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.
Helene Brandt (1936–2013), active in New York from the mid-1970s onwards, was well known for her early cage-like works sculpted around her body. Using heated steel tubing, which she bent and twisted to mimic tree roots, Brandt, a former dancer, created stylized frame sculptures that recalled her love of calculated movement: “With sculpture, not only was my whole body involved, but even when I stopped, the art was still there.” During her Florentine period in 2004, the artist was deeply influenced by architectural elements, championing a study of intersected lines and stylized forms as seen in her sleek Charion, a work that now stands in the villa’s quiet front garden. Gifted by the artist in 2009, it was originally part of an exhibition called Isabella, curated by Giovanna Giusti.
Emma Bardini Tozzi (1883–1962) has over 35 paintings currently in storage at the villa. Perhaps she inherited her painterly talents from her father, Stefano Bardini, a Macchiaioli painter of some note before taking Florence by storm as an antiquarian. Currently in need of restoration, Bardini Tozzi’s works are mainly portraits and still-life scenes depicting household objects. Trained in art, she studied both German and English, serving as a worthy companion and interpreter during many of her father’s international mercantile journeys. The villa’s storeroom still houses much of Bardini’s personal paraphernalia, including linens and household objects such as small figurines and vases. On a visit to the attic storeroom with the Advancing Women Artists Foundation, we were shown her palette and a paint-box filled with half-used oils. Uncovering an artist’s tools is a pure joy, and this is especially true for women artists whose personal ‘relics’ are usually few and far between!
A portion of this article appears in Art by Women in Florence: A Guide Through 500 Years by Jane Fortune and Linda Falcone (The Florentine Press, 2012).
Villa Cerreto Guidi
Via Ponti Medicei 12, Cerreto Guidi (Florence) Tel. 0571 55707
Free entrance; open Monday to Sunday, 9am–6pm, closed second and third Monday of the month.