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 , 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.
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.
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.
In 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.
In September 1549, the future King of Spain Philip II, paraded through Cremona, Lombardy during a tour of his future realm. Sofonisba Anguissola would have caught her first glimpse of him then, during The Prince’s Parade.