Villa Cerreto Guidi, near Fucecchio, was designed by Bernando Buontalenti and constructed in 1556 by order of Cosimo I. It became home to Isabella de’ Medici, the grand duke’s favorite daughter, an early feminist who met her tragic end in the villa’s nuptial bedroom, murdered by her husband Paolo Orsini. It is said that her ghost still roams the halls. Yet Isabella is not the only “female presence” in the house. Four women artists from different eras grace Cerreto Guidi’s art collection.
Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) created more than 100 works during her lifetime, making Fontana’s the largest oeuvre of any female artist prior to the 1700s. On the villa’s first floor near the staircase, you will find the rigorous but refined Portrait of a Noble (1579). Fontana was taught by her father, Prospero Fontana, the Mannerist fresco painter who assisted Vasari in his work in the Palazzo Vecchio. The first woman artist of her time to have enjoyed the same professional standing as her male counterparts, she nonetheless lacked legal standing to be paid directly for her work. (During Fontana’s time, women artists were generally paid in the form of gifts.) Her marriage to Gian Paolo Zappi was somewhat atypical of modern standards: he assisted his wife by painting the background draperies in her portraits, while tending to their 11 children.
Angelica Kauffman’s (1741–1807) portrait of Stanislao Augusto Poniatowski, an enlightened reformist and the last elected king of Poland can also be found near the staircase. (Interestingly, he also commissioned works to Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun and Rosalba Carriera.) A child prodigy who created portraits of kings and nobles since age 13, Kauffman enjoyed immense popularity as an artist and musician. Her Italian salon was frequented by the likes of Goethe, Benjamin West and Antonio Canova. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, Kauffman’s art was used as inspiration for mass-produced objects, especially high-end housewares. She and Mary Moser were the only women to be accepted officially to the Royal Academy until Dame Laura Knight’s nomination in 1936.