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Our first modern day professional Artist & Mother...

Lavinia Fontana

Born August 24, 1552 in Bologna Italy - Died August 11, 1614 in Rome

Self-Portrait in the Studiolo by Lavinia Fontana c. 1579 oil on copper

Hanging in the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, I have been fortunate to see this piece in person!

I’m not necessarily going to continue in chronological order with this female artist series, but to kick us off with a good early foundation, it makes sense for me to go with Lavinia Fontana next to illustrate those deep roots of modern day female artists.

Sofonisba (from my last blog post) and Lavinia broke down stereotypes assigned to women in relation to the practice of art and overturned skepticism about women’s artistic abilities. (Thank you very much!) It’s interesting to see how these Renaissance women ‘broke the glass ceiling’ during that time. Lavinia's story has similarities as well as stark differences to Sofonisba's path.

Lavinia is considered “the first professional female painter in Italy” and you could even stretch that to be the first in Western Europe. She was the first female artist to rely on commissions for her income from patrons and did not need to rely on the royalty to support her, as Sofonisba did. A badge of honor to highlight her true entry into the world of a professional artist, her patrons and prices were similar to Caravaggio - a very famous Italian male painter of the time period. She is best known for her portraiture, but also worked in mythology and religious painting.

Perhaps, she was the first woman to paint female nudes, but this is a topic of controversy among art historians.

Portrait of Minerva dressing by Lavinia Fontana c. 1613 Oil

Lavinia was born August 24,1552 in Bologna Italy. The daughter of Prospero Fontana, an Italian Mannerist artist and teacher of modest socio-economic status. Prospero Fontana had two daughters - Emilia and his youngest Lavinia. He saw that Lavinia had artist talent and lavished his attention on her artist growth. This was very similar to Sofonisba's up bringing, who was also a daughter of a male artist and teacher. In these times, this was a way that a woman who wanted to pursue art could receive artistic training. Lavinia was lucky enough to also have the opportunity to study at the University of Bologna where she received a degree.

In the years before Lavinia was of an age to marry, Prospero’s fortunes dwindled. So he had to get creative for a dowry for his daughter. He made a plan… He would hone her talent, use his noble, social and scholarly connections and cultivate a painting career for Lavinia. Hopefully, that would be enough to attract a husband that would support her and her talents, showing a ‘worth’ beyond a dowry!

Noli me tangere by Lavinia Fontana c. 1581 Oil

Hanging at the Uffizi Galleries, so I've seen this piece in person too!

Prospero’s list for a potential husband included: good morale repute and high social standing, willing to marry an artisan, content to live in his father-in-law’s house and be prepared to accept his future wife as the primary breadwinner. This was a tall order in Renaissance times!

But he managed to find the son of a successful merchant from Imola, Paolo Zappi, himself an artist as well. The marriage agreement stipulated that Lavinia’s potential for earning money through her art was enough of a reason to not require an extravagant dowry. Paolo accepted this proposal along with the stipulation that his father-in-law (now needing money himself) would live with the couple. Paolo and Lavinia were married February 14, 1577 - when Lavinia was 25 years old. Very late for Renaissance standards!

Self-Portrait At The Spinet by Lavinia Fontana c. 1577

This self-portrait was painted just before her marriage, showing an elegant young woman playing the spinet, with an easel placed behind her by the window. She gazes at the viewer showing quiet confidence in her talents, both musical and pictorial.

Lavinia began her path to artistic success for her family’s sake. She took over the family workshop from her father, employing her husband as manager and ‘stay at home Dad’. Paola gave up his career to be her assistant - both professionally and personally. They would have 11 children that he would be responsible for raising while she supported the entire family from her income alone. Not a typical Renaissance marriage!

Since the couple was living with extended family - Lavinia’s parents - it was more of a ‘family affair’ to support Lavinia, her career and her 11 children. Having a husband and children, also helped her fit the current social construct for the ‘expectations of a woman’.

Newborn In The Cradle by Lavinia Fontana c. 1583 Oil

Lavinia’s freedom to engage in the art world now increased. She was able to meet society standards and interact with the world at large through a career. Unlike her female contemporaries, such as Sofonisba, her world was not limited to the female court of a queen or a convent. Instead, she had a larger sphere of potential clients.

Lavina’s early patrons consisted of wealthy noble women looking for portraits, often with their lap dogs. Women of all stages of life were able to admit Lavinia into their domestic spheres to paint them as well as their children without a chaperone. As such, Lavinia became popular among the female nobility. She was adept at creating their likeness, as well as showing the splendor of their Bolognese fashions of gold stitching, lace adornments, beaded design and fine jewelry.

Portrait of Ginervra Aldrovandi Hercolani bu Lavinia Fontana c.1595 Oil

Ginevra Aldrovandi's husband, the Bolognese senator Ercole Hercolani, died in 1593. Her elaborate mourning costume with costly brocade, lace, and pearls indicates her high social status. She holds a handkerchief, suggesting the tears she shed at her husband's death. The lapdog is her pet, but it also carries symbolic significance. During the 16th century, a widow who did not re-marry, staying faithful to her husband's memory, was often compared to a dog that was faithful to its master.

Lavinia was also painting portraits of men from her father’s connections, who wanted to collect portraits of their friends. Acquaintances who met through correspondence became interested in seeing pictures of each other. One gentleman amassed such a large collection of portraits that he had to build a villa to house it! This international social networking formed the basis of relationships that would ultimately lead to commissions from the Medici family.

Portrait of Girolamo Mercuriale by Lavinia Fontana c. 1588-1589 Oil

The Italian physician and scholar Girolamo Mercuriale (1530-1606) reads an edition of the pioneering work on human anatomy "On the Fabric of the Human Body," published first in Latin in 1543 by the great Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius. Mercuriale points to one thought-provoking illustration: a human skeleton meditating on another skull. The portrait may be one requested by the duke of Urbino in 1588. Mercuriale's learning is advertised by the works of eminent Greek, Roman, and Arab authors on his shelves.

Lavinia Fontana was among the most sought-after painters in her native Bologna. Among her many commissioned portraits, two groups stand out: images of scholars (the University of Bologna was then the largest in Europe) and portraits of the city's noblewomen. To the first group belongs this portrait of Mercuriale, who taught at the University. Because of the social structure, it was extremely rare for women to become professional artists. To the scholars of Bologna, Lavinia would therefore have been something of a marvel of nature.

Her artistic subjects continued to widened as the Archbishop of Bologna (a friend of her fathers) and leader in the Counter-Reformation in Italy took it upon himself to spearhead a call-to-arms of the visual arts. He recruited the best painters to produce works that would delight and teach the Catholic faith to viewers in post-Reformation Italy.

Religious commissions had always been the province of men. But with this endorsement for art, the demand for painters nearly doubled, and artists experienced an increased demand for private devotional works as well. A few rare amateur female painters had made devotional images, but none had ever produced a work that would hang publicly above an altar in a church.

Lavinia became the first woman to produce an altarpiece on commission in 1583 - 1584, The Assumption (of the Virgin) of Ponte Santo.

The Assumption (of the Virgin) of Ponte Santo by Lavinia Fontana c. 1583 - 1584

Lavinia made her first trip to Rome in 1586, where her painting caught the eye of Spanish Cardinal Francisco Pacheco. Before long, she had commissions for paintings for the King of Spain and other new patrons.

Rome seemed to have an effect on her, and this is a time when you see Lavinia’s subject matter change. She begins to feature powerful women in her work. Her painting Judith With The Head Of Holofernes has many art historians questioning the strong sense of Judith actually being a form of a 'self portrait' for Lavinia at this time of her life.

Judith With The Head Of Holofernes by Lavinia Fontana c. 1600

She was invited to move to Rome by Pope Clement VIII and to paint at his court - a very high marker of an artist’s success at that time. She moved to Rome in 1604.

Family Portrait by Lavina Fontana c. 1600 Oil

Lavinia rose to international fame within her lifetime and garnered a salary comparable to the most successful male painters in Europe. There are more than 150 known works attributed to Lavinia, although as many pieces from such a long time ago, some are in question as being a true original painting created by Lavinia's hands alone. However, it certainly shows she was a prolific painter with more pieces attributed to her than any other female painter of the time period. Lavinia’s hard work and talent combined with the support of her family and local community was her force for success.

Following is a 'deeper dive' for the true art history / conservationist / Art nerds like me ;-)

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon by Lavinia Fontana c.1600

Lavinia's biggest and most ambitious painting resides at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. On display almost continuously since the 1960s, 'The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon', underwent an 18-month conservation study.

It was definitely starting to show its age, having never had comprehensive conservation treatment since it was acquired in 1872. At approximately 100" x 128" (256cm by 325cm), the ­painting was too large for the conservation studio until a museum refurbishment in 2017. The conservation study was completed in December 2020.

Preliminary infrared imaging conducted with a high-resolution Osiris camera has revealed “many significant changes to the composition that we had no idea were there”, Maria Canavan stated, the museum's painting conservator. Fontana reworked the background landscape and architecture, shifted the angle of Solomon’s head and made the figures of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting taller “at quite an advanced stage”, she says, suggesting there could have been “some intervention by the person who commissioned the painting”.

The conservation studio’s discoveries have prompted “a mission to identify the women depicted as the queen’s attendants”, based on comparisons with Fontana’s female portraits in other collections. Brady also plans to consult court archives in Bologna, Fontana’s hometown, for records of the real-life event believed to have inspired the work: the journey of the Dukes of Mantua to the wedding of Maria de’ Medici (Eleonora’s sister) and Henry IV of France.

Meanwhile, X-ray fluorescence and scanning electron microscopy will help determine the pigments Fontana used. Very soon, gallery visitors will be able to watch through the conservation studio’s window as the canvas is finally cleaned and prepared for display again.

Canavan hopes the project—and a forthcoming publication—will provide the first deep dive into ­Fontana’s materials and techniques, which have been scantily documented compared with those of her male counterparts. “We want to make sure the painting is stable and shown in the best light possible, but the other strand of the project is to elevate Lavinia to where we think she should be and to show that her abilities were as good—if not better—than some of her peers.”


Peggy Olliff
Peggy Olliff
Apr 01, 2021

This is fascinating! Thank you for taking the time to write these. I love reading them!

Shirl Ireland
Shirl Ireland
Apr 02, 2021
Replying to

Thank you... It's sure inspiring for me to know that you are enjoying them!

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