Woman's Capacity to Create: The Unusual Case of Sofonisba Anguissola

By Jacobs, Fredrika H. | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Woman's Capacity to Create: The Unusual Case of Sofonisba Anguissola


Jacobs, Fredrika H., Renaissance Quarterly


AMONG THE MORE THAN 160 uomini valenti whose lives and works are included in the second edition of Giorgio Vasari's Le vite de' piu eccellenti pittori, scultori et architettori, 1568, are several women: Properzia De' Rossi (c. 1490-1530), Suor Plautilla Nelli (1532-1587/88), Lucrezia Quistelli, who was "taught by Alessandro Allori," Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532-1625), and her sisters Lucia (c. 1540-c. 1565) and Europa (1542/43-78).(1) Although De' Rossi was the only one of these women distinguished by her own vita, it was Sofonisba Anguissola who accrued the greatest amount of literary adulation during her lifetime(2) (fig. 1). If contemporaneous sources are to be believed, this acclaim may be attributed to her excellence as a portrait painter. Gian Paolo Lomazzo and later Filippo Baldinucci, Raffaello Sopriani, and Gian Battista Zaist placed her name next to that of Titian as a skilled painter of ritratti naturale, while Annibale Caro, who described painting as the "profession di gentiluomo," stated "there is nothing I desire more than an image of the artist herself, so that in a single work I can exhibit two marvels, one the work, the other the artist."(3) Although Caro was to be disappointed, the Este, Medici, and Borghese were not.(4) Indeed, so great was Anguissola's fame that in 1559 she was invited to the court of Philip II to serve as lady-in-waiting and portrait painter to Elizabeth of Valois.(5) such admiration inspired emulation. "Having been shown a portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola, made by her own hand...and hearing wondrous praise of her in the art of painting," two other Renaissance pittrici, Irene di Spilimbergo (1541-59) and Lavinia fontana (1552-1614), reportedly "set [their] heart[s] on learning how to paint."(6)

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It may be argued that the characterization of Sofonisba by Vasari and others is consistent with the prescriptives for the ideal gentildonna set forth in an ever-increasing number of sixteenth century texts, such as Giovan Giorgio Trissino's I Ritratti (1524), Lodovico Dolce's Della institution delle donne (1545), Federico Luigini's Il libro della bella donna (1554), and Domenico Bruni's Difese delle donne (1559).(7) She is, as these texts advise her to be, pious and decorous. In comparison to other sixteenth century pittrici she is not singular in this regard. Nor is she alone in other aspects. Like Anguissola, Irene di Spilimbergo was proclaimed Titian's equal,(8) and the talents of Marietta Robusti (1560-90) were similarly requested at the Spanish court.(9) And just as Caro expressed his desire for a self-portrait by the Cremonese pittrice, so did Muzio Manfredi ask Lavinia Fontana for "un ritratto di sua mano."(10)

But if characterizations of Anguissola and other women artists are alike, critical assessments of their works are not. "I must relate," Vasari writes, "that I saw this year (1566) in the house of [Sofonisba's] father at Cremona, a picture executed by her hand with great diligence (tanta diligenza e prontezza), portraits of her three sisters...who appear truly alive (vive), and are wanting in nothing save speech [fig.2]. In another picture may be seen...her father Signor Amilcare, who has on one side one of his daughters, Minerva...and on the other side Asdrubale [his son]...[They] also were executed so well that they appear to be breathing and absolutely alive (pare che spirimo e sieno vivissimi)."(11) In the context of sixteenth-century critical discourse, Vasari's description of painted images as appearing to be "alive" is common enough. But as will be discussed, ekphrastic phrases used to convey this life-like quality --hearts that seem to beat, flesh that appears to quiver, and lips that are "wanting in nothing save speech"--are, with the exception of those about Sofonisba's work, absent when the described object has been produced by a woman. Although more than thirty-five other women have been recorded as artists during the Cinquecento, and while some received copious amounts of praise, none, as will be seen, were credited with the ability to infuse an image with life. …

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