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.

Sofonisba and King Philip II at the Prado Museum

Philip II King of Spain was fond of Sofonisba and admired her work, praising her in words and gold.

In the final days of 1579, Sofonisba married Orazio Lomellini, a ship captain from a prominent Genoan family, without obtaining the consent of her family. Even though her marriage to Orazio began as a quasi-elopement, King Philip II commemorated it by sending Sofonisba a wedding present, yet another lifetime pension, along with a letter acknowledging her industry, ingenuity and devotion to his family. 

“industiae, ingenij et sedulitatis a devota nobis sincera dilecta Sofonisba una ex pedissequis serenissimae quondam reginae Isabelli uxoris nostre carissime prestitare colentes cui ob virtutes proprias et ingenij dotes fuit acceptissima nec non come matrimonij nuper ab ea cum devoto nobis dilecto Horatio Lomellini…”(Cremona Catalogue, 388)

I’m looking forward to viewing Sofonisba’s Portrait of Philip II next week (at the Prado Museum exhibit honoring the work of Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana) and experience how Sofonisba captured the king’s eyes.


I’m eager to return to the Prado Museum in Madrid in a few weeks for a close up inspection of Sofonisba’s Portrait of Philip II which I last viewed in storage in 2009 with the kind permission of Leticia Ruiz, curator of the upcoming exhibit. I originally met Dr. Ruiz through my association with Maria Kusche at Progetto Sofonisba in Palermo, February 2008.

Maria Kusche describes in her book Sofonisba Anguissola Renaissance Woman, written with Sylvia Ferino-Pagden (NMWA, 1995), that x-rays show that the portrait was altered to include a heavy cape and the rosary. Originally, Philip was posed with his hand on his chest. In Lady in Ermine, I link Sofonisba’s adjustment to the tragedies affecting Philip’s life. 

Sofonisba’s sensitivity to Philip II’s life events is one sign of her immersion at the Spanish court.