Lavinia FONTANA<br/>
<em>Mystic marriage of Saint Catherine</em> (1574-1577) <!-- () --><br />

oil on copper<br />
48.7 x 36.6 cm<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Felton Bequest, 2021<br />
2021.558<br />


A Studio of Their Own: Lavinia Fontana and Elisabetta Sirani


Lavinia Fontana of Bologna (1552 -1614) is considered the first professional woman painter of Renaissance Italy, and proved an inspirational role model for her compatriot, the painter, printmaker, draughtswoman and teacher, Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665).  Elisabetta, who died at the young age of 27, was herself instrumental in the development of women’s artistic practice during the seventeenth century, opening up her studio to female students, with her remarkable success influencing many other women who became professional artists in the following generations. The city of Bologna could boast the largest single school of women artists in Early Modern Italy, if not Europe. Archival research has identified at least sixty-eight women working in the city as sculptors, painters, printmakers, draughtswomen, and embroiderers from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, a total not matched by any other artistic centre in Italy. The factors why this proved to be the case will be addressed as we look at the achievements and legacy of these two internationally renowned women artists.

A Counter-Reformation City
Bologna, the capital of the Emilia-Romagna province, was a strategic north Italian city, a major artistic centre and important papal state second only to Rome.  This ensured increased funding and patronage in the city from the Catholic Church for their building and artistic programs, especially after the Council of Trent (1545-1563), spearheaded by the pastoral and artistic reforms of the Bishop of Bologna Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti (as expressed in his Discourse on Sacred and Profane Images of 1582). Churches, monasteries and convents were built or refurbished, requiring artists to decorate them with altarpieces or narrative fresco cycles in a clear and realistic visual language that would appeal to the faithful.

Lavinia Fontana was the first woman to be employed by the Counter-Reformation Church, in its fight against northern Protestantism, to produce such large public altarpieces. In 1590, for example, she was commissioned by the above-mentioned Cardinal Paleotti and his brother Camillo to paint the Assumption of the Virgin for the altar of their family chapel at the Cathedral of Saint Peter, Bologna. Elisabetta Sirani followed in Lavinia’s footsteps, providing altarpieces for provincial churches in Bologna’s territories and other centres, before her public debut in the city with the monumental biblical history painting Baptism of Christ at the Certosa in 1658, after which she gained commissions from all around Italy and Europe.

Simultaneously a burgeoning art market developed in the city, with the rising middle-class of merchants and professionals along with the aristocracy amassing private art collections for their palaces and studios, consisting of sacred and secular images.  Amongst the works a private citizen was sure to have in their home were small devotional pieces, whether paintings or prints, of the Madonna or Holy Family, and Saints, as we can see with Lavinia Fontana’s Mystic Marriage of St Catherine  (c. 1575) at the NGV.  A large part of Elisabetta Sirani’s artistic production also consisted of these small to medium-size domestic sacred paintings intended for personal devotion, known as quadretti da letto, pictures that hung over or near the bed to facilitate daily prayer.

Both artists furthermore were amongst the earliest women to produce mythological and allegorical pictures for these same sophisticated private patrons, with Lavinia the first female painter to depict the nude, paving the way for Elisabetta, who clearly understood the female form, its anatomy and corporality.  And both favoured historical narratives that featured brave and heroic women, such as the story of the biblical widow Judith, who saved the Hebrew people by beheading the enemy Holofernes, General of the Assyrian army that had besieged their town.  Elisabetta in particular specialized in depictions of these femme fortes (strong women) from antiquity and biblical history, popular in the literature, drama and sermons of the time.

Bologna La Dotta [The Learned]
Bologna was home to the oldest and most renowned university in Europe  (established 1088) as well as a number of academies: literary, scientific and artistic. This academic culture attracted scholars from all around the Continent, while artists engaged socially and collaborated professionally with the city’s intelligentsia and wealthy patrons. Lavinia Fontana and Elisabetta Sirani, themselves acknowledged learned artists, both lived and worked in this intellectually stimulating and culturally rich environment, with their families mixing in Bologna’s academic circles. Lavinia produced portraits of Bologna’s many scholars and professors, while Elisabetta designed their printed theses conclusions and book frontispieces. The latter also portrayed the city’s ecclesiastical elite and nobility, including its famed beauties, as had her predecessor. Lavinia was especially renowned for these portraits of Bologna’s noblewomen, whom her biographer Malvasia claimed vied with each other to be portrayed in all their fashionable finery by this much sought-after artist.

Bologna was, moreover, a particularly supportive environment for women, especially in education and the creative arts. Bolognese noblewomen played an active role in religious and civic life. Cardinal Paleotti, a staunch proponent of female education, for example, engaged women in his Post-Tridentine ministry, in pastoral care, charity work and as teachers in his Schools of Christian Doctrine, where girls were also educated. This was given added impetus by humanist pro-feminist literature on the worth of women that promoted female education and their public engagement, which circulated amongst the city’s intellectuals and patrons.

Female education had been historically celebrated in Bologna for centuries, with the city’s chroniclers extolling the virtues of its famed learned women. Whilst it cannot be confirmed that these women studied and taught at the university since the thirteenth century as claimed, the fact that Bolognese writers continually referred to such medieval precedents reveals that the city was proud of this female intellectual tradition. Supportive and sympathetic biographers also expressed civic pride in Bologna’s female creatives, beginning with Caterina Vigri (1413-1463). A nun-artist, spiritual writer and musician, who founded the Convent of the Poor Clares, known as Corpus Domini, in 1456, Caterina was but one of many female religious writers in the city.  From the late sixteenth century she became the patron of Bolognese painters, and in 1710 was nominated as patron saint of the Accademia Clementina, Bologna’s recently founded academy of fine art, evidence of the city’s respect for women intellectuals.

Working within the confines of her convent, Caterina Vigri, however, cannot be considered a professional artist. The path to professionalization for Bolognese women artists, working in competition with their male peers on the open market, begins in the early sixteenth century with Properzia de’ Rossi (c. 1490/91- c.1530), the first female sculptor in Italy, and the only woman to receive a vita of her own by Giorgio Vasari. In his 1550 biography of the artist Vasari tells us that it was in the ambitious work in marble that Properzia excelled and gained renown. She secured a major public commission circa 1525-26 to provide marble relief panels representing the Story of Joseph for the planned new façade of the Basilica of San Petronio, Bologna’s most important church, for which she received remuneration equivalent to that of her male colleagues.

The professional example of Properzia de’ Rossi, followed by the public success of Lavinia Fontana, opened up further possibilities for women in the visual arts in Bologna. In the seventeenth century we see an increase in the number of women artists working in the city, such as Angela Granata (d. 1613), the noblewoman Contessa Caterina Pepoli (active c. 1617), and Antonia Pinelli (c. 1592-1644). But it is with Elisabetta Sirani – who began her independent career in 1654 at the age of 16 – that we have the full professionalization of women’s artistic practice in the city.  An accomplished painter, consummate draughtswoman and competent etcher, Elisabetta was the most successful and collected woman artist to operate in Early Modern Bologna.  She also established an art school for women and girls, becoming an important role model for the many female followers in the second half of the century and into the 1700s. In this Elisabetta Sirani’s art and teaching practice was revolutionary, as we shall see.

Elisabetta SIRANI<br/>
<em>Standing man in hat and cloak</em>  <!-- (recto) --><br />

brush and pale brown wash over black chalk on buff prepared paper<br />
25.9 x 16.2 cm (sheet)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Felton Bequest, 1923<br />
1278.737-3<br />


Women could not attend academic meetings or access life drawing classes, thereby having limited avenues to gain an artistic education. Some women learnt their craft in the protected confines of a convent, becoming nun-artists like Caterina Vigri. Others were noblewomen who could afford a tutor (the noble amateur), with some gaining court positions like Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532-1625), whose salary was contingent on her post at the Spanish Habsburg court as lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabel of Valois, with no remuneration for her artistic work.

One of the more accessible means for women to enter the profession during the early modern period was belonging to a family of artists. In the family workshop women trained with a male relative, either their husband, brother or father. This was the case with Lavinia Fontana, Elisabetta Sirani, and the Roman painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c.1656), all daughters of successful artists (Prospero Fontana, Giovanni Andrea Sirani, Orazio Gentileschi) who taught them before they became independent professional artists in their own right, running their own studios. Elisabetta first took charge of the Sirani family workshop around 1662, when her father could no longer paint due to illness. She then established her own studio and art school, becoming her family’s primary breadwinner. Lavinia had also supported her large family with her work, with her husband acting as her studio assistant and agent.

In Bologna, we further find that women trained with male artists not from their immediate family, as with the afore-mentioned Antonia Pinelli, who was a pupil of Ludovico Carracci, even though her husband, the painter Giovanni Battista Bertusio, would have been able to teach her.  This was an unusual phenomenon, but one that became more diffuse during the second half of the seventeenth century, when more and more women artists, some of whom had trained with Elisabetta Sirani, found a space of their own in the male studios of the city. For example, after Elisabetta’s death in 1665, Camilla Lauteri (1649 -1681) continued her training with Carlo Cignani.

What the above methods of professional artistic training for women represent is a patrilineal model of education, from male to female: the Master is the male teacher with his female student, just as the Artist with a capital A has traditionally been conceptualized as male. Elisabetta Sirani, however, turns this patriarchal model on its head. Recognized as a Maestra by her contemporaries who considered Elisabetta “the best brush in Bologna”, she was also a member of the prestigious Accademia di San Luca, Rome, evidence of her professional standing and recognition. Elisabetta taught her two younger sisters, Barbara (1641-1692) and Anna Maria (1653-1715), and further “sustained and aided” (as Malvasia tells us) the noblewoman Ginevra Cantofoli (1618-1672) in transitioning from painting miniatures to producing large public altarpieces. Elisabetta provided the original designs for these, even retouching the latter’s finished works. Other professional women artists who in all likelihood studied with Elisabetta, include Lucrezia Scarfaglia (fl. 1677), Lucrezia Bianchi (b. c 1650), Caterina Mongardi (1645-1680) and Veronica Franchi (b. c. 1650), all of whom produced history painting like their Maestra.

Elisabetta Sirani built her art practice on the success and reputation already achieved by Lavinia Fontana. But she went even further than her pioneering predecessor in establishing alternative modes of artistic training for women.  Elisabetta’s studio, which also functioned as a cultural salon, was open to all women, noblewomen, daughters of the city’s learned doctors, as well as girls from artist families, whom she taught painting and/or printmaking, and who all went on to become professional artists in Bologna and throughout Italy. In so doing Elisabetta Sirani overturned the traditional male-to-female model of artistic training undertaken by Lavinia and herself, to establish a matrilineal pedagogic methodology, one in which the transmission of cultural capital, knowledge and technical expertise was mediated by and through women.

This article is part of a larger book project on Elisabetta Sirani under contract with Lund Humphries.          

Dr Adelina Modesti is Senior Fellow (Art History and Art Curatorship) in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne.