Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque

Posted by: National Museum of Women in the Arts

The following article appeared in the Anniversary 2007 issue of Women in the Arts

Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque is the first comparative exhibition of paintings, prints, and drawings by women artists of the ‘early modern’ period, which roughly spans the fifteenth through the mid-eighteenth centuries. In recent decades, scholars have untangled, reassessed, and pieced together the histories and oeuvres of these artists. Works that were dispersed for centuries have now been brought together, offering the opportunity for juxtapositions that give a fuller picture of the artists and of artistic trends than is possible when works are viewed individually.

During the course of organizing this exhibition, curators and collectors regularly unearthed from the depths of museum storage and private collections unpublished or infrequently exhibited paintings by women artists. Some of these have been happy surprises, such as those identified in historical texts but never publicly shown. The exhibition includes, for example, Lavinia Fontana’s painting Parnassus, c. 1600, which corresponds to a work described in an eighteenth-century manuscript about the paintings that decorated the houses of Bolognese citizens. This painting, which emphasizes music, has been inaccessible even to many scholars of the period, but it recently surfaced at an antiquarian gallery. Other works, perhaps exhibiting a few characteristics of a certain artist’s hand yet not resembling her work convincingly enough to secure an attribution, presented challenges in connoisseurship and were excluded from the exhibition. Thus, while it is likely that women have historically produced art alongside men, the pairing of names with works remains problematic. Ironically, works that were previously attributed to male artists to enhance the works’ marketability and value are now increasingly attributed to women, whose name recognition has grown dramatically.

Given that women in early modern Italy had virtually no independence, either socially or legally, the fact that the names and reputations of many women artists survive to this day is a remarkable occurrence. To re-create the world that produced these artists, this exhibition considers such external pressures and influences as artistic training, family life, the art market, patronage, women’s public and private roles, fashion, and European politics.

Although Urban VIII, pope from 1623 to 1344, dismissed women’s artistic achievements and warned against too much praise for women painters, whom he considered mere copyists, a much different story is told by the works of the fifteen artists in this exhibition. Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1534-1635), for example, is described in a sixteenth-century Spanish inventory as an ‘excellent painter of portraits above all the painters of this time,’ an extraordinary proclamation for the Spanish court, which then dominated Western Europe both politically and culturally. Anguissola was not alone in receiving such critical praise; favorable mentions of celebrated women artists appear in civic histories dating throughout the seventeenth century.

The artist-architect-diarist Giorgio Vasari wrote descriptively about the sculptor Properzia de’Rossi (1490-1530) and the painters Plautilla Nelli (1523-1588) and Anguissola in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, first published in 1550. Vasari’s commentary on Properzia, whom he described as very beautiful and with an imaginative and agile intellect, opens with the following paean to women artists: ‘It is an extraordinary thing that in all those arts and all those exercises wherein at any time women have thought fit to play a part in real earnest, they have always become most excellent and famous in no common way, as one might easily demonstrate by an endless number of examples.’ Vasari lists praiseworthy women poets and warriors from classical antiquity before embarking on his discussion of Properzia’s talent, her meteoric rise, and some of her patrons. Plautilla Nelli, he notes, might have been a fine artist ‘if she had enjoyed, as men do, advantages for studying, devoting herself to drawing, and coping living and natural objects.’ It is Anguissola, however, whom Vasari names as the woman artist who best succeeded in capturing nature in her drawing, executing ‘by herself alone some very choice and beautiful works of painting.’ Vasari focuses on a drawing from before 1559 of a young girl laughing at a boy who is weeping because a crayfish is biting his finger. The work perfectly captures a child’s mischievous prank, a spontaneous moment with distressing consequences. A small drawing, the work nonetheless had a great impact on Vasari, undoubtedly derived from the artist’s technical mastery and ability to elicit an emotional response from the viewer.

To survive in a system inherently not in their favor, women artists of early modern Italy had to demonstrate that they had at least the same degree of talent as men, even while operating within a much smaller guarded arena. Their eventual successes lay in their ability to satisfy the demands of their patrons and the societies in which they painted. The women artists in this exhibition were successful by every measure. Financially, they were breadwinners for their families or religious orders. Plautilla Nelli’s ability to produce income for her convent derived from a combination of her artistic skill and her ability to manage her career as well as those of other artistically inclined nuns in her convent. Many of Nelli’s important works were never meant to be seen outside of her cloistered community. As is true of many paintings created by monks and nuns to inspire and instruct other members of their religious circles, it is only relatively recently that these devotional works have become known, as monasteries and convents have opened their doors to scholars and the public. One of Nelli’s few remaining identifiable works, a large-scale painting on wood, Lamentation with Saints, c. 1550s, originally made for the refractory of her convent, was moved to the Museo di San Marco in Florence, where it underwent some conversation treatment. In 2003 the Florence Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts sponsored more extensive conservation of the painting, effectively becoming its second patron four centuries after its completion.

Any discussion on the history of women in the arts begins with a specific quartet of Italian women artists: Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654), and Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665). Born to artistic or cultured families in Italian city-states that valued artistic production, each had a sufficient visual legacy to ensure her visibility in art history. In addition, several writers included these women artists in their civic histories. The four artists named above did not seek out careers but were afforded training and opportunities because their fathers and husbands were driven as much by mercenary interests as genuine admiration for their daughters’/wives’ talents. Amilcare Anguissola arranged for his six daughters to have artistic training for the highly practical purpose of earning money for the dowries they would need for suitable marriages. Not an artist himself, but perhaps what we would today call a managing agent, Amilcare recognized that Sofonisba’s exceptional talent could elevate her social standing. He circulated her work among well-connected people – including Michelangelo, who commented on the girl’s fine talent – and landed a position for his daughter in the Spanish court as lady-in-waiting and painting instructor to Queen Isabella. Lavinia Fontana and Artemisia Gentileschi learned to paint from their artist fathers, no doubt by assisting them in grinding paints, preparing canvases, and completing backgrounds of paintings.

Lavinia Fontana became a remarkably productive painter of portraits, alter-pieces, and mythological and biblical work after her first public commission at age thirty-two qualified her as a ‘professional.’ Women professionals built up reputations that circulated among the nobility, who hired them to produce paintings that would curry favor with other noble families, influence their political or social standing, or visually articulate aspirations for marital alliances. In early modern Italy a painting was never just a decoration to hang over the mantelpiece. Portrait of a Noblewoman, c. 1580, which depicts a young bride in an ornate crimson velvet dress, essentially presented the subject and her rich dowry to her new husband’s family. Fashion and jewelry, which Fontana and other painters meticulously depicted on canvas, demonstrated not only the wealth and status of a given family but also their political allegiances. For example, the wear of Spanish-style clothing, with its high lace ruffs at the neck, slashed sleeves and bodices, and somber colors, showed allegiance to Charles V, who rules as Holy Roman Emperor from 1530 to 1556. Fontana excelled in portraiture by taking home the jewels of her clients so she could study them intensely and re-create them on canvas.

Fontana’s sociopolitical savvy also extended to her religious paintings. She incorporated the tenets of the Counter-Reformation in her religious images, focusing on simplicity, intelligibility, and realism, which illustrated the new spirituality and piety of the Catholic Church. She did occasionally cross boundaries in her religious and mythological paintings by depicting the nude figure and working on a scale appropriate for public spaces, most commonly churches. Women were not allowed access to male nude models, but it seems logical to assume that Fontana learned to paint the female nude through access to her own and perhaps other women’s figures, such as those of her daughters. Minerva Dressing, c. 1612, portrays nude Minerva in the guise of the warrior goddess, displaying her shield, helmet, and spear. This is not to imply that Fontana’s portrayal of Minerva is a self-portrait. However, one could argue that Fontana found loopholes in the societal constraints placed on her by family, community, and larger society by painting female nudity as allegory rather than as eroticism.

Economic necessity drove women to train as artists, but society dictated that they could not behave as aggressively in the public marketplace as their male counterparts. Promotion and sales, therefore, occurred in the private sphere, through familial networking and word of mouth. Payment for works produced by women artists often took the form of gifts and bonuses; in this regard, Lavinia Fontana distinguished herself as an artist who set prices for her paintings. Elisabetta Sirani throughout her short lifetime accepted expensive gifts as payment, a type of barter that allowed her integrity as a woman to remain intact.

Only Artemisia Gentileschi developed a truly public persona, but that was based not only on her work but also on the scandal that dominated her biography: In 1612, Gentileschi charged her painting instructor Agostino Tassi with rape, and a highly publicized seven-month trial ensued.

Gentileschi’s theatrical and often violent subjects, such as Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1612-13, showing the biblical heroine Judith and her maidservant overpowering the tyrant, whom Judith had first seduced with wine and her alluring dress, have lent themselves to interpretations that reference the artist’s rape. Gentileschi’s notorious case did not dissuade the noble class from commissioning works from her; to the contrary, her father’s success in bringing the rapist to trial and arranging an honorable marriage for her (to a different man) resulted in fame and an independent life for the artist. Out of the shadows of her father’s studio and life in Rome, she was propelled into the limelight of a new setting, Florence, where the Medici family dominated the political and cultural scene and became important patrons of Gentileschi’s work.

Even today Gentileschi’s very public identity is projected through her self-portraits, which show her in the act of conceptualizing paintings. Her psychological approach of depicting the art of painting as an intellectual endeavor, not simply a technical action, defied the conventional categorization of women artists. Considered marvels, women artists were perceived as closer to nature and more instinctual than male artists – a popular perception that continued through the nineteenth century.

While the life story of Artemisia Gentileschi still colors the way we see and interpret her work, the myth surrounding Elisabetta Sirani, who lived and worked fast (she painted approximately two hundred works) and died young (at age twenty-seven) seems to have had little impact on her public identity, especially because she largely focused on serene images of the Holy Family and the Virgin and Child. Her Virgin and Child of 1663 portrays Mary not as a remote queen of heaven but as a flesh-and-blood young mother wearing a turban and the unadorned clothing typical of a Bolognese peasant woman. Portia Wounding Her Thigh, 1664, with a subject taken from William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, veers from this norm in its forceful portrayal of Portia, daughter of Cato, symbolically wounding herself in defense of the Roman Republic.

During her lifetime, Sirani did not deviate from the social rules of the day. However, it was probably her success that led to the fanciful story that arose about her death. At some point, the artist’s untimely demise was attributed to poisoning by a vindictive and jealous competitor. This story stoked interest in her biography in a way that the reality of her death, most likely from an ulcerated stomach, would not have.

Narratives of women artists’ lives during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Italy lack the continuity one finds in the biographies of famous male artists, such as Michelangelo, Raphael, Correggio, and Titian. Unlike these men, most of the women artists represented in this exhibition had no guild to rely on for promotion and insurance, nor did they have long-term patrons in the church nor among the ruling families. They were not expected to paint on a large scale or dedicate their lives to painting at the expense of the well-being of their families. The definition of success for female artists such as Giovanna Garzoni, whose bold still-life paintings on vellum were prized at the Italian courts of Florence, Naples, Rome, and Turin as well as in France, lay in having a reliably steady flow of commissions from a variety of patrons. Garzoni’s sumptuous Plate of Figs, c. 1662, belongs to the important suite of more than twenty fruit paintings she made for Ferdinando II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, who according to a thank-you letter from Garzoni, generously compensated her for her work.

Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque displays the collective talent and creative force of women who, owing to the conditions of their sex, faced challenges en route to becoming professional artists. The factors leading to their relative diminution in the annals of art history are complex and varied but tied to political, economic, and social realities of their times, as well as the vagaries of collecting practices. Within their own lifetimes, their works were hailed by writers, colleagues, and their patrons as examples of achievement and erudition and their names, if not their reputations, were cemented in the era’s written annals.

Forming the centerpiece of the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ twentieth anniversary year, Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque demonstrates the vital role that women played as professionals during this transformative era and highlights the innovative talents that influenced many future generations of artists.

Jordana Pomeroy is senior curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Sources: Sheila ffolliott, ‘Wife, Widow, Nun, and Court Lady: Women Patrons of the Renaissance and Baroque’; Carole Frick, ‘Painting Personal Identity: The Costuming of Nobildonne, Heroines, and Kings’; Ann Sutherland Harris, ‘Sofonisba, Lavinia, Artemisia, and Elisabetta: Thirty Years After the Exhibition Women Artists, 1550-1950’; Alexandra Lapierre, ‘The Woman Artist in Literature’; and Caroline P. Murphy, ‘The Economics of the Woman Artist’; all in Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque (NMWA and Skira, 2007).


Pomeroy, Jordana, ‘Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque,’ Women in the Arts (Anniversary 2007), 16-23.

1. Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes. Pomeroy, ‘Italian Women Artists,’ 17.
2. Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting. ‘Artemisia Gentileschi,’ Wikipedia, accessed August 3rd, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artemisia_Gentileschi.
3. Lavinia Fontana’s Self-Portrait in the Workshop. Pomeroy, ‘Italian Women Artists,’ 18.
4. Sofonisba Anguissola’s Self-Portrait. Pomeroy, ‘Italian Women Artists,’ 18.
5. Elisabetta Sirani’s Self-Portrait. Pomeroy, ‘Italian Women Artists,’ 18.
6. Plautilla Nelli’s Lamentation with Saints. Pomeroy, ‘Italian Women Artists,’ 19.
7. Sofonisba Anguissola’s Young Boy Bitten by a Crayfish. Pomeroy, ‘Italian Women Artists,’ 19.
8. Elisabetta Sirani’s Portia Wounding Her Thigh. ‘Portia Wounding Her Thigh,’ Web Gallery of Art, accessed August 3rd, 2015, http://www.wga.hu/html_m/s/sirani/elisabet/portia.html.
9. Lavinia Fontana’s Minerva Dressing. ‘Lavinia Fontana,’ Myth’Arts, accessed August 3rd, 2015, http://arts.mythologica.fr/artist-f/fontana.htm.
10. Elisabetta Sirani’s Virgin and Child. Pomeroy, ‘Italian Women Artists,’ 21.

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