by Roderick Conway Morris

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Portait of a Neglected Artist

By Roderick Conway Morris
CREMONA 22 October 1994
Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena
Bernadino Campi Painting Sofonisba by Sofonisba Anguissola, c.1559



Sofonisba Anguissola, one of the most gifted and original artists of the 16th century, achieved during her lifetime international celebrity and the admiration of fellow artists from Michelangelo to Van Dyck, only to sink subsequently into almost total obscurity.

How this came about and how unmerited was her fate is illuminated by 'Sofonisba and Her Sisters,' a fascinating exhibition at the Cremona city cultural center (which runs till Dec. 11, then will go in 1995 to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the National Gallery of Women in the Arts in Washington). It is the first gathering together of her widely dispersed works.

Anguissola was born in Cremona, near Milan, in about 1535. The family was aristocratic, but in a precarious financial state - both factors that were to have an important influence on Anguissola's career. Sofonisba, the eldest, was followed by sisters Elena, Lucia, Minerva, Europa, Anna Maria, and a single brother, Asdrubale.

All the Anguissola girls were intelligent and talented, and the house was bursting with cultural energy and activity - this extraordinary family bringing to mind the Brontes at Howarth Parsonage. And indeed, though the Anguissolas were undoubtedly more comfortably off, they suffered similar premature losses, the death in her early 20s of Lucia - a brilliant musician and, to judge by her canvases in the show, a painter no less skillful than her elder sister - being a particularly tragic blow.

In around 1543 her father, Amilcare, took the bold step, even in view of his enlightened cast of mind, of sending Sofonisba and Elena to live with the painter Bernadino Campi and his wife. Campi was, a distinguished artist, who had been trained by Giulio Romano, himself the pupil and heir of Raphael - so for three years Anguissola had the opportunity to study with a painter in the mainstream of Italian painting.

Amilcare was assiduous in sending her work to potential patrons in northern Italy, and her self-portraits soon became much in the demand at the courts of Mantua, Ferrara, Parma and beyond. When Michelangelo - an artist hardly predisposed to take an interest in the work of an aspiring woman artist - was shown an Anguissola drawing of a young girl laughing, he was not only struck by the quality of the draftsmanship, but also astonished by the subject matter and expressed an eagerness to see the artist tackle a 'little boy crying - something much more difficult.' Anguissola obliged with a toddler nipped by a crayfish - creating the prototype of many later pictures, including Caravaggio's 'Boy Bitten by a Lizard.'

Michelangelo's surprise at Anguissola's unusual themes (the product, to a considerable extent, of social restrictions) may seem odd now, but his reaction highlights a major facet of her originality. Painting always 'from life' Anguissola captured domestic scenes with such naturalness and vibrancy and with such acute but sympathetic observation that her pictures became a revelation to her contemporaries. And even 450 years later, wonderful compositions like' The Game of Chess' and her portrait of father, sister Minerva and brother Asdrubale, remain breathtaking for their immediacy and freshness. Equally unusual is the manner in which Anguissola's playfulness and humor manifest themselves in her art - the affectionate picture of her master Campi at his easel doing her portrait, which could be subtitled 'Sofonisba Painting Campi Painting Sofonisba', being a perfect example.

This jeu d'esprit was probably one of the last pictures she completed before leaving for Spain in 1559, at the invitation of Philip II, at whose court she remained for 14 years. Anguissola took her place in the queen's entourage, and embarked on a series of remarkable portraits of the royal family, many of the most important of which, on loan from the Prado, figure in the exhibition. The Italian artist's technical mastery was well up to the task, although the full-length portrait favored in Spain was a new challenge.

Anguissola's long stay in Spain and the elevated position she enjoyed at Philip's court explain why her name later became obscured. She did not sign her work, and given her status it was unthinkable that she should be paid directly for her pictures - being rewarded instead with jewels, sumptuous clothes and, in due course, pensions. Thus, for Anguissola the usual kind of historical documentation registering commissions and payments, usually so vital in confirming datings and attributions, does not exist. Consequently, in time, almost all her most outstanding works, despite their their inimitable stylistic qualities, came to be attributed to other contemporary court painters - notably Sanchez Coello.

Vivacious, cultivated, attractive and universally admired, Anguissola never lacked suitors, but deftly avoided Philip's efforts to marry her to some Spanish don, insisting that if she were to marry it would have to be in Italy. A suitably aristocratic Sicilian was finally found, the king himself providing the dowry that Anguissola had always lacked, and in 1573 she went to Sicily. Within five years her husband lost his life during an attack by Barbary pirates off Capri.

With what was seen as unseemly haste, Anguissola married the sea-captain son of a Genoese noble several years her junior. The match was vigorously opposed by the Spanish king and the Duke of Florence - but Anguissola somewhat cheekily informed the duke that 'marriages are made in heaven and then on earth' and, in any case, it was too late as the deed was done. Such was the regard in which she was held that Philip II nonetheless continued to support her financially, and she continued to paint members of the royal house when they came to Italy.

Anguissola was the first Italian painter to specialize almost exclusively in portraiture - a choice partly dictated by her sex and circumstances, but a genre in which she so excelled as significantly to expand its possibilities. And this admirable exhibition - accompanied by a handsome and indispensable catalogue edited by Mina Gregori - will surely win back for her at last her richly deserved place in the artistic pantheon.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024