-fold reason for praise in this double portrait with her master. First, she introduced a new compositional device for a self-portrait: a teacher painting his student, which was painted by the student. This demonstrated her gift for invenzione. Second, it was probably read as a female artist’s acknowledgement of her master being the one who ‘created’ her, a self-effacing way to ascribe to Campi the responsibility for her own widely acknowledged talent. But surely there is more than a mere recognition of artistic lineage going on here. As noted earlier she is visibly more important than her instructor in her size, height, and centrality. Whether she intentionally hid meaning in a manner that introduced a new type of portrait composition that would be read by her contemporaries as an homage to her teacher, or her subconscious did it for her, it is difficult for a modern viewer to escape the irony of this painting. The fact of her life was that her worth as a painter, when calculated by the prestige of her patrons, became greater than that of her master, Bernardino Campi, a man, not to mention a man of lesser social rank that she.
Fig. 4. Boy Pinched by a Crayfish
Sofonisba’s capacity for invention was further demonstrated in her correspondence with Michelangelo. She sent a drawing of a laughing girl to Michelangelo with a letter asking him to critique her work. He sent the drawing back to her saying he would rather have seen the more difficult subject of a crying boy (26). She returned another drawing to the great master which ingeniously placed both subjects side by side. Via the preservation of the drawing by Vasari, the documented drama of Boy Pinched by a Crayfish (Fig. 4) points not only to Sofonisba’s originality and skill but also to the implied importance, on the part of Michelangelo, of boys and tragedy as opposed to girls and mirth. In all the work of “il divino”, one is very hard pressed to find the true form of a female let alone a laughing one (27). With expert naturalism and imaginative composition Sofonisba met the challenge presented to her by the man who many considered to be the greatest artist of all time and this feat did not go unnoticed by her contemporaries. A friend of Michelangelo’s, Tommaso Cavalieri sent this drawing as a gift along with another, Michelangelo’s own Cleopatra, to the Duke Cosimo de’ Medici in 1562 (28). He also sent a letter with the drawings which said:
“I sent it (Sofonisba’s drawing) to you with this one (Michelangelo’s Cleopatra), and I believe that it may stand comparison with many other drawings, for it is not simply beautiful, but also exhibits considerable invention (ancora invenzione)” (29)
Cavalieri’s use of the word “invenzione” is significant since a woman was almost never credited with having this ability. Based on the Aristotelian view that was furthered by Aquinas, the male principle was the most important factor responsible for the outcome of all procreative ( as in children) and creative (as in the arts) endeavors. Women were perceived as not having any inherent powers of creation. The female contribution to procreation of children, for example, was understood to be merely that of a vessel (the uterus) which held and fed the male seed while it self-generated (30). Thus a woman was perceived as having no generative impact on a fetus. In the arts, for the most part, the highest level of praise for a woman was the ability to copy. At this time, a strong correlation had developed between the generation of children and the generation of ideas and art (31). The Renaissance mindset which accepted the analogy of male sexual power in both procreation and creation made a woman like Sofonisba Anguissola an oxymoron. A woman who could make images that “appeared truly alive” and who could solve creative problems with her intellect was conundrum for the Renaissance man (32). Vasari wrestled with the paradox presented by Sofonisba’s mastery and found he needed to contradict established knowledge regarding a woman’s pro/creative potential:
“If women know so well how to make living men, what marvel is it that those who wish are also so well able to make them in painting ? ” (33)
Vasari describes this drawing of the crying boy in his brief inclusion of Sofonisba’s life by concluding: “One could not see a more graceful or realistic drawing than this one.” (Vasari 343)
Fig 5. Chess Game
In the final example, we can see how Sofonisba ingeniously combined portraiture with the emerging northern form of genre painting. With poignant honesty, affection, and informality this scene introduced a new trend in Italian painting (34). The Chess Game of 1555 (Fig. 5) shows three of the artist’s sisters around a chess table while an older woman looks on. The youngest sister, Minerva, playfully smiles at the middle sister, Europa, gazing in astonishment at the older sister Lucia who holds up the black queen indicating she has won the game. Lucia, in turn gazes out to her elder sister, Sofonisba, who is capturing the scene on canvas. This novel way of directing the gazes through the picture establishes a hierarchy of the sisters in terms of age and perhaps as painters, since they were all artists, each looking up to the one before her as an exemplar (35). In 1566, Vasari visited the Anguissola home in Cremona when Sofonisba was already living at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Philip II of Spain. It is perhaps his praise for the work which made it what many consider to be her masterpiece:
“I must relate that I saw this year in the house of Sofonisba’s father at Cremona, a picture executed by her hand with great diligence, portraits of her three sisters…who appear truly alive, and are wanting in nothing save speech…executed so well that they appear to be breathing and absolutely alive.“ (36)
Even after her service at the Spanish court ended, Sofonisba continued to paint and to be recognized as a virtuosa. She became a model not only for future female artists like Lavinia Fontana and Artemisia Gentileschi, but for male artists as well. Caravaggio is said to have seen her sketch, Boy Pinched by a Crayfish, and adopted the motif for his Boy Bitten by a Lizard (37) (Fig. 6) . Anthony Van Dyck met with Sofonisba in Palermo in 1624 when she was in her nineties and he commemorated the event with a drawing and a written account. He described the elder painter as growing feeble in eyesight but “possessing considerable memory and a sharp mind” as she advised him in his own work (38).
Fig. 6. Boy Bitten by a Lizard by Carravaggio.
Sofonisba Anguissola was the first female artist of the Renaissance to achieve international acclaim and legendary praise in her lifetime (39). She was also the first woman artist to leave a large enough body of works that can be attributed to her name (40). More importantly, Sofonisba was “the only woman of her time credited with the ability to infuse an image with life; and her work was both appreciated and understood by her contemporaries” (41). There were other women who made portraits from life but none of their works had the reputation of being alive (42). For modern viewers, Sofonisba’s work expresses her recognition of her ironic situation as a celebrated woman who was both artist and aristocrat. Though she was forced to excel in terms defined by men, she resourcefully carved out a unique category for herself within the social constraints of her times. It leaves one to wonder if she could accomplish what she had within an established set of restrictions what more she could have produced if those restrictions did not exist.
1). Vasari, Lives of the Artists, Preface to part three p. 280-82
2). G. Armenini in F. Jacobs, Women’s Capacity to Create…, p. 97
3). Jacobs, 97
4). Jacobs, 74
5). W. Slatkin, Women Artists in History, p. 85
6). W. Chadwick, Women, Art and Society, p. 77 and Slatkin 86-7
7). Chadwick 78, Slatkin 86
8). Jacobs, 76
9). Chadwick, 79
10). In M. Garrard, Here’s Looking at Me…, p. 573
11). Chadwick, 79
12). Garrard, 583
14). Garrard, 586
16). Garrard, 580
17). Garrard, 567-68
18). Garrard, 566
19). Garrard, 580
20). Garrard, 586 & 579
22). Garrard, 564
24). Garrard, 565-566
25). Garrard, 617
26). Garrard, 611
27). Garrard ,612
28). Jacobs, 95
29). Cavalieri in Jacobs, 95
30). Jacobs, 80
31). Jacobs, 79, 88 & 98
32). Vasari in Jacobs, 77
33). Vasari in Jacobs, 83
34). Chadwick 79
35). Garrard, 604
36). Vasari in Jacobs 77
37). Garrard 613
38). Garrard, 577
39). Jacobs 74
40). Slatkin 84
41). Chadwick 77-78
42). Jacobs, 92
Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art and Society. 3rd edition. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002)
Slatkin, Wendy. Women Artists in History From Antiquity to the Present. 4th edition. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001)
Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists. Trans. Julia and Peter Bonadella. (Oxford University Press, 1991)
Garrard, Mary D. Here’s Looking at Me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 556-622
Jacobs, Frederika H. Woman’s Capacity to Create: The Unusual Case of Sofonisba Anguissola. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 1. (Spring, 1994), pp.74-101.