Sofonisba Anguissola was a pioneering woman painter of the Italian Renaissance, eventually rising to the status of court painter to the Spanish crown. Her fame and wealth during her lifetime was extremely important in opening the doors of the world of fine art to women.
She was born c. 1532, into the family of Amilcare Anguissola, a minor noble from Cremona, Lombardy. With a total of six daughters and one son to care for, the practical Amilcare decided to raise them all similarly instead of following traditional gender-based upbringing practices, and provided them with a good general education, which included painting. In doing so, he hoped to lower the dowry he would be required to pay any potential suitors.
Sofonisba proved to be the most adept amongst her siblings at painting, and would ultimately be the only one to pursue a true artistic career. In 1546, at the age of around 14, she and her sister, Elena, were sent to study at the workshop of local master Bernardino Campi. When he left the city in 1549, the girls continued their studies with Bernardino Gatti (also known as Il Sojaro) for another three years. The Anguissolas' apprenticeship not only taught them to paint at professional level, but also set a precedent for female artists to be trained in the same manner as men.
While still a child, Sofonisba's paintings were promoted by her father as the masterful works of a child prodigy, which accrued her much fame at an early age and caught the attention of numerous prominent painters of the time, including Michelangelo and Vasari. After the end of her apprenticeship, around 1554, she travelled to Rome, where she got to meet Michelangelo through a mutual acquaintance. The artist was impressed by her talent, and offered to informally train her for the next two years, to further develop her technique. During this time she drew numerous portraits, including those of her family, such as The Chess Game (1555), Portrait of Asdrubale Anguissola (1556), and Portrait of Amilcare, Minerva and Asdrubale Anguissola (1557-58).
In 1556, likely at the prompting of her father who was always looking to boost her fame, she went on a tour of several Italian cities, including Mantua, Ferrara, and Parma. In the latter of these, she studied for a time under Giulio Clovio, from whom she learned the art of miniature painting, which would become an important element in her later career. Sofonisba supposedly received a marriage proposal during this time, but had to decline due to lack of a dowry.
Around 1558, she traveled to Milan. Since she had already gained renown as a painter, she was immediately invited to the court of the Duke of Alba, to paint his portrait. Here also she was reunited with her first instructor, Campi, who was living in Milan at the time, and upon meeting him she painted perhaps her most notable work from this time: Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1559), a rather intricate combination of portrait and self-portrait.
The Duke of Alba then recommended her to King Philip II of Spain, a highly influential ruler under whom Spain would reach the height of its power. The Spanish king had recently married the French princess, Isabella, who was herself an amateur portraitist and wished to improve her skills. Philip sent for Sofonisba, and in 1559 she traveled to Madrid to become the queen's tutor and lady-in-waiting. She would spend the following fourteen years as a court painter to the royal family, drawing numerous portraits and scenes from their lives–many now in museums–as well as instructing the queen on painting. The portraits Queen Isabel de Valois (1563-65), the Infantas Isabella Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela (c. 1569-70) and King Philip II (1570) were all made during this time.
Sofonisba became close friends with the queen, and by extension the king. After Isabella died during childbirth in 1568, Philip negotiated an arranged marriage for Sofonisba to Don Fabrizio de Moncada, son of the Viceroy of Sicily. They married in 1573, with the Spanish king bestowing upon her an annual pension of 1000 ducats and over 20,000 scudi for a dowry as part of the marriage contract. The couple settled in Palermo. This marriage was short-lived, however, as in 1578 Don Fabrizio died in an alleged pirate attack off the coast of Sicily, possibly a victim of family politics.
The following year Sofonisba traveled to Genoa by ship, and during the journey fell in love with and shortly thereafter married the ship's captain, Orazio Lomellini. The marriage, hastily conducted in December 1579, went against the wishes of her family, and without King Philip's approval. Sofonisba was perhaps wary of the bureaucratic hoop-jumping involved in asking for the king's blessing, or was possibly concerned that he, too, would be against her choice of Lomellini, whom her brother (the head of the family since her father's death) and the Duke of Tuscany considered below her station. However, the second marriage had little, if any, impact on her overall reputation, or her standing with the royal family.
Around 1615, the couple moved back to Palermo, where Lomellini wished to retire from his merchant trade. His fortune, as well as her pension from the Spanish crown, allowed Sofonisba to spend the rest of her life in comfort, now painting as a hobby rather than a career, and becoming a significant patron of the arts.
Sofonisba died in 1625 at the age of 93.
Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Woman. Natl Museum of Women in the Arts, 1995.
Sofonisba Anguissola: The First Great Woman Artist of the Renaissance by Ilya Sandra Perlingieri. Rizzoli, 1992.
Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque by Claudio Strinati, Jordana Pomeroy. Skira, 2007.
1555. Oil on canvas. 70 x 94 cm. Museum Narodowe. Poznan, Poland.
c. 1556. Oil on panel. 42 x 31 cm. Museo Civico Ala Ponzone, Cremona, Italy.
c. 1557-58. Oil on canvas. 157 x 122 cm. Nivaagaards Malerisamling, Niva, Denmark.
c. 1550. Oil on canvas. 111 x 110 cm. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, Italy.
1563-65. Oil on panel. 119 x 84 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Read Note.
c. 1569-70. Oil on canvas. 133.5 x 145 cm. Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace, London, UK. Read Note.