by Roderick Conway Morris

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Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule-Breaker

By Roderick Conway Morris
DUBLIN 30 June 2023
Uffizi, Florence
Self-portrait in the studio by Lavinia Fontana, 1579



Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) was the first woman artist to run her own commercial workshop, the first to paint public altarpieces for churches and the first to paint nudes.

These achievements alone justify the bold claims attached to the title of this intelligently researched and attractively presented exhibition, curated by Aiofe Brady, at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, the first to focus on her portraits, which were key to her celebrity and financial success. It also becomes evident that the fact that she was born in Bologna offered her exceptional opportunities, unequalled elsewhere, to thrive as an independent female artist.

The Gallery is fortunate to own perhaps her most spectacular large-scale late work, 'The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon' of 1599. The painting had remained in her birthplace at least until 1850, was acquired by Prince Napoléon Bonaparte (later Napoleon III) in 1859 and was rescued from the flames when the Palais-Royal was torched by the revolutionaries during the Paris Commune in 1871. It was bought from Christies the following year by the National Gallery of Ireland.

Bologna had Italy's oldest and largest university, founded in the eleventh century, a major factor in the trajectory of Fontana's career (she eventually received an honorary degree from it). On both sides of her family she had publishing connections, a business closely associated with the University, and some of her first portraits were of scholars. Fontana's father, Prospero, was a successful Mannerist painter of altarpieces and frescoes, and a familiar figure in the city's intellectual circles. Among his friends were the Florentine Giorgio Vasari, a near contemporary. Lavinia herself was only slightly younger than the Bolognese brothers Agostino and Annibale Carracci and their cousin Ludovico, the outstanding Bolognese artists of the era, whose naturalism was to exert a significant influence on her work.

As part of the Papal States, Bologna was ruled by a papal legate and a Senate formed from the city's noble families, many of them wealthy patrons of the arts. A leading participant at the Council of Trent (1545-63), which sat temporarily in Bologna in 1547, was Gabriele Paleotti, who served first as bishop and then archbishop of Bologna between 1566 and 1597. He presided over the refurbishment of eight churches in the city, which required some eighty religious paintings to reflect the Council's new diktats, and offered Fontana a golden opportunity to win commissions for altarpieces.

Lavinia's father Prospero taught her to draw - she is, indeed, the first female artist to whom we can confidently attribute drawings - and in due course to paint. The one discipline that would have not been available to her was drawing from the nude. This left her with a sometimes slightly shaky grasp of human anatomy. She was probably too coy to use herself as a nude model, as the younger, Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, born into humbler circumstances, seems to have done.

For reasons of respectability a husband had to be found for Lavinia and a socially acceptable young man, Gian Paolo Zappa, who had trained for a spell with Prospero, fitted the bill. The marriage contract of 1577 was notable in stipulating that her husband should move into his bride's family house and she should continue to paint. As women could not make contracts, Zappa was essential in arranging these and proved an able and dedicated agent on her behalf.

By the time she was in her mid twenties, Fontana was in the then unique position of running her own studio, the activities of which extended to the training of other aspiring artists. She soon became the main breadwinner for her entire household, including her ailing father and mother, despite giving birth to eleven children between 1578 and 1595.

The artist's first portraits in the late 1570s and early 1580s were largely of male subjects, among them academics, noblemen and senior clerics. But presently she was more in demand in painting upper-class women, many of them members of the Quaranta (Bologna's forty noble families). She became a virtuoso painter also of these women's sumptuous clothes and jewels, depicting them in much greater detail than previous male artists had done. The sitters are often accompanied by tiny lap-dogs, which were a locally bred luxury accessory, often adorned with solid gold canine collars and ear-rings. Such was Fontana's popularity that her biographer Carlo Cesare Malvasia describes her would-be aristocratic patrons flocking around her in the street begging to have their portraits painted by her. Malvasia even maintained that her portraits fetched higher prices than those of Van Dyck and Sustermans.

Having reached the end of the her child-bearing years in the mid 1590s, Fontana clearly felt free to undertake larger-scale canvases. In 1599 alone she produced 'The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon', 'The Consecration of the Virgin' and 'The Vision of St Hyacinth'. With the death of her father in 1597 she was released from the obligation stated in her marriage contract to remain in her home town and her path to pursue her fortune in the Eternal City was smoothed by the impeccable social and ecclesiastical connections she had cultivated in Bologna.

Cardinal Girolamo Bernerio assisted her in finding suitably grand accommodation and studio space in Rome and she moved there between 1603 and 1604, going on to win commissions for altarpieces and becoming a painter of popes and cardinals in the Vatican. When she died on 11 August 1614 at the age of 62, a Roman dispatch to Urbino read: 'On Monday passed to the other life Lavinia Fontana, from Bologna, a singular painter among women of our age, who was on a par with the first men of that profession.'

The influence of her example in her own city was remarkable and enduring. By the end of the 18th century, Bologna had produced at least sixty-eight women artists whose names have come down to us, vastly more than any other city in the peninsula.

Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule-Breaker; National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin; 6 May - 27 August 2023

Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule-Breaker

Aiofe Brady, ed. with contributions by Babette Bohn and Jonquil O'Reilly

National Gallery of Ireland/Yale University Press, 2023

First published: British Art Journal (volume XXIV, no.1, Summer 2023)

First published: British Art Journal

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024