Extraordinary Women of the Medieval and Renaissance World: A Biographical Dictionary

By Carole Levin; Debra Barrett-Graves et al. | Go to book overview

LAVINIA FONTANA
(1552-1614)

Italy
Portraitist and Altarpiece Painter

Lavinia Fontana has recently received recognition for being the first female painter in Italy to enjoy a successful career as an artist working in an urban setting. Throughout her career as an independent master, Lavinia accepted both private and public commissions, painting numerous portraits and public altarpieces.

Being born the daughter of the successful artist Prospero Fontana ( 1512-1597), a provincial painter with a solid reputation, had numerous advantages. During Lavinia's apprenticeship, Prospero shared with his daughter the artistic skills he had mastered during his early training in Genoa. The time Prospero had spent working in Florence and Rome, prior to returning to Bologna, undoubtedly contributed to the overall quality of Lavinia's early studies. Lavinia's apprenticeship in her father's studio provided her with ample opportunities to contribute to her father's commissioned works as well as to produce works of her own design. The first recorded works attributed to the hand of Lavinia date from 1575. Lavinia also profited from being born in the Italian city--state of Bologna, which was a prominent Italian artistic center during her lifetime. In Bologna, Lavinia could study distinguished works of art at her convenience.

Lavinia enjoyed a reputation as a successful portrait painter early in her career. Her attention to the details of the elaborate costumes worn by her aristocratic clients helped contribute to her unique status as an artist with uncommon promise and skill. Known to her contemporaries primarily as a portraitist, Lavinia's oeuvre also included a wide range of subject matter. Her works frequently drew on biblical and mythological settings, which incorporated numerous figures, including male and female nudes. Lavinia enjoyed a highly successful, professionally active career prior to the marriage her father arranged for her.

Lavinia's marital alliance in 1577 with Gian Paolo Zappi, a minor

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