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Members' Research Report Archive

Women Artists, Their Patrons, and Their Publics in Early Modern Bologna

Babette Bohn, Texas Christian University
Samuel H. Kress Senior Fellow, 2017–2018

Elisabetta Sirani, The Deliverance of the Demoniac of Constantinople by Saint John Chrysostom, c. 1659c. 1659

Elisabetta Sirani, The Deliverance of the Demoniac of Constantinople by Saint John Chrysostom, c. 1659, pen and brown ink and brown washes heightened with white over graphite on laid paper, Gift of Sydney J. Freedberg, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1991.102.1

Early modern Bologna was uniquely receptive to women artists. The only Italian city to treat the artistic accomplishments of local women as a distinguishing characteristic of its culture, Bologna supported the careers of many more women artists than any other artistic center. These included approximately sixty-eight painters, sculptors, printmakers, and embroiderers from the fifteenth through the eighteenth century.

During a period when most artists were men and formidable obstacles impeded professional artistic careers for women, the exceptional proliferation, diversity, and success of these women were supported by several factors. Bolognese women artists benefited from the city’s venerable university, whose scholars commissioned women’s works and which had celebrated female writers and scholars since the thirteenth century, long before the emergence of local women artists. By the seventeenth century, accomplished women writers, scholars, and visual artists were extolled in local art and literature as complementary components of Bologna’s singular civic identity. Unusually diverse artistic patronage, ranging on the social scale from the lower middle class to the aristocracy, also provided professional opportunities to Bolognese women artists. These patrons encouraged their female compatriots to be self-promotional in various ways, including frequent self-portraiture and a high rate of signatures that exceeds the incidence for any other artists in early modern Italy. Responding to a flourishing publishing industry in the city, some local women became printmakers who provided woodcut book illustrations for learned texts by university scholars and others.

Women artists benefited especially from a new approach to female biography on the part of Bolognese writers, who promulgated the achievements of their female compatriots in ways that were anomalous on the Italian peninsula. Particularly during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Bolognese authors recalibrated established formulas for female artistic biography. Moving beyond the token inclusion of one woman artist, as was usual in biographical compendia in other Italian cities, and beyond the qualified praise that typifies writing about women artists elsewhere, Bolognese accounts presented local women artists as a key component of the city’s cultural character, marking Bologna as a metropolis with unique claims to women’s excellence in the visual arts. These encomiastic writings encouraged women’s successful careers during their lifetimes and sometimes promoted their reputations after their deaths, thus stimulating the proliferation of women artists, facilitating their readier access to professional training, and articulating Bologna’s status as a city whose artistic identity was distinguished by its gifted female practitioners.

A key figure in this transformation of female artistic biography was Count Carlo Cesare Malvasia (1616–1693), whose Felsina pittrice (1678) reinvented the possibilities for celebrating the accomplishment of women artists. Malvasia’s biographies of Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) and particularly Elisabetta Sirani (1638–1665) rejected earlier models, as established in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550, 1568), which typically included only one female biography and foregrounded women’s beauty and virtue rather than their artistic accomplishments. In lieu of anecdotal, personalized tropes, Malvasia emphasized women’s artistic achievements, specifying an unprecedented number of individual works, extolling the particular gifts of each artist, and characterizing women artists as true professionals for the first time.

Malvasia’s admiration for Sirani’s wash drawings lies at the heart of this new approach. For many early modern Italian writers, drawings afforded unique confirmation of artistic ingegno, and the almost universal absence of praise for women’s drawings implied their incapacity for original invention. Malvasia remarked on the rapidity and apparent effortlessness of Sirani’s wash drawing technique in creating “a spirited invention that seemed without drawn or shaded strokes, and heightened together all at once.” His admiration marked her as an artist whose extraordinary brilliance made her the equal of her most gifted male compatriots, and his views contributed to the enthusiasm of local collectors for the next two centuries. Early inventories include many drawings ascribed to Sirani, situating her among the most frequently identified Bolognese draftspersons, male or female, in these documents.

After Sirani’s death in 1665, the number of women artists expanded exponentially as others were inspired by her success. In this period for the first time many women obtained artistic training from Bolognese male artists who were not family members, suggesting the transformation of social and professional parameters. My archival research has elucidated the appreciation of Bolognese women artists in both published and unpublished biographies; the interest in their works among Bolognese collectors through the eighteenth century; and the unprecedented number of public commissions granted to women during the Seicento. My rewarding tenure at CASVA has contributed enormously to the completion of my book manuscript.