Lasting Impressions: Women Printmakers in Early Modern Italy

With household names such as Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Tiepolo dominating museums, it would be easy to believe there were no women artists working in Italy during similar time periods. Though they faced more challenges than their male counterparts, women artists held a strong presence in early Italian art.

Elisabetta Sirani, Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist, 1655-1665; Etching on paper, 10 5/8 x 8 3/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Elisabetta Sirani, Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist, 1655–1665; Etching on paper, 10 5/8 x 8 3/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Elisabetta Sirani and Diana Mantuana (also known as Diana Ghisi, Diana Mantovana, or Diana Scultori) are two women who had successful careers as artists. Sirani (1638–1665) was a Baroque painter and engraver from Bologna. Considered a prodigy, she created more than 200 works of her art during her short life. Mantuana (c. 1535–c. 1590), born in Mantua, Italy, was a Mannerist engraver who also had a very productive career.

These two women, born nearly 100 years apart, share striking similarities. Both were trained by their fathers—a typical entry point into the arts for women. By the age of 19 Sirani was the breadwinner of her family, supporting her parents and three siblings when her father became too ill to work. Mantuana also proved her business savvy, using her engravings to advertise the architectural work of her husband, thus securing him commissions.

Both Sirani and Mantuana made strong statements by signing their works—a rare practice for a woman artist. Because Sirani painted quickly, critics made accusations that her father was lending a hand. In response, Sirani opened her studio to the public to observe her at work. Even Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici came to watch her paint. Mantuana also placed an emphasis on her signature, becoming one of the first women to receive papal privilege. Essentially a copyright granted by the pope, this protected her work from being copied and secured her name to every work that she printed.

Diana Ghisi, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (after Giulio Romano), 1575; Copperplate engraving on paper, 16 1/2 x 23 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Diana Mantuana, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (after Giulio Romano), 1575; Copperplate engraving on paper, 16 1/2 x 23 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

NMWA’s collection contains engravings by both Sirani and Mantuana. Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1575), based on a Raphael tapestry designed for the Sistine Chapel, is one of Mantuana’s most famous prints. In the corner, she dedicated the engraving to Eleonora of Austria and stated her dual allegiance to Rome and Mantua. Two engravings by Sirani, The Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and St. John the Baptist and Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist, are in NMWA’s collection. In the latter engraving, Sirani stated that it was inspired by Raphael, much like Mantuana’s work.

These pioneering women also received recognition from their male peers. Mantuana is one of the few women mentioned in Vasari’s 1568 version of Lives, in which he says he “was astounded” by her work. Sirani won the favor of biographer Malvasia, who referred to Sirani as “the glory of the female sex, the gem of Italy, the sun of Europe.”

Sirani continued to help elevate other women artists, opening what is considered to be the first art school in Europe for women. There she trained her two younger sisters and at least 12 other aspiring women artists.

—Chloe Bazlen is the summer 2017 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Elisabetta Sirani

According to written records when she died at twenty-seven, Italian artist Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) had already produced two hundred paintings, drawings, and etchings. An independent painter by nineteen, Sirani ran her family’s workshop: she supported her parents, three siblings, and herself entirely through her art.

Elisabetta Sirani, Self-Portrait, unknown date. Black and red chalk on paper. 9 x 6 inches (23 x 15.5 cm). Private Collection, Geneva, Switzerland

Sirani spent her life in Bologna, a city famous for its progressive attitude toward women’s rights and for producing successful female artists. Trained by her father, Sirani was encouraged in her career by Count Carlo Cesare Malvasia, a family friend and influential art critic. She became famous for her ability to paint beautifully finished canvases so quickly that art lover’s visited her studio from far and wide to watch her work. Sirani’s portraits, mythological subjects, and especially her images of the Holy family, and the Virgin and Child, gained international fame.

When Sirani died—suddenly after experiencing stomach pains—her father suspected she had been poisoned by a jealous maid. The servant was tried for but acquitted of this crime, and an autopsy revealed numerous lacerations in the artist’s stomach, presumably evidence of perforated ulcers. Her funeral was an elaborate affair involving formal orations, special poetry and music, and an enormous catafalque decorated with a life-size sculpture of the deceased. In addition to her artwork, Sirani left an important legacy through her teaching. Her pupils included her two sisters, Barbara and Anna Maria, and more than a dozen other young women who became professional painters.

Elisabetta Sirani, Virgin and Child, 1663. Oil on canvas. 34 x 27 1/2 inches. (86 x 68.5 cm). National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Elisabetta Sirani’s Virgin and Child, 1663, portrays Mary not as a remote queen of heaven but as a very real, young Italian mother, wearing the turban favored by Bolognese peasant women, who gazes adoringly at the plump baby wriggling on her lap. Mary’s long, slender fingers secure the infant’s torso as the Christ child playfully leans back into pictorial space to crown her with a garland of roses, which she lowers her head to receive. There is virtually no ornamentation on Mary’s clothing except for the hint of a blue pattern in her headscarf: the only other decoration is the gold tassel at the corner of the pillow on which the Christ child is resting. This touch of glitter and the floral garland are especially noticeable in contrast to Sirani’s plain, dark background.

Nancy G. Heller has a doctorate in art history from Rutgers University, is a writer and lecturer on the arts who has presented numerous talks on women artists at various museums, colleges, and other universities.