how did Lavinia Fontana get away with it?

how did Lavinia Fontana get away with it?

how did Lavinia Fontana get away with it?

Probably nothing in art embodies the male gaze more than the Renaissance nude, that kind of licentious painting in which the likes of Titian and Bronzino excelled. But the opening of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin next month proves that a Renaissance woman tackled boys in just this genre, and she did it just as outrageously.

Lavinia Fontana’s nudes were so unprecedented that experts debate how she got access to models. For a woman to be an artist in the 1500s was rare, for her to work with nude models unheard of. But, as Aoife Brady, curator of the Dublin exhibition points out, she had unique access to one subject: herself. The naked goddess Minerva looks out from Fontana’s 1613 work Minerva vestita as if she were looking at herself in the mirror: it is the same gaze that the artist addresses to the mirror in her self-portraits dressed in her.

Another painting, Mars and Venus, depicts the love story between the goddess of desire and the god of war in an unabashedly intimate way. As they sit on the edge of a bed covered in deep wine-colored silk drapes, Mars places a hand on Venus’ bare bottom. She turns to look at us provocatively, complicit in the lustful promise of what is to come. Fontana painted it around 1595. No other Renaissance nude paintings of women are known to have existed before her. She then she still created many other precedents, from supporting her family by selling her works to being appointed portraitist of the pope.

She was born in Bologna in 1552 and trained with her father, the artist Prospero Fontana: having an artist parent was almost the only way for a girl to learn art in Europe where the traditional workshop system was only open to male apprentices . As a teenager the sculptor Giambologna created his Still Spouting Fountain of Neptune in the city center, depicting four female figures gushing water like milk from their bare breasts. These nursing Nereids celebrate the one role women were meant to aspire to in the Renaissance: to be wife and mother. Fontana gives birth to 11 children, most of whom died young. Yet Bologna was a city where women could aspire more.

“It is hard to say that Bologna was a haven for women, but it is striking how different the opportunities were between Bologna and, say, Florence,” says Caroline Campbell, recently appointed director of the National Gallery of Ireland – the first woman to have the job. Born in Belfast, prior to this move she was responsible for Italian Renaissance art at the National Gallery in London. “It was the perfect petri dish for Lavinia’s career,” adds Brady. “She is home to the oldest university in the world, which already awarded doctorates to female students in the 13th century. It was not governed by a court and therefore there was a certain freedom that was lived in Bologna unlike the neighboring states, which Fontana certainly took advantage of. It was certainly a city that offered more opportunities to female artists than others”.

Fontana wasn’t the first woman to become a professional artist here: in early 16th-century Bologna sculptor Properzia de’ Rossi worked her way up the career ladder, literally according to court documents showing she was accused of assaulting a rival male by throwing paint at him and scratching his eyes. Fontana took a more traditional route: she networked with Bologna’s elite families and became their favorite portrait painter. Her friendship with upper-class women is most evident in her three-foot-wide historical painting The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, which Campbell calls her “masterpiece.” As the Queen of Sheba greets Solomon, she is accompanied by an elegant female retinue, all in Renaissance dress, including ruff collars and beautifully upright hairdos, and all highly individualized: some looking straight at us, some posing haughtily or nonchalantly. They are all obviously portraits. Just as male painters from Veronese to Zoffany filled crowd scenes with male friends or notables, so Fontana included her female friends in this spectacular scene.

The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon was the seed of the Campbell and Brady exhibition. Walking through the galleries of the National Gallery of Ireland before the pandemic, I was fascinated by this painting and a beautiful portrait of Prince Alessandro Farnese by the Cremona painter Sofonisba Anguissola. While other museums are scrambling to improve their representation of female artists, Dublin’s Renaissance Halls have always been at the cutting edge. Anguissola was part of the gallery’s founding collection of 112 paintings when it opened in 1864, although it was erroneously attributed to a man; Fontana’s Sheba was the first work by a female artist knowingly acquired by the gallery in 1872 and has been a part of Dublin culture ever since.

“Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is a very well known painting in Dublin,” says Campbell. “Even if people don’t remember the artist, they know the painting – they say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s that painting, I saw it as a kid.’ So we thought it was very important for people to get a greater sense of Lavinia Fontana herself as an artist.”

The exhibition is an illuminating feast of portraits, mythology, drawings and Madonnas that show Fontana as a true Renaissance woman at the artistic and intellectual vanguard of her time. Portraits of her alone add up to a brilliant artistic achievement. She has a keen eye for human uniqueness that makes them come alive on canvas after all these years. An unknown noblewoman sitting in a chair looks at us coldly and knowingly: we have a strong sense of her consciousness inside that tight collar. Another woman catches your eye, gazing at you from thoughtful shadows. But Fontana also paints men with the same intimacy, often showing them at their desks pondering learned volumes: one is an astrologer studying a thick book of occult lore.

He places himself among these men of the Renaissance, displaying his intellect and his achievements. In a self-portrait, Fontana sits at the virginal, showcasing the kind of musical skills that would still be a typical “achievement” for elite women in Jane Austen’s novels. In her Studio Self Portrait she does not emphasize politeness, but instead projects herself as a professional artist drawing amongst her collection of figurines.

He sees children as sympathetically as adults, from a baby in a grave-like cradle to a father and son whose presences great and small are humorously juxtaposed. In his most charismatic painting of all – the only masterpiece the Dublin gallery was unable to borrow for their show, although it will exhibit a drawing – Fontana portrays Antonietta Gonzalez, a little girl with a hairy face. It is a wonderful document of her time, when human beings who seemed to defy nature were exhibited at fairs or, in the case of Antoinette and her hirsute family, roamed the European courts.

Being a female artist five centuries ago was a rarity, but Fontana carried it forward with such confidence and coolness that it seemed natural to her contemporaries. In fact, Campbell doesn’t think we should focus solely on her sex any more than they did: “We don’t want to see Lavinia Fontana as an artist prodigy: we want to see her as a painter on her own terms. Her gender is obviously very significant, but above all she is an amazing and talented painter as well as a draftsman.”

Brady agrees: “We’re trying not to get too wrapped up in the fact that they were created by a woman and to go back to the artwork itself and celebrate it for what it is.”

Fontana is simply a fantastic observer of the people of her world, naked and clothed, from astrologers and artists to the dwarf who assists the women in The Visit of the Queen of Sheba. He is bravely himself as he looks up at the company of women, hand in sash behind him in a gesture of self-control and arrogant pride. A Renaissance man painted by a Renaissance woman.

• Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker is at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, from 6 May to 27 August.

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