Lavinia Fontana(Bologna, August 24, 1552 – Rome, August 11, 1614) was an Italian painter of late Mannerism. She is regarded as the first woman artist, working within the same sphere as her male counterparts, outside a court or convent. She was the first woman artist to paint female nudes, and was the main breadwinner of a family of 13.
Lavinia was the daughter of the Mannerist painter Prospero Fontana, in whose shop she could draw, alongside her father’s teachings, a wide range of pictorial experiences, from Emilia (Parmigianino to Pellegrino Tibaldi), Venetians (Veronese, Jacopo Bassano), Lombard (Sofonisba Anguissola ) And Tuscany. At his father he also attended the Carracci (Ludovico, Augustine and Annibale), little younger but did not fail to influence her. It is reported that, given the request of the painter Giovan Paolo Zappi to get married, Lavinia was already able to continue painting (25 years). Zappi accepted the thing, so much so that he abandoned his work and assumed the role of wife’s assistant.
Lavinia Fontana was born in Bologna, the daughter of the painter Prospero Fontana, who was a prominent painter of the School of Bologna at the time and served as her teacher. Continuing the family business was typical at the time.
Her earliest known work, “Monkey Child”, was painted in 1575 at the age of 23. Though this work is now lost, another early painting, Christ with the Symbols of the Passion, painted in 1576, is now in the El Paso Museum of Art. She would go on to paint in a variety of genres. Early in her career, she was most famous for painting upper-class residents of her native Bologna, notably noblewomen. Even as her gender may have hindered her career in a society less accustomed to female artists, it may have made women more comfortable sitting for her.
Her relationships with female clients were often unusually warm; multiple women who sat for portraits painted by Fontana, such as the Duchess of Sora Constanza Sforza Boncompagni, later served as namesakes or godmothers for her children. She began her commercial practice by painting small devotional paintings on copper, which had popular appeal as papal and diplomatic gifts, given the value and lustre of the metal. In addition to portraits, she later created large scale paintings with religious and mythological themes which sometimes included female nudes.
Fontana married Paolo Zappi (alternately spelled Paolo Fappi) in 1577. She gave birth to 11 children, though only 3 outlived her. After marriage, Fontana continued to paint to support her family. Zappi took care of the household and served as painting assistant to his wife, including painting minor elements of paintings like draperies.
Lavinia Fontana soon acquired, already in Bologna, renowned as a portraitist, distinguishing itself mainly because of the accuracy of details, such as clothing and hairstyles, in female figures. But, unlike other artists, Lavinia was not monocorde and in his work often encountered mythological, biblical and sacred subjects. The first public orders he obtained were, in 1584, the Assumption of the Holy Bridge and the Saints Cassiano and Pier Crisologo (Imola, Communal Palace) and a painting of the Assumption of the Virgin for a Bolognese church.
As a Roman communion, Lavinia had already performed in 1599 the painting of the Vision of Saint Hyacinth for the cardinal title of Santa Sabina. And just in the Basilica of St. Paul outside the walls (linked to the cardinal title) shortly after his arrival in Rome he painted a St Stephen’s Lapidarium (1604), a work that was critical to the disproportion of human figures and which was lost in a Fire in 1823.
But his greatest achievements came to Rome where he was called, apparently winning some reluctance and thanks to his husband, by the new pope Gregory XIII, his landlord, and moved steadily in 1603. Thanks to this high protection, Lavinia performed innumerable Works for the entourage of the papal court (Roman nobility and diplomatic representations) so much so that it may be dubbed the “Pontificia Pittrice”.
Fontana and her family moved to Rome in 1603 at the invitation of Pope Clement VIII. She gained the patronage of the Buoncompagni, of which Pope Gregory XIII was a member. Lavinia thrived in Rome as she had in Bologna and Pope Paul V himself was among her sitters. She was the recipient of numerous honors, including a bronze portrait medallion cast in 1611 by sculptor and architect Felice Antonio Casoni.
Some of her portraits, often lavishly paid for, have been wrongly attributed to Guido Reni. Chief among these are Venus; The Virgin lifting a veil from the sleeping infant Christ; and the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon. Her self-portrait – in youth she was said to have been very beautiful – was perhaps her masterpiece; it belongs to Count Zappi of Imola, the family into which Lavinia married. Fontana’s self-portraiture strikes a balance between presenting the artist as a distinguished lady and as a professional artist. This depiction of two coexisting roles was common for sixteenth-century women artists.
But even in the papal office, the greatest work Lavinia Fontana did, despite the considerable weight of domestic duties (Lavinia gave birth to eleven children, of whom eight died prematurely), concerns portraits of diplomats, personalities and, above all, noblemen , So much so that he would write to Abbot Luigi Lanzi that “he became a painter of Gregory XIII; And more than the other was sought by the Roman ladies, whose gala is better than man of the world. ”
He continued, however, in other subjects, such as the Minerva dressed in 1613, today at the Borghese Gallery in Rome, where the virgin goddess is surprised naked in the act of wearing the mantle (almost a Venus that he wears Minerva’s gowns, as it would seem to suggest Cupid who buzzes with his helmet) and looks maliciously towards the spectator.
In the last period of his life, Lavinia Fontana was caught up in a mystical crisis that in 1613 led her to retire to a monastery, along with her husband. He died in Rome in August of the following year.
While her youthful style was much like her father’s, she gradually adopted the Carracciesque style, with strong quasi-Venetian coloring. She was elected into the Accademia di San Luca of Rome, and died in that city on August 11, 1614.
There are over 100 works that are documented, but only 32 signed and dated works are known today. There are 25 more that can be attributed to her, making hers the largest oeuvre for any female artist prior to 1700. Sofonisba Anguissola may have been an influence on her career.
Lavinia also made numerous sculptures of men in battle especially with horses and other types of livestock.