Lama, Giulia (c. 1685–c. 1753)
Lama, Giulia (c. 1685–c. 1753)
Italian artist. Born around 1685 in Venice, Italy; died around 1753; possibly the daughter of Agostino Lama (a painter); may have studied with Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1683–1754); never married; no children.
What little is known about the life and work of Italian artist Giulia Lama has been pieced together from a number of sources: a Venetian guidebook from the year 1733, which mentions three altarpieces by Lama in Venetian churches, two of which survive (Crucifixion with Saints in San Vitale and Madonna in Glory with Two Saints in Santa Maria Formosa); a self-portrait and another portrait painted by her contemporary, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta; and a letter written by Abbot Luigi Conti in March 1728, in which the artist is mentioned. On the basis of her four identified works alone, scholars eventually attributed to Lama 26 paintings previously assigned to other well-known artists, as well as some 200 drawings, including studies for her altarpieces and some remarkable female and male nudes.
In Lama's self-portrait, dated 1725, the artist appears to be around 40 years of age, suggesting that she was born around 1685, although Germaine Greer , in The Obstacle Race, points out that the painting is so unflattering and so poorly preserved that it could hardly be a reliable indicator of age. Piazzetta's portrait of the artist is more flattering, showing her deeply engrossed in her work. "It is not the portrait one paints of an admiring pupil," Greer declares, "the character that emerges is as strong as Piazzetta's own. The long, swift strokes of his brush can hardly suffice to convey the self-contained energy of this simple figure caught up in creation." Greer also contends that one need only view Lama's Crucifixion with Saints, the altarpiece in Venice's San Vitale Church (now a commercial art gallery) to see that she was no dilettante. "She was a highly trained professional carrying out large original commissions with daring and self-confidence."
Abbot Conti's letter is one of the more interesting sources of information about Lama, revealing her as multitalented. "I have just discovered a woman here," he writes to Marthe Caylus , "who paints better than Rosalba [Carriera ] when it comes to large compositions." He goes on to describe Lama's work in progress, a large painting of the rape of Europa, "but the bull is still in a wood far from the sea; the companions of Europa crowd round the bull on which the laughing Europa is mounting." Conti further describes Lama as a poet, a trained mathematician who studied with the celebrated Father Maffei, and the inventor of a lace-making machine. Although he finds her "as ugly as she is witty," he adds that "she speaks with grace and polish, so that one easily pardons her face." He also remarks that Lama is persecuted by other painters, a claim that in light of 18th-century sexism comes as no surprise. Male painters may have been willing to lose a lucrative commission to one of their own sex, but losing to a woman was unforgivable. Lastly, Conti writes that Lama lives "a very retired life," which is hardly surprising either, given the prevailing prejudices of the day.
Many of Lama's paintings were initially attributed to Piazzetta, and scholars estimate that she came in contact with him in the early 1720s, although there is no tangible proof that he was her teacher. Piazzetta, who was viewed as one of the more eccentric 18th-century Venetian painters, deviated from the strict Rococo manner with his striking chiaroscuro contrasts and his earthy, dramatic interpretation. Lama, it would seem, moved even further from the norm, into the unacceptable. Greer points to Lama's Crucifixion as having "none of the superficial sensual and picturesque charm of Piazzetta. The palette is colder; the lines of the composition saw back and forth between the figure of Christ strung in agony between his arms, electrified by the cold light, and the appalled and terrified observers. The earth heaves beneath them, even the planes in which the figures stand lurch painfully in the viewer's vision as he follows the narrative movement of their gesturing arms." Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin also contend that Lama pushed the boundaries of prevailing taste even further than Piazzetta. By way of example, they cite The Martyrdom of St. Eurosia, a work that was first ascribed to Piazzetta but later attributed to Lama. They describe the painting as characteristic Lama, possessing "a dramatic compositional structure and figure types that recall Piazzetta but with more stress on the homeliness of the physiognomies and on the anatomical distortions produced by the shifting chiaroscuro.… The severed body pours blood toward us, the splayed hand in the foreground still seems alive, the head is held aloft by the triumphant executioner who watches our reaction."
Giulia Lama is now considered a gifted painter worthy of future study. The need to reconstruct her career from such meager data leads to speculation about the number of other women artists yet to be discovered. Greer suggests that if our heritage is to escape destruction "women by the thousands must begin to sift the archives of their own districts, turn out their own attics, haunt their own salesrooms and the auctions in old houses."
Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.
Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists, 1550–1950. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts