Women artists of 16th & 17th-century Italy

It’s easy to feel like we know all there is to know about great Italian art. But as Dr Kathleen Olive has found out while preparing for her Florence study tour this November, there’s still more to learn…

When we talk about Italian Old Masters, we’re usually thinking of great men, such as Michelangelo, Raphael or Bernini. But did any women artists reach similar professional heights?

I’m increasingly asked about art produced by women in the 16th and 17th centuries, and thanks to recent research – and the extraordinary work of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation in Florence – I’ve found out more and more about the fascinating careers of the women artists of this period.

Professional painters behind closed doors
Sister Plautilla Nelli

Sister Plautilla Nelli’s Lamentation with Saints, San Marco Museum, Florence, restored in 2006 by the AWA (Advancing Women Artists’), their first-ever restoration.

Sister Plautilla Nelli is an artist whose career has been the subject of much recent research. Born into a wealthy Florentine family in 1524, she entered the Dominican convent of Santa Caterina da Siena at age 14.

Becoming a nun signalled the beginning, not the end, of Plautilla’s career. While the 16th-century Church became very concerned with the moral purity of nuns – even keeping them behind closed doors (in clausura) to ensure their protection – women like Plautilla could still transact business with the secular world through trusted male factors.

Apparently self-taught, Plautilla built up a thriving art business behind her convent’s gates, with Giorgio Vasari, a 16th-century Italian art historian, claiming that Florentine gentlemen clamoured to own one of her works. Perhaps because of the status and income her business afforded the convent, Plautilla served as prioress no less than three times.

More and more of Plautilla’s works are being restored and exhibited, and her style shows she was greatly influenced by local artists Bronzino and Fra Bartolomeo. The latter painted from Florence’s monastery of San Marco, just over the square from Plautilla’s own convent, and it’s in the Museum of San Marco that you’ll find one of her most powerful works today.

Her Lamentation is quite stylised: the long, twisted forms of Christ’s mourners are clothed in bright and contrasting colours, and while their poses are like a formal tableau, the grief in their wet eyes and red noses is powerful.

The Advancing Women Artists Foundation has been instrumental in championing Plautilla’s works, with a 2017 exhibition at the Uffizi and a crowd-funded restoration of her Last Supper (in Florence’s Museo di Santa Maria Novella), perhaps the first painting on the theme by a woman artist.

Women behaving badly
Sculptor Properzia de’ Rossi

Sculptor Properzia de’ Rossi’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, 1520s, Marble, Museo di San Petronio, Bologna.

One of the great barriers to early women artists’ careers was the perception that some media weren’t “appropriate”. Messy, physical and sometimes even dangerous, art-making also required study of the nude human form – hardly a decorous pursuit for fragile women!

And yet Properzia de’ Rossi, born in late 15th-century Bologna, was considered one of the best sculptors of her day. A notary’s daughter, she excelled at various art forms but concentrated on sculpture and was only one of Bologna’s star women artists: painters Lavinia Fontana and Elisabetta Sirani were also both born here.

Initially known for works in “feminine” media, such as delicate carvings in apricot and peach stones, Properzia later received significant large-scale commissions, such as a marble relief for the façade of San Petronio. Showing Joseph fleeing from Potiphar’s lusty wife, the work demonstrates her close observation of Michelangelo’s style.

One of the only women Vasari mentions in his Lives, Properzia was nevertheless a controversial figure. For one, she was trained by Marcantonio Raimondi, who famously risked papal ire by engraving the risqué illustrations for a Renaissance “Kama Sutra”, I Modi (“Ways to do it”).

Hauled before the Bolognese courts for vandalism and assaulting a fellow (male) artist, Properzia was said to have died of syphilis in a plague hospital in 1529; she was perhaps 40. While much of her biography is lost to history, you can see her carved fruit pits, set in silver, in Bologna’s wonderful Museo medievale.

Daughter of a great man
Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1614–1620, Pitti Palace, Florence.

Renaissance artists were trained in-house and, like artists’ sons in the 16th and 17th centuries, Italian daughters followed their fathers into the profession – such as Marietta Robusti, whose father Jacopo is better known as Tintoretto.

Italy’s best known woman painter, Artemisia Gentileschi, was the daughter of a successful painter. Her father, Orazio, ran with Caravaggio’s pack in Rome, worked in Genoa, Paris and England, and was known to contemporaries for a “bestial” temper that often caused him strife.

Artemisia’s early notoriety dates to age 18, when she was studying painting in Rome with her father’s colleague, Agostino Tassi. Raped by Agostino, she assumed that he would make good on his promises to marry her – a common outcome when a woman’s marriageable value depended on her virginity.

After nine months and no wedding, Orazio brought charges against Agostino. The seven-month trial, carried out by the Roman inquisition, required Artemisia to appear as a witness – and the application of thumbscrews to test her testimony.

With the trial decided in her favour, Tassi was exiled. Artemisia was (unhappily) married to a minor artist, and left for a new career in Florence. Her artistic interest in violence, such as in her depictions of Judith slaying Holofernes, has long been understood in the light of these traumatic events.

But Artemisia’s artistic gifts were more complex: she synthesised Michelangelo’s Tuscan traditions with the Roman trends of the Carracci and Caravaggio, and she took the Italian style to England twice, working on the Queen’s House in Greenwich. Later she become one of the most prominent artists of 17th-century Naples.

While today we know Artemisia for the unhappy circumstances of her rape, her professional career was untouched by this tragedy. And she wasn’t held back by a disappointing marriage or growing family, either – one of her surviving letters is a lament about the cost of childcare for a career woman!

Courtly curiosities
Sofonisba Anguissola

Sofonisba Anguissola’s The Chess Game (Portrait of the artist’s sisters playing chess), 1555, National Museum in Poznań.

While women artists scaled professional heights in the 16th and 17th centuries, there’s no denying that they were in a minority – or that, like Artemisia, they faced serious challenges.

Professional women artists were frequently viewed as a sheer curiosity, their skill and success valued predominantly for their rarity. And the wealthy patrons presiding over Europe’s courts liked nothing more than surrounding themselves with entertainers – be they jesters, musicians, dwarves or women painters!

As a result, a number of Italian women artists ended up working in great European courts. Giovanna Garzoni’s still lifes, for example, were sought after by the Medici: today you can admire the juxtaposition of delicate beauty and sturdy realism in her botanical drawings, in Florence’s Uffizi and Pitti Palace. You can see examples of her work at the beginning and end of this article.

Sofonisba Anguissola is the best known of the women court artists. Born an impoverished Cremonese aristocrat in the 1530s, she was apprenticed with her sisters to local artists – perhaps because her father couldn’t afford a dowry. He sent his girls’ works to local lords as professional calling cards, with the result that Sofonisba was called to Milan to paint the Duke of Alba. This in turn led to an invitation as art tutor to young Queen Isabel in Madrid and, later, an assignment as official court painter to Philip II.

Married by Philip to a Sicilian nobleman, Sofonisba followed her husband to Sicily, Pisa and Genoa. When he died, she married a ship’s captain – for love, against her family’s wishes – and settled in Palermo, where Van Dyck visited her and painted her as an elderly lady.

Sofonisba’s work was so influenced by Madrid’s court painters – Coello’s finely detailed royal portraits, for example – that it has taken some time to re-identify her mature works. But I find her earlier paintings and self-portraits more dynamic, anyway: forced, by the difficulty of procuring professional models, to paint her siblings and herself, Sofonisba developed an extraordinary gift for painting women.

She conveys the intimacy of women’s domestic relationships through the smallest gestures and glances exchanged such as in The Chess Game, and charts her own physiological and psychological changes over time in numerous self-portraits.

These aspects of Sofonisba’s work could be compared to photographer Sally Mann’s series of family portraits, or Annie Leibovitz’s of Susan Sontag – just two of the contemporary women artists whose professional possibilities were pioneered by Italian women in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Giovanna Garzoni’s Hyacinth with Four Cherries, a Lizard, and an Artichoke, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Academy Travel’s upcoming Florence: Study Tour, led by Dr Kathleen Olive, offers the possibility of examining a number of these Italian women artists’ works – in the least crowded time of year!

Kathleen is also teaching an upcoming course on this topic; you can find more information by clicking here.

Dr Kathleen Olive

Dr Kathleen Olive

Has more than 15 years’ experience leading tour groups. She is one of Academy Travel’s most respected tour leaders, and is known to Academy Travellers as a skilled and sensitive presenter. Kathleen has a PhD in Italian Studies, speaks fluent Italian and lectures on the art, history and culture of Europe and Japan.

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