Sofonisba Painted Catalina Micaela, the Lady in Ermine, Infanta of Spain, as a child and an adult

Sofonisba Anguissola first painted Catalina Micaela, Infanta of Spain, the Lady in Ermine, when Catalina Micaela was a child.

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Sofonisba Anguissola rendered a miniature painting of each Infanta of Spain in a Book of Hours, previously owned by the French King Francois I who passed it to his daughter in law Catherine de Medici on his death in 1547. Catherine possessed this Book of Hours for forty-two years and inserted family portraits of their line into the Book of Hours along the way. It contains an anonymous portrait of Catalina Michaela’s parents Isabel and Philip II, and a portrait of each Infanta, Isabella Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela as children, both of which are attributed to Sofonisba Anguissola (Bibliotheque Nationale, MS n.a.l, 82, fol. 196, see Gazette Des Beaux-Arts December 2002, “Catherine de Medici and Her Two Spanish Granddaughters: Iconographical Additions from a French Sixteenth-Century Book of Hours” by Dana Bentley-Cranch. (307-318, 311).

Sofonisba knew Catalina Micaela, the Lady in Ermine, cradle to grave, just like she knew the line of Spanish Habsburgs– personally and intimately.

 

Sofonisba and the Habsburg-Valois Royal Wedding 1560

Portrait of Philip II of Spain by Sofonisba Anguissola

Portrait of Philip II with Rosary (c. 1568) Prado Museum, Madrid

Sofonisba was one of the 17 original ladies in waiting chosen for the court of the new fourteen year old Spanish queen, the former Elisabeth de Valois, daughter of Henry II of France and Catherine de Medici. Eight Spanish noblewomen and eight French noblewomen comprised the rest of the young queen’s court. Sofonisba stood out from the other ladies in waiting as the only one chosen for her talent rather than her social status.

On the night of the royal wedding, courtiers hesitated to dance at the wedding banquet. Girolamo Neri, the ambassador for the Duke of Mantua, Gugliemo Gonzaga, wrote to his lord, “il signore Ferrante Gonzaga fu il primo ch’incomincio’; quale ando’ a predere quella Cremonese che dipinge, ch’e’ venuta a star con la regina, et fece la via a multi alter che ball arono dapoi.” Signore Gonzaga was the first to began [dancing] and he went to take the one from Cremona who paints, who came to stay with the queen, and [they] made a path for the others to begin dancing after. (Cremona Catalogue 367, citing ASMn Gonzaga, Esteri 590, letter dated February 8, 1560).

Within months of the royal wedding, Sofonisba began private painting sessions with the new young queen. The two women collaborated in their new life together in Spain. This is the beginning of Sofonisba’s extensive personal relationship with the Habsburg royal family.

ISBN 978-0-86698-821-6

Sofonisba’s Brush Rises to the Level of Titian’s

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In 1563, Giovan Paolo Lomazzo praised Sofonisba in his Sogni, “Una femina Cremonese, della quale il nome e’ detto Sofonisba…molti pittori vallenti hanno giudicati quella avere il pennello levato di mano al divino Tiziano…” (Cremona Catalogue, 404). “A Cemonese woman called Sofonisba…many painters judge her brush to be elevated to the level of the divine Titian.”

Centuries later, Isabella Stewart Gardner bought a Sofonisba thinking it was a Titian.

ISBN 978-0-86698-821-6

 

Reading Group Questions

In the novel, what inspires Sofonisba’s choice to pursue portraiture?

Sofonisba’s father Amilcare is supportive of her ambitions. What is his motivation?

What does her tutor Marco represent?

How does her art kit get her into trouble? How does it help her?

At the King’s court, does either her gender or her profession limit her reputation? Does her gender or profession assist her reputation?

The Plague of Burgos in 1565 decimates the town but then provides the cardinal a chance at redemption. Is it realistic the priest would regret his conduct toward the two individuals he addresses in his letters?

What does the painting Lady in Ermine represent?

What element appears in the first and last scenes?

What was Sofonisba’s greatest life challenge?

Would Sofonisba have been more successful if she were a man?

October 1559, The Duke of Sessa, Brocardo Persico, and Sofonisba Anguissola

From The Duke of Sessa, Governor of Milan, 14 October 1559 to the Philip II, King of Spain: Sofonisba is ready

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On October 14, 1559, the Duke of Sessa, a Spaniard stationed in Milan to govern the region on behalf of the Spanish King Philip II, wrote to his monarch “Vuestra Majestad” to confirm that Sofonisba Anguissola was prepared to leave her home, her family, her land, and attend his court. She was to travel under the protection of Count Brocardo Persico, a member of the council of Milan and a family friend of the Anguissolas. The Duke of Sessa signed as a “humilde vasallo.” Sofonisba was escorted to her new life in Spain where she had to make a name and a home for herself without her beloved family. It was time for the portraitist to construct her own image.

Sofonisba, Spanish Court, September 1559

Family Portrait GrabIn September of 1559, Amilcare Anguissola wrote as a devoted and obedient vassal “devotissimo, et ubidiente vassallo” to Philip II, the King of Spain, to accept the summons sent to his very dear daughter Sofonisba “me tanto carissima figliola” to serve as a lady in waiting to the next Queen of Spain “Serenissima nostra Regina” the French princess Elisabet de Valois, daughter of Catherine de Medici and Henry II.

Amilcare hoped that Sofonisba would be housed as if in a monastery, “una Religioso Monestero, molto mi consolo”

How wrong her father was. Sofonisba’s life at the Spanish court from 1560-1573 was anything but cloistered.

Sofonisba’s Influence on Giorgio Vasari

The 16th century artist, critic, and historian Giorgio Vasari is best known for his voluminous Lives of the Artists series where he painstakingly documents the biographies and styles of the great Renaissance masters.

Master portraitist Sofonisba Anguissola inspired Giorgio Vasari.

In 1566, Giorgio went to Cremona in Northern Italy to visit Sofonisba’s childhood home. Sofonisba was not present during his visit to Cremona. She was in Spain serving at the court of Philip II.

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

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

Stunned by Sofonisba’s Chess Game and her Family Portrait, Giorgio said Sofonisba made her figures appear truly alive, a testament to her mastery in portraiture according to Leonardo, who resided in Milan at the dawn of the 16th century.

Vasari was familiar with Sofonisba’s reputation in Roman circles from the 1550s. She influenced Michelangelo with her Boy Bitten by a Crayfish. She painted a portrait of Isabel Queen of Spain for Pope Pius IV in Rome in 1561.

Giorgio Vasari was also a portraitist. He painted Catherine de Medici’s wedding portrait before she went to Paris to marry Henry II King of France.

After visiting the Anguissola household in 1566, Giorgio Vasari began his greatest self-portrait, housed today at the Uffizzi in Florence. In it, Giorgio highlights his own face and hands, indicates his occupation, and shows the depth of his feeling on a muted background. His 1566 self-portrait is so similar to Sofonisba’s style, one could superimpose the face of any of Sofonisba’s sitters upon it. Perhaps it was Giorgio’s tribute to Sofonisba.

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Sofonisba Lives On

Sofonisba lived a long prolific life. She began studying with Bernardino Campi around 1545. She died in 1625 and painted until at least 1610, probably longer. At the end of her life, she told Anthony van Dyke she wanted to keep painting in her last years, but her failing eyesight forced her to quit.

Still, Sofonisba painted for at least sixty-five years, probably more. She had her experimental early years, her Lombard portraiture years, her court years in Spain, and her long post-court period painting everything from royal portraits to Madonnas to miniatures. And yet, we are fairly certain of only 57 or so of her paintings, with some attributions disputed or in flux. See partial list of Sofonisba’s work.

There must be more. Even if she did just one piece of art work every year, she has a body of work out there of at least sixty-five pieces. But Sofi was prolific. She had to have done at least two a year. But two only? As prolific as she was, might she not have done at least three, four, five pieces a year? Five pieces a year from someone who sketched (drawing of crying baby to Michelangelo) and painted all the influential people she met (the King of Spain, Francesco de Medici, the Archduchess of the Spanish Netherlands), varying her styles all along (self portraits, portraits within portraits, landscapes, miniatures, massive Madonnas, mannerist holy families).

At five a year, Sofonisba might have a body of work out there, as yet to be discovered, somewhere along the lines of 325 pieces! It’s possible. We know of Titian’s volume of work. If Sofonisba’s life story tells us one thing, it’s that her gender never stopped her from painting.

Alfio Nicotra presenting Madonna dell'Itria by Sofonisba

Alfio Nicotra presenting Madonna dell’Itria by Sofonisba

I am a big fan of Alfio Nicotra, originally of Paternò Sicily, the town of Sofonsiba’s first marriage. Dr. Nocotra discovered Sofonisba’s Madonna dell’Itria and attributed it to her in 1995. Scholars disputed the attribution because it was so stylistically experimental compared to her accepted body of work, but Dr. Nicotra persevered. Then, in 2002, he found a document proving Sofonisba’s authorship, a letter in which she donated the painting to the local Franciscans of Paterno, dated June 25, 1579. Dr. Nicotra never doubted the range of Sofonisba’s work, in style and volume.

Dr. Nicotra has attributed a dozen or so paintings to Sofonisba, including 1580 portraits of Francesco de Medici and his daughter Eleanora, the future Duchess of Mantua and patroness-to-be of Peter Paul Rubens.

Today, Sofonisba’s family continues the search for her work, with Dr. Ferrante Anguissola hosting Progetto Sofonisba to help promote and discover Sofonisba’s legacy.

There’s certainly a movement going on to discover Sofonsiba’s life and work. Museum guides and survey art history books in the 80s, 90s or 2000s rarely mentioned Sofonisba. Not so today. I was in San Francisco’s De Young museum yesterday and picked up a book on Velazquez by Javier Portus and went to the index. There she was, Anguissola, Sofonisba, at least in a note.

In Rome, at the Doria Pamphili Gallery, Sofonisba’s Portrait of Husband and Wife used to be displayed on a main gallery wall along with the other great Renaissance masterpieces the Doria Pamphili owns. Today, that piece is in the prince’s private apartments, peeking out of a window where the public can just barely spy it. Of all the masterpieces the family could choose to covet, they picked Sofonisba’s. It only proves her growing allure. I hope the movement to discover Sofonisba can unearth a few hundred more pieces for us to study and enjoy.