1532 - 1625
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.