Sofonisba’s Inventiveness; Vasari’s Inventione

Given Sofonisba’s 1554 Dominican Astronomer (signed and dated upside down), her nonconformist, voluptuous 1559 Virgin Mary (signed and dated) and her 1578 Madonna dell’ Itria, documented by her official bequest to the monastery (disputed for years as beyond her style), one cannot deny Sofonisba’s range, and the reason Vasari uses the term invenzione to describe her.

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Which Renaissance artist signed a painting upside down? A 24 year old female from Cremona painting a Dominican astronomer doing mathematical calculations 80 years before Galileo’s trial. That ‘s invention, Vasari’s invenzione.

Sofonisba was not a copyist. Coello was. He copied her work over and over. But that’s another story. Sofonisba cannot be contained in a little box in which tradition wants to put her.

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’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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