Italia • 1552−1614
Lavinia Fontana (1552, Bologna — 11 August 1614, Rome) was an Italian artist of the late Renaissance, a representative of Mannerism. She is considered the first woman to carry out large private and public commissions.

Features of Lavinia Fontana's art. Lavinia Fontana worked in the same areas as her male rivals, who did not find patronage at courts and monasteries. She worked not only in the portrait genre, which was traditional for her contemporaries, but she also painted large-scale paintings on religious and mythological subjects, sometimes depicting nudes. Fontana was the first woman to paint nude, and probably the first artist to work with live nude models. Success in the field of portraiture brought her fame throughout Italy, and commissions allowed her to feed her family of thirteen people.

Famous paintings of Lavinia Fontana. Self-portrait at the Clavichord with a Servant, The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, Portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez, Portrait of a Lady with a DogBianca degli Utili Maselli and Six of her Children

Father and husband

To understand the significance of the figure of Lavinia Fontana, it is important to take into account the social traditions of Bologna during the Counter-Reformation. Since a female artist was rare at the time, we must examine her origins to understand how she came to prominence. Lavinia was born into the family of the artist Prospero Fontana and the printer Antonia de Bonardis. The exact date of her birth is unknown, so in her biographies, you can often find 24 August 1552 — the day of her baptism. There is little information about the upbringing of the girl, we only know that her father played an important role in her life.

It was Prospero who encouraged his daughter’s interest in painting, otherwise she would not have been able to do it at all. Of the few Renaissance artists whose names we know today, most were trained under the guidance of their fathers. Lavinia Fontana was no exception. Her parent made sure that besides drawing his daughter received an excellent education. Fontana is known to be able to play the spinet (a kind of small clavichord) and read Latin.

Prospero also had a hand in the marriage of his daughter. According to art historian Caroline Murphy, “he understood that in order for a woman to work in public, without cover of an aristocratic court or monastery, so that she could achieve honorary status, she needed a husband...”. The Fontana family was not rich, and Prospero saw great potential in his daughter and did not want her to leave the family, because he was afraid of losing possible income. This was a big problem, since tradition made Bologna women move to their spouse’s home after marriage. Partly at the insistence of her father, Lavinia married his student, whose name was Gian Paolo Zappi (sometimes spelled Fappi). He agreed to move to the house of Prospero Fontana, so as not to break up the family and allow his wife to continue her studies under her father.

Aristocrats and Popes

A devout Catholic, Fontana gave birth to 11 children, most of them early in the marriage (but only three of them survived their mother). The artist followed religious precepts in her style and in her dress, and she even found a solution to the conflict between her career and church canons. Lavinia said that she studied “the value of culture for women, provided that it conforms to the norms”.

Many of her early paintings were donated or sold at very low prices. This advertising strategy, devised by her father, was a success: in 1584, the artist received several large commissions from the church. As Caroline Murphy noted, her father’s trick had an unexpected impact on her daughter’s success: “Her married status, erudition, academic education and initially modest prices of her works contributed in promoting Lavinia Fontana’s career as an artist competing with men. Therefore, by the mid-1580s, her growing reputation, expanding social bonds and self-image as noblewoman attracted another, richer clientele. She became an outstanding portrait painter of the elite of Bologna society”.

Fontana mostly painted female portraits — obviously, clients were more comfortable posing for a painter woman. She portrayed them at different moments in life, from their engagement to pregnancy and even during the period of mourning for the deceased spouse. During the sessions, she developed warm relationship with the models. Some of them, such as Constanta Sforza Boncompagni, Duchess of Sora, later became godparents of her children or gave them their names.

In 1603, Lavinia Fontana and her family moved to Rome at the invitation of Pope Clement VIII. This pontiff died two years later, but his successor Paul V also patronized and even posed for the artist. She received numerous honours: for example, in 1611, the sculptor Felice Antonio Casoni cast the profile of Fontana on a bronze medallion.

For her services, she was elected to the Academy of St. Luke in Rome. In the same city, Lavinia Fontana died on 11 August 1614, two weeks before her 62nd birthday.

Two guises

Lavinia Fontana’s early style was very reminiscent of her father’s, but she gradually adopted the style of Caravaggio, having added her own rich quasi-Venetian colour scheme. Besides portraits and other paintings, the artist also painted small works on copper plates, which were popular as papal and diplomatic gifts.

Some of her expensive paintings were later mistakenly attributed to Guido Reni, for example, such as The Venus, Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child and The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. Lavinia’s self-portrait before marriage — and she was said to be very beautiful in her youth — belonged to Count Zappi of Imola, whose relative was her husband. In this picture, Fontana presented herself in two guises — as an exquisite lady and as a professional artist. This juxtaposition was common among her female colleagues in the 16th century.

According to sources, historians know more than a hundred works by Lavinia Fontana, but only 32 signed and dated works have been discovered so far. There are 25 more paintings that are very probable to be attributed to the artist. Thus, her legacy can be considered the most extensive of all female painters before 1700.

Author: Vlad Maslov

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