Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was an Italian painter at the time of the Renaissance. An innovative portrait artist, she was one of the first world-renowned women painters. Anguissola was trained by Italian Renaissance painters Bernardino Campi (1522-1591) and Bernardino Gatti (1495-1575).
Anguissola was born in Cremona, in the northern Italian region of Lombardy. The eldest of seven children, she was the daughter of Amilcare Anguissola, member of the Genoese minor nobility and Bianca Ponzone. Her social class set her apart from most of the woman artists of the 15th and 16th century, whose fathers were established masters. When she was 14, Anguissola's father sent her and sister Elena to study art with Campi, who at that time was a respected religious painter and portraitist in Cremona. For Amilcare painting was part of the new Humanist education for women of high social status. Throughout her entire life, Anguissola did not sell a single painting.
Anguissola's earliest works were self-portraits which were influenced by Campi. Anguissola saw herself as a woman of virtue, which included chastity, obedience, modesty and silence. In her self-portraits, she is usually dressed in a dark jacket with a white lace collar. She depicted herself with all kinds of attributes usually relating to her artistic profession or to the literary and musical accomplishments that at the time were typical of contemporary noblewomen. In one of these self-portraits Anguissola holds a small book with the inscription "Sophonisba Angusola virgo seipsam fecit 1554," which means Sophonisba Anguissola, a virgin, made this herself in 1554. In another self-portrait, she depicted herself painting an image of the Madonna and Child. In her signatures Anguissola regularly identified herself as "virgo," a virgin. Many art critics believe that she clearly identified herself with the Virgin Mary. Throughout her life, she painted several pictures of the Madonna and Child along with images of the Pieta. These two were the most popular devotional subjects in the Renaissance. All religious paintings of Anguissola include devotional images, rather than narrative representations.
Despite her social class Anguissola was unable to go beyond the constraints of her sex, so she was not allowed to study anatomy. As a result she focused on the models that were accessible to her and developed a new type of portraiture, in which sitters were drawn in domestic settings. Her approach to portrait painting was not entirely realistic, but somehow personal. She expressed interest in the psychology of her sitters. This interest is easily seen in a number of drawings and paintings focused on the physical expression of emotions. Among these paintings is Child Bitten by a Crayfish, Old Woman Learning the Alphabet and Mocked by a Young Girl. Anguissola's paintings corresponded to the worldly tradition of Cremona, which was highly influenced by the art of Parma and Mantua. In his book Libro dei Sogni, Italian painter Gian Paolo Lomazzo (1538-1592) writes: "I bring to your attention the miracles of a Cremonese woman called Sofonisba, who has astonished every prince and wise man in all of Europe by means of her paintings, which are all portraits, so like life they seem to conform to nature itself. Many valiant [professionals] have judged her to have a brush taken from the hand of the divine Titian himself."
The pursuit of a noble status was of high importance for many of the female artists that worked during Anguissola's time. As she was already a member of the nobility, Anguissola had different ambitions. Becoming part of a royal household was the aim of many young women of her social station. To serve as a Lady in Waiting, in other words female personal assistant, to a queen or princess was seen as a huge privilege. Thus in 1558, Anguissola was introduced to the court of Spain by the Duke of Alba — Ferdinand Alvarez de Toledo (1508-1582). She became Lady in Waiting in the household of Isabel de Valois, the third wife of Philip II. Anguissola continued painting portraits in Spain. Around 1571 in Madrid she married Fabrizio de Moncada, a nobleman and a brother of the Viceroy of Sicily, Francesco II. After her marriage, she went to live in Sicily. Following the death of Moncada in 1584, Anguissola became the wife of Genoese nobleman Orazio Lomellino and settled in his native city. Both in Palermo and Genoa, she continued painting and tried to keep her connections to the aristocracy.