Lavinia Fontana asked her fiancée to sign an unusual marriage contract before they exchanged rings in 1577. Fontana wouldn’t be providing a dowry, as was customary in her native Italy. Instead, the Bolognese artist committed to financially supporting her husband, as long as they agreed to live under her father’s roof and she could continue painting in her family’s workshop. Her husband agreed. And with good reason: Fontana was a phenomenal success. Fontana — who will be featured in a two-artist exhibition at Madrid’s Prado Museum this month, alongside her contemporary, court painter Sofonisba Anguissola — is considered the first professional female artist active in any European city. Other women (including Anguissola) had been working in court settings or convents, which were more supportive of female painters. Fontana, on the other hand, competed with male contemporaries on the open art market, and her career helped pave the way for others.
Fontana’s father, artist Prospero Fontana, taught her to paint a wide range of images. While most women of the time were limited to portraits and still lifes (genres that could easily be painted in a domestic setting), Fontana’s roughly 110 paintings include 23 public altarpieces. For the most part, though, she was sought after for her portraits, mainly commissioned by noblewomen. “For some time, all the Ladies of the City would compete in wishing to have her close to them,” wrote Count Carlo Cesare Malvasia, an artist biographer, in his 1678 anthology. “The greatest thing they desired would be to have her paint their portraits, prizing them in such a way that in our day no greater prices could be charged by a Van Dyck.”
Fontana’s professional life was impressive; her ability to support herself, her husband, and her 11 children with her painting was a rare accomplishment. But she had some help from her hometown. “There was something about Bologna that was conducive to female creativity,” writes Babette Bohn, Renaissance art history professor at Texas Christian University and author of the forthcoming book from Penn State University Press, Women Artists, Their Patrons, and Their Publics in Early Modern Bologna.
Why was Bologna, the largest city in northern Italy, so receptive to women artists? Bohn told Hyperallergic, “A few factors include the city’s unusual political structure and the diversity of artistic patronage, from the lower-middle class up, the liberalizing presence of the university, and an already-existing tradition of accomplished women in other cultural sectors (that is, besides the visual arts).”
Instead of being ruled by just one powerful family (like the art-loving Medicis of Renaissance Florence), Bologna was unusually ruled by a senate of 70 noble families — all of whom could afford and wanted to patronize art. Bolognese clientele was also more diverse, with people from the lower-middle class and upwards, including barbers, pharmacists, butchers, and university professors, buying art.
And women had long been given educational opportunities outside the home in Bologna. The city’s university was established in the 11th century and began admitting women students as of the 13th century. (Fontana was an alumna, holding a doctorate.)
As a result of these conditions, Bologna boomed with professional women artists, primarily painters. Of the 300 active painters in the city during the 1600s, around 25 were women — more than in any other Italian city. Some of these artists learned in family workshops, like Fontana, and, later on, Elisabetta Sirani. Beginning in the mid-1600s, women not related to a painter could attend the first art school for women that existed outside a convent, established by Sirani. And Sirani’s roughly 12 students weren’t painting floral arrangements or portraits of pearl-adorned ladies, either; they, like their teacher, specialized in history painting — then considered the most intellectually challenging genre and one that women couldn’t handle.
Fontana, Sirani, and the latter’s students followed a succession of female Bolognese artists, beginning with Caterina Vigri, a nun who painted miniatures in the mid-1400s that remained within her convent. Vigri’s reputation quickly spread outside the convent walls, though, and her fame reached local cult status after her death. This admiration — which led to her beatification in 1592 and being named the patron saint of the Bolognese art academy in 1710 — contributed to a local culture that was particularly receptive to the idea of female artists.
Following Caterina Vigri was Properzia de’ Rossi, one of the only known woman sculptors in early 1500s Italy, who began her career carving intricate designs in peach and cherry pits and later progressed to publicly commissioned marble sculpture. She was the only female artist with her own dedicated biography chapter in the first edition of early art historian Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550), and her bas-relief, “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife” (1525–26), is still on view at the San Petronio basilica in Bologna’s main square.
De’ Rossi helped set the stage for Fontana, who in turn created a receptive climate for Sirani. Sirani died young, at the age of 27, but in her decade-long career she created around 200 paintings and specialized in ambitious history paintings. A child prodigy who began producing public altarpieces when she was just 17 years old, skeptics reportedly visited her studio to get visual confirmation that she (and not her father) was truly creating these works. Writer Malvasi gave Sirani a backhanded compliment in his 23-page biography of her, saying that “she worked never like a woman and more like a man.”
Sirani’s personal inventory of her work lists 195 paintings made for 98 different patrons; 85 of these benefactors were men (as opposed to Fontana’s largely noblewoman clientele) and 20 were from outside Bologna, even though she never left the city, and included multiple members of the Medici family as well as other patrons in Florence, Genoa, and Milan.
Sirani paid her successes forward by opening a school, attended by artists such as Lucrezia Scarfaglia, Lucia Casalini Torelli, and Teresa Muratori (who painted the only recorded fresco by a woman during this period). Together, all these artists gave Bologna such notoriety around Italy that even great Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi considered relocating there. “We do have some correspondence to and from Gentileschi that suggests that she was considering a move to Bologna, evidently based on its reputation,” Bohn explains. “Although she never actually moved there.”
Research on the women artists of Bologna is ongoing; there are still a lot of forgotten names and stories to unearth. Florence, Rome, and Venice are typically celebrated and trafficked as the grand artistic centers of Italy, but Bologna was also an art hub, for very different reasons. This more egalitarian history could place the city squarely on the art-trekking map, where it belongs.