Sofonisba Anguissola

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Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait, 1556, Lancut Museum, Poland.

Sofonisba Anguissola (also spelled Anguisciola; c. 1532 - 1625) was an Italian painter of the Renaissance. After her initial training, she met Michelangelo while in Rome when she was 23. He recognized her talent and afterwards informally trained her. She also apprenticed with other local painters, which set a precedent for women to be accepted as students of art in Italy.

Anguissola established a new style of portraiture, with subjects set in informal ways such as playing chess or holding animals, since nude subjects were not allowed by women. She served the Spanish court as a court painter and lady-in-waiting to the new queen, Elizabeth of Valois and enjoyed a long and successful career. She was praised by many of her fellow artists, including the master of portraiture, Anthony Van Dyck.

Anguissola married twice: first at age 38, to Don Francisco de Moncada, son of the viceroy of Sicily, and later to Orazio Lomellino, a wealthy boat captain with whom she had a long and happy marriage. She painted her final self-portrait in 1620 and died in Palermo in 1625, at the age 93.

Early years

Sofonisba's Family Portrait, Minerva, Amilcare and Asdrubale Anguissola, 1557.

Sofonisba Anguissola was born in Cremona, Lombardy around 1532, the oldest of seven children, six of whom were daughters. Her father, Amilcare Anguissola, was a member of the Genoese minor nobility. Sofonisba's mother, Bianca Ponzone, was also of an affluent family of noble background. Her mother died when Sofonisba was four or five. Over four generations, the Anguissola family had a strong connection to ancient Carthaginian history. Thus the first daughter was named after the tragic Carthaginian figure Sophonisba.

Amilcare Anguissola encouraged all of his daughters (Sofonisba, Elena, Lucia, Europa, Minerva and Anna Maria) to cultivate their talents. Four of her sisters became painters, but Sofonisba was by far the most accomplished and renowned. Elena had to quit painting when she became a nun. Both Anna Maria and Europa gave up art upon marrying, while Lucia, the best painter among Sofonisba's sisters, died young. The other sister, Minerva, became a writer and Latin scholar. Sofonisba's brother, Asdrubale, studied music and Latin but not painting.

Her aristocrat father made sure that Sofonisba and her sisters received a well-rounded education. Sofonisba was 14 years old when he sent her with her sister Elena to study with Bernardino Campi, a respected portrait and religious painter of the Lombard school who hailed from Sofonisba's home town of Cremona.

When Campi moved to another city, Sofonisba continued her studies with the painter Bernardino Gatti. Sofonisba's apprenticeship with local painters set a precedent for women to be accepted as students of art, which was a profession normally reserved for men.[1] She probably continued her studies under Gatti for about three years (1551-1553).

Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, c. late 1550s.

Sofonisba's most inventive early work is Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola (c 1550 Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena). The double portrait depicts her art teacher in the act of painting a portrait of Sofonisba. In this painting she makes herself larger and more central to the picture and shows her teacher using a mahlstick (to steady the hand), which some scholars think portrays his lesser ability or his lack of confidence. However, others point out that she later painted herself using a mahlstick. Thus, Anguissola may have simply intended to portray her master as helping to "create" her, while at the same time indicating that she did go on to become greater than he.[2]

In 1554, at age 22, Sofonisba traveled to Rome, where she spent her time sketching various scenes and people. While there, she met Michelangelo through the help of another painter who knew her work well. When he requested that she draw a weeping boy, Sofonisba drew "Child bitten by a crab" and sent it back to Michelangelo, who immediately recognized her talent. This led to her receiving the benefit of being informally trained by the great master. The sketch would continue to be discussed and copied for the next 50 years among artists and the aristocracy.

Michelangelo subsequently gave Anguissola sketches from his notebooks to draw in her own style and offered advice on the results. For at least two years Sofonisba continued this informal study, receiving substantial guidance from Michelangelo.

Experiences as a Female Artist

The Chess Game, 1555. Museum Navrodwe, Poznan, Poland.
Children with a dog, c 1570-1590

Although Sofonisba enjoyed much more encouragement and support than the average woman of her day, her social class did not allow her to transcend the constraints of her sex. Without the possibility of studying anatomy or drawing from life (it was considered unacceptable for a lady to view nudes), she could not undertake the complex multi-figure compositions required for large-scale religious or history paintings.

Instead, she searched for possibilities of a new style of portraiture, with subjects set in informal ways. Self-portraits and members of her own family were her most frequent subjects, as seen in such paintings as Self-Portrait (1554, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna), The Chess Game (1555, Museum Narowe, Poznan), that depicts three of her sisters Lucia, Minerva and Europa, and Portrait of Amilcare, Minerva and Asdrubale Anguissola (c. 1557-1558, Nivaagaards Malerisambling, Niva, Denmark).

At the Spanish Court

Portrait of Queen Elisabeth (Isabel) of Spain with a zibellino.

When she was already well known, Anguissola went to Milan sometime in 1558, where she painted the Duke of Alba. He in turn recommended her to the Spanish king, Philip II. The following year, Sofonisba was invited to join the Spanish Court, which became the turning point in her career.

Sofonisba was around 27 years old when she left Italy to join the Spanish court. In the winter of 1559-1560 she arrived at Madrid to serve as a court painter and lady-in-waiting to the new queen, Elizabeth of Valois, Philip II’s third wife. Sofonisba soon gained the esteem and confidence of the young queen and spent the following years painting many official portraits for the court, including Philip II’s sister Juana and his son, Don Carlos.

This work was far more demanding than the informal portraits upon which Anguissola had based her early reputation, as it took a tremendous amount of time and energy to render the many intricate designs of the fine fabrics and elaborate jewelry essential to royal subjects. Yet, despite the challenge, Sofonisba's paintings of Elisabeth of Valois (and later, of Anne of Austria, Philip II’s fourth wife) are vibrant and full of life.

While in the service of Isabel of Valois, Anguissola worked closely with Alonso Sanchez Coello—so closely in fact, that the famous painting of the middle-aged King Philip II was initially attributed to Coello. Only recently has Anguissola been recognized as the painting's true creator.[3]

Later personal life

The princesses Isabella Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela, c. 1570.

In 1570, Anguissola was 38 and still unmarried. After the death of Elisabeth of Valois, Philip II took additional interest in Sofonisba's future and arranged a marriage for her. Around 1571, she thus married Don Francisco de Moncada, the son of the prince of Paterno, the viceroy of Sicily. The wedding ceremony was celebrated with great pomp, and she received a dowry from the Spanish king. After the wedding, the couple traveled to visit her family as well as her husband's estates in Italy and eventually returned to Spain. After 18 years with the Spanish court, Sofonisba and her husband finally left Spain for good with the permission of the king sometime during 1578. They went to Palermo where Don Francisco died in 1579.

At the age of 47, Sofonisba met the considerably younger Orazio Lomellino, the captain of the ship she was traveling on while en route home to Cremona. They were married shortly afterwards, in January of 1580, in Pisa.

Orazio recognized and supported her in her artwork, and the two had a long and happy marriage. They settled in Genoa, where her husband's family lived. Anguissola was given her own quarters, studio, and time to paint and draw.

Ozario's fortune plus a generous pension from Philip II allowed Sofonisba to paint freely and live comfortably. By now quite famous, she received many colleagues who came to visit and discuss the arts with her. Several of these younger artists were eager to learn and mimic her distinctive style.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait, 1610.

In her late period, Sofonisba painted not only portraits but religious themes, as she had done in the days of her youth. Unfortunately, many of her religious paintings have been lost. She was the leading portrait painter in Genoa until she moved to Palermo. In 1620, she painted her last self-portrait.

In 1623, the aging Sofonisba was visited by the Flemish painter Sir Anthony Van Dyck, who had painted several portraits of her in the early 1600s and recorded sketches from his visits to her in his sketchbook. Van Dyck noted that, although "her eyesight was weakened," Sofonisba was still quite mentally alert. Excerpts of the advice she gave him about painting also survive from this visit. Van Dyck drew her portrait while visiting her, the last portrait made of Sofonisba.

Contrary to some biographers' claims, she was never entirely blind but may have had cataracts. Sofonisba became a wealthy patron of the arts after the weakening of her sight. She died at age 93, in Palermo in 1625. She was internationally acclaimed and respected throughout her life.

Seven years later, on the anniversary of what would have been her one hundredth birthday had she lived, her husband placed an inscription on her tomb that reads, in part:

To Sofonisba, my wife ... who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, outstanding in portraying the images of man ... Orazio Lomellino, in sorrow for the loss of his great love, in 1632, dedicated this little tribute to such a great woman.


The influence of Campi, whose reputation was based on portraiture, is evident in Sofonisba's early works, such as the Self-portrait (Florence, Uffizi). Her work was allied to the worldly tradition of Cremona, much influenced by the art of Parma and Mantua, in which even religious works were imbued with extreme delicacy and charm. From Gatti she seems to have absorbed elements reminiscent of Correggio, beginning a trend that became marked in Cremonese painting of the late sixteenth century. This new direction is reflected in Lucia, Minerva and Europa Anguissola Playing Chess (1555; Poznan, N. Mus.) in which portraiture merges into a quasi-genre scene, a characteristic derived from Brescian models.

The main body of Anguissola's work consists of self-portraits and portraits of her family. These portraits are considered by many to be her finest works.

According to the theory of painting in the Renaissance period, the "spark of intention" or animation was needed for invention to exist, which thus produced authentic "art" rather than just copying from nature. Sofonisba's paintings had that quality, as was recognized by Michaelangelo and others.

A total of about 50 works have been securely attributed to Sofonisba. Her works can be seen at galleries in Bergamo, Budapest, Madrid (Museo del Prado), Naples, Siena, and Florence (Uffizi Gallery).


The early art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote this about Sofonisba: "Anguissola has shown greater application and better grace than any other woman of our age in her endeavors at drawing; she has thus succeeded not only in drawing, coloring and painting from nature, and copying excellently from others, but by herself has created rare and very beautiful paintings."[4]

Ribbon point with aiglets or "zibellino" from the painting of Queen Elisabeth of Valois.

Sofonisba's work had a lasting influence upon subsequent generations of artists. Her portrait of Queen Elisabeth/Isabel of Valois (third wife of King Philip II of Spain and eldest daughter of king Henry II of France and Catherine de Medici) with a zibellino (the pelt of a marten set with a head and feet of jeweled gold) was the most widely copied portrait in Spain. Copiers of this work include many of the finest artists of the time, including Peter Paul Rubens.

Sofonisba is also important to feminist art historians. Although there has never been a period in Western history in which women were completely absent in the visual arts, Sofonisba's great success opened the way for larger numbers of women to pursue serious careers as artists. Some famous successors to her example include Lavinia Fontana, Barbara Longhi, Fede Galizia and Artemisia Gentileschi.

Historian Whitney Chadwick wrote of her: “The first woman painter to achieve fame and respect did so within a set of constraints that removed her from competing for commissions with her male contemporaries and that effectively placed her within a critical category of her own.”[1]

Sofonisba herself once said, “Life is full of surprises, I try to capture these precious moments with wide eyes.”

See also

  • Women Artists
  • Angelika Kauffmann
  • Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun
  • Mary Moser
  • Adelaide Labille-Guiard


  1. 1.0 1.1 Chadwick, pg. 79.
  2. Chadwick, pg. 23.
  3. Perlingieri.
  4. Vasari, pg. 36.


  • Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990. ISBN 0-500-20354-7
  • Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia and Maria Kusche. Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Woman. National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1995. ISBN 0-940979-31-4
  • Garrard, Mary D. Here’s Looking at Me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 556-622
  • Harris, Anne Sutherland and Linda Nochlin. Women Artists: 1550-1950. Knopf, New York: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976. ISBN 0-394-41169-2
  • Heller, Nancy. Women Artists: An illustrated history. Abberville Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0789207685
  • Jacobs, Frederika H. Woman’s Capacity to Create: The Unusual Case of Sofonisba Anguissola. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 1. (Spring, 1994), pp.74-101.
  • Perlingieri, Ilya Sandra. Sofonisba Anguissola. Rizzoli International, 1992. ISBN 0-8478-1544-7
  • Pizzagalli, Daniela. La signora della pittura: vita di Sofonisba Anguissola, gentildonna e artista nel Rinascimento. Milano, Italy, 2003. ISBN 8817995096
  • Slatkin, Wendy. Women Artists in History: from antiquity to the present. Prentice Hall, 2000. ISBN 978-0130273192
  • Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists. Trans. Julia and Peter Bonadella. Oxford University Press, 1991.

External links

All links retrieved January 30, 2023.


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