An internationally respected Renaissance portrait and genre artist, Sofonisba Anguissola (1535?-1625) thrived as a professional painter in a male-dominated milieu. As court painter to Philip II of Spain and art instructor to Queen Isabella of Valois, Anguissola took seriously her pursuit of the liberal arts. On numerous canvases, she demonstrated the development of realistic domestic scenarios, original studies that did not emulate the concepts of contemporary male painters.
Sofonisba was the daughter of Blanca Ponzone and Amilcare Anguissola, a minor noble and land owner in partnership with his father-in-law as a dealer in books, leather, silk, and art supplies. She was born around 1535 or a little earlier in Cremona, Lombardy, a north-central Italian province then under Spanish control. She and her five younger sisters and one brother lived in a comfortable palazzo on the Via Tibaldi two blocks from the city center and enjoyed an inherited family estate to the west at Bonzanaria on the Po River near Piacenza. At the height of the Italian Renaissance, when the gentry educated women only in courtesy, refined living, religion, and needlework, Anguissola had his girls trained in piano and painting. With Sofonisba as mentor, four of her sisters—Lucia, Europa, Elena, and Anna Maria—honed their talents well enough to interest the art community in Mantua, Urbino, Ferrara, Parma, and Rome.
A contemporary of Titian and Leonardo da Vinci, Anguissola studied under frescoist Bernardino Campi around 1546 and, upon his departure from Cremona, with draftsman and frescoist Bernardino Gatti, a former apprentice of Antonio Correggio. According to an article in Renaissance Quarterly by historian Mary D. Gerrard, Anguissola painted into the poses of her subjects numerous clues to her success in a patriarchal society and to her position among male artists. A double view of the painter and her first teacher earned fame for its lifelike imagery. She dated the canvas 1554 and added "Sophonisba Anguissola Virgo Se Ipsam Fecit" [Miss Sofonisba Anguissola herself made this]. The paired intensive pronouns, "Se Ipsam," indicate her pride in accomplishment. The choice of "virgo," which denotes that she is unmarried, also suggests self-possession and independence as well as the unquestioned moral reputation of an upper-class gentlewoman.
To promote his daughter's prowess to an elite audience outside of Cremona, Amilcare sent her self-portraits to Pope Julius III and to the Este court in Ferrara. The paintings earned the praise of critic Giorgio Vasari and sculptor-painter Michelangelo, who admired her depiction of a laughing girl. Michelangelo challenged her to paint the opposite emotion. Instead of choosing a weeping Madonna, she produced for him "Boy Pinched by a Crayfish" (1555?), a glimpse of a tearful boy protesting a wounded finger after he plunged his hand into a tray of fresh shellfish held by a smiling girl. Michelangelo's emissary, Tomasso Cavaliere, delivered the second work, along with Michelangelo's portrait of Cleopatra, to Florentine philanthropist and art collector Cosimo I de Medici, Duke of Florence.
In addition to commissioned portraits and a minor amount of allegorical religious art, Anguissola produced luminous, energetic paintings of family groupings, including a much admired portrait of her sister Minerva in courtly dress and resplendent gold jewelry. A boon to historians, the depictions Sofonsiba painted of home life to hang in their Cremona palazzo preserve minute autobiographical details of furnishings, hairstyles, dress, art objects, and activities. Social scientists study her domestic pictures to learn the family's economic status as well as the nature of the Anguissolas' private behavior, gender expectations, and relations among her parents and siblings, especially her brother, who was Amilcare's heir.
Anguissola's masterwork, an intimate conversation piece entitled "Three of the Artist's Sisters Playing Chess" (1555), introduced naturalism to the traditionally stiff, sometimes pompous home scenarios produced by her contemporaries. The painting glimpses the novelty of girls in competitive mode playing a board game popular among nobles since the early Renaissance. Because it requires logic and strategy, it characterizes the players as well educated and exposed to pastimes usually reserved for boys. Anguissola obviously admired her sisters for their spirit and displayed them as active, amiable, and intellectually curious.
Public acclaim for Anguissola's work tended to discount her innate gifts and hard work. Florentine artist Francesco Salviati wrote Campi in praise of his pupil and gave sole credit for her accomplishments to the teacher. In 1558, author Annibale Caro congratulated Anguissola's father on her skills as though they were a father-to-daughter gift. Other viewers of her art marveled that a mere woman could possess such talent. Poet Angelo Grillo praised Anguissola herself, but implied there was something freakish about her outstanding painting career by calling her a "miracle of nature."
In her self-portraits, a genre in demand during the period, Anguissola pictures her wide-eyed likeness in austere braided hairstyle, no jewelry, and dignified black dress. Unlike the frivolous curls, gold baubles, ornate laces, and brocades fashionable among her female peers, this representation stresses a serious side to her personality as well as high self-esteem, decorum, nobility, and maturity. Her backdrops feature art paraphernalia, books, a chess set, and musical instruments, all elements of privilege and wealth and of her life as a serious student of high culture.
One of Anguissola's assets was her kinship with other females venturing into the arts. A valuable painting to art historians is her portrait of Croat illuminator and miniature painter Giulio Clovio, completed around 1557. He poses holding a treasured miniature of the Flemish artist Lavinia Terlincks (or Teerlinc), that Anguissola's painting preserves. She also fostered Bolognese painter Lavinia Fontana and Roman artist Artemisia Gentileschi and encouraged the instruction of other girls in the arts.
In 1559, Anguissola received an invitation to the court of Philip II of Spain, Europe's most powerful Hapsburg king, who learned of her talent from the Duke of Alba. Under the escort of the Duke of Sessa, she arrived in Madrid to take her place among mostly male courtiers and artists. During her 14-year residence, she guided the artistic development of his new French queen, Isabella (or Elizabeth) of Valois, and influenced the artwork of her two daughters, Isabella Clara Eugenia and Caterina Michaela. Anguissola painted a portrait of the king's sister, Marguerite of Spain, for Pope Pius IV in 1561 and, after Queen Isabella's death in childbirth in 1568, painted the likeness of Anne of Austria, Philip's third wife. For the royal family, Anguissola produced detailed scenes of their lives that now hang in the Prado Museum. With the gifts and a dowry of 12,000 scudi she earned along with her salary as court painter and lady-in-waiting to the queen, she amassed an admirable return from her craft.
In her late 30s, Anguissola entered an arranged marriage to Fabrizio de Moncada, a Sicilian nobleman chosen for her by the Spanish court. She lived with him in Palermo from 1571 to 1579 and received a royal pension of 100 ducats that enabled her to continue working and tutoring would-be painters. Her private fortune also supported her family and brother Asdrubale following Amilcare Anguissola's financial decline and death. Fabrizio died in 1579. Two years later, while traveling to Genoa by sea, she fell in love with the ship's captain, sea merchant Orazio Lomellini. Against the wishes of her brother, they married and lived in Genoa until 1620. She had no children, but maintained cordial relationships with her nieces and her husband's son Giulio.
Still productive into her 80s, Anguissola painted less often as her eyesight dimmed. In an atmosphere of collegiality, she welcomed art fanciers to her home and salon. In 1623, she befriended the young Flemish painter Sir Anthony Van Dyck, whom she advised on technique. In token of his regard, he painted her portrait.
Anguissola's adoring second husband described her as small of frame, yet "great among mortals." At her death around age 90, he buried her with honor in Palermo at the Church of San Giorgio dei Genovese. In 1632, the dedication of her tombstone celebrated her life. A Cremonese school bears the name Liceo Statale Sofonisba Anguissola. Reclaimed to art history during the rise of feminism, in 1995, 20 of her 50 paintings toured Europe and appeared at an exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D. C., entitled "Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Woman."
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