Sofonisba’s Legacy of Invezione Today


I’m delighted to read of Genova’s successful near-completion of the bridge that collapsed so very recently, in 2018. It gives me a feeling of optimism, literally a bridge for the future, inspiring.

I can’t resist connecting the success of this modern-day project with Sofonisba’s life of creative invention (invenzione/inventione). Sofonisba and her husband lived in Genoa from 1580 to 1615 before transferring to Sicily. During her time in Genoa, she continued to innovate, to paint high and low, and to influence artists, some of whom followed her footsteps to the Spanish court to contribute to the Escorial and the Spanish Habsburg collection. Her work and her mentoring of the next generation (the way Michelangelo mentored her) were formative to the artistic, creative, dynamic life of Genoa in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Four hundred years later, that creativity can make your heart sing.

Sofonisba Anguissola and International Travel

Holy Family, Flight to Egypt, Sofonisba Anguissola, 1559, Bergamo Cararra

Life gave Sofonisba incredible opportunities for travel. In an era when many people barely left their hometowns, Sofonisba traveled throughout northern Italy to present her work. She sailed Genoa to Barcelona then rode through Spain to serve at the Spanish court. She sailed 6 more major voyages on the Mediterranean Sea. Her life was a virtual travel guide.

If you want some arm chair travel with historical fiction, go ahead and follow Sofonisba’s life.

The Chess Game

The Chess Game (1555) Museum Narodow Poznan, Poland. By 1600, Chess Game is at the Roman estate of Fulvio Orsini. Cat. 43

Just last week the Wall Street Journal published an article about hobbies and diversions and referenced Sofonisba’s Chess Game painted in 1555. WSJ spoke of the hobbies that entertained the nobility. What Sofonisba enthusiasts see in the painting is the ingenuity of her work and the subversive messages of female power embedded in the chess game they play and the facial expressions they make. This was not an image of mere diversion. It was feminist enlightenment, 500 years before the me-too movement. Chapter 4, Chess Game, Cremona 1555, Lady in Ermine: The Story of a Woman Who Painted the Renaissance.

Sofonisba was not shallow. Nor are her enthusiasts.

Escape Virus Worries With Historical Fiction: Beneath A Scarlet Sky

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For Historical Fiction that will make your heart sing, I want to recommend Beneath A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. A best seller in 2017 (when I was preoccupied finishing up Lady in Ermine)Beneath A Scarlet Sky is engaging reading for the current moment, substantively and literally.

Without any spoilers, Scarlet Sky is set in German occupied Lombardy (Sofonisba’s region) during WWII, and we get a first-hand glimpse of the human tragedy through the eyes of Pino. In the first part, Pino employs faith and sheer human will to succeed at the mission assigned to him. In the middle, his craftiness, tenacity and resolve propel him. Written in short chapters like potato chips, Scarlet Sky makes you want one more, and then another. I’m only half way through and I couldn’t resist blogging about it. Touching, moving, insightful.

While not complete escapism-the subject matter is weighty and the horrors of WWII are represented- Scarlet Sky both distracts from our current crisis and comforts too. As we feel invaded and occupied beyond control, it is good to remember the historic struggles we have overcome with tenacity of spirit. And as bad as the current moment is, there have been far worse eras in history. We can be grateful for life and for each day together.

Sofonisba is Still Forgotten? How the Met and the NY Times Continue the Long Tradition of Ghosting Sofi

Friday March 27, 2020
Madonna dell’Itria, Sofonisba Anguissola, 1570s Paterno’ Sicily
Campi, Virgin in Glory with Saints (Chapter One, Lady in Ermine)

How, after all the attention Sofonisba received in 2019 from the Prado exhibit “Dos Pintoras” (and from the publication of Lady in Ermine in 2019), can an entire article be written about one trip by one artist without even a mention of the legend he went to discover: the legendary Sofonisba Anguissola? To be fair, given our current virus, the New York Times article focuses on Anthony van Dyck in relation to the plague of Sicily that swept Palermo when van Dyck was present (1624-25). But the real back story of van Dyck’s trip is that the young artist was sent to Sicily by the Lady in Ermine herself, Catalina Micaela, to paint her son, the Vice roy of Sicily. By the year of van Dyck’s voyage to Sicily, Sofonisba had already painted Catalina Micaela multiple times, from infancy to maturity, in addition to both of her parents, her husband, her aunts and uncles, and many others of the Habsburg-Valois line.
So, while in Sicily, van Dyck took great pains to visit his patron’s portraitist, the legendary Sofonisba Anguissola. He visited her at least twice at her home in Palermo to learn from her, to draw her in his sketch book, and finally, likely because of the plague the article describes, to paint the legend on her deathbed. He ignored his own social distancing to engage with Sofonisba. To touch the hand of the woman who was mentored by Michelangelo almost a century earlier, was worth the risk.

The back story of Anthony van Dyck’s visits to the legend Sofonisba Anguissola is presented in Chapter 31 “Anthony van Dyck: Sicily 1615- November 1625” Lady in Ermine: the Story of a Woman Who Painted the Renaissance
Van Dyck (1625) Sofonisba on her Deathbed, Turin, Sabauda Gallery

Master Sofonisba Anguissola

In honor of Sofonisba’s newly recognized accomplishments and the Prado exhibition of her work, I would like to present her Boy Bitten (drawn for Michelangelo) and her Girl Laughing next to each other to accentuate Sofonisba’s effort. She conceived of these close in time and the figures and positioning show how she experimented with subtle changes. Sofonisba truly was a master Renaissance painter like her mentor Michelangelo. (Chapter 5 of Lady in Ermine).

We are so privileged to recognize her talent and effort now.