Visual legacies

Italian women artists from Renaissance to Baroque

Jane Fortune
May 17, 2007

The Florence Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) recently restored Suor Plautilla Nell i’s Lamentaion with Saints, housed in Museo di San Marco. Suor Plautilla Nelli is the first known woman painter of Florence, as some readers will recall from a previous column (see 19 October, 2006, number 42, p. 19). She is one of several Italian women artists from the Renaissance to the Baroque period, who, despite the social constraints of their time, demonstrated talent and success equal to their male peers.


And their work survives today. To commemorate its 20th anniversary, the National Museum of Women in the Arts Washington D.C. is currently hosting a most remarkable exhibition, Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque. Composed of 65 works by 15 women, this show is a true visual legacy, demonstrating that these women were able to transcend social barriers and achieve success by sheer determination. They had no independence, socially or legally, during their lifetimes, and their work was long neglected by the doyens of art history.


Seven of the works on display were graciously loaned from three museums in Florence. They will return to Florence in late summer, so plan to go and see these wonderful pieces, which are so often overlooked. And be sure to look in the eyes of the portraits, for they reflect the souls of the artists!


You might recall previous columns about Giovanna Garzioni and Artemisia Gentileschi. Lavina Fontana and Properzia de’Rossi are equally fascinating:



From the Galleria degli Uffizi:

Lavina Fontana’s miniature, oil on copper, Self Portrait in a Studio, housed in the Corridoio Vasariano; Artemisia Gentileschi’s Saint Cathe-rine of Alexander, damaged by the 1993 bombing and beautifully restored, and four exquisitely precise botanical studies by Giovanna Garzioni, housed in the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe.


Lavina Fontana (1552–1614)

Fontana came from an artistic and cultured family in Bologna, which was the center of arts and academics for both men and women at the time. Perhaps because she was an only child, her father, Prospero, a Mannerist painter, trained her in the arts so she could contribute to the family finances. Her first public commission, at the age of 32, helped establish her as a ‘professional artist’, a title which gained her favor with noble families. Fontana was commissioned to create several altarpieces, which was quite unusual; since they had nude figures, women were rarely contracted to paint them. Most women artists were paid in the form of gifts, because they were forbidden to aggressively promote sales. The only woman of her time to set prices for her paintings, Fontana had no legal standing, so her husband signed all her contracts. Also a painter, her husband came from a noble family. He did the backgrounds in her portraits.


Over 100 works are attributed to Fontana, and her collection constitutes the largest number of works by any woman before the 18th century. Although 30 of her signed pieces still survive today, she is often overlooked by art historians for her life lacked drama, unlike Artemisia Gentileschi, Elizabeth Sirani and Properzio de’Rossi. She led a conventional life—bore 11 children, painted for 30 years, and never travelled, until 1603, when she moved to Rome to become the official painter to the court of Pope Clement VIII. She is considered the first woman in Western Europe to establish a career outside of a convent or court on par with her male counterparts.



From the Palazzo Pitti:

Properzia de’Rossi, carved cherry stone pendant, a pendent of gold, diamonds, emeralds and pearls, surrounding a cherry stone, which is intricately carved with more than 100 heads (housed in the Museo degli Argenti, Palazzo Pitti).



Properzia de’Rossi (1490–1529)

Born in Bologna, Properzia de’Rossi was the only female sculptor and miniaturist of the Renaissance. Known for her miniature carvings on pits of cherries and peaches, she was trained in music and educated in the sciences. Giorgio Vasari included her biography in a 1550 edition of his writings, along with a woodcut portrait. ‘Her fellow citizens regarded her as one of the greatest miracles produced by nature in our days’, he wrote—a truly remarkable statement for the Renaissance period. More amazing, however, was the fact that in the 1520s, at the age of 36, de’Rossi achieved financial and artistic parity with her male counterparts in Bologna. Sadly, her life was brief and filled with much turmoil.



From the Museo di San Marco: An exciting exhibit about Suor Plautilla Nelli, her life and the restoration of her Lamentation. Though the extremely large painting on wood did not go to the exhibition due to its fragility, large before-and-after photo images of the restoration will be on display. A documentary of the restoration and an interactive computer program provides a wonderful, very accessible way for visitors to understand Nelli and her life as a nun and an artist.


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