Lavinia Fontana and the female self-portrait

March 18, 2011

Lavinia Fontana and the female self-portrait

As an art historian who is interested in female artists, I am particularly intrigued by the way that Lavinia Fontana chose to depict herself in self-portraits. Since Renaissance women weren't always in control of how they were portrayed in art (women were often depicted by male artists), I like to see how a female artist represented herself when she did have control over her image.

There are five self-portraits by Lavinia Fontana that are known: four paintings and one drawing. I would like to examine two of these self-portraits, including my own ideas with those that have been previously presented by Catherine King and Babette Bohn.1 I think these two portraits are quite revealing in terms of what Fontana felt was important to communicate about herself.

Fontana’s earliest self-portrait is quite unique, since it was created as a marriage portrait. This painting, Self-Portrait at the Spinet(Keyboard) was made in 1577 for Fontana’s future father-in-law, Severo Zappi.2 I think Fontana felt some pressure at this time, since she was marrying into a family which held a higher social status than her own.3 One senses that Fontana felt a need to emphasize her wealth and status by observing various elements in her painting: her lavish clothing, jewels, and a servant in the background. Fontana also chooses to emphasize her accomplishments and abilities: she is playing an instrument and her easel is distinctly placed in the background. In addition, her knowledge and learning are emphasized by the fact that she includes a Latin inscription in the upper corner of the canvas.

I think this Latin inscription is rather interesting, since it is indicative of the social situation for female Renaissance artists. In translation, the inscription reads, “Lavinia virgin/maiden of Prospero Fontana has represented the likeness of her face from the mirror in the year 1577.”

Isn’t it interesting that Fontana is emphasizing her virginity? Unsurprisingly, virginity was highly desired by prospective husbands at the time, but I think that Fontana mentions her virginity to fit further societal expectations. As Catherine King points out that in terms of self-portraiture, “the act of showing oneself to another was very different for a young woman than it was for a young man.”4 Hence, female artists needed to be careful in how they presented themselves in portraits. Fontana visually manifests this care by not only stressing her virginity, but by appearing in modest red dress that suggests marriage (red was the traditional color for wedding dresses in Bologna).5

The self-portrait by Fontana that interests me the most was painted just two years after Fontana’s wedding portrait. This portrait is a tondo painted on copper (1579) and was created expressly for placement in a collection. On 17 October 1578, Dominican scholar Alfonso Ciacón wrote to Fontana and requested her portrait; Ciacón intended to publish an engraved gallery of 500 portraits of respected scholars, artists, and statesmen.6 No doubt Fontana felt honored to have her portrait be included in this engraved “gallery.” Fontana sent this portrait to Ciacón in 1579, but the book of engravings was never published.

Nonetheless, we can see that Fontana wanted to portray herself in a certain way, especially since she knew that her image was intended for display alongside portraits of other prominent individuals. As with the marriage portrait, Fontana opts to emphasize her learning and wealth. She manifests her scholarly pursuits (she’s not just a mere “craftswoman”) by showing herself among anatomical casts and classical statuettes. (A nineteenth century engraving of Fontana’s painting is helpful in seeing these details.) In addition, Fontana is interested in suggesting her wealth; she depicts herself in lavish clothing and she is sitting in an armchair (poor people owned only stools at this time).7

Once again, Fontana is careful in how she has presented herself (in order to meet societal expectations). Not only is she wearing modest clothing, but she further emphasizes her respectability by stating that she is married. The inscription in the right-hand corner of her portrait states: “Lavinia Fontana married into the Zappi family made this 1579.” In fact, this reference to her marriage was advantageous not only for purposes of societal decorum, but also a way to emphasize her social status, since the Zappi family held a comparatively high status in society.

As I have been writing this post and thinking about Fontana, I’ve come to a realization as to why I am drawn to female self-portraits. For one thing, I’m an art historian who is a woman. Although I am hopeful that the job market for women in academia is ever-improving (and equalizing), I think many women still feel cautious in how they present themselves in the academic world (in order to keep a competitive edge against men). I certainly feel that way. Along these lines, as a female blogger, I sometimes find myself concerned with how I portray myself in writing. Although I don’t feel that I experience the same difficulties as women in the Renaissance period, I experience an element of self-awareness when I need to portray myself (either visually or in writing). I think blog posts are my equivalent for self-portraits, especially since I’m not an artist!

1 Catherine King, “Italian Artists in Search of Virtue, Fame, and Honour c. 1450-c.1650,” in The Changing Status of the Artist, eds. Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 72-74. See also Babette Bohn, “Female Self-Portraiture in Early Modern Bologna,” in Renaissance Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): 251-256. If you are interested in seeing information about the remaining three self-portraits which are not discussed in this post, see article by Bohn.

2 Bohn, 253.

3 Ibid., 254.

4 King, p. 67. For an example of extreme modesty in portraiture, see Sophonisba Anguissola’s Self-Portrait from c. 1555, in which she modestly covers herself with a mirror (which she protectively places in front of her body like a shield).

5 Bohn, 254. The red knot that is placed on the instrument was a symbol of love and betrothal at the time, which can also tie into Fontana’s interest in maintaining social decorum. For more information, see Caroline P. Murphy, Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and her Patrons in Sixteenth-century Bologna (New Haven and London, 2003), 41–3.

6 Name also appears in art history texts as Alonso Chaçon and Alfonso Chacon.

7 King, 73.
Monica Bowen is a professor of art history at Seattle University and Central Washington University. As a scholar of the Baroque period, she has a special love for Caravaggio. When Monica is not in the classroom with students, she often can be found working on content for her own art history blog, the inspirational and informative Alberti's Window.


Dr. F said...

Congratulations Monica on a very nice and informative post. Lavinia presents herself as a very confident and accomplished woman.


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

What an interesting post! I really liked how the author connected the theme of her observations with the way she presents herself. A reminder that, really, we are all "framing" ourselves in certain ways in order to conform to society expectations.

Alberti's Window said...

Thanks so much for inviting me to write this post, H Niyazi! It's a pleasure to write for your series on women artists. Thanks for the comments, Dr. F and Vicky. I agree with Vicky's remark about "framing" and societal expectations. One of the reasons I love self-portraiture is because we can analyze and pinpoint how the artist exercised control over the presentation of his/her image.

If anyone is interested in reading more about Lavinia Fontana, I have two other posts about her on my art history blog:

Renaissance Art and Conception

Strange and Unusual Portrait by Fontana

Monica Bowen

Unknown said...

A very special thank you to Monica for this wonderful piece - what an honour!

Cheers for the comment Frank & Vicky! I agree - self portraiture is a fascinating insight into an artists perception of themselves - made more fascinating in this instance because otherwise hear so little from women in this period in history.

A small apology for the format fiddling. I've redesigned the site and now settled on this central column theme!


Benjamin (Ben) said...

H: I really like the new format. Nice change.

M: Very interesting post. Particularly fascinated by the sense that she presents herself as a connoisseur / connoisseuse in the later work, with a sensuous male nude sculpture in front of her (!). Has anything been written about this? Perhaps the format of the engraved gallery encouraged this theme of collecting. Of course, thoughts of the female artist's education also come to mind.

Apologies for a shameless plug but.... I've been thinking about my own great aunt in relationship to these issues of self-presentation. She was active in the 1920s and 30s. See, for example:

Alberti's Window said...

Ben, I also think it's interesting that she is depicted with a male nude sculpture! I think that you're right: the male sculpture ties into this theme of collecting (and "collected" or acquired knowledge, by extension). But it would be interesting to take this further (especially with what you mentioned about her education): I assume that Fontana wasn't able to use male nude models, because of her gender. Would she only have had access to statuettes for male figures?

I wonder if it would have been more acceptable for a female artist to be shown studying a male or female statuette/model. I can imagine potential issues of appropriateness (in terms of sexuality and female societal decorum) in both cases.

P.S. I also liked looking at your great-aunt's work. Her various signatures and self-presentation are quite interesting!

Judy said...

Thanks, for the great article, Monica. I too am an art historian interested in female artists, specifically late Victorian painter, Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919). I have a question about the red wedding dress tradition. Evelyn wore a red wedding suit in 1887 when she married William De Morgan in an informal registry ceremony. I always assumed this was a boho thing but now I wonder if it was even more self-conscious.She had a great affinity for Italy and Italian and lived in Florence later in life.
Am I now in the process of over-analyzing this personal choice?

Laura Beardsell-Moore said...

Thanks Monica, this is a really interesting post. Fontana is a fascinating character, but I also like the way you draw the comparison with your self-consciousness now in your writing and professional positioning.

Even today it is a condition of our culture that, as women, we often judge ourselves on how we think others perceive us, rather than having confidence in our opinion of ourselves.

Artists such as Lavinia Fontana and all those other wonderful female artists that have enriched our cultural history should be an inspiration and give us confidence in what can be achieved - even if we are not all artists ourselves!

Alberti's Window said...

Thanks for the comments, Judy and Laura. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Judy, I think you have a really interesting idea about Evelyn DeMorgan's wedding dress. Perhaps she was referring to a Bolognese tradition! Unfortunately, I don't know too much about the fashion history for these dresses beyond what was mentioned in the Bohn article. It would be a fun research topic, though!

Laura, I agree with you: female artists like Fontana should serve as an inspiration for us! Fontana certainly is that type of figure for me. I particularly admire the balance she appears to have maintained between her home and family life: she had eleven children and also worked as the breadwinner! Talk about impressive!

Alexandra said...

Monica, I love your final observation on blogging as self portraiture. Although there's no question I put less thought into my posts than Lavinia did into her carefully crafted paintings!

Male nude models - i wonder if she did use them. They say artemisia did, and Lavinia did paint some male nudes, didn't she? I figure she went against convention in every way, so probably in this way too. Now i wonder what kind of web traffic this conversation is going to draw towards H's blog based on certain keywords...

For kicks: have you seen the videos I had my women & art students make - the one on Lavinia Fontana is the best of the lot! (

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments and fascinating discussion - also a special welcome to 3PP for Judy and Laura.

Monica's comments about herself and her role as a female art historian and blogger were a revelation - something I was not expecting when I asked her for this piece. I am glad she included it!

I think it also important to note that their seems to be a stronger representation of females blogging in the humanities. I think the empowering nature of online publishing is a great equaliser in this case.

I always think of the Bronte sisters, whose success in having their writing published was initially based on stating they were males: Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell were in fact Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte. Without this subterfuge, their great works may never have reached us!

Every field, and even the publishing industry has its cliques and in-built favouritisms - which can be bypassed entirely with an online platform - this is where the content shines, with somewhat less of a focus on the institution the person represents. There is hence a greater freedom to express voice and views that are one's own.

Many thanks to Monica for her post and the thought-provoking discussion it has inspired.


Alberti's Window said...

Alex and H Niyazi, thanks for your comments. I'm glad that you both liked my discussion of how blogging ties into my own "self-portraiture" (and self-awareness!). I like that H brought up the Bronte sisters. (On a relate note, several people think that I am a man named "Alberti" because of my blog's title! Ha!)

Alex, you've brought up a good point: perhaps Lavinia did work from actual male models, since she loved to break convention! (Do you think her husband ever posed as her model?) And I love that student video on Fontana, Alex. I remember enjoying it when it was first posted. Very fun!

Judy said...

Thanks, Monica and H Niyazi.

I'm enjoying your blogs.

I'll have to look further into the red wedding dress...actually a friend of mine recently wore red as a wedding outfit just because she wanted to, so I may be seeing meaning where it doesn't necessarily exist. Though I certainly can't imagine that wearing RED at a Victorian wedding wasn't routine.

Unknown said...

Hello Judy.

Red is a traditional wedding dress in some parts of the world to this day - particularly in Asia.

Historically, women in Ancient Rome wore red or yellow, as they were seen as colours which warded off evil/brought good fortune.

The white wedding dress was indeed popularised in the modern sense by Queen Victoria, though there is mention of Anne of Brittany bucking convention in 1499 and wearing a white dress for a change. The association with a red dress with sensuality and scandal was of course a Victorian thing.

Here are some interesting reads/search results:

*Google Timeline search for 'history red wedding dress'

*Symbolism of the colour red in antiquity - via 'Pigments through the Ages'

Kind Regards

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