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Lavinia Fontana, Woman Painter Between Renaissance and Mannerism

Updated on January 21, 2017
L. Fontana, Self Portrait (1579), Florence Uffizi  Lavinia pays great attention to her public image and portrays herself formally dressed at the desk of the study, full of antiquities. The painting is signed also with the name of her husband (Zappi).
L. Fontana, Self Portrait (1579), Florence Uffizi Lavinia pays great attention to her public image and portrays herself formally dressed at the desk of the study, full of antiquities. The painting is signed also with the name of her husband (Zappi). | Source

Lavinia and the Other Famous Women in Bologna

Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana and Artemisia Gentileschi (in rigorous chronological order) are the three woman painters celebrated and requested in their days, rediscovered and carefully studied in recent years for they to be assigned a coherent collocation in the art history. Like Artemisia Gentileschi, Lavinia Fontana (Bologna, 1552 – Roma, 1614) is the daughter of an artist, Prospero Fontana, who had a good reputation as a mannerist painter and a solid workshop in Bologna, before the advent of the Carracci. Lavinia grows up in the years of the Counter-Reformation, in an environment respectful of the principles fixed by the Council of Trent. Through the school of her father, she absorbs the influence of the most important Northern painters, such as Correggio and Parmigianino. Later on, she also watches at the “revolution” of the cousins Carracci (Annibale, Agostino and Ludovico), who want to make the art of painting more direct and realistic. However, as a Bolognese woman who intends to consecrate herself to the art, she could also look back at the eminent women who already had distinguished in Bologna: Caterina de’ Vigri (1413-1463), a cultivated woman, miniaturist, founder of a monastery, proclaimed saint in 1712, and the famous Properzia de’ Rossi (a. 1490 – 1530), sculptress, the only woman who can boast her own biography in the Lives of Vasari.

L. Fontana, Self Portrait at the Spinet (1577), Rome Accademia di San Luca. The canvas is signed at the upper left corner "Lavinia Virgin Daughter of Prospero Fontana"
L. Fontana, Self Portrait at the Spinet (1577), Rome Accademia di San Luca. The canvas is signed at the upper left corner "Lavinia Virgin Daughter of Prospero Fontana" | Source

Self Portrait in the Way of Sofonisba

The self-portrait retakes a “format” already used by Sofonisba Anguissola: the author portrays herself at the spinet, with a maidservant assisting to turn the pages of the music sheet. A room with an easel in the background, derived from the portraits of her father, has an introspective function: it tells the observer some more details about the attitudes of the portrayed person. On the whole, the self-portrait, that had been very appreciated by the husband’s father, is intended to give the image of a virtuous woman, proclaiming her virginity, accurately dressed and well educated according to the good principles of the times.

A Husband as an Assistant

The first known self-portrait by Lavinia Fontana is probably connected to her marriage with Giovan Paolo Zappi, the son of a rich merchant from the near city of Imola (see the side box). According to the criteria of the time, Lavinia was old to get married (25 years). Her biographer Carlo Cesare Malvasia, author of a book about the painters of the Emilia and the Romagna (Felsina Pittrice), tells that she agreed the marriage only provided that she could continue to profess painting. Her husband, who was in turn a mediocre painter, not only accepted this condition, but became the assistant and the first promoter of his wife. Probably, he played an important role in the commissions of the altarpieces for the churches of Imola and Bologna and in the decision to move to Rome in 1604. Nevertheless, the craft of painting and the success she had obtained, did not prevent Lavinia to be a wife and a mother: she had something as eleven children, but only three survived her.

L. Fontana, Portrait of Isabella Ruini as Venus (a. 1590)
L. Fontana, Portrait of Isabella Ruini as Venus (a. 1590) | Source

Lavinia's Life in the Words of Baglione

Giovanni Baglione (a. 1573 – 1643) was a painter and a biographer. Following the example of Giorgio Vasari, he wrote The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, Architect… from 1572 until 1642. Here are some excerpts from the biography of Lavinia Fontana. “She had as parent Prospero, of Livio from Bologna, painter; the father taught her his virtue, so that she became very good and practice teacher and she was excellent in making portraits. She came to Rome during the pontificate of Clemens VIII…. and here she was very successful in representing the faces of the others and portrayed most of the ladies in Rome, especially the ladies princesses and also many princes and cardinals….” “A big painting had to be made in St. Paul outside the walls (in Rome) and despite there were many good masters…. the work was fully commissioned to Lavinia. She painted the lapidation of St. Stephen with a great quantity of figures and a glory in the high, which represents the open Skies, however, being the figures bigger than natural, she got confused, and they did not result so well as she thought, because there is a great difference between an ordinary painting and a machine of that size…. But she continued to make her portraits, to which her genius was inclining and very easily she was able to make them well…”

A Fine Artist With a Delicate Colour Palette

Lavinia has formed at the renown workshop of her father Properzio, where she could experience the most relevant tendencies of the Northern art. The workshop was frequented also by the cousins Carracci, who had an important role in the renovation of painting in the late century, and also an influence on the older Lavinia. Properzio was an appreciated portraitist, a favourite of the pope Julius III. He transmitted his technique to the daughter, who became, in turn, the most requested portraitist by the gentlewomen (but also some gentlemen) in Bologna and in Rome, because of the care she used in the rendering the fine details of the dresses and the jewels. The portrait of Isabella Ruini (a. 1590), figured as a Venus with annexed Cupid, adorned by strips of precious jewels, is an original example of sensuality and attention to details. But Lavinia did not limit her production to the portrait. She was also appreciated for the sacred painting. Lavinia developed her own “calligraphic” sign, far from any excess and autonomous with respect to the stereotypes of the Mannerism, accompanied by a delicate palette of colour that encountered the favours of the aristocracy and the wealthy class of the time. In her holy families, the child and the saints are presented surrounded by rich blankets and soft cushions, an environment consonant with that of her wealthy customers. In the same way, the Adoration of the Magi shows characters in sumptuous clothes and horses finely adorned.

L. Fontana, Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1600), Bologna Bargellini Museum
L. Fontana, Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1600), Bologna Bargellini Museum | Source

Judith and Holofernes

A subject such as Judith and Holofernes that we know in two different versions, testifies the interest of Lavinia for the virtuous woman, as represented in the poems of the poet Torquato Tasso. The representation of the episode made by Lavinia (that one displayed at the Bargellini Museum is dated 1600), is of course very different than the nearly contemporary representation by Caravaggio (and the later one by Artemisia Gentileschi). Here the fact is represented at its conclusion, when Judith brings away the Holofernes’ head in the basket, and there is not bloodshed. Nevertheless, the figure of Judith clearly shows the pride of the heroine who has successfully accomplished her courageous gesture.

Portraits, Sacred and Profane Paintings

We know about one hundred paintings by Lavinia Fontana: many more that those by any other woman artist of the time. Though she had a relevant success as a portraitist, her production extended also to sacred themes and to other subjects from the Bible (e.g. Judith and Holofernes, see the side box) and the myth. She obtained prestigious commissions for the altarpieces, a subject traditionally reserved to men. Basing on the paternal tradition, she perfected an iconography already evidenced in the Assumption of Ponte Santo, commissioned to her by the city Council of Imola in 1584. Lavinia does not miss to give a female touch to this work: the angels crowning the Virgin are female. What we know, it was the first time in Europe that a woman had been commissioned an altarpiece for a catholic church. Other prestigious commissions followed: a Holy Family with St. John for the Altar of the Infants in the Escorial monastery (1589), the Assumption for the cathedral of Pieve di Cento (1593), up to the full failure (told by Baglione) of the Martyrdom of St. Stephen, for the church of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome (1604), destroyed in a fire in 1823.

L. Fontana, Assumption of Ponte Santo (1584), Imola Pinacoteca Civica
L. Fontana, Assumption of Ponte Santo (1584), Imola Pinacoteca Civica | Source
L. Fontana, The Gozzadini Family (1584), Bologna Pinacoteca Nazionale
L. Fontana, The Gozzadini Family (1584), Bologna Pinacoteca Nazionale | Source

Portraits

The production of portraits by Lavinia Fontana is particularly rich, as she was the favourite portraitist of the ladies and gentlemen of the wealthy society. Among the many portraits that we know, the Gozzadini Family (1583, Bologna Pinacoteca Nazionale) is the most complex and ambitious. Lavinia adopts a vertical disposition (unusual for the portrait of a group) and poses the women – the two sisters Gozzadini - in the foreground, as the real basis on which the family lies, and the men - the father and the husbands - on the second level. The portrait joins together the living and the dead: in fact, the father, the man in the middle, and one of the sisters (the woman on the left) were dead at the time of the painting. The jewels and the brocades of the women, part of the heritage of the family, are meticulously rendered. It is not clear the meaning of the black cat visible in the empty room in the background, but it may be related in some way to the family bereavements. Lavinia had already used, in her first self-portrait, the expedient of representing a room of the house in the background as an additional attribute of the person portrayed. The portrait was commissioned by Laudamia Gozzadini (the woman on the right).

L. Fontana, Family Portrait (1600), Milano Pinacoteca di Brera
L. Fontana, Family Portrait (1600), Milano Pinacoteca di Brera | Source

The lay-out of the family group displayed at the Brera Art Collection in Milan (dated a. 1600) is very different. All the members are placed one the same level: arranged around a table, they express in a natural way the unity of the family. The painting overcomes the rigidity of the scheme of the Gozzadini Family and probably is affected by the influence of the Carracci.

L. Fontana, Newborn in the Cradle (1583),  Bologna Pinacoteca Nazionale
L. Fontana, Newborn in the Cradle (1583), Bologna Pinacoteca Nazionale | Source
L. Fontana, Portrait of pope Gregory XIII
L. Fontana, Portrait of pope Gregory XIII | Source

In the Newborn in the Cradle (1583), the small child and his curious gaze towards the observer, is inserted in the complex architecture of the cradle, which forms an environment in itself.

The pope Gregory XIII, fellow citizen of Lavinia, is represented on his bench, according to the iconography already used by Raphael for the portrait of Julius II, with a paternal and authoritative gaze at the same time. It may be quite surprising that we find the same scheme in the portrait of a noble woman, Ginevra Aldrovandi (1595), widow of the senator Herculani, depicted in a sort of glacial sacredness with a dog (symbol of fidelity) and the handkerchief used to dry the tears shed on the death of the husband.

L. Fontana, Portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi (a. 1595), Baltimore Walters Art Museum
L. Fontana, Portrait of Ginevra Aldrovandi (a. 1595), Baltimore Walters Art Museum | Source
L. Fontana, Portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez (a. 1583), Blois Musée du Chateau
L. Fontana, Portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez (a. 1583), Blois Musée du Chateau | Source

The same love for the details that Lavinia put in painting the ladies of the upper society can be found in the bizarre portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez (a. 1583, Blois Musée du Chateau). The woman, who lived in Fontainebleau at the court of the King Henry II, had stayed in Italy in the Duchy of Parma. She had inherited a rare disease known as “hypertrichosis” from her father. As it can be seen from the portrait, this disease causes an abnormal growth of the hair in some zones of the body.

L. Fontana, Adoration of the Magi (a. 1580), Musée Thomas-Henry
L. Fontana, Adoration of the Magi (a. 1580), Musée Thomas-Henry | Source
L. Fontana, Christ with the Symbols of the Passion (1576), El Paso Museum of Art
L. Fontana, Christ with the Symbols of the Passion (1576), El Paso Museum of Art | Source
L. Fontana, Jesus Appearing to Mary Magdalene (Noli Me Tangere) (1581), Florence Uffizi
L. Fontana, Jesus Appearing to Mary Magdalene (Noli Me Tangere) (1581), Florence Uffizi | Source

Sacred Paintings

Lavinia Fontana engaged often with sacred paintings. One of her first known works is the Christ with the Symbols of the Passion (1576), now hanging at El Paso Museum of Art. The painting demonstrates how she was already able to elaborate the lesson of her father in a personal style, where the landscape and the human figures (Christ and the group of the angels surrounding him) are merged in a harmonious composition. The landscape is the fundamental element in the canvas Noli Me Tangere (1585) in which Christ appears to Mary Magdalene. Here the livid and dark colours are prevalent, probably to render the mood of the sinner woman, on the suggestion of the poetry of Tasso.

After her first public commission in Imola (the Assumption of Ponte Santo) in 1584, Lavinia obtained several other appointments for sacred blades. A probable first stay in Rome around 1586 allowed her to come in touch with the secretary of a Spanish cardinal and to have the prestigious commission of a blade for the altar of the Pantheon of the Infants at the Escorial.

The favour encountered by the Vision of Saint Hyacinth, commissioned by the cardinal Girolamo Bemerio da Correggio for the church of Saint Sabina, as it is told by Giovanni Baglione in his biography, pushed her to move to Rome with the family. Here she obtained the prestigious commission of the Martyrdom of St. Stephen, for the church of Saint Paul Outside the Walls (1604). The canvas, destroyed in a fire in 1823, was a clamorous failure, as referred by Baglione, because of the wrong proportion of the big figures. However, Lavinia continued to work with success to the portraits, despite few paintings of the Roman period being known.

L. Fontana, Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1600), Bologna Oratorio di San Pellegrino
L. Fontana, Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1600), Bologna Oratorio di San Pellegrino | Source
L. Fontana, Minerva Dressing (1613), Rome Galleria Borghese
L. Fontana, Minerva Dressing (1613), Rome Galleria Borghese | Source

The Bible and the Myth

In the subjects from the Bible and the mythology, Lavinia reveals an easier manner, more free with respect to the directives of the Council of Trent that had inspired her production of altarpieces. Among the subjects from the Bible, it could not miss a Judith with the Head of Holofernes, a classic of the time. In the version displayed at the Oratorio of San Pellegrino in Bologna (dated 1600), Lavinia gives her own face to a Judith who victorious wields the sword.

The mythology is also the occasion to deal with the theme of the nude. In the Allegory, attributed to Lavinia and dated around 1590, a naked Venus seems to measure the distance between the sensual love (the mirror which reflects her nude back) and the fidelity, represented by the dog. In her last known work, dated 1613, i.e. one year before her death, the goddess Minerva is shown as a nude Venus who wears the dress looking at the observer with a bit of malice. And this might be her testament.

L. Fontana, Allegory (a. 1590), Private Collection
L. Fontana, Allegory (a. 1590), Private Collection | Source

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© 2014 Massimo Viola

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    • brownella profile image

      brownella 2 years ago from New England

      Another great art history hub. I always love reading yours - so well researched and so many beautiful pictures. Thanks for sharing :-)

    • mviola profile image
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      Massimo Viola 2 years ago from Piacenza

      Thanks to you for reading and commenting :-)

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