In my recent articles about Elisabetta Sirani, I mentioned that Bologna provided a particularly favourable environment for women painters at that time. One reason for this was the extraordinary success of Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614), who mercifully enjoyed a much longer working life than the unfortunate Sirani.
Lavinia Fontana was the only child of the successful painter Prospero Fontana, at a time when painting was very much a family business. With no son to take the workshop on, it was a relief to her father that she showed strong artistic ability at an early age – so early that by the time she was 13, she may have been generating much of the family’s income.
Several of her early paintings, including The Annunciation (c 1575), were made using oil on copper, an expensive and technically-challenging support which implies that they were already commissioned by the more wealthy. This is a very naturalistic depiction of this popular story from the New Testament, in which an angel told the Virgin Mary that she was to conceive Jesus Christ, with the white dove symbolising the Holy Spirit, and the traditional floral attributes.
In 1577, Fontana married Gian Paolo Zappi, from the lesser nobility, and from then signed herself Lavinia Fontana de Zappis. Her husband brought new clients and contacts, and the workshop’s portraiture business flourished. The couple had a total of eleven children, although as was usual at the time few made adulthood: only three outlived her, and to her bitter disappointment her own daughter did not live long enough to take on the workshop, as Lavinia had hoped. With his wife the master of the workshop, Gian Paolo’s main roles were as his wife’s assistant, and running the household.
As her style matured, her use of colour became bolder, and her tonal range broadened. She painted a series of works showing Christ and his family in warm and intimate settings, such as her The Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis (1578). At the back are Saint Francis (left) and Joseph (right), with the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ. Opposite them is Saint Margaret.
Slightly later, she painted The Holy Family with Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1581). Saint Catherine is shown with her most popular attribute, the breaking wheel on which her body did not break, and is appropriately young, given that she was supposed to have been martyred at the age of only 18 years.
In her Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene (1581), she re-locates this famous post-resurrection encounter between Mary and Jesus, giving him the garb of a mediaeval Italian gardener.
Later paintings became less intimate and more elaborate, when needed. Her Assumption of the Virgin (1583), which shows the Virgin Mary being taken up into heaven following her earthly death, contains dozens of faces, a host of angels and supporting crew, even a small chessboard-sized representation of a city in the immediate foreground.
Probably painted at about the same time, or a little earlier, her Consecration of the Virgin celebrates various forms of that consecration, of children, supported by Saint Peter (shown holding the key to heaven), and above all of women and mothers. This painting uses a combination of the softer pinks and blues typical of her earlier work, and the bolder and richer colours of later.
Her paintings also give unusual insight into aspects of contemporary family life, as in her Portrait of a Newborn in a Cradle (c 1583): clearly a child of a rich family, wearing a string of pearls in their ornate crib.
Her Saint Francis of Paola Blessing the Son of Louisa of Savoy (1590) gives an unusual insight into the history of France and the Catholic Church. Louise of Savoy (1476-1531) was the Regent of France for three periods from 1515, and the mother of King Francis I of France. Fontana shows her bringing her second child, born in September 1494, to be blessed by Saint Francis of Paola (1416-1507), a mendicant friar who founded the Order of Minims, an early vegan group who considered themselves to be the “least of all the faithful”. This would have happened in the royal residence at Château de Plessis-lez-Tours, in the Loire Valley of France. Louise’s son, being blessed here, was to become King Francis I of France.
Among her many fine portraits – including those of many women – are some more unusual subjects. Her Isabella Ruini as Venus (1592) shows a celebrated Bolognese beauty of the day in a role which enabled her to celebrate that beauty. It has been suggested that Isabella Ruini acted as a model for some of Fontana’s later paintings of nude women, although as some seem to have been made in Rome, that is not clear.
Portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez (c 1595) is perhaps the most unusual of her portraits, showing a young girl from a famous family from the Canary Islands, who had a genetic hirsutism sometimes known as hypertrichosis. The girl’s father, sisters and other family members toured the courts of Europe as objects of curiosity.
Her Apollo and the Muses (1598-1600) is very unusual, apparently setting this fairly standard mythological scene at night, as an al fresco music concert complete with Pegasus and (at the top left) a flying nude. The explanation lies in it having originally been the painted panel cover of a spinet. It was later removed from the instrument, the upper right added, and was put on display above a door.
Lavinia Fontana set a tradition that successful women painters should make several works showing Judith with the Head of Holofernes. This version, from 1600, avoids gore and puts Holofernes’ head discreetly in half-light, while Judith brandishes the sword with pride, and her maid seems to have taken delight in the action. Her use of rich colours and chiaroscuro were advanced for painting in Bologna at the time.
Her undated Judith and Holofernes is even more Caravaggist in style, more explicit in showing Holofernes’ decapitated body, and streaks of blood, but is less well composed.
The workshop in Bologna had remained successful and prosperous, but ultimate recognition came in 1603, when Pope Clement VIII invited her to move workshop and family to Rome. She quickly acquired powerful patronage, painted a portrait of Pope Paul V himself and became his court portraitist, and was even awarded a bronze medallion made for her by Casone in 1611.
When in Rome, she painted the remarkable family Portrait of Bianca degli Utili Maselli with six of her children (1604-5), showing this wife who died within a year of its completion, five of her sons, and her daughter Verginia. As in most of her portraits, the lapdog was a sign of fidelity, and Fontana’s depiction of clothing exquisite.
Among the works of her final years in Rome, she painted at least two versions of Minerva Dressing. This, from 1612-13, is a subtle and relatively modest nude, with elaborate details of the almost transparent voile on her back and the red and black cape. Throughout her career, Fontana held a high reputation for her depiction of clothes.
Minerva in the Act of Dressing (1613) lacks the subtlety and finesse, although it makes clearer the attributes associated with Minerva, even featuring an owl perched on the balustrade outside.
Lavinia Fontana died in Rome in 1614, leaving the largest oeuvre of any woman painter prior to 1700. Unlike the few women painters who had gone before her, she had succeeded at the highest level in a range of different genres, including mythology, religious works (with some large-scale altarpieces), and portraiture.
Her reputation enabled Bologna, in particular, and Italy more generally to accept the work of future women artists, including Elisabetta Sirani and Artemisia Gentileschi. Although it would be several centuries before women had anything approaching a level field with men (if they have achieved that even today), Lavinia Fontana’s achievements were singularly great.