Posts Tagged ‘Lucia Anguissola’

Sofonisba Anguissola, The Chess Game (left to right, Lucia, Europa, Minerva Anguissola, 1555)

Vigue: “In this painting, Lucia is on the left. She has just killed her opponent’s queen. The other player is Minerva, who is lifting a hand, perplexed and rather serious, since she has nearly lost the game. The young Europa smiles openly in the center, enjoying the situation. The psychological rendering of the figures is perfect. The expression of the servant gazing at the game is also remarkable. Occupied in her domestic tasks, she nevertheless has time to notice matters affecting the girls. This painting reveals Anguissola’s human spirit The young women are wearing elegant silk clothing with lace cuffs, high collars with a ruff, and necklaces and tiaras with precious stones and pearls adorning their heads. Anguissola paints a landscape in the background that adds depth to the painting. The canvas has a soft light throughout, with the indistinct, misty landscape in the background characteristic of Northern Italian painting in a technique called sfumato. The drawing is solid and the strokes of color are not very detailed, but rather suggestive and subtle, as is the case in Flemish painting. This can be observed in the complexions, in the magnificent golden highlights on the sleeves and in the highlights on their pearls … Vasari was profoundly impressed at its vividness, to the point where he assured readers that the girls might begin speaking at any moment. Chess was reserved for men of the nobility or upper classes. Anguissola did not paint her sisters sewing or embroidering, but rather exercising an intellectual activity, that is, playing chess … “

Lucia Anguissola, Self-Portrait (1558)

Exhibition catalogue of Italian Women Artists: Lucia portrays herself sitting down in elegant but modest attire. She wears dark clothing under which appears a white blouse. In her left hand she holds a small book (a Petrarchan or prayer book) … The same format and sense of silent detachment in this self-portrait can be found in a similar drawing by Sofonisba of Lucia … [Flavio Caroli suggests Lucia] is ‘reclined in a remote suspension of the heart … The attention given to the psychological element and the ‘movement of the soul’ falls squarely in the Lombard tradition, and is traced to the studies made by Leonardo … with respect to subtlety of feeling, in her own introversion, as well as human understanding, Lucia is not less talented than her sister … ‘

Friends and readers,

In recent years, no less than three biographies have been written about Sofonisba Anguissola (1535/6-1625), about which four argumentative, passionate, and insistently corrective reviews have been written (one of them embarrassed by the biography under review); she has had an exhibit dedicated to her (and her family), been a central painter of an exhibition of Italian Renaissance Women Painters from Renaissance to Barque, figured in another wider exhibit of Women Artists, 1550-1950, and at least three academic essays, two in peer-edited journals, where she is taken to stand for important trends and forms of creativity for women, for the Renaissance, a third in the Woman’s Art Journal, have appeared. She is discussed in detail in six of the surveys I’ve consulted, was the subject of early 20th century articles about a relationship with Michelangelo and Philip II, to omit passing mentions and casual reproductions of a few of her portraits in others. Yet when when one starts to compare, there is much contradiction, attributions disputed, dates tentative, much not known about her (how many sisters did she have, what were their names, did two or three paint?), and the whys and wherefores of what is known not clear.

I take Sofonsiba’s somber, contemplative, and self-aware characterization of her subjects, and Lucia’s psychologically acute depictions of vulnerable, guarded nuances to be a core cause for the embattled defenses I’ve come across. Although Sofonsiba tends to warm colors amid the darkness of her sitters’ outfits, neither sister paints overtly emotionally warm, sensual, smilingly open (compliant? available?) women; raped, sexually inviting, castigated, vengeful or humiliated women are not part of their repertoire — as they are in most early modern Italian painting. Dare I say this makes some viewers and students of art turn away? (Find this boring?) Sofonisba and Lucia are rather concerned to show themselves as contemporary non-mythic women of high culture and status:

Sofonsiba of herself at the spinet

Sofonsiba repeats a self-reflexive motif in this inset intriguingly individuated intense mother-and-child painting she has painted within the larger frame of herself at an easel (c. 1556)


While Sofonsiba is said to have spent at least 21 years in the Spanish court at Madrid and painted many portraits, little has survived of this; Lucia died young, and her and her sisters’ most compelling (alive) portraits left are those of one another and their siblings, servants, pets, e.g, Sofonisba’s rendition of the family with a nervous poodle:

Said to be Amilcare, the father, Minerva and the one brother, Asdrubal (c 1557)

This panel by Lucia may be of Europa (the inscription is uncertain):


The vastly superior content, technique, accuracy of their portraits of people close to them or ordinary people (not always named) may be seen in comparing Sofonsiba’s Prince Charles of Austria (c. 1560)


to the density of apprehension in Sofonsiba’s “Husband and Wife:”


There are no extant or recorded landscapes, but there are remarkable drawings made by Sofonsiba, presumably at a young age:

of herself on white and blue paper

And here and there enlarged reproductions of detailed work in Sofonsiba’s painting:

Said to be from a portrait of Bianca Ponzoni (Anguissola?, c. 1557)


Sofonsiba’s life patterns resemble Garzoni’s and Gentileschi’s: sudden escapes or at least movement away from her family, long periods on her own here and there, with commissions from a court or courts as her support; she differs in having married late in life (so no pregnancies) two husbands, one political or arranged and other a seemingly sudden a love match. The intensity or genuineness of emotion here finds a parallel in the emotions felt and portrayed in the tight-knit continual painting and drawing of one another seen in Sofonisba’s early years.

The home and birthplace was in Cremona, their father, Amilcare Anguissola, not himself a painter but someone who recognizing his daughters talents’ cultivated them, had them study under the portraitist Bernardino Campi. There is an introverted self-reflexive mirroring in Sofonisba’s complex portraits of herself painted by Campi.


Biana Ponzona was the mother’s name; and may be painted by Lucia here:

The image also could be of Sofonisba before she went to the Spanish court (the inscription is a later one)

There were possibly five or six daughters, Sofonisba, Minerva, Europa, and Anna Maria. Only Elena did not paint; she is said to have became a nun:

Elena as a nun by Sofonsiba

The one brother, Adrusbal, did not paint:

This may be Adrusbal or a young nobleman: he does have the large family eyes

Nancy Heller supplies information about the sisters beyond Elena, the nun: Minerva died young too; Europa and Anna Maria married and painted religious works as well as portraits.

This is said to be of Minerva, by Sofonsiba, she is made much harder and more extroverted than Lucia’s Minerva (see below) — and wears matching rich red jewelry.

The records for Sofonisba’s individual career begin when she was 15. Two letters from Amilcare to Michelangelo at the time, show Amilcare bringing Sofonisba’s talent to Michelangelo’s attention, after having received encouragement. It’s said Michelangelo asked for a portrait of boy crying: whence this drawing said to be her with her brother bitten by a crawfish.

Sofonsiba (?) with her brother who it’s said has been bitten by a crawfish — he is one upset little brother

Documents suggest that when Sofonisba was 24 (1559), Philip II asked for her services as a portraitist, whence she left Genoa (where she was at the time) and went to live at Guadalajara. Eleven years later (1568), after the death of Queen Elizabeth of Valois whom Sofonisba had painted:


it’s thought that Sofonsiba took charge of the education of the Infantas, Isabel Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela. At any rate later visits show a remembered relationship and Sofonisa may have painted

Catalina Micaela, sometimes called the Lady in Ermine.

It was supposed an honor when after thirteen years at court Philip married Sofonisba to a Sicilian nobleman, Fabrizio de Moncada, who died three years after that when his ship was sunk (pirates are mentioned).

Two and one half years later she also defied a custom which tended to decree that widows (especially without children) not re-marry and while on a ship married the captain, Oracio Lomellini. She had asked no one’s permission, and to criticism is said to have replied: “Marriages are made in heaven and no on earth.”

The couple settled first in Genoa in 1584, where Sofonisba continues to paint and perhaps teach painting. She was then visited (or herself visited) the Infanta Catalina Micaela with her husband, the Duke of Savoy. Fourteen years later (1599) the Infanta Isabel Ciara Eugenia visited Sofonisba there.

We know that by 1624 she was living in Palermo because Anthony Van Dyke visited her there on July 12th. A year later in November she died, and was buried November 16th, in San Giorgo dei Genovesi, Palermo.


No specific events of Lucia’s life are known; her name repeated in the family group as a painter, trained like the others:

By Lucia Anguissola, said to be of their sister, Minerva (c. 1558-60, see above for Sofonisba’s)

Vigue: “Minerva was … was represented in three works by Sofonisba: The Chess Game, Family Portrait, and a portrait in which she is wearing two bracelets, a red coral neck-lace, and a pendant of the goddess Minerva (Museum of Art. Milwaukee). Minerva was a painter, but she also wrote. Filippo Baldinucci (1681) stated that she was an excellent write, both in Latin and in the common language, but that she died in the flower of her youth. The composition of [Lucia’s] portrait shows a great affinity with the tondo of the young Europa Like the portrait of the women’s mother, this one is somber, though the background is ochre instead of the dark green Lucia usually employed. The light is diaphanous and the brushstrokes evocative and subtle, especially in the lace on the shirt and the fine white strings against the dark dress. With its light background, this portrait emanates warmth …

Perhaps to fill out her portrait Lucia is credited with studying music, Latin and the humanities according to the plan of Baldassare Castiglione in his Courtier. There is a series of consistent comments which suggest intelligence, and her portraits of herself show that: we are told that she liked music, enjoyed playing chess (whence the famous picture), and reading. Lucia signed her portrait of herself reading a book. She also signed this portrait of Dr Pietro Manno as a hard secular man:


Lucia is also credited with painting a Virgin and Child which recalled Raphael (all tenderness). One can see a (as art critics have said) her softness of approach in color and brushwork in the extant pictures. I am attracted to the melancholy of those of her pictures that have survived. She was mentioned by Antonio Palomino (1655-1726) in his Lives and by Filippino Balducini (1681). In his Vite, Giorgio Vasari says Lucia had comparable expertise with Sofonisba, and it is he who wrote that when he visited her father in Cremona in 1565 Lucia had died, with words that imply recently.


One last self-portrait (black-and-white reproduction) of Sofonsiba of herself

I began my reading and some research for this blog by wondering why, and ended understanding how and why Sofonsiba especially but also Lucia have sustained respect and adherents over the centuries.

Germaine Greer suggests that Sofonsiba was Lucia’s teacher, that she escaped being subject to her father or a ward of the Spanish king by marrying; that is, it was she was initiated her first marriage. She may have married the second time to maintain a form of independence (182-86). Elsa Honig Fine portrays her as pro-active for herself and holding her own in her interchanges with powerful royalty (8-10). The Italian Renaissance Women Painters entries go over the complex iconographies that can be allegorically teased out of both Sofonsiba and Lucia’s extant works who were making identities for themselves — aristocratic, proud, and loving one another (106-24). Heller further suggests that Bologna and its environs manifested an exceptionally liberal attitude towards female citizens, with Bologna accepting women students as early as the 13th century and connects this to the high culture of Anguissola sisters (16-17).

In their Women Artists, 1550-1950 Nochlin and Harris cannot say she was the equal of Titian in variety, color, achievement in her portraiture, but insofar as her form of commissions and position as a woman painter (what she could paint) permitted in his league (106-8). Peterson and Wilson quote a diary entry by Van Dyke in his Sketchbook after his 1624 summer visit to Sofonsiba late in her life:

While I painted her portrait, she offered me advice as to the light, which should not be directed from too high as not to cause too strong a shadow, and many more good speeches, as well as telling me part of her life-story, in which one could see she was a wonderful painter after nature (26)

I end on the intensely felt life caught in these two details from both women’s paintings: Sofonisba’s laughing or grinning young girl in the The Chess Game


and Lucia’s delicately fingered hand holding her book:


The implied early close-knit family story is touching in the way of the Brontes. We may hope Sofonsiba’s older years, after her second marriage and departure from the Spanish court, were good.

My next subject will be Mary Beale (1633-99) who held her own in the Restoration English court. See my first series for an explanation of this project and who has been covered thus far beyond Giovanna Garzoni and now these Anguissola sisters.


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