Sofonisba Was Not Always Forgotten

In 1774, Giambattista Zaist wrote Notizie Istoriche de’ Pittori, Scultori, ed Architetti Cremonesi or Historical Notes of Painters, Sculptors, and Architects of Cremona.

For seven pages he writes about the accomplishments of Sofonisba Anguissola, recounting her early years, her time in Spain, her long legacy.

He concludes with these words,

“che superò l’artifizio non solo de piu esperti Pittori dell’ arte , specialmente del ritrarre di naturale, ma eguaglio`, al dir del Soprani, lo stesso Tiziano.”

“She surpassed the art not only of more experienced Painters of art, especially in natural portraiture, but equal, as says Soprani [1674], to Titian.”

Sofonisba was not always forgotten from history. Soprani and Zaist noted her. Vasari raved about her in his Lives of the Artists-and Vasari saw her work contemporary with all the Renaissance masters. Still, centuries after her accomplishments, her legacy continues to be stripped from her.

Sofonisba’s legacy deserves attention and correction.

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.


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


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


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.