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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lavinia Fontana

Today, there are thousands of artists who, through the luck of the draw, happen to be women. Their number may, in fact, be growing faster than that of their male counterparts. Actually, given that art, and painting in particular, have always been a "cottage industry", being an artist is a very convenient calling for women. Working out of the home, as artists often do, allows them to balance the sometimes conflicting roles of wife and mother. Likewise, it's not uncommon for these wives and mothers to be married to men who are also artists. What would be uncommon is for that wife/mother/artist to be so successful that her husband/artist gives up his own career to manage the household, children, and picture framing. But in the case of Lavinia Fontana, her husband, Gian Paolo Zappi, did just that. It sounds like a story from the glory days of the American women's movement of the 70's. Actually, that's the case, except it was the 1570s and the place was Bologna.

Noli Me Tangere, 1581, Lavinia Fontana
Lavinia Fontana was born in 1552, and, like most female artists of the time, learned to paint from her father, a follower of Raphael. By the time she was twenty, she was a well-respected painter of portraits and narratives. Her 1581 painting, Noli Me Tangere is typical of her work.  It depicts Christ revealing himself for the first time following his resurrection to Mary Magdalen.  Translated, the title means "Do not touch me." The lower two-thirds of the painting has Christ (whom Mary mistook for the gardener), carrying a spade, blessing her as she kneels before him. In the background is a vignette of Mary Magdalen and one of the apostles confronting the angel guarding the deserted tomb. The only discordant feature is the rather outlandish, over sized, wide-brimmed hat worn by her figure of Christ. It seems misplaced slightly to the right, giving the illusion of floating over his head like a halo. The device may have been added late in the painting process to correct what appears to be an anatomical defect in the upper body of her figure. He appears to be slouching.

Lavinia's career might seem extraordinary, but Bologna at the time had almost two dozen female artists. She seems to have been the best of the lot in that late in her career, she moved to Rome and became the official painter to the papal court. There she was discovered by the Hapsburgs of Austria, who paid  an exorbitant amount of money to lure her from Rome to Vienna. There, in 1611, she was honored with a commemorative medal. The engraved portrait is a double-sided depiction.  On the one side the artist is elegantly coiffed in the highest fashion of the day. On the other, she is depicted in a sort of working frenzy, sleeves rolled up, her hair wild and uncombed, an intensely determined look on her face.  Such a dichotomy women artists today might easily identify with.
commemorative medal, 1611,

commemorative medal, 1611,
(Reverse detail)

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