The name Sofonisba Anguissola doesn’t necessarily roll off the tongue easily. To help you pronounce her name I’ve broken it down: Sofo-nees-bah Ahn-gwee-sola.
Not only is Sofonisba Anguissola an unusual name, but it is also a name that, for many years, has gone unnoticed and, for the most part, forgotten along with her masterful paintings. But, recently, Sofonisba has been gaining more attention, and paintings wrongly credited to male artists of the time—as some could not or rather would not accept a woman could paint as well as or better than men—are now being reassigned to her oeuvre. Sofonisba is gaining the notoriety she previously lacked.
Sofonisba Anguissola is back in the public eye
and the subject of my new novel!
After learning more about Sofonisba, I was so intrigued by her—I decided to turn her story into a new historical fiction novel called: “The Secret Life of Sofonisba Anguissola—the most famous woman you’ve never heard of.”
The novel will be released the first week of December
and will be available in print and epub.
Did you know that in her day Sofonisba Anguissola was recognized by Michelangelo who
thought she was an exceptional painter?
Sofonisba’s work shows power and strength and emotion, as well as dramatic chiaroscuro long before Caravaggio. And like Rembrandt, she was a prolific self-portraitist, celebrating her status as an artist, displaying a keen interest in the passing of time and her own unique place in the world. It turns out Sofonisba Anguissola really was a marvelous woman, artist, and portrait painter, who lived a long and exciting life. In fact, she earned the regard and praise of another painter — perhaps you’ve heard of him before? Michelangelo!
Sofonisba was lauded by Vasari—the first
to record the history of contemporary artists
Indeed! Sofonisba, by all accounts, was a talented painter of the fifteenth century. The first we hear of Sofonisba is in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the artist in which he praises her:
“Sofonisba, has labored at the difficulties of design with greater study and better grace than any other woman of our time, and she has not only succeeded in drawing, coloring, and copying from nature, and in making excellent copies of works by other hands, but has also executed by herself alone some very choice and beautiful works of painting.”
Here’s a little back story on
the marvelous Miss Anguissola!
Sofonisba Anguissola was born in Cremona, Italy, in 1532 to a relatively poor but noble family. Her name alone sets her apart and makes her quite unique. She was named Sofonisba by her father Amilcare, who took great pride in his family’s heritage, tracing it back to the Romans and ancient Carthaginians. Sophonisba (spelled with the Greek “ph”) was the name of a 3rd century B.C. Carthaginian Princess who poisoned herself because she did not want to be ravished by the Romans who won the Punic war.
But, unlike the Carthaginian princess, the 15th-century Sofonisba showed more gumption and stamina, taking after another branch of the family that had strong connections with the Byzantine general Galvano Sordo who helped liberate the city of Constantinople. When the battle was won, the people cried: “Anuis sola fecit victoriam: The snake alone brought the victory.” This saying became popular, and Galvano was nicknamed “Anguissola” and thus the familial surname stuck. (note: Anguilla in Italian means snake or eel.)
From an early age, Sofonisba was encouraged to paint. She hailed from a large family consisting of seven siblings, several of whom were also painters. But it was Sofonisba who showed the most exceptional promise. As a young woman, she received a well-rounded education that included apprenticeships with local painters, the most influential being Bernardino Campi, which set a precedent for women to be accepted as students of art.
After her apprenticeship, Sofonisba, to show her appreciation to her instructor, painted a rather unusual portrait called: “Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba.” But this portrait serves a dual purpose, being also a self-portrait, as she figures prominently in the foreground. Sofonisba thus plays both the role of the subject and object, the viewer and the viewed, in this painting. So, not only does she pay homage to her old teacher in the role he played in fashioning her as an artist — Sofonisba celebrates her own talent by representing herself as the active maker of the painting.
Sofonisba Anguissola – protegee
Sofonisba’s father encouraged her to continue her studies, sending her to Rome, where she was introduced to Michelangelo, who was impressed by her Roman sketches — particularly one of a laughing girl. But, the painter challenged the young woman to draw a weeping boy, a subject which he felt would be more difficult. Rising to the occasion, she drew Boy Bitten by a Crayfish a little portrait of her younger brother, and sent it back to Michelangelo. Delighted by her ability to capture emotions on paper, Michelangelo took the young woman under his wing and, for at least two years, continued Sofonisba’s informal tutoring and guidance in person giving her sketches he had created to copy so he could critique her work.
Because she was a woman, it was deemed inappropriate for her to study nudes and human anatomy. As a consequence, it wasn’t easy for her to successfully undertake the complex multi-figure compositions required for large-scale religious or history paintings, so she focused on portraiture. And so from Rome Sofonisba eventually moved on to Milan, to paint court portraits for the Duke of Alba. During this period, Anguissola’s self-portraits once again offer evidence of what she thought her place was as a woman artist. Typically, men were seen as creative actors and women as passive objects. Still, in her self-portrait of 1556, Anguissola presents herself again as the artist, and the subject — actively playing a musical instrument.
Through the Duke of Alba’s connections, a few years later, Sofonisba found herself settling in the court of the Spanish queen Elisabeth of Valois. The queen, keen on being an artist herself, invited Sofonisba to teach her and act as her confidant, raising her to the rank of lady-in-waiting. In this way, Sofonisba’s talent became more globally noted, and in time she became the official court painter to King Philip II.
When the Spanish Queen Elisabeth passed away, the King took a particular interest in the well-fare of Sofonisba, arranging a marriage to Fabrizio Moncada Pignatelli, son of the Prince of Paternò, Viceroy of Sicily. The couple traveled together to Paternò near Catania, where they lived comfortably on a royal pension of 100 ducats given to Sofonisba to continue working as a painter and tutor to would-be painters. That the King should regard Sofonisba so highly, is just another testament to the woman’s character and talent.
Fabrizio died of mysterious circumstances.
It is said the Sofonisba’s new husband, Fabrizio supported his wife’s painting career and that they had a polite, if not a happy marriage. But, curiously, he died in 1579 under mysterious circumstances. Who can say what the actual cause was? After Fabrizio’s death, Sofonisba soon left Sicilia, deciding to return to her city of birth — Cremona. It was during this voyage that she met and fell in love with the ship’s captain, sea merchant Orazio Lomellino, a man rumored to be many years younger than she. Despite her brother’s objections, the two married in 1584 and lived out their days together in Genoa.
A successful painter and
a woman to love forever!
Orazio loved Sofonisba with all his heart. One can tell because he described his wife as small of frame, yet “great among mortals” When Sofonisba died at the age of 93 he inscribed upon her tomb:
To Sofonisba, my wife, who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, is outstanding in portraying the images of man. Orazio Lomellino, in sorrow for the loss of his great love, in 1632, dedicated this little tribute to such a great woman.
In 1620, a few years before her death, Sofonsiba, despite growing frailer and the loss of sight, painted her last self-portrait. Shortly after that, she received a visit from Anthony van Dyck, a prominent Flemish artist from the north. The young man traveled to meet Sofonisba, seeking her advice, because he so admired her work.
Anthony van Dyck visited Sofonisba
in her final years to learn from her
Later he wrote: her eyesight was weakened, but the lady Anguisaola was still mentally alert. Our time together was short, but our conversations have taught me more about the “true principles” of painting than anything else in my life.”
Van Dyck drew a portrait of Sofonisba, and when he returned home he made one last portrait of the Sofonisba.
What a long and courageous life Sofonisba had! A talented female painter in a man’s world, admired by Vasari and taught by Michelangelo, the protegee of the Duke of Alba, and the revered Spanish court painter of Philip II and confident to his queen.
Sofonisba was a woman who followed her heart and found love on the high seas… an inspiration to future generations of painters.