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.

Curator’s Travelogue: Women Artists of Bologna

In this series of blog posts, NMWA Curator of Book Arts Krystyna Wasserman recounts a recent trip to Europe:

The focus of a journey could be the exploration of a new territory or a spiritual journey in search of internal peace. It could also be the need to assuage one’s desire for friendship, love, or adventure or, simply, finding an inspiration for creative work. My trip to Germany and Italy in September 2011 was focused on viewing works created by women, on meeting artists, particularly book artists, and on cultivating old friendships. 

PART III . Bologna

Home of the oldest university in Europe (1088) and the capital of tortellini, Bologna is also the birth place of Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) and Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665), two of the best-known “old mistresses.” Fontana was the favorite painter of the noblewomen and created two of the oldest paintings in the NMWA collection, Portrait of a Noblewoman and Portrait of Costanza Alidosi, which are excellent examples of this genre. Of the two artists, Fontana is now given more recognition, judging by the number of her works on museum walls during my September 2011 visit to the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna.

Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of Costanza Alidosi, c. 1595

Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of Costanza Alidosi, c. 1595; Oil on canvas, 62 x 47 3/8 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Fontana’s somber Ritratto della Famiglia Gozzadini (1584) (Portrait of the Gozzadini Family) was commissioned by the Bolognese aristocrat Laudomia Gozzadini. At the time the portrait was painted, Laudomia’s father, a senator, and her sister Ginevra were dead. The painting underscores Laudomia’s role as the legitimate heir to the family’s power and fortune. The portrait, as Vera Fortunati, a feminist art historian from the University of Bologna, observed,” is a kind of domestic alterpiece dedicated to the household gods.” Ritratto di neonato nella culla (1583) (Portrait of a Newborn in the Cradle), also on view, portrays a less common subject for a painter of that period. The baby’s aristocratic background is depicted through exquisite white clothing and inlaid cradle; however, the cradle is reminiscent of a catafalque and it has been observed that the painting may depict a deceased newborn. Fontana was the mother of eleven children and painted several children’s portraits, but as Vera Fortunati suggests quoting from P. Aries Padri e Figli nell’ Europa Moderna, 1960, “the appearance in the sixteenth century of the portrait of a dead child represents a very important moment in the history of feelings.” Both paintings travelled in 1998 to Washington for NMWA’s exhibition Lavinia Fontana of Bologna, 15521614 (February 5–June 7, 1998).

Fontana was also the first woman to paint alterpieces at the time of Counter-Reformation and the growing power of the Catholic Church. One of her altarpiece paintings, San Francisco di Paola blessing the Child has been also on view in the Pinacoteca Nazionale. Birth of the Virgin Mary can be seen in Santissima Trinita church and Madonna Enthroned with Child and Santa Caterina of Alexandria, Cosma, Damiano e il Committente Scipione Calcina in the church of San Giacomo Maggiore, among other churches of Bologna.

Donatella Franchi, A Clotilde, 2009

Donatella Franchi, A Clotilde, 2009; Mixed media, 8 x 8 1/2 inches; Gift of Lynn M. Johnston

I sorely missed Fontana’s tender Ritratto di Gentildonna con Bambina (Portrait of a Noblewoman with a Young Girl (ca.1590–1595) in which a mother passes a bound in red velvet book to her small daughter. This painting was an inspiration for a contemporary artist of Bologna, Donatella Franchi, in creating the artist’s book A Clotilde (currently on view in NMWA’s exhibition Trove). The book is devoted to her mother, who died at the age of one hundred. Franchi says, “In my memories of her as young woman, she always holds a book in her hands. To overcome the anguish that her fragility and dependence occasionally caused me, I focused on her most characteristic gestures. Her hands, delicately turning the pages or resting on them, appeared to be bathed in the same light as the great tradition of artistic portraits. The Pinacoteca painting depicting a mother passing a book to her daughter is one of them. Now that my mother is no longer here, it is with great intensity that I harbor within me the force of this legacy.”

Via Urbana, Elisabetta Sirani's birthplace

Via Urbana, Elisabetta Sirani's birthplace

Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665) lived on Via Urbana 7, a quiet arcaded street. There is a plaque on the building that says: “Nell giorno VIII gennaio 1638 qui nacque Elisabetta Sirani emulatrice delsommo Guido Reni” (On the day of January 8, 1638 Elisabetta Sirani, the rival of the great Guido Reni (1575–1642) was born [in this building].) It is a slightly chauvinist inscription. It defines Sirani as emulatrice of Guido Reni rather than remembering her as an independent talent and an accomplished painter of religious and historical scenes. Guido Reni would never be described as a “rival” of Sirani or any other artist on the wall of the building he was born or lived in. In the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna the only Sirani painting on view was Sant’Antonio di Padova in adorazione del Bambin Gesu (1662). I was disappointed that San Girolamo (1660) and Maddalena (1660), some of her greatest works, were nowhere to be seen.

Elisabetta Sirani, Virgin and Child, 1663

Elisabetta Sirani, Virgin and Child, 1663; Oil on canvas, 34 x 27 1/2 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Conservation funds generously provided by the Southern California State Committee of NMWA

Sirani’s life was the subject of gossip. Young and beautiful, she died at the age of 27 at the peak of her successful career. A poisoning by a domestic servant Lucia Tolomelli was rumored, but I was assured by scholars that the autopsy proved that the artist died of stomach ulcers and a perforated stomach. She was working too hard to support her family and it did not help that her father, also a painter, kept and controlled all of her earnings.

Massimo Pulini's book on Ginevra Cantofoli

Massimo Pulini's book on Ginevra Cantofoli

In Donatella Franchi’s library, I discovered a book by Massimo Pulini Ginevra Cantofoli: La nuova nascita di una pittrice nella Biologna del Seicento. Ginevra Cantofoli (1608–1672) was a talented pupil of Sirani and an excellent painter whose work was often attributed to Guido Reni and other artists. Pulini identified many works by Cantofoli, among them a portrait of Sirani (in a private collection in Bologna.) She particularly excelled in sensitive and idealized paintings of women. Her Sibilla (Busto di Ragazza) is in the Hermitage, another Sibilla (Donna con Turbante) in the Louvre collection, and Berenice is in Galeria Borghese in Rome. In Bologna, none of her paintings is on view, even though Pulini’s book lists the large canvas Vergine Immacolata col Bambin Gesu (190 x 117 cm.) in the collection of the Pinacoteca in Bologna. Cantofoli’s paintings deserve to be known and seen. The magistrates of the city of Bologna should pay more attention to the legacy of their women artists to maintain the historical importance of their city as the legendary world’s capital of women artists from the Renaissance to the 18th century.

Santo Stefano church, in Bologna

Santo Stefano church, in Bologna

Angela Lorenz is another contemporary artist in Bologna whose artist’s books are in NMWA’s collection. Often referring to the female heroines of the past, she is currently working on an installation, Victorious Secrets, inspired by the mosaics of 380 A.D. in Villa Armorina in Sicily representing women wearing bikinis. Lorenz is an American from New England who married an Italian man photographer (who is also the owner of the best gelateria in Bologna). Unlike most art historians, guidebook writers, and tourists, she is not concerned with what the women are wearing, but what they are doing. Lorenz creates mosaics made of buttons, a traditional material used by seamstresses, which she stores in large boxes in her studio. After thorough research, she discovered that the women portrayed are the athletes and the winners of the Olympic games. Unlike the men who performed naked, women participated in the Olympics every other year and wore bikinis. She is currently creating a triptych which will show women throwing discus, playing ball, and lifting weights.

—Krystyna Wasserman is the curator of book arts at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Check back soon for additional posts on her travels.

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.