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.

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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