Woman in black dress painting at easel

10.2 Sofonisba Anguissola, a Renaissance Painter

You’ve heard of Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo, but when they do the feminist remake of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, one of them will be called Sofonisba. There are a handful of Italian Renaissance female painters, but I have to admit they come late to the party.


Sofonisba was probably born in 1532, though no one kept birth records at that point, so we don’t know that for sure. By then Leonardo, Raphael, and Donatello had all gone to their eternal reward. Michelangelo was still hanging on. In terms of art history eras, the High Renaissance (which loved symmetry and proportion) was giving way to Mannerism (which favored a deliberately unbalanced composition) as a bridge moving on towards the Baroque (which celebrated drama and contrast).

Sofonisba’s father was a member of the minor nobility in Cremona, which is near Milan. Sixteenth century Italy was a thrilling time for the arts, but the role of the nobility was to fund it, not to make it. The standard arts training was to apprentice for five to seven years in the workshop of a professional artist starting somewhere between ages seven and ten.

But noblemen’s sons didn’t do that and neither did daughters of any social class. What Sofonisba got was an excellent education at home. She was the oldest of six girls, followed by (finally) a long-awaited boy. Providing six dowries was no trivial challenge, and it has been suggested that Amilcare Anguissola took care to educate his girls because he knew they’d need to make their own money to support themselves.

Personally, I doubt that was his motive. Certainly the idea that noblewoman would make money in art was not part of the mental framework. I give him more credit than that. I think he educated his girls because he valued both them and education.

But for whatever reason, the girls got a good education and that included art education. All of them were good at it.

At age 14, Sofonisba was sent to live with Bernardo Campi, a working painter. Not as an apprentice, of course. By now she was not only a girl and noble, she was also too old for to be an apprentice. But she lived with the Campi family and he gave her private lessons, at a safe remove from the workshop where the boys worked and learned, of course (Perlingieri, 41-42).

Her oldest surviving works are two self-portraits. Last week I mentioned that that the Roman artist Iaia used a mirror to paint herself and this was unusual enough that Pliny thought it worth mentioning. It remained unusual. As far as the Renaissance was concerned, the self-portrait was an art form invented by Albrecht Dürer only 50 years before Sofonisba began making them (Perlingieri, 65).

Sofonisba began her self-portraits as a teenager and continued painting them right up into her last surviving works. This means that you really should check out the following slide show where you can watch her age, just like a real person. I’ve never been able to provide that for any other woman I’ve ever covered.

(Note that a couple of these paintings are arguably self-portraits, but most of them are indisputable. All are from Wikimedia Commons.)

Even royal figures who had portraits painted many times usually look stiff, stuffy, regal. The emphasis is often more on the ridiculous clothes than it is on the living, breathing person inside them.

Not so with Sofonisba’s self-portraits. For the most part, her dresses are black, and they are less adorned than other women of her time and status, though she is known to have a fine eye for embellished fabrics (Garrard, 583-584). Her focus is the face, her self.

There’s also the question of why she painted so many. I read several psychological, super deep examination of the subconscious kinds of explanations, but I’m a simple soul and I prefer the practical theory: She wasn’t an official apprentice, she couldn’t hang out in the workshop, so who did she have to model for her? Certainly not the male nudes that were inspiring Michelangelo’s best-known works.

Campi taught Sofonisba a lot. One of her self-portraits is even a painting of him painting her, and the psychological analysis of that one is way beyond my tolerance level (Garrard).

Bearded man in black painting a girl in red dress
Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola (Source)

After a couple of years, Campi left Cremona and she studied with another painter named Gatti, but the place to be, artistically speaking, was Rome. So that’s where Sofonisba went.

Sofonisba in Rome

An aging Michelangelo was still in Rome, still working. Sofonisba obviously couldn’t join his workshop, but they did have contact. There are several surviving letters from Amilcare thanking Michelangelo for his kindness and guidance to his beloved daughter (Perlingieri, 67).

The exact nature of this guidance is mostly not given, but many of Michelangelo’s sketches were in circulation among the nobility (Perlingieri, 72). It was common practice for aspiring artists to copy them, adapt them, and learn from them. Sofonisba was even able to get the great man’s comments on her own sketches. The particular exchange we know about was when she proposed to sketch a laughing girl, and he suggested that she do a weeping boy instead because it would be a greater challenge.

I am not sure I buy that greater challenge theory, but I am not an artist, and certainly tragedy often gets more prestige than comedy, and yes, boys got more prestige than girls. But it does possibly say something about their relative ideas of life and art. Sofonisba knew a happy family of mostly girls. A laughing girl was a natural idea. According to art historian Mary D. Garrard, the entire collected works of  Michelangelo hardly include a single laughing figure, and arguably no real women either (Garrard, 612).

I was puzzled by that last claim until I took a look. There are plenty of Virgin Mary’s, for whom I presume he had a real woman modeling, and there’s an awkward looking Eve, looking tiny and insignificant near to that famous one of Adam touching the finger of God. But, no I didn’t find any portraits of the Duke’s wife, the Cardinal’s lover, or the woman down the street, nothing like that.

My own lowbrow uncultured estimation of Michelangelo is going down all the time, so it is slightly amusing to look at how Sofonisba responded to his advice. After all, you can’t just ignore a tutor of his stature, and she didn’t ignore him. As instructed, she drew a weeping boy. But it’s hardly a tragedy. She drew her younger brother, age 3, having been bitten by a crab.

Asdrubale Bitten by a Crawfish (or crab or lobster, depending on the translation) (Source)

Does that happen? I live in a landlocked state, and my experience with crab is mostly limited to when the waiter delivers it on a plate. Anyway, the boy is certainly weeping, and next to him is an older sister, who is clearly not sympathetic. She thinks it’s cute or maybe outright funny. So in the end, Sofonisba followed instructions and also got the last laugh, drawing what she wanted to in the first place.

Sofonisba, Court Painter

In 1555, Sofonisba returned to Cremona and began taking portrait commissions. There were exactly zero female role models for her to model herself on while doing this (Perlingieri, 77). She also continued to paint those she knew, sometimes in startling ways. She painted servants, which was not really done. She painted her sisters playing chess. It was the kind of intimate daily moment that Dutch and Flemish artists would make popular, but not for another century (Perlingieri, 88).

Three well dressed girls around a chessboard while a servant looks on.
The Game of Chess (1555). This shows three of Sofonisba’s sisters and a servant. (Source)

Her reputation grew and soon enough Sofonisba was traveling around northern Italy to paint portraits. One of them was of Fernando Alvarez Toledo, third duke of Alba, and this is important because it was he who mentioned her to Philip, the king of Spain and the Netherlands (Perlingieri, 109).

You may not be up on your Spanish royal history, but if you’re up on your English royal history, you’ve encountered Philip. He’s the Spanish Catholic who married Bloody Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife the Spanish Catherine of Aragon. He barely spent any time with her at all, but his very existence enraged the English Protestants. He’s also the guy who later sent the Spanish Armada against her half-sister Elizabeth to disastrous or possibly heaven-sent results, depending on who’s side you are on, but that part hadn’t happened yet.

In 1560, Mary had already died without presenting Philip with an heir, and he had just married a French princess to correct Mary’s oversight. The blushing bride was all of 13 years old. The wedding was done by proxy, Philip couldn’t even make it in person. The father of the bride died unexpectedly during the wedding celebrations, so let’s just say it was a lot for your average middle school girl to process.

Philip hired Sofonisba to become the new queen’s court painter. He had his own painter (a man, obviously) and that causes plenty of problems because their works are sometimes misattributed to each other. But mostly it’s her works that got attributed to him. That, by the way, is a sentence I’m going to say every week for a long time to come. It’s a pattern for female painters. Their name gets lost. The work survives with the name of their husband, father, male teacher, or male colleague.

From the King’s perspective, Sofonisba was ideal to be the queen’s court painter. She was not only a good painter, she was also a noblewoman, and she was also older than the queen (but not too old, so as to be unrelatable). She would probably be a good influence on the nervous and grieving young queen.

For Sofonisba, it was financial. She was bringing in money with commissions, but at 27, she was unmarried, which meant she was still her father’s ward, and he technically owned all her earnings. We have no evidence of how the money was spent, but we do know his fortunes were sinking fast, and there were still dowries to be considered. Philip was offering Sofonisba what noblewomen and artists seldom got: a steady job. She’d have been a fool to turn it down (Perlingieri, 112).

Sofonisba moved to the Spanish court, and she and Queen Isabel got along just fine. They both loved art, they both loved playing the clavichord, they both loved fine fabric. Isabel asked Sofonisba to teach her how to paint, and she did that as well as turning out the required portraits of the court. These paintings are more formal (dare I even say stuffy?) than the ones she did of her family, but that was the style of the Spanish court. That was what she was being paid to do. You can’t fault a woman for that.

Philip II dressed in black
Philip II of Spain by Sofonisba Anguissola (Source)

And speaking of payment, there’s an interesting shift in perspective from her time to ours. Think about jobs with high or low social status and try to figure out where “artist” fits into that scale in the modern world. It’s tricky because if you are a very successful painter, singer, or writer, then it’s high social status. You are a rock star, figuratively and maybe literally too. Everyone wants to meet you and follow your every move in the tabloids.

But if you are an unsuccessful one of the above, then everyone’s wondering why you threw away your perfectly good chance to become a lawyer or a doctor. I mean get a real job, seriously. Very low social status.

In Sofonisba’s time, people were only just beginning to get that concept of a creative genius, worthy of our adoration. Artists were low status, regardless of success. Her status as a nobleman’s daughter was a much higher ranking that that of a mere court painter. So from their perspective, it was right and proper that her actual title was lady-in-waiting. Her assignment was painting (among other things), but her title was not court painter. That would have been demeaning to her.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of later art historians that meant she wasn’t a real artist. Not a professional. She was just a dabbler in painting, a hobbyist, a spoiled young rich woman with nothing better to do, not someone to be taken seriously (Perlingieri, 120). In other words, she had a real job, according to this theory, and the real job was waiting on the queen hand and foot. Not Art.

I am guessing that this confusion is also what led a quite recent Youtube video on her claiming that she never sold a painting in her lifetime. That is blatantly untrue even if you set aside the 20 years she spent with an official position in the Spanish court, but there it is. Who knew there could be misinformation online?

Isabel unfortunately did not survive the full 20 years. She died at age 23, leaving two children, both girls. Sigh. Sofonisba stayed at court, and the king continued paying her (Perlingieri, 141). Eventually, he found a husband for her as well.

We don’t have a record of what Sofonisba thought of this. She was now around 40, very late for a first marriage, but one of the reasons women became ladies-in-waiting was because it was a good way to meet a man. Court was in some ways much like a dating website, only with the riffraff already filtered out, and Sofonisba found her match. Or rather the king found him: the Sicilian Don Fabrizio de Moncada. King Philip also paid her a dowry which was sizeable.

After the wedding, the couple traveled a bit and then returned to court, and Sofonisba returned to painting. Her work in this period includes A Nobleman and His Wife, which may be another self-portrait, a portrait of the new queen (Philip’s 4th and still no prince in sight), a portrait of the two princesses where you really just feel sorry for those two chubby toddlers stuffed into such ludicrous clothes.

Two small girls in rich brocaded green dresses
Infantas Isabella Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela (Source)

And my personal favorite: a portrait of an anonymous lady. This one shows not only a beautiful woman, but the exquisite gold and silver embroidery for which the Spanish court was famous. She is holding flowers, which are painted with great care and biological accuracy. In some ways it’s a mini-still life, a form that would not become popular for another 100 years (Perlingieri, 160).

Profile of woman with auburn hair holding flowers
Portrait of a Young Woman (Source)

In 1579, Don Fabrizio died. Sofonisba chose her next husband herself. She married Orazio Lowellino, a Genoese nobleman with a shipping business. King Philip sent her a wedding present (Perlingieri, 171).

The Last Few Decades

At almost 50, Sofonisba was finally the mistress of her own palazzo. She lived in Genoa for another 40 years and her home was a gathering place for artists and nobility. She continued to paint too. She made self-portraits, commissioned portraits, and religious paintings. That last she had not done since her teenage years, and you have to wonder why. Possibly she didn’t have time at the Spanish court. Maybe she was just more religious as she reached and passed the average life expectancy. The Final Judgment may have weighed on her mind. Or maybe she just finally felt secure enough to paint the things the most prestigious male painters did. That was Bible scenes, for sure.

She certainly was more secure. Besides her own commissions and Orazio’s fortune, Philip still paid her an annual stipend. We know because she periodically had to sign a notarized document saying, yup, I am still breathing, keep the money coming (Perlingieri, 193). When Isabel’s daughter got married, she came all the way to Genoa to have her betrothal portrait painted by Sofonisba (Perlingieri 190). Apparently, the current court painters weren’t up to scratch.

In 1620, Sofonisba was nearly 90 years old when she and Orazio moved to Palermo. Her eyesight was failing, but we do have a final portraits of her because painter Anthony Van Dyke came for a visit. He wrote in his sketchbook that:

“she was . . .  still with a good memory, quick spirit and kind. Although her eyesight was weakened through age, it was a great pleasure for her to have pictures placed in front of her, and while she then placed her nose very close to the painting with a lot of effort, she managed to recognize some of it. She enjoyed that very much. When I drew her portrait, she gave me several hints: not to get too close, too high or too low so the shadows in her wrinkles would not show so much. She also talked to me about her life and that she was a wonderful painter of nature. Her greatest sorrow was not to be able to paint any more because of her failing eyesight. Her hand was steady without any trembling.”

(quoted in Perlingieri, 204)
Old woman dressed in black with a white veil
Sofonisba Anguissola (age 92) painted by Anthony van Dyke (Source)

Sofonisba Anguissola died at the age of 93 and was buried on November 16, 1625. In the end, no one named a teenage mutant ninja turtle after her, but she did have an artistic impact. Her sketches were circulated among Italian nobility, just as Michelangelo’s had been. She pioneered still life and intimate family moments long before others made them a viable art form. Her status as a noblewoman actually raised the profile of artists. After her, it became more common to honor them with more than just the measly little title of court painter. And finally, she was the inspiration for many a subsequent young lady who wanted to be an artist. None of them had to do it without any role model at all.

You can listen to a whole lot more about the history of Italy, check out the History of Italy podcast by the fabulous Mike Corradi.

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