Italian Women Artists of the Renaissance and Baroque

[This post was written by Kristin Freeman, who will respond to comments; because Kristin has not yet been able to become an official Contributor of Ragged Cloth, June Underwood posted the entry for her.]

The National Museum of Women in the Arts has an exhibition scheduled for March 16 to July 15 this year. From their on-line information is the following:

In celebration of its 20th year, the National Museum of Women in the Arts will host the ground breaking exhibit Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque. This exhibition brings together paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture by prominent women painters, including Artemisia Gentileschi, Lavinia Fontana, Sofonisba Anguissola, Giovanni Garzoni and Elisabetta Sirani and presents them within a historical context. It will examine the position of women artists as second-class citizens, the economics of art production, and the cultural context both within Italy and beyond the country’s borders. Ultimately, it will address the ways in which these artists overcame “the conditions of their sex,” to leave behind a fascinating visual legacy.

My thoughts went to the phrase “conditions of their sex” and I went scrambling to Google to look up some basic information on each woman; here is one…

Elisabetta Sirani
Italian, 1638-1665

According to written records when she died at 27, the Italian artist Elisabetta Sirani had already produced 200 paintings, drawings, and etchings. An independent painter by 19, Sirani ran her family’s workshop. When her father became incapacitated by gout, she supported her parents, three siblings, and herself entirely through her art.
Sirani spent her life in Bologna, a city famous for its progressive attitude toward women’s rights and for producing successful female artists. Trained by her father, Sirani was encouraged in her career by Count Carlo Cesare Malvasia, a family friend and influential art critic. She quickly became known for her ability to paint beautifully finished canvases so quickly that art lovers visited her studio from far and wide to watch her work. Sirani’s portraits, mythological subjects, and especially her images of the Holy Family and the Virgin and Child, gained international fame. Her works were acquired by wealthy, noble, and even royal patrons, including the Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici.
When Sirani died-suddenly, after experiencing severe stomach pains-her father suspected that she had been poisoned by a jealous maid. The servant was tried for but acquitted of this crime, and an autopsy revealed numerous lacerations in the artist’s stomach, presumably evidence of perforated ulcers.
Sirani’s funeral was an elaborate affair involving formal orations, special poetry and music, and an enormous catafalque decorated with a life-size sculpture of the deceased. In addition to her substantial oeuvre, Sirani left an important legacy through her teaching. Her pupils included her two sisters, Barbara and Anna Maria, and more than a dozen other young women who became professional painters.

[Information from the National Museum of Women in the Arts]

and a few more:

Lavinia Fontana

Lavinia Fontana was born in 1552 in Bologna. Her father, Prospero Fontana, was an accomplished Mannerist painter who trained his daughter diligently in the arts. It was fortunate that Fontana was born in Bologna. At the time of her birth Bologna was a cultural epicenter of art and academics not only for men, but for women as well. Through her father’s teachings Lavinia developed a talent for painting elongated graceful figures common in Mannerism. This combined with the Flemish attention to detail in clothing and jewelry made Lavinia the favorite portraitist of Bolognese noblewomen.
At the age of 25, with her career steadily building, Lavinia married Gian Paolo Zappie, a wealthy painter from a noble family. During their marriage she bore 11 children, but continued to paint. Zappie, realizing the extent of his wife’s talent in comparison to his own resigned himself to caring for the children and managing the family finances. He often assisted his wife with her never ending stream of clients by painting backgrounds in her portraits.
By the 1570’s Lavinia’s reputation as a painter had grown past mere portrait painting in Bologna. By 1589 Lavinia was being commissioned for large religious works, the first of which was an altarpiece created for the church of the Spanish royal palace, entitled Holy Family. Because altarpieces required study of the nude figure, it was very rare that women were ever contracted to paint them. But, Lavinia’s talents were so considerable that not only was she contracted to do one for the Spanish royal palace, but for the church of Santa Sabina in Rome as well. Meanwhile Lavinia branched out into large publicly commissioned works with religious and mythological subject matter. It was her work in Rome that opened a whole new field of patrons to Fontana. In 1603 Lavinia moved permanently to Rome and was asked by Pope Clement VIII to become an official painter to the papal court. Lavinia continued to paint religious commissions and portraits during the remainder of her career. She was awarded with many honors over the course of her life including a bronze portrait medallion cast in 1611 by the sculptor and architect Felice Antonio Casoni. Lavinia Fontana is considered the first woman in Western Europe to establish a painting career on par with her male counterparts outside of a court or convent. Nearly 100 works have been attributed to her, with thirty signed pieces surviving to this day.

Fede Galizia

Fede Galizia was born in 1578 in Milan. Her father Nunzio Galizia was a painter and miniaturist and Fede probably received her early training from him. By 1590 Fede had become obsessed with recreating the works of great artists. Her paintings were mentioned in the memoirs of Giovanni P. Lomazzo, who was particularly impressed by her talents. Fede was somewhat of a child prodigy. At age 16 she was already an established portrait painter handling many commissioned works. Perhaps it was her father’s influence as a miniaturist that led to Fede’s attention to detail in her portraits. Her treatment of jewels and clothing made her a very desirable portrait painter. She was often commissioned to paint religious and secular themes as well, and there are several versions of her Judith and Holofernes that have survived in private collections. She also did miniatures and altarpieces for convents. When not painting portraits Fede was primarily interested in painting still lifes. At the time of her work still life paintings were fairly uncommon. Those that did exist were lavish and fussy displays of wealth. Most relied on background objects outside of the main composition to give the image depth and gravity. Fede’s still life paintings were simple and elegant displays that relied on their color and form to impress the viewer. The objects in her compositions were the sole focus of her paintings. Most subjects consisted of a few pieces of delicately detailed fruit in a bowl with a piece or two lying haphazardly at the base, with some including secondary flowers, blossoms and vines.

Her paintings were deft with detail, perfectly balanced, and her attention to shadow, light, and texture was unrivalled at the time. Fede was particularly good at creating inviting space in her paintings. Her compositions are not crowded. They look as if one could reach out and touch the fruit, grasp it, and pull it from the painting without disturbing the rest of the work. Her graceful, flowing arrangements were natural and poetic unlike their contrived predecessors.

Her aesthetic treatment of still lifes would not be seen again until the middle of the century. The perception of the modern still life painting was formed entirely by the paintings of Fede Galizia. Many of the still life works we see today draw their influence from her original ideas. Currently, it is unknown just how many paintings Fede was responsible for. Many works that could have possibly been hers have been attributed to her male counterpart Panfilo Nuvolone, who drew significant inspiration from Fede. Fede passed away in Milan in 1630.

Diana Scultori Ghisi

Diana Scultori Ghisi, also known as Diana Mantuana or Diana Mantovana, was a 16th century engraver. She was the first woman ever allowed to sell her prints under her own name. But, beyond being an accomplished artist, Diana was a shrewd businesswoman. Diana was born in 1547, one of three daughters. Her father was an accomplished Mantuan engraver who was associated with the Mantuan court. It was from her father that she learned to draw and to engrave.
In 1575 Diana married a Franseco de Volterra an aspiring architect. Together they moved to Rome to build his career. In 1576 Diana approached the papal court to request the right to sell her work under her own name. She arrived with several examples of her prints and was given permission to sell her work under both the names Diana Mantuana and Diana Mantovana. Diana used her abilities as an engraver not to sell her own artwork, which would have provided little in the way of financial stability for her family, but to procure work for her husband in the form of architectural commissions. Diana even went as far as to change her name to be better associated with the Mantuan court. Never did Diana sign her work with the name Scultori or Ghisi, since neither of these names would have furthered her career.
It is often assumed that Diana was herself and accomplished artist. Though she did show some considerable talent in drawing, most of the prints produced by Diana were derived from the works of others. By the late 1500’s engraving and publishing had become regulated trades with little outlet for artistic freedom. All texts and images were recorded to protect the ownership of the original printer and determined whether or not they were permissible for view by the public.
Texts that could be considered heretical by the church subjected their publishers to excommunication, fines, and seizure of property. Diana worked carefully within the confines of these regulations under the protection of her husband’s and father’s house to build a reputation for herself as a charming and talented female engraver.
Diana’s prints enjoyed immense popularity. Lavinia Fontana even used one of Diana’s prints as a basis for her paintings. Diana was well known for her gracious manner. Her prints often included illustrious dedications to the original artists. However, it must be understood that even though most of the original works did not spawn from Diana’s own hand, printmaking was a tedious and labor intensive process that required skill and determination, and therefore, despite its commercial applications, was a legitimate art form at which Diana Sultori Ghisi was well gifted.

[Information, except for Sirani, written by Jamie Sue Austin].

My thoughts as I looked at each of the women’s lives went to a thread that seemed present in most of their lives: they were the children of recognized artists and were therefore given an opening for the acceptance of their work. I have not had sufficient time to really explore and read about the statements in the museum’s publicity about the exhibition. And I wonder as I look at their work if they were exploring art from their own center of creativity or following in the steps of the male dominated art scene. How much of their voice came out in their work…?


5 Responses to “Italian Women Artists of the Renaissance and Baroque”

  1. 1 Jamie Sue Austin March 3, 2007 at 10:48 pm

    Hi! For vanity sake I googled my name and came across this posting. I want to thank you for using my article as a reference!

  2. 2 June February 15, 2007 at 7:03 pm


    I think you are right — far more than males, females of the 16 and 17 centuries would be family (by which I mean patronomical family) dependent. I have never seen any reference to women or girls being admitted as apprentices, for example, which is how Michelangelo and Raphael, among others, became artists. The fathers of the males would have paid to have them work and study under a master artist, first by scrubbing pots, later by mixing paints and then perhaps allowing them to paint the shoes of something the master did the face of. But I’ve never heard of women being part of such an atelier.

    In the 19th century, the middle class became a larger part of the scene, and middle class girls were taught to draw just as they were taught to sew and sing. Out of that experience could have come more artists than from the old guild/atelier scene. As I understand it, watercolor was thought to be a nice media for women, as it didn’t demand much. I think that about this time, say 1860, women began to push their way into the field in more than ones and twos.

    I ran across one article that speaks of women going to Paris during the 1880’s to study painting. I know that Emily Carr went from Canada first to England and then to the south of France around the turn of the (20th) century to study painting. While women were forbidden in the most prestigious Parisian art school, they could do independent study under various masters in the city.

    Here’s a interesting quote: An applicant for admission to Ecole des Beaux-Arts “was required to execute an anatomical drawing in two hours, a perspective drawing in four hours and a drawing from the cast in 3 sittings of two hours each. He also had to pass a general history examination and do a 12-hour life study, for which he was allowed 6 days of 2 hour sittings.” These were all male candidates — no women allowed at this time. I don’t know when the Ecole started to admit women, but I suspect it was well into the 20th century. The quote is from The Parisian Training of American Women Artists
    Jo Ann Wein Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 1981), p. 41. I couldn’t access the entire journal, but even this one page was full of interesting information.

    There was a Suffrage Atelier in London, in 1909, It was formed by a glassmaker and women sold their goods through it as a cooperative. They also made suffrage banners. [ ]

    And here’s a review of “Painting Professionals, Women Artists and the Development of Modern American Art 1870 –1930” by Kirstin Swinth. The review is interesting — I suspect the book is too.

    So what I always come to when I read about women doing amazing things in the face of tremendous odds, is that luck and courage and will-power have to go hand-in-hand. Talent alone couldn’t propel a woman into the arts until perhaps the 20th century and probably not even then. It took extraordinary work and strength — and a lot of luck.

  3. 3 Margaret February 15, 2007 at 12:19 am

    It’s my impression that up until the advent of public schooling any sort of education for women would depend on the circumstances of their birth — so a woman born into a family that had accumulated a library of books, and all the scholarly values that go with that, would have the chance to take advantage of them — Caroline Herschel and Ada Lovelace are two British scientific examples.

    Is it naive to think that artistic talent would be more likely to be developed, recognised and encouraged in a girl who happened to be born in a family of painters? In all but wealthy families, the talents and efforts of women might contribute to family income?

  4. 4 Kristin Freeman February 11, 2007 at 9:31 pm

    A quick response, I will do some research to back up my thoughts tomorrow, is that many familes who recognized talent in music or art in young boys during this era often sent their sons to be tutored/mentored by “the best” and often in other countries and far from home, and therefore I would conclude that having a family member as mentor would not have been as significantly important for a male….I am not certain if a female child would have been given the opportunities to study and explore the arts had the lessons not been available at the doorstep of home.

  5. 5 june February 11, 2007 at 8:58 pm


    Do you think that having a family member as your personal mentor would have been more important for women than for men at this time?

    I’m actually starting off the comments because some people have had trouble finding them:-)

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