Fontana, Lavinia (1552–1614)
Fontana, Lavinia (1552–1614)
Bolognese painter, mainly of portraits and holy scenes, who gave a successful example of Italian painting during the CounterReformation. Name variations: Lavinia Fontana Zappi; Lavinia Fontana de Zappis. Born Lavinia Fontana in August 1552 in Bologna, Italy; died in Rome, Italy, on August, 11, 1614; daughter of Prospero Fontana (a painter) and Antonia De Bonardis (who came from a printer's family in Parma); married Giovan Paolo Zappi, in 1577; children: Emilia (b. 1578); Orazio (b. 1578); Orazio (b. 1579); Laura Zappi (b. 1581); Flaminio (b. 1583); Orazio (b. 1585); Severo (b. 1587); Laodamia or Laudomia Zappi (1588–1605); Prospero (b. 1589); Severo (b. 1592); Costanza Zappi (b. 1595).
Self-Portrait in the Studio (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi, 1579); (first known public
commission) Assumption of the Virgin with Saints Peter Crisologus and Cassian (Imola, Pinacoteca Comunale, 1583); Portrait of the Gozzadini Family (Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, 1584); Portrait of Lady with Dog (Baltimore, Walters Art Gallery, c. 1584); Ritratto del frate Panigarola (Florence, Uffizi, 1585); Portrait of a Noblewoman from the Ruini Family (Florence, Galleria di Palazzo Pitti, 1593); Judith and Holophern (Bologna, Museo Davia Bargellini, 1600); Conversation-piece (Milan, Pinacoteca Nazionale di Brera, c. 1600); The Queen of Sabah Visiting King Solomon (Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland, c. 1600); Cleopatra (Rome, Galleria Spada); Dressing Minerva (Rome, Galleria Borghese, 1613). Signs works: Lavinia Fontana virgo (before her wedding); Lavinia Fontana de Zappis (most frequently later).
Lavinia Fontana has to be considered a figlia d'arte, for she was the daughter of a painter, Prospero Fontana. This was the rule for the vast majority of Italian women painters of the 16th and 17th centuries, the only exception being the noblewoman Sofonisba Anguissola (1532–1625). Other artists who grew up in artistic households were the Milanese still-life painter Fede Galizia (1578–1630), the famous Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–c. 1652), the unlucky Bolognese painter Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665), the Florentine miniaturist Giovanna Garzoni Domenica Maddalena Caccia , daughter of Moncalvo, and Fontana's contemporaries Barbara Longhi from Imola (1552–1638) and Venetian Marietta Robusti , whose father was Tintoretto. Undoubtedly, at least in Italy, birth into an artistic household was the only way for a woman to become an artist. It was unacceptable for women to enter the botteghe, run by well-known male painters, as students. Generally speaking, as painters' daughters their learning occurred naturally during their early years, in an informal way, within the walls of their homes. In fact, women belonging to artists' families often aided their fathers and husbands, grinding, mixing and preparing colors, painting in backgrounds on canvases, and even painting unimportant portions of major paintings, but of course without signing their contributions. The private lives of Italian women who became recognized artists often offered only difficulties, failures, or tragic ends. (Artemisia Gentileschi was raped; Elisabetta Sirani died of poison; and many spent their lives wandering in foreign courts.) A conventional life with a husband and a family was not the rule. Lavinia Fontana was an exception, even among women painters: she had an independent, successful career and an ordinary life as a wife and mother.
Bologna, in Fontana's time, was the second largest city of the Papal State. A well-known university town with 50,000 inhabitants, its bourgeoisie and nobility were wealthy but rather provincial. Rome attracted many of the Bolognese who entered a religious career or made a living from related activities, often in decorative arts. Moreover, the mid-16th century was turbulent: after a period of wars culminated in the Sacco di Roma (1527), the Italian peninsula was rife with political and religious tensions. Following the establishment of Spanish influence (which directly governed the State of Milan and the Kingdom, later to be called Kingdom of the Two Sicilies), the Council of Trent (1545–1563) ended the period of theological disputes, but it affected the rest of the century by its strict vision of the world. Even painting was strongly controlled (as well as sponsored) by the Roman Catholic Church. In arts, the Renaissance was over, Mannerism was fashionable, and Baroque was on the horizon. It was in such an atmosphere that Prospero Fontana's daughter was to reach her artistic maturity.
Young Lavinia was baptized on August 24, 1552, in the Metropolitan church of St. Pietro. Born a few days before (date unknown), she was the daughter of the celebrated painter Prospero (1512–1597) and Antonia di Bartolomeo De Bonardis (d. 1607), who were married in 1539. Her only mentioned brother and sister were Flaminio and Emilia, both of whom died before 1577 (in fact, in her wedding contract Lavinia is said to be Prospero Fontana's only daughter). It is, however, impossible to state if Prospero's family had been larger, but heavily hit by the high infant mortality rate in an age when only 50% of children born made it to adulthood. It is known that Lavinia grew up in material comfort. Her father had been a well-known artist since the early 1540s, even outside of Bologna; he worked with Perin del Vaga and the brothers Zuccari, all three major artists of the Mannerist movement, and he was patronized by Pope Julius III Ciocchi del Monte (1550–1555), who gave him an annual pension of 60 scudis. Despite his frequent absence during Lavinia's childhood (in 1553–55, he was working in Rome; in 1560, probably in Fontain-bleu, France; in 1563–65, in Florence; in 1665–70, in the Tuscan Citta' di Castello), Prospero owned a bottega (studio) in Bologna. In 1569, he founded a new guild for painters in that city and became its leader. In 16th-century Bologna, any artisan (including painters, who were considered manual workers until the end of that century) needed citizenship, a license and guild membership, in order to run a studio with pupils and helpers. In such a position, Prospero was at the center of local Bolognese artistic life and many major painters were among his pupils, including Lorenzo Sabbatini (1530–1577), Orazio Samacchini (1532–1577), the Flemish Denis Calvaert (1540–1619), Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529–1592), the French sculptor Giambologna (Jean de Boulogne, 1529–1608), Bartolomeo Cesi (1556–1629) and, above all, the young brothers Ludovico (1555–1619), Agostino (1557–1602) and Annibale Carracci (1560–1609). Prospero was also well-positioned within the town's intellectual milieu and was a close friend of the naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi, who taught at Bologna University. Moreover, he personally collaborated with Bologna bishop, Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti, who had been an adviser to the Council of Trent in its last days and an intimate friend of Carlo Borromeo, the Milanese archbishop and future saint. Thanks to Prospero's technical support, in 1582 Paleotti was able to publish his treatise on holy images and paintings, defined by the historian Roberto Zapperi as the Inquisition's handbook on images.
It is possible to claim that Lavinia took advantage of her privileged position, breathing art, as she did, from the cradle, and, more practically, inheriting her father's ambient connections, patrons and clients. Documents do not provide any details about Lavinia's childhood and adolescence until the year 1577, and no information exists about her instruction. One century later, in 1678, Lavinia's first historian Carlo Cesare Malvasia (whose lengthy work on Bolognese painting is of lasting importance) states that Lavinia's father personally took care of her artistic education, but we know for certain that she never worked in the bottega. Apart from painting and drawing, she learned reading and writing, and it is unknown whether or not she entered a convent as a boarder, a usual course for well-brought-up girls. In any case, she received a good education, which also provided her with proper manners, typical of an upper-class girl and useful in dealing with important clients, as would later occur. Her few preserved letters attest to a polished and skilled Italian. Art historian Cantaro points out that Lavinia writes in an elegant and cultivated hand. In her Portrait of Alfonso Lorenzo Strozzi (Florence, Collection of the Earls Dal Pero), painted in 1579, the gentleman holds in his left hand a long, beautifully written, business letter. Finally, in all her self-portraits (Self-portrait at a Clavichord with Servant, 1577, Self-Portrait in the Studio, 1579, and the Self-portrait, drawing, 1595), she underlines her lady-like attitude and social status, showing elegant, jewel-ornate dresses. In the first, she paints herself playing an instrument, as did Sofonisba Anguissola (whom Lavinia knew and appreciated) in one of her own self-portraits. In the second, she is holding a pen and sitting at her desk.
On February 14, 1577, Prospero promised Lavinia to the son of his friend Severo Zappi, a grain merchant. Giovan Paolo Zappi, who in correspondence was identified as "very wealthy and almost a gentleman," was an amateur painter and one of Prospero's students. He was to marry Lavinia before June 1577. As a present to her groom's family, Lavinia sent her Self-portrait at a Clavichord with Servant. Upon viewing the painting, Severo Zappi, who had never met Lavinia, wrote that the bride was "not fair and not ugly, but just in the middle, as women have to be." The wedding contract (Lavinia presumably was not there, for she did not sign it) stated that the new couple were to live with Prospero and Antonia, and contribute to the family and share the income from Lavinia's work. On his part, Prospero willingly provided them with housing, food, and clothing, as well as Lavinia's dowry, composed of a house and property.
In the first 15 years of marriage, Lavinia gave birth to a series of children, but, as we know from Giovan Paolo's notebook of Ricordanze, of the eleven children, only four reached adulthood. The children's godfathers' and godmothers' names (all belonging to Bologna's high nobility, like the Gozzadini, Boncompagni and Paleotti) make apparent the high status enjoyed by the Fontana-Zappi family, thanks to Lavinia's art. Since the number of her commissions was increasing significantly in these years (she was living in Bologna, only traveling in the neighborhood), it seems probable that she did not nurse her babies (breastfeeding was the first, primitive form of contraception, but usually upper-class women avoided it and preferred to give their babies to wetnurses). Her Birth of the Virgin (c. 1590, Bologna, church of SS. Trinita), which is considered among her greatest paintings, represents the scene of a delivery. While lying in bed eating an apple, St. Anne recovers from the birth assisted by a serving girl who holds a bed warmer; the baby Mary the Virgin is being washed near the fireplace; completing the domestic scene are a dog and a cat in a corner. Although this subject belongs to a strong iconographic
tradition, the way Lavinia paints it suggests her personal participation and experience.
During the years of her maternities, Lavinia continued to work hard with great success. Though she was still not admitted to the Bolognese painters' guild—usually Italian women were not, unless they were widowed—Lavinia certainly belonged to the painters' world. Her remarkable production of paintings—oil on canvas, wood and copper—(and a few drawings) testify to her busy creative life. The full catalogue of her work, assembled by the art historian Maria Teresa Cantaro in 1989, identifies about one-hundred works as incontestably attributed, usually dated and signed, and now located in Italian and foreign museums. In her early period, Lavinia's style is strongly influenced by her father's, but shows as well the influences of Emilian painters, like Correggio or the less famous Lelio Orsi, and the Fontain-bleau school, revisited in a Flemish use of light, and, later, of the Carraccis' naturalism.
The first historical evidence of Lavinia's work dates from the early 1570s. At the beginning of her career, she preferred small formats, representing holy scenes for domestic and private piety. In the same period, and particularly in the following two decades, she was cultivating her real talent, portraiture. This field often brought women painters success for one practical reason: gentlemen preferred having their wives and daughters pose for long hours in front of a woman painter, within their palaces. In general, portraits provided the only way to capture and preserve people from the oblivion of the death. Often portraits pictured people who had died long before, as happens in the beautiful Portrait of the Gozzadini Family, where the gentleman sitting at the center of the table, as well as his daughter who gives him her hand, had died in 1561 and 1581, respectively. Lavinia painted this picture in 1584. Moreover, since portraits testified to the importance (and wealth) these individuals had reached during their lives, the subjects were usually painted with objects and in an atmosphere that indicated their professions. At the same time, it was crucial to protect people who asked for portraits from the Counter-Reformation accusation of superbia: only kings and Popes were allowed to have themselves painted. When, probably in 1578, Lavinia portrayed Carlo Sigonio, the famous historian and professor at Bologna University, she was fulfilling the request made by the Dominican Spanish father Alfonso Chacon, who was collecting portraits of eminent men and women "who were relevant for their holy lives, … their bravery in the army or the liberal arts."
More precisely, Lavinia possessed a certain talent in realistically capturing the physiognomy of her subjects. She paid much attention to small details, such as embroidery, lace and jewels that women and men wore when they posed, showing all possible status symbols. Even dogs, besides the significance of fidelity, were proof of a high status. Furs had the same aim (beside the practical one of attracting lice from the clothes and bodies of the ladies), as in the sable worn by the Noblewoman (painting now in Washington D.C., National Museum of Women in the Arts).
Pittora singolare tra le donne … che andava al pari delli primi huomini di quella professione. (A unique painter among women … who was at the same level of the most excellent men painters in that profession.)
—Roma, Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Avvisi Urbinati, Lat. 1077, f. 428.
In the same years, Lavinia did several public commissions. In 1584, she painted the 1.5 meters by 2.5 Assumption of the Virgin with Saints Peter Crisologus and Cassian for the Municipal Council in Imola. This painting is an oil on canvas, for, since it was not acceptable for women to paint in public places (even in churches), the commissioned frescoes could not be done in loco. Lavinia's success culminated in 1589, when she painted a Holy Family with the Sleeping Child and Young St. John the Baptist for the Escorial monastery, Pantheon of the Infants (still on the main altar, for which it was commissioned). King Philip II of Spain paid the enormous price of 1,000 ducats for this picture (whereas in the same period the now very famous Annibale Carracci received only 800 ducats for paintings of similar size). This altar-piece is considered one of Fontana's masterpieces.
Lavinia moved with her family to Rome (1603–04), the last step of her successful career. The center of life was now in the capital. She was famous enough to survive without the Boncompagni family's patronage, which had protected and helped her from the beginning of her career, when Ugo Boncompagni was sitting on St. Peter's chair as Pope Gregory XIII (1572–1585). Throughout her life, Lavinia had strong supporters, and in Rome she lived in Cardinal d'Este's palace. The beginning of her stay brought criticism of the huge pala she did for the church of San Paolo fuori le Mura (destroyed in the 1823 fire). This was her last public commission. Still, in the following years Lavinia preserved a certain amount of success. She portrayed a number of important people, including Pope Paul V and the Persian ambassador (both portraits have been lost); and she painted small paintings on mythological (rather rare in her work) or historical subjects, like the famous Cleopatra (VII) (Rome, Galleria Spada). Between 1611 and 1614, in the church of Santa Maria della Pace, she painted four full-length saints (the virgins Cecilia , Agnes , Claire, and Catherine of Siena ; oil on slate), decorating the Rivaldi Chapel, designed by the architect Carlo Maderno.
On August 13, 1614, Lavinia Fontana died in Rome, at the age of 62, and she was buried in the Dominican church of St. Maria sopra Minerva. Only three of her eleven children outlived her. Her sons, Flaminio, Orazio and Prospero, wrote the text of the engraved tombstone, now destroyed, which told of her being a proved painter whose "fame reached outside the feminine sphere." Her husband Giovan Paolo, who is not mentioned there, died in his native town Imola two years later. He had spent all his life as Lavinia's personal manager. With her death, the glory of the rest of the family was over, and they all moved back to Imola.
In the following centuries, the fame Lavinia Fontana enjoyed in life disappeared. She was remembered more as being a prodigy of nature, a woman painter as skilled as a man painter. Only in recent times has her talent been discovered again, in the wake of the recent attention to women's history.
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Malvasia, Carlo Cesare. Felsina pittrice. Vite dei pittori bolognesi. Vol. 1. Bologna: D. Barbieri, 1678, pp. 215–224.
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Francesca Medioli , Lecturer in Italian Studies at the University of Reading, Reading, United Kingdom, has published and lectured widely on cloistered women in Early Modern Italy
A producer of over 135 sophisticated oil paintings, Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) was one of the first female portraitists to seek commissions. Her prolific body of work encompasses numerous categories of art, including single and group portraits, church altar art, and narrative and historic scenes. She was the first Bolognese female to earn renown throughout Italy.
Born in Bologna in 1552, Lavinia Fontana was the daughter of cosmopolitan fresco artist and teacher Prospero Fontana, who established his reputation in Rome and joined Giorgio Vasari in adorning Florence's Palazzo Vecchio. Unlike most female artists of the period, Lavinia received encouragement at home, where her father taught her to paint. She came under the influence of one of her father's pupils, Ludovico Carracci, founder of Bologna's academy. Beyond other women seeking careers in art, she flourished in an open-minded city that claimed painter Caterina dei Vigri as patron saint and which had welcomed women to its university since its opening in 1158.
A Life Dedicated to Art
At her father's studio Fontana met painter Giano Paolo Zappi and married him when she was twenty-five. They formed a working partnership that supported her career, allowing her to accept a growing number of commissions for baroque portraits, small paintings, and religious art. To assist her work, Zappi abandoned his career, kept Fontana's accounts, and tended the couple's 11 children, of whom only three outlived their mother. Art critics surmise that Zappi also painted some of the drapery and background in Fontana's paintings.
Both financially and critically successful, Fontana was a representative painter of the Italian mannerist school, earning a reputation for pose, detail, and the use of a delicate palette. Such qualities are reflected in Fontana's self-portrait that now hangs in the Uffizi Gallery at Florence. Therein she is elegantly dressed in lace and jewels and studying archeological finds on shelves and a table, likely as preparation for sketching them. Venturing beyond traditional still lifes and set poses into high drama, she painted mythic and biblical figures on a grand scale and used as models female and male nudes. At age 27 she received a commission from Dominican scholar and church historian Pietro Ciaconio for the first of her two self-portraits, "Self-Portrait Seated at Her Desk," which features her in a composed, contemplative posture. Painted the following year, "Portrait of a Noblewoman" depicts a standing female figure holding a decoratively jeweled marten skin and absently petting a lap dog. Characteristic of Fontana's images is the incorporation of textured and embroidered fabrics and rich gold jewelry set with pearls and rubies.
Fontana excelled at the depiction of the female form, either alone or in groups, as exemplified in "Portrait of the Gozzadini Family" (1584), a psychologically complex grouping. In the undated "Allegory of Music" she painted a female keyboardist at the virginal accompanied by three males, two lute players and a vocalist. She surrounded this musical group with a variety of instruments: cittern, cornetto, harp, hurdy-gurdy, recorder, viol, and viola da braccio. For "Visit of the Queen of Sheba," which now hangs in Dublin's National Gallery, Fontana improvised a demanding narrative scene that depicts the unnamed queen's royal presentation to Solomon albeit in Renaissance costume and court.
By the time she reached her thirties, Fontana was respected as a painter of devotional art. In 1581 she completed "Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalen" in the balanced dark-against-light style of Antonio Correggio. The painting, now housed in Florence's Uffizi Gallery, captures the rapt attention of a familiar bible figure moved by a glimpse of Christ. In this same period, Fontana completed "The Dead Christ with Symbols of the Passion" and "The Holy Family," the latter an undated piece that creates an adult triad of the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth comparing the virtues of their toddler sons Jesus and John the Baptist, while the third figure, a colorless Joseph, looks on in the background. At the request of the Vizzani Chapel at the church of Santa Maria della Morte in Bologne, in 1590 Fontana painted "St. Francis of Paola Blessing a Child," now displayed in the city's Pinacoteca Nazionale. The work contrasts a bevy of over-dressed aristocratic ladies with the simple demeanor of a saint performing a sacred task.
Fontana used imagination to recreate images from the past. In a 1585 painting she depicted Egyptian monarch Cleopatra cloaked in red and adorned with a jeweled hat and veil. Standing before an urn, the regal figure suggests the Renaissance era's immersion in Eastern subjects. That same year, Fontana created a likeness of Venus and Cupid, the mother and son from classic mythology who superintend passion and infatuation. Desiring a work to grace the grand Escorial Palace in Madrid, Philip II of Spain commissioned Fontana to paint an altarpiece, "The Holy Family with the Sleeping Christ Child."
From Bologna to Rome
In 1603, after her father's death, Fontana was a recipient of a rare honor, particularly for a female artist, when Pope Clement VIIII summoned her to an audience in the papal palace. At Clement's request, she executed her most famous public work, a 20-foot altarpiece titled "The Stoning of St. Stephen Martyr," which pictures the pathos of the first Christian to die for the faith. The altarpiece adorned one of Rome's seven pilgrimage centers, the church of San Paolo Fuori le Mura, until the building was consumed by fire in 1823 and the painting was lost.
In 1611, during Fontana's residence in Rome, sculptor Felice Antonio Cassoni cast a medal to honor her contribution to the arts. The obverse pictures her in profile; the reverse depicts her as the symbolic female artist, too immersed in her work to tame her flowing hair. As the first woman to be commissioned for public paintings, Fontana earned membership in the prestigious Roman Academy.
Fontana's work was lucrative enough to support her family. Popes Gregory XIII and Clement VIII each posed for her in ceremonial regalia and the Vatican offered her commissions normally contracted to male artists. Of her 135 works—the largest corpus of artwork by any woman from the Renaissance or before—only 32 are signed and dated. In 1998, Professor Vera Fortunati of the University of Bologna arranged for the first U.S. exhibition of Fontana's canvases at the National Museum of the Arts in Washington, D.C.
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"Lavinia Fontana," http://www.nmwa.org/legacy/bios/bfontana.htm (January 15, 2002).
The Lives of Renaissance Women,http://www.bctf.bc.ca/lessonaids/online/LA9245.html (January 15, 2002). □
Fontana, Lavinia (1552–1614)
Fontana, Lavinia (1552–1614)
Italian artist. Name variations: Lavinia Fontana Zappi; Lavinia Fontana de Zappis. Born Lavinia Fontana, Aug 1552, in Bologna, Italy; died in Rome, Italy, Aug 11, 1614; dau. of Prospero Fontana (painter) and Antonia De Bonardis (who came from a printer's family in Parma); m. Giovan Paolo Zappi, 1577; children: Emilia (b. 1578); Orazio (b. 1578); Orazio (b. 1579); Laura (b. 1581); Flaminio (b. 1583); Orazio (b. 1585); Severo (b. 1587); Laodamia or Laudomia (1588–1605); Prospero (b. 1589); Severo (b. 1592); Costanza (b. 1595).
Bolognese painter, mainly of portraits and holy scenes, preferred small formats, representing holy scenes for domestic and private piety, at beginning of career; in following 2 decades, cultivated her real talent, portraiture; had several public commissions; painted the 1.5 meters by 2.5 Assumption of the Virgin with Saints Peter Crisologus and Cassian for the Municipal Council in Imola (1584); painted a Holy Family with the Sleeping Child and Young St. John the Baptist for the Escorial monastery (still on the main altar, 1589), considered one of her masterpieces; painted Birth of the Virgin (c. 1590, Bologna, church of SS. Trinita), which is considered among her greatest paintings; moved with family to Rome (1603–04), the last step of her successful career; portrayed a number of important people, including Pope Paul V and the Persian ambassador (both portraits have been lost); also painted small paintings on mythological (rather rare in her work) or historical subjects, like the famous Cleopatra (VII) (Rome, Galleria Spada); painted 4 full-length saints (Cecilia, Agnes, Claire, and Catherine of Siena), in the church of Santa Maria della Pace (1611–14); other paintings include Self-Portrait in the Studio (1579), Portrait of the Gozzadini Family (1584), Portrait of Lady with Dog (c. 1584), Ritratto del frate Panigarola (1585), Portrait of a Noblewoman from the Ruini Family (1593), Judith and Holophern (1600), Conversation-piece (c. 1600), The Queen of Sabah Visiting King Solomon (c. 1600) and Dressing Minerva (1613).
See also Women in World History.
Fontana, Lavinia (1552–1614)
Fontana, Lavinia (1552–1614)
Italian painter of the late Renaissance. Born in Bologna, Lavinia was the daughter of Prospero Fontana, a Bolognese artist who trained her in the Mannerist style. She was renowned in Italy as a portrait painter, with her famous works being a Portrait of a Woman and The Gozzadini Family. She is also known for a famous Self-Portrait at the Harpsichord. She was skilled at depicting clothing, jewelry, and interiors in fine detail and vivid colors. Her largest and most famous work was an altarpiece, The Martyrdom of St. Stephen, which she painted in 1604 for the Church of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. This work was destroyed in a fire in 1823. Fontana was one of a very few female artists to be elected to the Academy of Rome.
See Also: Anguissola, Sofonisba