Updated: Oct 7, 2020
by Ella Hackett
We begin with the Renaissance era, spanning from the 14th to the 17th century; a time governed by rediscovery, change, and progression. Culture boomed, as did philosophy, science, literature, and of course, art. From the Renaissance, geniuses were born. An eclectic plethora of scientists, philosophers, writers, and artists grew to fame and fortune: but amid these great thinkers - from Dante to Shakespeare, to Leonardo da Vinci - there seem to be no women?
Renaissance art is awash with male masters; Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Giotto, Titan… the list endlessly oozes with masculinity and drips in vigour. A lack of female representation from the Renaissance era could lead one to the narrow conclusion that women didn’t make any art-work, or worse still, that they simply couldn’t paint, draw or sculpt. When researching, to find out there were numerous talented, ambitious, and accomplished women artists, one has to pry rather nosily, poking into dust-coated historical journals and scanning many scholarly books. Contrary to what most art historians tell us, the Renaissance did in fact birth some incredible, forward-thinking, and intelligent women. But these female figures were, and still are, continuously faded out of their success by jealous, narcissistic, and at times, beastly men.
Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was born in Cremona, part of the Lombardy region, in Northern Italy, she was eldest daughter to two members of the Cremonese nobility, Amilcare Anguissola and Bianca Ponzone. With an advantageous background, one would assume the artistic career that Sofonisba attained was done with relative ease, but for a woman of the 16th-century, an artistic journey was not often embarked upon. Sofonisba’s upbringing, as we will see, was rather unconventional, if not unorthodox: but without it, her success would have likely been a distant, far-fetched dream. Observing the triumphant life of Sofonisba Anguissola, we must credit her liberal, and in my opinion, rather ingenious parents. Amilcare and Bianca - until their last child, Asdrubale, was born - had no heirs, but were instead blessed with six daughters. A blessing indeed, but this was the 16th-century, and six daughters meant six dowries. A modest noble background would in no way ensure that the Anguissola sisters would marry into affluence, wealth or status. To add to the pressure, Amilcare sadly lost his wife in 1557, making him sole caregiver, ameliorating the need to create attractive dowries for his daughters; which he did, successfully, by creating a bountiful skillset for each daughter. Amilcare had each daughter diligently and specially educated in the way a son from a noble family would be, which meant schooling in the arts, music and literature. In order for a woman of such era to study art as specifically as the Anguissola sisters did, they would either have had the privilege of an artistic father, or, significantly less appealingly, joined a religious convent where they would be free to hone their artstic skills without any relative constraint. The Anguissola sisters fit into neither of these avenues, but it was likely Amilcare, after Bianca’s death, was very encouraging of this type of education.
While such avenues may seem quite “feminine” to us now, education in music, literature, and art, was mainly reserved for young boys and men. Renaissance women had limited educational opportunities, their main purpose was to birth and care for their children and tend to the home; if an education in the arts was obtained, instruction in needle crafts or elegant dressing (how riveting) was about as adventurous as it got. This tradition was to continue right up until the late 19th-century - if a woman strongly desired artistic training she would have to seek private education, and in those days, as it still does now: privacy meant expense. Art schools and academies did not openly admit women until 1950s and even then, their experience as students was restricted; female students could not attend life drawing classes - it was considered uncouth and unacceptable for a woman, god forbid, to see a naked male body - which meant women were considerably slower in their artistic progress and could not tackle certain genres of painting (religious, mythical, and history) that required an acute understanding of the human anatomy. Women could attempt to be artists, but their opportunities were tarnished and token. Therefore, the early education the Anguissola sisters received, was, rather unusual. The skills each daughter honed as a result of their artistic training was spell-bounding. As a collective, the talented sisters caused quite a stir in the quiet, modest streets of Cremona and far beyond. The flurry of Anguissola’s artistic flare eventually made its way into to the Italian grapevine, and distinguished artist and writer, - author of Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 1550 - Giorgio Vasari, caught wind of the six sisters. Whispers of the budding artists stirred so much intrigue in Vasari, that he went to observe their apparent skill for himself, taking a trip to visit the Cremonese daughters in 1568.
This was a monumental visit, it sparked keen interest in the sisters by other artists, which resulted in Sofonisba and her sisters gaining some relative artistic status. Vasari was so impressed by not only Sofonisba, but her younger sister Elena, that he introduced the two to Bernardo Campi, an elegant Cremonese painter, who invited both sisters into his household as apprentices from 1549-1551. Whilst part of Campi’s entourage, Sofonisba’s skill flourished and her reputation grew significantly. Whilst Sofonisba’s tutor did help her gain status, it’s likely Campi took a lot of credit for the young artist’s gifted painterly hand; which would have taken a large chunk of the success away from Sofonisba, and seen Campi and his household become rather famed. This was nothing new for a Renaissance woman - all throughout Sofonisba’s life, she had to depend and rely on men, standing in the shadows when she deserved to stand centre-stage. A Renaissance woman needed a husband, but a Renaissance woman artist needed a father, an uncle, or a tutor in order to be taken seriously in the arts, or worse, in order not to be taken advantage of. Whilst Campi supported Sofonisba, we must question how much of his presence also hindered her too.
In her early 20s Sofonisba rose to prominence, with a flourishing skill that would continue to bloom as she progressed into womanhood. Whilst we can thank various figures in Sofonisba life - Amilcare, Campi and later teacher, Bernardino Gatti - we must give due relevance to the specific time Sofonisba was born: The Renaissance era. Jampacked with radical expertise and intellect, the type of support and guidance Sofonisba was exposed to enabled her to soar further into excellence. The 1500s were rather special; it was a time when painters, like Leonardo da Vinci, Titan and most importantly for Sofonisba, Michelangelo Buonarroti, were fully-fledged Renaissance masters. During the mid-1500s, Sofonisba moved to Rome. Located behind Florence, and considered to be the epicentre of Renaissance painting, Rome served great importance for Sofonisba as this is where the birth of her friendship with Michelangelo began. It is believed the young artist was an unofficial pupil of his, a friendship that was to change the course of history and fast-track Sofonisba to becoming the first respected female artist of the Renaissance.
In order to understand just how influential the relationship between the pair must’ve been, I use Asdrubale Bitten By a Crab, 1554: an unassuming, modest drawing, but drawing requested by Michelangelo from Sofonisba nevertheless. Michelangelo wanted proof that the young artist had the ability to accurately display and depict dramatic and intense emotion. Asdrubale balled Michelangelo over; he placed his own drawing, Cleopatra, 1534, against Sofonisba’s in a letter to the Duke of Tuscany, stating his upmost respect for the Asdrubale Bitten By a Crab, 1554, Sofonisba Anguissola young female artist. Sofonisba didn’t just paint at the same time as Michelangelo, she painted with, for, and in direct reference to Michelangelo. The master even sent letters to Amilcare, expressing his fondness for Sofonisba’s talents. Her skill was evident and pure, and Michelangelo acknowledged it, holding it up high for all those to see.
Sofonisba possessed a skill so outstanding that she inspired a second Italian master, one that happened to be a close contemporary of Michelangelo: Caravaggio. Upon seeing Asdrubale Bitten By a Crab, Caravaggio was so astounded
by the drawing that it roused him to create Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1594-95; a rather impressive stint when we take into consideration Caravaggio was a devout painter, known not to be too fond of drawing. Boy Bitten by a Lizard, is - as anyone familiar with the piece will know - intense and expressive, yet also particularly different from almost every painting that came before it, it was the painting that essentially kick-started the Baroque movement and because of this, Caravaggio is acknowledged as the precursor to the development; championing a new, more fierce and literal style of painting. Whilst Renaissance painters set out to stabilise the picture plane, Baroque ones yearned to dramatise it. Without Sofonisba’s unique, dramatised style seen in Asdrubale Bitten By a Crab, would a revolution of the aesthetic culture of mid-16th century Italy have surfaced? Art history has eloquently tucked Sofonisba into the Italian side-roads, only to be stumbled across by the lost, or those with a feverish yearning for female artists of such era. But the evidence is clear; Sofonisba paved a way for a new style of painting to exist.
Beside influencing Baroque art, Sofonisba also prompted another style of painting: the self-portrait. Self-portraits were a relatively new and progressive subject matter for the Renaissance painter, as many - mainly men - were absorbed by transcendental subject matters, like religion, myth, and history. But Sofonisba’s self-portraits were especially noteworthy because they were the first of their kind: paintings of a woman, by a woman. In world where women couldn’t actively exist, the female self-portrait reimagined a space and a new identity for female figures. These portraits also pushed against the notion of the passive female, which we see in virtually all Renaissance painting, and even society, for many centuries. The first echoes of male gaze can be seen developing in the Renaissance, arguably formed in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, 1486, and continued to be seen in artist’s work of the late period such as, Titan’s Venus of Urbino, 1534, and thereafter, Édouard Manet’s, Olympia, 1863, as well as Pierre-August Renoir’s, Naked Woman in a Landscape, 1883. The active and passive gender roles Sofonisba appears to grapple with through her selfportraits, have occupied female artists up to the present day, with 20th-century painters like Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe working tirelessly to continue creating a space where women can actively present themselves, away from the objectification and subjugation of the male hand.
The 1559 portrait, Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, shows us just how sharp the Sofonisba’s understanding of the complex active and passive roles between men and women was. The portrait depicts Campi, Sofonisba’s former tutor, painting Sofonisba upon a canvas; a strange, but dually intriguing decision. The dynamic is bizarre, Sofonisba chooses to belittle and pacify herself, whilst making the man, Campi, active and within the fictive picture plane, more “real” than she. Famed historian Mary Garrard, says, ‘the two depicted play out the theme of active and passive - he paints, she is painted… Campi is empowered while the living painter is diminished.’
Empowering Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1594-95, Caravaggio Campi and diminishing herself is no accident, Sofonisba is playing into the 16th-century gender roles, and as she does so, she reveals the ridicule and objectification of women. Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola is ironic - it makes fun of the accepted notion that women are inept or unskilled in the profession of painting: it prods, pokes, and points the finger at not only Campi, but all male artists. The painting appears to be painted by Campi, but when one realises that it is not, a sensation of shock, and maybe even embarrassment washes over the viewer. As mentioned before, Campi may have likely hoarded some of Sofonisba’s success for himself, claiming he was the founder and creator of the young artist; if this painting were only to do one thing, and one thing only, it would be to completely undermine this notion. The portrait is a defiant and bold exclamation that Sofonisba was not only a great painter, but a brave one too.
A year before Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola was painted, Sofonisba received a prestigious invitation - given by the Duke of Alba - to become a court painter for Philip II, King of Spain, and lady-in-waiting for his Queen, Elizabeth of Valois. This prestigious position made Sofonisba the first female court painter in Western civilisation, which did a whole lot of good for any uneasy, aspiring female artist that was to precede Sofonisba: the position gave hope. Many historians who have written about Sofonisba as a painter have often chosen to ignore her prominence in Spain, along with her financial success in the court. The Spanish court was the 16th-century Soho House; a little hedonistic, quite obnoxious, and rather exclusive - to be a part of it was assumed to be quite a big deal to all of those on the outside. Whilst part of the court, Sofonisba’s reputation was untouchable - perhaps alluding to her later new-found confidence, illustrated through her cutting Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola portrait - Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, 1559, Sofonisba Anguissola the mighty walls of the court protected and propelled her. As a lady-in-waiting to the Queen, Sofonisba naturally became very close with Elizabeth; the two women had a very close bond, I imagine they shared many a warm summer afternoon playing the clavichord (in unison) and mixing the perfect shade of terracotta - Sofonisba taught the Queen how to paint, maybe not over sangria by the pool, but nonetheless. Sofonisba was so highly esteemed by the King and Queen, that in 1569, Philip II personally arranged the marriage between a wealthy Sicilian aristocrat, Don Fabrizio de Moncada and Sofonisba; giving the artist even more financial gain and status. Sofonisba, once from a modest noble background, was now part of the world’s most powerful elite. If credit cards were to exist in the 16th-century, Sofonisba would have most definitely had a matte black Coutts card weighing down her dainty Hermès wallet.
As result of her Spanish years, the wealth Sofonisba accrued - as a woman, and as an artist - was outstanding. Her shift in affluence can be seen in her later self-portrait; Sofonisba painted herself more elaborately, with more opulence - the artist’s neck was newly-adorned with huge, glistening pearls, and her body was now dressed in indulgent and costly materials. During the 16th-century, material wealth was just as important - if not more so - as monetary wealth, which in my opinion, is not that different from the 21st-century; hang around outside Dover Street Market and you’ll get the picture. With an impressive fortune made and her artistic status pedestalled, Sofonisba and her husband, with their pockets brimming, returned to Italy in 1573. Although Sofonisba was no longer officially part of the Spanish court, she remained forever in contact with Philip II, and even stayed on the King’s household expenses for a handful of years after her departure. Once back in the booming, cobbled streets of Rome, old age caught up with Sofonisba, but her profound influence upon her contemporaries was never to falter or tarnish. She remained painting the Genoese and Sicilian nobility for handsome sums of money, and her painterly hand continued to have direct influence upon painters such as Peter Paul Rubens and Anton Van Dyck, whom eagerly visited Sofonisba, even in her 90s.
Sofonisba Anguissola, through uniqueness and mastery, rose to prominence and stayed there, untouched by time. But sadly, when we think of prominent Renaissance painters, the names of Michelangelo, Giotto, Titan are repeatedly muttered, whilst Sofonisba Anguissola, has been reduced to a muted whisper, if said at all. Sofonisba was a woman artist in her own right; her accomplishments undeniably stretched far and wide. To gain high accolade and a warm embrace from Michelangelo, while astounding the master that was Caravaggio, Sofonisba catalysed a new and bold style of painting, obtaining status in the Spanish court and earning a well-respected salary. Whilst we have evolved in the arts, it is evident the trickles of a once androcentric society still permeate our art lessons, books, and galleries, as Sofonisba’s name is not heard half as much as it should be. Her legacy, widely accepted or not, shall forever live on, prominent in the minds to all those who give her influence, success and unfaltering skill the due respect it so rightly deserves.