March is Women in History Month. This year, The Italian Tribune will present a four-part series devoted to women painters of Italy. Often these talented artists created works that went unheralded and unacknowledged, but in recent decades, a greater awareness and appreciation of their art has finally emerged. The Emmy winning five-part PBS documentary “Invisible Women” has shed light on the lives and works of these Renaissance-era painters, but history reveals that Italy continued to produce extraordinary women artists through the centuries to present day. In this four-part series, we will feature these talented women, beginning with the 16th century, during the Italian Renaissance.
For years a dedicated group of artists, historians and restoration experts have labored to remove centuries of decay and the effects of deterioration to these historic works. Forgotten works, languishing in storage facilities throughout Italy have been painstakingly brought back to life. Many are now on display at the Uffizi in Florence.
The earliest woman painter of the Renaissance is Plautilla Nelli, born in 1524. Sister Plautilla Nelli was both a Dominican nun and a self-taught artist. Born to a wealthy family, she entered the convent at the age of 14 and took the name Suor Plautilla. Her convent was strongly influenced by the friar Savonarola, who promoted devotional works of art. With such encouragement, the innate artistic skills of Plautilla flourished.
Plautilla’s work was sought by many patrons, both women and men and although many of her portraits were miniatures, she also executed large pieces as well. She also taught painting to several nuns in the convent. One of her sources of inspiration came from the works of Fra Bartolomeo, who left his drawings to be painted by the nun.
She is one of the few female artists mentioned in Vasari’s “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects.” As one would expect, other than portraits, Plautilla’s work is based on religious themes, but unlike many contemporary artists, her works vividly portrayed emotion on the faces of her characters.
Her paintings include “Lamentation with Saints,” which was restored in 2006; “Saint Catherine Receives the Stigmata” and “Saint Dominic Receives the Rosary,” both were restored in 2008. Her beautiful “Grieving Madonna” shows the subtly of her work and mastery of reflecting feminine features. The only work that she signed was “The Last Supper,” currently under restoration. No woman artist had ever painted the subject before. The oil on canvas painting is considered to be her most significant work, based not only on the subject, but on its sheer size – 23 feet long. After restoration is completed this year, it will be exhibited at the Santa Maria Novella Museum in Florence. She died in 1588.
Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532 – 1625) was born in Cremona to a noble family and received a well-rounded education that included the fine arts. Her passionate interest in painting led to an unprecedented apprenticeship with numerous local painters. While still a young woman, Anguissola traveled to Rome and met Michelangelo, who immediately recognized her talents. He would informally tutor and critique her works for the next two years. Even though she received more acceptance as an artist than the vast majority of women, she was still barred from studying the human male form. Instead, she experimented with new styles in portraits, where she created an informal setting among her subjects. Self-portraits and family members were her most frequent subjects.
She became well-known outside of Italy and in 1559, King Phillip II of Spain asked her to be lady-in-waiting and art teacher to Queen Elisabeth of Valois, who was only 14 at the time. She stayed for 14 years and during her time in Spain, became an official court painter to the King. She not only painted the entire royal family, but accepted private commissions from nobles. Even Pope Pius IV commissioned Anguissola to do a portrait of the Queen, who died during childbirth at the age of 25. After the Queen’s death, King Philip helped arrange an aristocratic marriage for Sofonisba. She moved to Sicily and later Pisa and Genoa, where she continued to practice as a leading portrait painter, living to the age of ninety-three.
The daughter of the prominent painter Prospero Fontana, Lavinia Fontana (1552 – 1614) was taught to paint by her father. She is acknowledged to be the first woman artist who worked within the same circle as male professional painters, outside a court or a convent. Her earliest known work is “Monkey Child,” painted in 1575 when she was 23. Unfortunately, it has been lost, but another early painting, “Christ with the Symbols of the Passion,” painted in 1576, survives and somewhat surprisingly, is located in the El Paso Museum of Art in Texas. She would go on to paint in a variety of genres. Early in her career, she became famous for her portraits of the nobles of Bologna. Many of these paintings were of women and although her gender hindered her career, she was able to develop a comfort level with her female subjects well-beyond that of her male counterparts. She began commercial painting on copper, which became popular as religious gifts. She later created large-scale paintings with religious and mythological themes which sometimes included female nudes, the first woman artist to do so. As a mother, she gave birth to 11 children, but continued to paint to support her family. Her husband took care of the household and served as an assistant to his wife, sometimes painting minor items. He was by all accounts very adept at painting drapery.
Fontana and her family moved to Rome in 1603 at the invitation of Pope Clement VIII. She thrived as a painter in the city and Pope Paul V was among the many who had their portrait painted by Lavinia. She was elected into the Accademia di San Luca of Rome and died in that city on August 11, 1614.
There are over 100 works that are documented to Lavinia, but only 32 signed and dated works are known today. There are 25 more that can be attributed to her, making hers the largest body of work for any female artist prior to 1700.
Venetian painter Marietta Robusti (c. 1560 – 1590) was the eldest daughter of Jacopo Robusti. A highly-regarded painter, Jacopo was nicknamed Tintoretto, after his occupation as a tintore – a dyer. She inherited her nickname, based on her father – la Tintoretta (little dyer girl). In Venice, little regard was given to female artists in the late 16th century, but Marrietta was fortunate. Her entrance to the art world was through her father. Her training was in her father’s studio, where as a child, she dressed as a boy so she could accompany him wherever he went. She initially would paint backgrounds and do figure blocking. As an adult, she became well-known and highly respected in her own right. Spending her entire life in Venice, she was highly sought after for portraits. Emperor Maximilian and King Philip II of Spain both expressed interest in hosting her as a court painter, but her father refused their invitations on her behalf. Marrietta was not interested in leaving her father’s side. Their bond as father and daughter was stronger than any desire she had to gain greater fame on her own. In 1578, he arranged for her to marry a Venetian jeweler and silversmith, Jacopo Augusta. The couple remained in Venice until Marrietta’s death during childbirth at the age of 30.
The only painting that can be conclusively attributed to Marietta is her self-portrait (c. 1580; Uffizi Gallery, Florence). A number of paintings are attributed to her, including “Old Man and a Boy” (c. 1585) which was long considered one of Tintoretto’s finest paintings. It was not revealed to be Marietta’s until 1920.
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593, the oldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi and Prudentia Montone. Artemisia was introduced to painting in her father’s workshop and showed significantly more talent than her brothers. Her father’s style took inspiration from Caravaggio which strongly influenced her; however, Artemisia’s work was highly naturalistic. She had to contend with jealousy of her talent, but she ultimately gained great respect and recognition for her work.
Her father arranged for his daughter to marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, a modest artist from Florence. The couple moved to Florence in 1614 and through 1620, enjoyed enormous success in the city. She was the first woman accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). She maintained good relations with the most respected artists of her time and the favors and the protection of influential people, including Cosimo II de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany and the Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine. She also had a good relationship with Galileo Galilei, with whom she corresponded by letter for years. While in Florence, Artemisia and Pierantonio had a daughter in 1618.
Artemisia arrived in Rome in 1621 to raise her child and remained in the city until 1630. Despite her artistic reputation, strong personality and favorable relationships, Rome was not as lucrative as she hoped and around the year 1627, she moved to Venice in search of richer commissions, but it was not to be. She eventually found her second home in Naples, a city rich with workshops and art lovers. Many other artists, including Caravaggio had stayed in Naples at some time in their lives. She remained in Naples for the remainder of her career. She began working on paintings in a cathedral dedicated to San Gennaro in the amphitheater of Pozzuoli. During this period, she demonstrated her ability to adapt to the styles of the period and handle different subjects.
As Artemisia grew older, her work became more graceful, perhaps as a result of change in tastes of the day, but also due to her self-confidence as a masterful woman painter. The year of her death is unclear. Some speculate that it could have been as early as 1652, but that is doubtful. There is evidence that she accepted commissions in 1654. The likelihood is that she died during the plague that swept through Naples in 1656 and virtually wiped out an entire generation of Neapolitan artists. She painted many pictures of strong and suffering women from myth and the Bible and today is regarded as one of the most progressive and expressive painters of her generation.
The daughter of Florentine painter Filippo Paladini, Arcangela Paladini (1599–1622) was a contemporary of Artemisia Gentileschi. She is thought to have served as the model for an image of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, painted by Artemisia. A child prodigy, Arcangela would spend time in her father’s workshop, copying his works and making designs for embroidery. Arcangela’s interests in the arts encouraged her father to provide lessons to his daughter and she went on to become proficient in singing, playing musical instruments and poetry. She was already an accomplished artist by the time she turned 15. After moving from Pisa to Florence in 1615, she began working under painter Jacopo Ligozzi.
She initially lived in the monastery of Saint Agatha, where she was supported by the Grand Duchess Maria Maddalena de’ Medici, who later became her main benefactor. At the age of 17, she married Antwerp-born tapestry-maker Jan Broomans. The Grand Duchess also invited Paladini to serve her at court. In 1621, Paladini painted a self-portrait for the Grand Duchess, who displayed the painting in her own room. The portrait was later added to the collection displayed in the Vasari Corridor and was restored in 1967. It is the only painting currently identified by the artist and it hangs in the Uffizi.
Paladini died in Florence in 1622 at the age of 23. She is buried in the church of Santa Felicità where the Grand Duchess commissioned a tomb memorial, a rare honor. The tomb was sculpted by Agostino Bugiardini and Antonio Novelli. The epitaph compares Paladini to the goddess Athena and the painter Apelles. Famous throughout Florence during her short life, she is all but forgotten today. Only scholars and now you, our readers, know her name.
In Part Two of this series, we will cover the women painter of Italy during the 17th century.