A producer of over 135 sophisticated oil paintings, Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) was one of the first female portraitists to seek commissions. Her prolific body of work encompasses numerous categories of art, including single and group portraits, church altar art, and narrative and historic scenes. She was the first Bolognese female to earn renown throughout Italy.
Born in Bologna in 1552, Lavinia Fontana was the daughter of cosmopolitan fresco artist and teacher Prospero Fontana, who established his reputation in Rome and joined Giorgio Vasari in adorning Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. Unlike most female artists of the period, Lavinia received encouragement at home, where her father taught her to paint. She came under the influence of one of her father's pupils, Ludovico Carracci, founder of Bologna's academy. Beyond other women seeking careers in art, she flourished in an open-minded city that claimed painter Caterina dei Vigri as patron saint and which had welcomed women to its university since its opening in 1158.
At her father's studio Fontana met painter Giano Paolo Zappi and married him when she was twenty-five. They formed a working partnership that supported her career, allowing her to accept a growing number of commissions for baroque portraits, small paintings, and religious art. To assist her work, Zappi abandoned his career, kept Fontana's accounts, and tended the couple's 11 children, of whom only three outlived their mother. Art critics surmise that Zappi also painted some of the drapery and background in Fontana's paintings.
Both financially and critically successful, Fontana was a representative painter of the Italian mannerist school, earning a reputation for pose, detail, and the use of a delicate palette. Such qualities are reflected in Fontana's self-portrait that now hangs in the Uffizi Gallery at Florence. Therein she is elegantly dressed in lace and jewels and studying archeological finds on shelves and a table, likely as preparation for sketching them. Venturing beyond traditional still lifes and set poses into high drama, she painted mythic and biblical figures on a grand scale and used as models female and male nudes. At age 27 she received a commission from Dominican scholar and church historian Pietro Ciaconio for the first of her two self-portraits, "Self-Portrait Seated at Her Desk," which features her in a composed, contemplative posture. Painted the following year, "Portrait of a Noblewoman" depicts a standing female figure holding a decoratively jeweled marten skin and absently petting a lap dog. Characteristic of Fontana's images is the incorporation of textured and embroidered fabrics and rich gold jewelry set with pearls and rubies.
Fontana excelled at the depiction of the female form, either alone or in groups, as exemplified in "Portrait of the Gozzadini Family" (1584), a psychologically complex grouping. In the undated "Allegory of Music" she painted a female keyboardist at the virginal accompanied by three males, two lute players and a vocalist. She surrounded this musical group with a variety of instruments: cittern, cornetto, harp, hurdy-gurdy, recorder, viol, and viola da braccio. For "Visit of the Queen of Sheba," which now hangs in Dublin's National Gallery, Fontana improvised a demanding narrative scene that depicts the unnamed queen's royal presentation to Solomon albeit in Renaissance costume and court.
By the time she reached her thirties, Fontana was respected as a painter of devotional art. In 1581 she completed "Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalen" in the balanced dark-against-light style of Antonio Correggio. The painting, now housed in Florence's Uffizi Gallery, captures the rapt attention of a familiar bible figure moved by a glimpse of Christ. In this same period, Fontana completed "The Dead Christ with Symbols of the Passion" and "The Holy Family," the latter an undated piece that creates an adult triad of the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth comparing the virtues of their toddler sons Jesus and John the Baptist, while the third figure, a colorless Joseph, looks on in the background. At the request of the Vizzani Chapel at the church of Santa Maria della Morte in Bologne, in 1590 Fontana painted "St. Francis of Paola Blessing a Child," now displayed in the city's Pinacoteca Nazionale. The work contrasts a bevy of over-dressed aristocratic ladies with the simple demeanor of a saint performing a sacred task.
Fontana used imagination to recreate images from the past. In a 1585 painting she depicted Egyptian monarch Cleopatra cloaked in red and adorned with a jeweled hat and veil. Standing before an urn, the regal figure suggests the Renaissance era's immersion in Eastern subjects. That same year, Fontana created a likeness of Venus and Cupid, the mother and son from classic mythology who superintend passion and infatuation. Desiring a work to grace the grand Escorial Palace in Madrid, Philip II of Spain commissioned Fontana to paint an altarpiece, "The Holy Family with the Sleeping Christ Child."
In 1603, after her father's death, Fontana was a recipient of a rare honor, particularly for a female artist, when Pope Clement VIIII summoned her to an audience in the papal palace. At Clement's request, she executed her most famous public work, a 20-foot altarpiece titled "The Stoning of St. Stephen Martyr," which pictures the pathos of the first Christian to die for the faith. The altarpiece adorned one of Rome's seven pilgrimage centers, the church of San Paolo Fuori le Mura, until the building was consumed by fire in 1823 and the painting was lost.
In 1611, during Fontana's residence in Rome, sculptor Felice Antonio Cassoni cast a medal to honor her contribution to the arts. The obverse pictures her in profile; the reverse depicts her as the symbolic female artist, too immersed in her work to tame her flowing hair. As the first woman to be commissioned for public paintings, Fontana earned membership in the prestigious Roman Academy.
Fontana's work was lucrative enough to support her family. Popes Gregory XIII and Clement VIII each posed for her in ceremonial regalia and the Vatican offered her commissions normally contracted to male artists. Of her 135 works—the largest corpus of artwork by any woman from the Renaissance or before—only 32 are signed and dated. In 1998, Professor Vera Fortunati of the University of Bologna arranged for the first U.S. exhibition of Fontana's canvases at the National Museum of the Arts in Washington, D.C.
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