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.
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.
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.
In honor of Sofonisba Anguissola’s new-found celebrity, I wanted to place her Prado Portrait of Philip II alongside her Portrait of a Spanish Prince (San Diego Museum of Art).
Sofonisba did not know Philip as a young child, but perhaps she could envision him as one. As Giorgio Vasari says, Sofonisba had invenzione. Perhaps she envisioned the adult King Philip as he would have appeared as a boy, while employing green to represent his youth, his budding, his spring. The hat style is even the same in each painting, the King’s being a mature black and the Prince’s being in youthful green. The painting is inscribed in Latin “Philip II, son of emperor Charles V,” and that refers to only one man, the king Sofonisba served for over a decade. The inscription has been assumed to be inaccurate since she could not have seen Philip as a child. But what if she could imagine it?
What a year 2019 was for Sofonisba Anguissola. Sofonisba realized her own Renaissance in 2019. She was championed by the Prado Museum in Madrid with its exhibition A Tale of Two Women Painters or Historia de Dos Pintoras, that ran starting October 22, 2019. She was dramatized in Lady in Ermine: the Story of a Woman Who Painted the Renaissance, published in 2019. Sofonisba is now recognized as a master Renaissance painter as never before and her contributions to advancing portraiture can no longer be denied and discounted.
Four hundred and forty years ago, in the final days of December 1579, Sofonisba defied tradition, custom, her family, and the advice of Francesco de Medici, and consummated a marriage to Captain Orazio Lomellini that resembled an elopement. She broke the dictates of custom and made an independent decision that altered the course of her life, for better and for worse. I admire Sofonisba’s courage and capture her self-determination in Chapter 25 of Lady in Ermine.
And therefore, channeling Sofonisba’s creative independence, and with my publisher’s gracious agreement, I will be re-launching Lady in Ermine in 2020, Author’s Revision, under my own imprint, A Lady in Ermine Press, with a fresh cover featuring the Palazzo Colonna Self Portrait that I so admired in Madrid on banners advertising the exhibition.
I am grateful to ACMRS (Bagwyn) for publishing Lady in Ermine in 2019 and for releasing to me the rights to Lady in Ermine in 2020. I look forward to viewing the Palazzo Colonna Self Portrait again in person after the image is on the cover of Lady in Ermine.
I am honored to help tell the story of Sofonisba Anguissola, master Renaissance painter, and I look forward to 2020.
“La Dama del Armino Ni del Greco Ni de Sofonisba Anguissola; su Autor Es Sanchez Coello” read the headlines in Madrid, on October 22, 2019, the day of the Grand Opening of the Sofonisba exhibit (along with Lavinia Fontana) at the Prado Museum.
To me, it felt like heresy.
The fight over the attribution of Lady in Ermine is a long one, with most Italian scholars siding with attribution to Sofonisba Anguissola, and the Gallery in Scotland that owns the painting holding to the traditional attribution to El Greco.
The El Greco attribution was untenable for several historical reasons which I outlined in my blog “Sofonisba Cradle to Grave.”
And now, recognition of Sofonisba’s work is on full view at the Prado Museum in Madrid as part of the Prado’s 200 year anniversary celebration.
Scholars have recently re-compared the brush strokes of Sanchez Coello to those of Sofonisba Anguissola to conclude that the Glasgow painting Lady in Ermine, or Woman in a Fur Wrap, is not by El Greco as the collection has long maintained, nor by Sofonisba, as the majority of Italian scholars maintain and the legendary Maria Kusche concluded.
In concluding the attribution goes to Coello, the exhaustive work of the legendary scholar Maria Kusche is being overturned.
Having met and followed Doctor Kusche, I am uncomfortable contradicting her conclusions. Her work was exacting, exhaustive, and compelling. Her Retratos Y Retratadores Sanchez Coello Y Sus Competidores Sofonisba Anguissola is an exhaustive encyclopedia comparing the work of the two Lady in Ermine contestants Coello and Sofonisba.
Because I cannot speak to brush strokes, I will keep to the historical reasons why Lady in Ermine could only have been authored by Sofonisba Anguissola.
That said, history tells us that Sofonisba continually experimented with a variety of styles, why Vasari labeled her to have “inventione” a word he reserved for Sofonisba and Michelangelo to convey their inventive minds. Sofonisba did not limit herself to one style, as can be attested to by her experimentation with various genres including miniatures, thematics, court and family portraiture, religious themes, and marriage and intimacy pieces, among other styles.
But I will focus on the chronological and historic reasons why Lady in Ermine must have been authored by Sofonisba.
It is a simple question of timing and appearance.
Catalina Micaela cannot be 18 years old in Lady in Ermine. The sitter is simply, as a matter of the common eye, patently not a teen. Catalina Micaela as Lady in Ermine is sophisticated, mature, aged. Lady in Ermine is not the face of an 18 year old. That is not a matter of brush strokes, but of observation.
Catalina Micaela was only 18 years old when Coello last saw her, in 1585, when she departed for her life in Turin. As the Duchess of Savoy, Catalina Micaela, the Infanta of Spain and daughter of Philip II, was a living link between the royal Habsburg dynasty in Madrid and its major ally, the Duchy of Savoy.
Coincidentally, it was a dismissed painting by El Greco, The Martyrdom of St. Maurice (which King Philip rejected) that commemorated this historic alliance. In Martyrdom, El Greco showed Emmanuel Philibert, Catalina Micaela’s future father in law, as one of the victors of the Battle of St. Quentin. The treaty resulting from the Battle of St. Quentin, the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis, was the instrument that called Sofonisba to serve as a lady in waiting at the Spanish Court, where she would see Catalina Micaela born and helped to raise her during her first six years of life, under touching and tragic circumstances.
Sanchez Coello died in 1588, three years after Catalina Micaela departed for Savoy. He did not live to see the mature Catalina Micaela.
On the contrary, Sofonisba lived with her husband Orazio Lomellini in Genoa during Catalina Micaela’s entire tenure as Duchess of Savoy, from the Infanta’s unforgettable arrival in 1585 until her death in November, 1597, in childbirth, at the age of 30 years and one month.
Sofonisba was on hand to greet Catalina Micaela the moment the Infanta touched the Italian Peninsula in June, 1585. Sofonisba’s husband Orazio captained the ship that transported the official delegation from Genoa to Savona to greet the Infanta when she arrived from Spain to begin her married life in Turin. Sofonisba’s death bed portrait by Anthony van Dyck resides today in Turin at the Galleria Sabauda.
That occasion was the opportunity for Sofonisba to paint Catalina Micaela that today is found in Sala 55 of the Prado, also attributed by the museum to Sofonisba’s competition, Sanchez Coello. And yet, my jaw dropped in Sala 55. The Catalina Micaela in Sala 55 echoes Sofonisba’s Lazaro Gallery portrait of Eleonora de Medici which Sofonisba had occasion to paint in 1580 when she was a surprise guest of Francesco de Medici in Tuscany. Like the eyes in the Lazaro Eleonora, the eyes in the Sala 55 Catalina Micaela call out to the viewer. The other portraits in Sala 55 peer out at the viewer.
If the Prado permitted photos, I would here insert a photo of the Catalina Micaela of Sala 55, and I would zoom in on the skirt, in which Sofonisba embedded the “S” of her signature. By then in her fifties, Sofonisba saw the possibility of her legacy slipping away and knew she had to place a marker, so that history would not forget her and misattribute her work to her male contemporaries. No other Prado portrait employs such an S to represent skirt folds; only in Sala 55’s Catalina Micaela.
Catalina Micaela as Lady in Ermine was be painted in the 1590s, when Catalina Micaela was a mature woman, transformed by ruling over a court of her own, the greatest adventure of her heretofore sheltered life.
Sofonisba knew how cloistered Catalina Micaela was in Spain under her strict father. Living a few days journey away from the Infanta-Duchess from 1585-1597, Sofonisba had multiple opportunities to visit her former charge, whose mother she painted, whose father she painted, whose aunt she painted, whose uncle she painted, whose nephew she painted, whose husband she painted, whose daughter she painted.
Why would Sofonisba not be the one to paint the mature Catalina Micaela? Notably, it was during Catalina Micaela’s tenure in Turin that Sofonisba authored “The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine,” perhaps as tribute to her Infanta-Duchess patroness.
And perhaps, Sofonisba even experimented with her former competitor’s style, echoing Coello in a nod to their shared time at the Spanish court.
Based on history, I can only conclude that the venerable Maria Kusche was correct.
Competing attributions are a constant theme in the art world, and while we will never know for certain, Sofonisba had the invenzione, the opportunity, and the logistical, historical vicinity to accomplish what Coello could not possibly have done, having been already resting in his grave for five to ten years.