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Portrait of a Noblewoman by Lavinia Fontana, 1580 (WikiArt.org)

The portrait of Pope Gregory Xlll, inserted in “Happy Valentine’s Day” is by Lavinia Fontana.

Lavinia Fontana (24 August 1552 – 11 August 1614) was a major artist, a portraitist mainly, of the Italian 16th century. In fact, so fine was her work that she was called to Rome by Pope Clement VIII (24 February 1536 – 3 March 1605) where she settled in 1603. Germaine Greer writes that “when she travelled to their estates in the Emilia, they would mount a formal reception, with soldiers lining the streets, fire salutes, as if she were a princess.”[1]

A room of one’s own

Being a woman was an obstacle as women were expected to have children and run a household. Lavinia had 11 children, but her husband Paolo Zappi gave up his profession to be her assistant. Moreover, she had an income. You may remember what importance Virginia Woolf (25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941) attached to having a room of one’s own. In A Room of One’s Own, published in 1929, she wrote that “[a] woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction[,]” and be an artist. In 17th-century France, widows were considered privileged women. They had time, money, and servants.

Lavinia Fontana was the daughter of painter Prospero Fontana (1512 – 1597), a prominent artist, and was raised in Bologna. There was a Bolognese School. As noted above, Lavinia Fontana did marry and gave birth to 11 children, but only three survived her. Some may have died in childhood, making for a smaller household, but causing considerable pain. The miracle is that she survived childbirth, a major risk, and was a productive artist.

Portrait of a Lady at Court, 1590
Portrait of Ginevra Adrovan Hercolani, 1595
Self-Portrait, Lavinia Fontana at the Clavichord with a Servant, 1577
Portrait of a Noblewoman, 1580
Portrait of Minerva Dressing, 1613
(Photo credit: WikiArt.org)

Subject Matter

Lavinia Fontana’s subject matter was the same as male artists of her times. She painted scenes inspired by the newly-discovered Greek antiquity. You will remember that the Renaissance began when the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks, which would be the year 1453. Byzantium’s Greek scholars fled to Italy. Lavinia also painted nudes. But above all, she was a fine portraitist. However, in order to earn a living, Lavinia had to paint religious scenes. As indicated in her Wikipedia entry, Lavinia “gained the patronage of the Buoncompagni family, of which Pope Gregory XIII was a member[,]” hence, perhaps, her truly magnificent portrait of him.


Lavinia Fontana’s style is called carracciesque, because of the influence of the Carracci cousins, Agostino,  Annibale  and Ludovico, Annibal in particular. They were the founders of the Accademia degli Incamminati  (walking forward). WikiArt.org classifies her work as examples of Mannerist Renaissance painting. As noted in earlier posts, the Italian Renaissance developed in Academies, hence the use of the word Accademia. There were formal academies, but others were informal, such as Count Bardi’s Florentine Camerata  where Vincenzo Galileo, astronomer Galileo Galilei’s father proposed the somewhat artificial twelve-tone equal temperament.

It has been suggested that Lavinia made paintings signed by her father. In fact, some patrons suspected as much and asked Prospero to do the work they commissionned by himself. This was no doubt a limitation for Lavinia. Her father preyed on her time and talent.

A main characteristic of her paintings is her attempt to convey feeling. Most noticeable, however, is her attention to details and the dark back drop. It be may that the greatest female artist of the Italian Renaissance is Artemisia Gentileschi  (8 July 1593 – c. 1656), but she had colleagues, Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola (1532 – November 1625).


Portrait of Minerva Dressing, 1613

Some of her paintings were attributed to Guido Reni. There was a link. Both were born in Bologna and both moved to Rome.

Lavinia was considered an equal among the artists of her time and an inspiration to such painters as the afore-mentioned Guido Reni (4 November 1575 – 18 August 1642), whose remarkable “St Michael Archangel” is held in Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, Rome. I have used it in an earlier post. He too was invited to move to Rome.



With kindest regards. 


The Holy Family with Saint Catherine of Alexandria (Photo credit: Britannica)


[1] Germaine Greer, The Obstacle Race (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979), p. 208.
[2] Cirici Pellicer, El barroquismo, (Barcelona: Editorial Ramón Sopena, 1963), p.75.

Vivaldi and Cecilia Bartoli 


@ Micheline Walker
17 February 2016