Sofonisba’s Influence on Diego Velazquez

Maria Kusche and Sylvia Ferino-Pagden have shown the influence of Sofonisba’s Portrait of Margaret of Savoy with Dwarf (c.1595) on two of Diego Velazquez’ pieces: his Portrait of Prince Baltasar Carlos (1632 Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) and his 1656 Las Meninas, particularly in the way Velazquez poses a vessel that passes between the figures. (Kusche and Ferino-Pagden, Sofonisba Anguissola Renaissance Woman, (NMWA, Washington DC, 1995) 95; See also Daniela Pizzagalli La Signora della Pittura Vita di Sofonisba Anguissola, p 208.)

I wonder if Velazquez’s Prince Baltasar Carlos was also influenced by another of Sofonisba’s paintings, one recently attributed to Sofonisba, her Portrait of the Princes of Savoy, the First Children of Carlo Emanuele e Caterina Micaela (1589, Torino, attributed by Alfio Nicotra in Incontri, Oct, 2013).


Portrait Prince Baltasar Carlos 1632 by Diego Velazquez (Boston MFA)

Princes of Savoy

Princes of Savoy 1589 by Sofonisba Anguissola (Torino)

Velazquez centered the baldish baby heir the same way Sofonisba did. The dress Velazquez gives Prince Baltasar Carlos angles backward just like the right figure in Sofonisba’s. Then the folds in the dress of Velazquez’ dwarf on the left echo the folds of Sofonisba’s prince on the left. The arms of the figures in both portraits reach toward the center, as if creating an invisible circle. The drapery above and dark backgrounds behind the children are similar in each. The luxurious carpets beneath both have similar horizontal bands framing the bottoms of the portraits. Both pieces are highly detailed in gold.

Even if we cannot be certain whether Velazquez copied Sofonisba, we do know who came first. Her Princes of Savoy preceded his Prince Baltasar Carlos by forty-three years.

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.