Anguissola, Sofonisba (c. 1532–1625)

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ANGUISSOLA, SOFONISBA (c. 15321625), Italian portrait painter. The daughter of Amilcare Anguissola and Bianca Ponzone of Cremona, Sofonisba Anguissola enjoyed international recognition during her lifetime. In the history of art her name has appeared with regularity since Marco Girolamo Vida counted her, at age fifteen, among the most significant painters in Cremonensium Orationes III Adversus Papienses in Controversia Principatus (1550), and Giorgio Vasari praised her as "miraculous" in the second edition of The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1568). Her known works include small devotional pictures, such as the Holy Family (1559, Accademia Carrara, Begamo); numerous portraits, like the life-size Portrait of Isabel Valoise (c. 1565, Prado, Madrid); more than a dozen self-portraits, which date principally to her youth; and paintings and finished drawings of her family. Within this corpus, the images depicting her family hold special significance. The intimacy, wit, and captured spontaneity seen in paintings like The Artist's Sisters Playing Chess (c. 1555, Muzeum Narodowe, Poznań) and the drawing Young Girl Teaching an Old Woman the Alphabet (mid-1550s, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence), were unprecedented, making Anguissola the innovator of what has come to be called "the conversation piece."

Sofonisba Anguissola was the oldest in a family of six daughters and a son. It has been reasonably suggested that her father, who became her most ambitious promoter, decided to provide her and her sisters with a humanist education and artistic training in the hope of alleviating some of the monetary strain of financing six dowries. The rationale, which proved correct, was that the exceptionality of female artists ensured the rarity and desirability of their work. In her early teens, Sofonisba, together with her sister Elena (who died after 1584), was sent to study painting with Bernardino Campi. If the association, which lasted from c. 15461549, was not typically that of apprentice to master but resembled more the relationship of paying guest to instructional host, the actual artistic training Anguissola received seems to have followed conventional lines. She was taught the fundamentals of materials and techniques, and instructed to copy the works of her teacher and other masters. Anguissola's small panel painting of the Pietà (after 1560, Pinacoteca Brera, Milan), which depends clearly on Campi's Deposition (Pinacoteca Brera, Milan), as well as her Nursing Madonna (1588, Szepmusveseti Muzeum, Budapest), which replicates the style and composition of works by the Genoese master Luca Cambiaso, indicate that she continued to learn in this way long after her departure from Campi's workshop and even after her subsequent period of study (1549c. 1552) with Benardino Gatti (14951576), called Il Sojaro, had ended.

Throughout this period, Anguissola's father corresponded with an array of influential humanists and potential patrons. Extant letters to Michelangelo Buonarroti reveal Amilcare Anguissola's zeal in seeking the best possible guidance for his artist daughter. In one letter, dated 7 May 1557, he thanks the great master for the "innate courtesy and goodness" that prompted him "in the past to introduce her to art" and requests Michelangelo "to guide her again." Although no image has been securely identified with this correspondence, Anguissola's drawing Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish (late 1550s, Museo di Campodimonte, Naples), has linked her name to that of Michelangelo since 1562. A considerable number of Anguissola's self-portraits date to this decade. These works, which are very small in scale and somber in tonality, were in all likelihood promotional gifts. Sofonisba presents herself at the keyboard, seated before an easel holding a brush and palette, and even as the subject of a portrait painted by her first teacher, Bernardino Campi. Whether through the efforts of her father, the dissemination of her self-portraits, or both, Anguissola's fame spread within and outside the borders of the Italian peninsula. Her paintings were requested by, and subsequently entered the collections of, Pope Julius III and members of the Este, Farnese, Medici, and Borghese families.

In 1559, Anguissola entered the Spanish court as lady-in-waiting and portrait painter to the queen, Isabel of Valois. She remained in Spain until 1573, sharing with Anthonis Mor and Alonso Sánchez Coello the prestige of being a member of the triumvirate of Spanish court painters. While Anguissola executed a few devotional panels during her tenure in Spain, most of her time was devoted to painting portraits of members of the royal court and family. In keeping with the decorum of courtly taste and reflecting the austerity of the religious climate, these portraits, like those by Mor and Coello, are marked by an almost formulaic restraint in composition, color, and light. Despite the reserved formality, poised elegance, and almost petrified stiffness of Anguissola's Spanish subjects, the physiognomies she recorded reveal distinctive personalities. In this respect, Anguissola's roots in the Lombard tradition, specifically the mimetic melding of stark naturalism with a calculated style made popular by Moretto da Brescia and Giovanni Moroni, are clearly evident.

Sometime after August 1569 and through the intervention of King Philip II of Spain, Anguissola married Don Fabrizio de Moncado, the brother of the viceroy of Sicily. Following her return to Italy in 1573, she resided in Palermo. In 1579 or 1580, she remarried, wedding Orazio Lomellino, a Genoese gentleman. By October 1583 she was living in Genoa. An inscribed portrait sketch of Anguissola by Anthony Van Dyck (British Museum, London) confirms that she had returned to Palermo by 1624. Early sources indicate that her late oeuvre consisted primarily of devotional works. Although many of these paintings have yet to be securely identified, those that are known, such as Holy Family with Saint Anne and the Young John the Baptist (1592, Lowe Art Museum, Coral Gables), suggest that she responded to the impress of Counter-Reformation sobriety and the influence of Cambiaso's use of modeling and nocturnal luminosity. As is the case with her early works, her later paintings attest to an awareness of current trends in art theory. In accordance with the dictates of Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti's Discorso intorno alle imagini sacre e profane, 1582, Anguissola rendered her subjects in a manner that "delights," "teaches," and "moves" the viewer to feelings of contemplative devotion.

See also Vasari, Giorgio ; Women and Art.


Primary Source

Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Translated by Gaston Du C. de Vere. Vol. 3, pp. 16461649. New York, 1979. Translation of Le vite de'più eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architettori (1568).

Secondary Sources

Garrard, Mary. "Here's Looking at Me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist." Renaissance Quarterly 47 (1994): 556622.

Jacobs, Fredrika H. Defining the Renaissance Virtuosa: Women Artists and the Language of Art History and Criticism. New York, 1997.

Sofonisba Anguissola e le sue sorelle. Exh. cat., Cremona, 1994.

Woods-Marsden, Joanna. Renaissance Self-Portraiture: The Visual Construction of Identity and the Social Status of the Artist. New Haven, 1998.

Fredrika H. Jacobs