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Feature:Trailblazer, Rule Breaker

Lavinia Fontana at the National Gallery of Ireland

by Margie MacKinnon


Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) was the first woman in Europe to become a professional artist. She grew up and painted for most of her life in the enlightened city of Renaissance Bologna, while her husband looked after the house and their eleven children. On a visit to Dublin earlier this year, Restoration Conversations had the pleasure of viewing the National Gallery of Ireland’s eye-opening exhibition of her works, in the company of curator Aoife Brady and restorer Maria Canavan, who offered their insights on the artist’s works, her artistic practice and the time in which she lived.


Fontana, Lavinia, The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon

One of the exciting aspects of mounting a major monographic exhibition is the opportunity to locate and bring together paintings from private collections, to advance the scholarship around the artist and possibly even make new attributions to add to her known body of work. Was this the case with the Fontana exhibition?


AB: Yes. Myself and Babette Bohn, who is one of the leading specialists on the milieu of women artists of Bologna more broadly, made the attribution to Fontana of The Wedding Feast at Cana, a painting that appeared on the market in 2022. Nicholas Hall in New York brought it to my attention, and I saw it and it struck me immediately as characteristic of Fontana’s early style. And then I was able to identify some preparatory drawings by Vasari that Lavinia’s father also used in his own iteration of the Marriage Feast of Cana, which we now believe must have been in the family collection. And so, Davide Gasparotto, a good colleague of mine who is head of paintings at the Getty, got in touch about the painting. And I was able to say, ‘Yes! I think it is [a Fontana],’ and others supported this, so they purchased it.


Then, by an act of absolute serendipity, I came across the compositional study [for the painting] in Rob Smeets’ Gallery! It was so important, from my point of view, to have the two objects in the same public collection so they can be viewed together, because we don’t often get these kinds of insights into women artists’ workshop practices. I think any kind of serious consideration of their ‘making’ is often overtaken by a preoccupation with biography. Writers focus on gender, both in modern and even early modern scholarship. Maria’s research [into Lavinia’s practice] spurred us on and we were able to carry the focus on workshop practice through into the exhibition. The Getty was very kind to lend us both objects not long after they had accessioned them into their collection. So, it was very special.


Several motifs recur in Fontana’s works. For example, the backgrounds of her portraits often include features such as window frames and open doorways. These can be seen in her Portrait of Carlo Sigonio as well as her own Self-portrait at the Virginal. Was this a device that was common to many other artists at that time?

 Lavinia Fontana, Self-Portrait at the Virginal, 1577. Accademia Di San Luca

AB: This was a sort of formula that was popularised by artists like Giulio Romano, so it would have come down to Bologna via Mantua, toward the end of the Sixteenth Century. It is something that even people who are specialists in the period are fascinated by when it comes to Lavinia. One of my colleagues, Raffaele Marcelli, described them as ‘Lavinia’s escape rooms’, which I thought was great. But this is a motif that people in Bologna were commonly including in portraiture at the time, and oftentimes it was just a window or some kind of small ancillary space in the background. You see it in the portrait by Prospero Fontana in the first room. Lavinia exploits it to a much higher degree, and she becomes preoccupied with creating convincing illusionistic space. If you look at many of her portraits of men, you can see incisions mapping out the perspective, and the architectural features of the doorways are all carefully incised. They become more elaborate, these sorts of corridors of rooms with mysterious scenes in the background.


The Bolognese call these ‘portraits in context’ so they’re often of professional people with the tricks of their trade. This creation of illusionistic space is known as quadratura painting. What you see with Lavinia is that the scenes happening in the background are hard to interpret, so they force you to look again and spend a little bit more time mulling over what is going on.


MC: There’s a bit of humour to them. Perhaps it is a Northern influence. They are little genre scenes.


AB: It may be that they relate to something specific to the commissioner, but we may never know.


Lavinia Fontana, Saint Francis, 1579. Seminario Arcivescovile, Bologna

Fontana’s Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata is unusual in that it is a rare landscape painting which differs significantly in style and subject-matter from her other works. Would it have been challenging to attribute this to her if not for the signature?


AB: Definitely. Landscape is not something [she is known for]. Lavinia’s visual horizons were limited in her early career. She didn’t develop a very specific style at the beginning, in the same way that many male artists, who were able to travel and absorb [the natural world] would have. So we see her really changing quite dramatically throughout her career. Even looking at pictures that are signed, you can line them up beside each other and the size will range from large to small, the palette will noticeably be quite different. In the 1590’s, when her father passes away and she is no longer having children, she starts to explore new ways and exhibits a little bit more creative freedom. It is not a linear evolution in the same way we might expect from male Old Masters.


MC: And you can see her levels of confidence fluctuating in producing certain types of painting. Her practice was so reliant on the portraiture business that, by the end, she could almost do it with her eyes closed. But with landscapes she didn’t have the same level of instruction or opportunity to practice. In the Queen of Sheba, there is a landscape in the background, and you can tell that she’s unsure where she wants to put things. She ends up having these repeated elements from other works and then the rest of it might be a bit vague.


One of the more unexpected styles in the exhibition is represented by Fontana’s erotic painting, Venus and Cupid. The model for Venus has been identified as Bolognese noblewoman Isabella Ruini.  At a time when the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation teachings were very much in favour of promoting wholesome ‘family values’, how did Fontana get away with painting an eroticised version of a prominent society figure?


AB: There was an emerging market in the late Sixteenth Century and Bologna was home to a large professional class who wanted pictures for their houses. Fontana and other artists responded to this largely with portraiture, but then they recognised the demand for these erotic pictures. And while the church could see that mythological painting was not really okay, they were prepared to tolerate it if there was an educational basis to it. This loophole allowed artists to create these erotic paintings that were thinly veiled as mythological, erudite subjects. It is essentially recognised by many modern scholars as the birth of what we would describe as pornography. These pictures were created for domestic spaces and hung behind curtains. [Fontana’s Venus and Cupid] is an allegorical portrait of a known woman, Isabella Ruini. In this instance, I think this is a woman who probably trusted Lavinia in a way that she wouldn’t have trusted a male artist to capture her image in such a salacious way. And the fact that it was painted by a woman would have made it all the more titillating. Actually, what’s funny about it is that most of her erotic paintings are not signed. So she’s not advertising the fact that she’s doing them. She’s relying on her close network of patrons [to get these commissions] but they’re not something she’s painting in a public way.


The thing about Lavinia is that, from the start of her career, even as devout an artist as she was when depicting religious subject matter, she was also strategic, and she was recognising opportunities and exploiting them. From the beginning Prospero [her father and first teacher] was marketing her to the local scholars of Bologna. This was a class that he had connections with through his wife, whose family owned a publishing house, and because he himself was illustrating their treatises. Then, later on, Lavinia saw these elite cliques of women beginning to form in Bologna. Again, it is a very particular moment for women, and she moved her studio to the other side of the city, so that it intersected the streets that all of their palaces were on. She named her children after them and made them their godparents. So we see this pattern emerge that nothing happened in Lavinia’s career by accident. When you look at her altarpieces, you think, ‘Oh, my gosh, what a devout artist,’ but in reality she’s following the money. She’s looking for opportunities at every turn.


MC: Whatever way she could pay the bills, I think she would be happy enough to give it a try.


The catalogue of the exhibition, Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker by Aoife Brady, Yale/National Gallery of Ireland, 2023, was chosen as one the Best Visual Arts Books of 2023 by the Financial Times.

This article was originally published in Restorations Conversations magazine,

Winter 2023, Issue 4


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