Lavinia Fontana and Fede Galizia

Galerie Canesso considers two avant-garde women artists who challenged gender roles in their time.

Italian women artists of the 16th and 18th centuries have come out of the shadow in recent years.  While they were recognized in their own time and played a major role in the Italian artistic  scene, they were almost written out of history, which has given pride of place to their male  counterparts. The Galerie Canesso has wonderful pieces by extraordinary female protagonists  of this period, including the famous portraitist Lavinia Fontana (Bologna 1552 - Rome 1614)  and the still-life painter Fede Galizia (Milan 1578-1630). (In Galizia's Judith with the Head of Holofernes reproduced above, Judith is thought to be a self-portrait of the artist.)

Lavinia Fontana, Self-portrait, 1577, oil on canvas, 27 x 24 cm, Rome, Accademia Nazionale di San Luca. © WGA
Fede Galizia, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1596, oil on canvas, 120 x 94 cm, Sarasota, Ringling Museum of Art © WGA

Context played a major role in both of their careers. Lavinia Fontana and Fede Galizia were  both daughters of established painters, who taught them their art and gave them the opportunity  to become influential artists. Without this exposure to the workshops of their fathers, these two  incredibly gifted individuals may not necessarily have followed such brilliant paths. Lavinia was the daughter of Prospero Fontana, a mannerist painter who worked for Pope Julius III in Rome and on the frescoes of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence with Giorgio Vasari. He  was a respected teacher, notably of the Carracci brothers. Immersed in the humanist milieu in  Bologna, Fontana became an emancipated woman who developed her own activity as a painter,  while being married to a student of her father, Gian Paolo Zappi. Her husband, who was not as  successful as she was, gave up his own career and became her assistant. The daughter of the  miniaturist painter Annunzio Galizia, Fede learned her skills in her father's workshop. First 1 In Galizia's Judith with the Head of Holofernes reproduced above, Judith is thought to be a self-portrait of the artist. noted by Italian historian Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo (1538-92) (Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, Idea del Tempio della Pittura, 1590) at the age of 12, she became an  internationally recognized portraitist.

Another factor to take into consideration when studying their extraordinary paths is their  geographical origins. Living in Bologna, Lavinia Fontana enrolled in the first university to  allow women in Europe. There, she was able to write her dissertation while practicing her art.  This education nourished her compositions and may have contributed to the development of  her personal and daring style.

Although Fede Galizia did not have the same opportunity for study in Milan, she was exposed  to a great range of artworks and was able to witness the intellectual exchanges between the  north of Italy and Flanders.

First recognized as a portraitist, Galizia also excelled in the depictions of still life, where she  was able to perfect the art of miniature painting which she had learnt in her father's studio. A  pioneer in this field, she experimented with the attention to detail she witnessed in paintings by  Northern European artists such as Jan Brueghel, who came to Milan at the end of the 16th  century. Her still lifes remain among the earliest examples of a new genre of painting in which women would eventually make their mark.

Lavinia Fontana started by painting portraits of influential members of the aristocracy and the  upper middle class, receiving special approval from her female clientele. Noticed by pope  Gregory XIII, who took her under his wing, she painted his portrait. In Rome, she made her  largest composition (6 meters wide) for Pope Clement VIII. She quickly became the first  woman to ever receive public commissions and to open her own studio, and she was elected to  membership of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome. In 1609, a short account by the Valencian  author Pedro Pablo de Ribera celebrates the art of Lavinia Fontana in Glorias inmortales,  triunfos y heroicas bazanas de ochocientas curaenta y cinco mujeres, antiguas y modernas.  Two years later, a medal struck in Rome associated her effigy practicing her art on one side  with an allegory of Painting on the other.

The Galerie Canesso's two paintings by these two extraordinary artists perfectly reflect their  mastery in their respective fields.

Lavinia Fontana's Portrait of a Lady conveys her skills in rendering individual and expressive  traits as well as refined fabrics and jewellery. In this miniature on wood, the model's noble face  set within a large ruff inhabits most of the space. Probably the inner cover of a round box, the  painted side would have likely held the lady's jewels. The sitter's numerous sparkling white  seed-pearls reveal her luxurious clothing and hence indicate her high social status. The model  turns toward the beholder with a lively gaze and the beginning of a smile, creating a sense of  involvement. This painting can be dated between 1604 and 1614 and is therefore a late work in  Fontana's career when she was in Rome. Her fame in the field of portraiture had by then gone  well beyond the walls of her native Bologna.


Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of a Lady, Oil on wood panel (box cover), recto and verso, diameter 5 ½ in (14 cm); 6 ¾ in (17 cm) including border, which serves as a frame © Galerie Canesso Paris


Our still life by Fede Galizia is an excellent example of her attention to details, exquisite lighting and poetic simplicity. Small pears and peaches are arranged on a shiny metal black cup in a  horizontal composition. The golden light shed on these tart fruits creates an ephemeral  unadorned beauty, with a note of poetry and mystery. Galizia's quiet still lifes are rather  intimate works, where she can experiment with light, miniaturist details and offer a new female  sensibility. She may have been in contact with Caravaggio when he came to train in Simone  Peterzano's workshop in Milan at the end of the 16th century, and it is possible that she was  influenced by his representations of fruit baskets.

Fede Galizia (Milan 1578 - 1630), Dish with pears and peaches, oil on canvas, 28.5 x 39.5 cm, © Galerie Canesso Paris

Lavinia Fontana and Fede Galizia challenged and overcame stereotypes assigned by society to  women in relation to artistic practice. With their own creative styles, these two wonderful  painters truly made their mark, achieving a position which had not been accessible to female  artists in the past. Today, their works are displayed in the most prestigious institutions, where  the public can rediscover them: the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, the Galleria Borghese in  Rome, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the  National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, among many others.

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