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Curator's Travelogue: Women Artists of Bologna

Blog Category:  From the Collection
A woman with light skin tone stands in a richly brocaded red dress, her right hand reaching down to pet a small, white dog. Adorned in jewelry, she wears flowers in her hair, parted in the center. The pelt of a small mammal, its head encased in a jeweled holder, hangs from her heavily decorated belt.

In this series of blog posts, NMWA Curator of Book Arts Krystyna Wasserman recounts a recent trip to Europe: The focus of a journey could be the exploration of a new territory or a spiritual journey in search of internal peace. It could also be the need to assuage one’s desire for friendship, love, or adventure or, simply, finding an inspiration for creative work. My trip to Germany and Italy in September 2011 was focused on viewing works created by women, on meeting artists, particularly book artists, and on cultivating old friendships.

PART III . Bologna

Home of the oldest university in Europe (1088) and the capital of tortellini, Bologna is also the birth place of Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) and Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665), two of the best-known “old mistresses.” Fontana was the favorite painter of the noblewomen and created two of the oldest paintings in the NMWA collection, Portrait of a Noblewoman and Portrait of Costanza Alidosi, which are excellent examples of this genre. Of the two artists, Fontana is now given more recognition, judging by the number of her works on museum walls during my September 2011 visit to the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna.

Fontana’s somber Ritratto della Famiglia Gozzadini (1584) (Portrait of the Gozzadini Family) was commissioned by the Bolognese aristocrat Laudomia Gozzadini. At the time the portrait was painted, Laudomia’s father, a senator, and her sister Ginevra were dead. The painting underscores Laudomia’s role as the legitimate heir to the family’s power and fortune. The portrait, as Vera Fortunati, a feminist art historian from the University of Bologna, observed,” is a kind of domestic alterpiece dedicated to the household gods.” Ritratto di neonato nella culla (1583) (Portrait of a Newborn in the Cradle), also on view, portrays a less common subject for a painter of that period.

The baby’s aristocratic background is depicted through exquisite white clothing and inlaid cradle; however, the cradle is reminiscent of a catafalque and it has been observed that the painting may depict a deceased newborn. Fontana was the mother of eleven children and painted several children’s portraits, but as Vera Fortunati suggests quoting from P. Aries Padri e Figli nell’ Europa Moderna, 1960, “the appearance in the sixteenth century of the portrait of a dead child represents a very important moment in the history of feelings.” Both paintings travelled in 1998 to Washington for NMWA’s exhibition Lavinia Fontana of Bologna, 15521614 (February 5–June 7, 1998).

Fontana was also the first woman to paint alterpieces at the time of Counter-Reformation and the growing power of the Catholic Church. One of her altarpiece paintings, San Francisco di Paola blessing the Child has been also on view in the Pinacoteca Nazionale. Birth of the Virgin Mary can be seen in Santissima Trinita church and Madonna Enthroned with Child and Santa Caterina of Alexandria, Cosma, Damiano e il Committente Scipione Calcina in the church of San Giacomo Maggiore, among other churches of Bologna.

I sorely missed Fontana’s tender Ritratto di Gentildonna con Bambina (Portrait of a Noblewoman with a Young Girl (ca.1590–1595) in which a mother passes a bound in red velvet book to her small daughter. This painting was an inspiration for a contemporary artist of Bologna, Donatella Franchi, in creating the artist’s book A Clotilde (currently on view in NMWA’s exhibition Trove). The book is devoted to her mother, who died at the age of one hundred. Franchi says, “In my memories of her as young woman, she always holds a book in her hands. To overcome the anguish that her fragility and dependence occasionally caused me, I focused on her most characteristic gestures. Her hands, delicately turning the pages or resting on them, appeared to be bathed in the same light as the great tradition of artistic portraits. The Pinacoteca painting depicting a mother passing a book to her daughter is one of them. Now that my mother is no longer here, it is with great intensity that I harbor within me the force of this legacy.”

Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665) lived on Via Urbana 7, a quiet arcaded street. There is a plaque on the building that says: “Nell giorno VIII gennaio 1638 qui nacque Elisabetta Sirani emulatrice delsommo Guido Reni” (On the day of January 8, 1638 Elisabetta Sirani, the rival of the great Guido Reni (1575–1642) was born [in this building].) It is a slightly chauvinist inscription. It defines Sirani as emulatrice of Guido Reni rather than remembering her as an independent talent and an accomplished painter of religious and historical scenes. Guido Reni would never be described as a “rival” of Sirani or any other artist on the wall of the building he was born or lived in. In the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna the only Sirani painting on view was Sant’Antonio di Padova in adorazione del Bambin Gesu (1662). I was disappointed that San Girolamo (1660) and Maddalena (1660), some of her greatest works, were nowhere to be seen.

Sirani’s life was the subject of gossip. Young and beautiful, she died at the age of 27 at the peak of her successful career. A poisoning by a domestic servant Lucia Tolomelli was rumored, but I was assured by scholars that the autopsy proved that the artist died of stomach ulcers and a perforated stomach. She was working too hard to support her family and it did not help that her father, also a painter, kept and controlled all of her earnings.

In Donatella Franchi’s library, I discovered a book by Massimo Pulini Ginevra Cantofoli: La nuova nascita di una pittrice nella Biologna del Seicento. Ginevra Cantofoli (1608–1672) was a talented pupil of Sirani and an excellent painter whose work was often attributed to Guido Reni and other artists. Pulini identified many works by Cantofoli, among them a portrait of Sirani (in a private collection in Bologna.) She particularly excelled in sensitive and idealized paintings of women. Her Sibilla (Busto di Ragazza) is in the Hermitage, another Sibilla (Donna con Turbante) in the Louvre collection, and Berenice is in Galeria Borghese in Rome. In Bologna, none of her paintings is on view, even though Pulini’s book lists the large canvas Vergine Immacolata col Bambin Gesu (190 x 117 cm.) in the collection of the Pinacoteca in Bologna. Cantofoli’s paintings deserve to be known and seen. The magistrates of the city of Bologna should pay more attention to the legacy of their women artists to maintain the historical importance of their city as the legendary world’s capital of women artists from the Renaissance to the 18th century.

Angela Lorenz is another contemporary artist in Bologna whose artist’s books are in NMWA’s collection. Often referring to the female heroines of the past, she is currently working on an installation, Victorious Secrets, inspired by the mosaics of 380 A.D. in Villa Armorina in Sicily representing women wearing bikinis. Lorenz is an American from New England who married an Italian man photographer (who is also the owner of the best gelateria in Bologna). Unlike most art historians, guidebook writers, and tourists, she is not concerned with what the women are wearing, but what they are doing. Lorenz creates mosaics made of buttons, a traditional material used by seamstresses, which she stores in large boxes in her studio. After thorough research, she discovered that the women portrayed are the athletes and the winners of the Olympic games. Unlike the men who performed naked, women participated in the Olympics every other year and wore bikinis. She is currently creating a triptych which will show women throwing discus, playing ball, and lifting weights.

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