Sofonisba Anguissola – Ritrattista del Rinascimento

Sofonisba Anguissola
11 February – 11 June 2023
Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede, The Netherlands

From 11 February to 11 June 2023 the Rijksmuseum Twenthe, in collaboration with the Danish Nivaagaards Malerisamling are showing the first solo exhibition on the life and work of the Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola (ca. 1532-1625) in the Netherlands.

The exhibition shows 18 works of her own hand, supplemented with three works by her sisters Lucia and Europa, a few small comparative prints by contemporaries, and three objects. Together, they form a wonderful cross-section through her life as an artist, in which you can clearly witness her remarkable talent and skills.

Anguissola is one of the most talented portrait artists of the Italian sixteenth century, esteemed by Vasari and Michelangelo, famous for her innovative compositions. She had a worldwide reputation as an artist. and portrayed many kings, emperors and members of the nobility in Italy and Spain, in which she excelled. Beside portraits she made numerous biblical scenes.

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Sofonisba Anguissola was born in Cremona, as the eldest daughter of Amilcare Anguissola, Bianca Ponzone, both from noble birth. Her siblings were Elena (later Sister Minerva), Lucia, Europa, Minerva, Anna Maria and Asdrubale. In Renaissance Italy, women were no longer considered inferior in thought and capacity. They were crucially able to support, mould and change the politics, culture and the economic fabric of society. In this line, all Anguissola got a thorough education that included the fine arts. Amilcare Anguissola saw learning to paint as a part of the new Humanist education for a woman of a high social standing. Because of this, she never sold a single one of her paintings.

Around 1546, Sofonisba and her sister Elena were sent to study with Bernardino Campi, a respected portrait and religious painter of the Lombard school. They were not allowed to study with the other art students, and lived at the house of Bernardino Campi, under the tutelage of his wife. In 1549, when Campi moved to another city, the Anguissola sisters continued their studies with painter Bernardino Gatti (known as Il Sojaro), a pupil of Correggio’s. The self portraits she paints during this period show her as a noble woman and a woman of virtue. She is always dressed in similar clothing; a simple black dress with a white undershirt. Inscriptions on these self portraits show us that she indentifies herself as “virgo.” During these years, Sofonisba and Lucia also portrayed several (mostly male) prominent residents of the city. During these portrait sessions, a chaperone is always present. This is evidenced by some inscriptions on the works.

Her father promoted her to artists, humanists and patrons, and her competence and artistic ability became widely known. In the spring of 1557 Sofonisba went to Piacenza, where she took miniature lessons from the famous miniaturist Giulio Clovio.

In 1559 the Duke of Alba persuaded King Philip II of Spain to call Anguissola to the court as a lady-in-waiting to the 14-year-old Queen Elisabeth of Valois, to give her painting lessons. Anguissola left in early November 1559 and stayed there until 1573. With this, she reached the inner circles of the Spanish royal family. During this period she guided the artistic development of Queen Elisabeth, and her two daughters, Isabella Clara Eugenia and Catherine Michaela. She also painted the entire court, and even the pope. Her works during this period were not signed, as was also the habit with court painters.

In 1573, when she was around 40, she married a Sicilian man named Fabrizio de Moncada by proxy, and they moved to Paternò. De Moncada was said to be supportive of her painting. The marriage only lasted 5 years, when her husband died during a pirate attack. Two years later, during a journey by sea, she fell in love with a young naval captain, the Genoese Orazio Lomellini, who was of lower nobility than Anguissola. In 1584, she married him against the wishes of her brother, and of her noble coterie. They lived in Genoa, and during this period she focussed on painting religious artworks. In her later life, they moved to Palermo.

Her influence on other painters is remarkable.

In a letter written in 1579, Bolognese artist Lavinia Fontana expressed that she and another artist, Irene di Spilimbergo, had “set [their] hearts on learning how to paint” after seeing one of Anguissola’s portraits.

On 12 July 1624, when Sofonisba was visited by the young Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, he remarked that “her eyesight was weakened,” but she was “with a good memory, quick spirit and kind.” He was said to have claimed that their conversation taught him more about the “true principles” of painting than anything else in his life.

Sofonisba Anguissola passed away on16 November 1625, at the age of 93.
Lomellino placed an inscription on her tomb in San Giorgio dei Genovesi in Palermo that insisted upon his wife’s immense talent. It reads:

“To Sofonisba, my wife, who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, outstanding in portraying the images of man. Orazio Lomellino, in sorrow for the loss of his great love, in 1632, dedicated this little tribute to such a great woman.”