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August 2023

Vol. 165 / No. 1445

Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker

Reviewed by Sheila Barker

National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin , 6th May–27th August 


For the majority of visitors, this exhibition of sixty-seven objects constitutes an introduction to Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614). As introductions go, however, this one is a century and a half overdue, given that the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, has owned one of Fontana’s most spectacular works, Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (cat. no.51; Fig.14), since 1872. In staging this encounter, the curator, Aoife Brady, chose a bristling title that celebrates defiant nonconformity, and paired it with a headlining image, Judith with the head of Holofernes (no.47; Fig.13), in which the biblical hero truculently raises her sword. Clearly, Fontana will not tolerate being ignored any longer. 

True to the exhibition’s high-octane packaging, forty-two paintings from both the Bolognese and Roman periods of Fontana’s career (1575–1603 and 1603–14 respectively) reward visitors with ample displays of artistic virtuosity. These include depictions of shimmering fabrics in prismatic tints; a fortune in exquisitely crafted jewels; elegant noblewomen coiffured like Flavian empresses; salacious glimpses of bedroom hanky-panky; searing spectacles of heavenly glory; deskside interviews with famous scholars among their books; a pageant of noblemen decked out in flashy regalia – painted with real gold in the case of the cross on Camillo Gozzadini’s chest in Fontana’s portrait of the Gozzadini family (1584; Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna; no.17) – and a joyful squadron of children and lapdogs. Shown with the paintings are a number of Fontana’s very small portrait drawings. Their naturalism and spontaneity may have been regarded as unbefitting of painted portraits, which these drawings surpass in both verism and warmth. Also on view are works on paper that may have served as Fontana’s models, a medal cast in her honour by Felice Antonio Casoni (1611; British Museum, London; no.26) and an array of textiles resembling those she depicts. Her marriage contract (1577; Biblioteca Comunale di Imola; no.2) merits attention. Although some scholars, including Brady in her catalogue essay, cautiously dismiss the possibility that Fontana’s husband, Gian Paolo Zappi, contributed to her workshop, the contract clearly identifies him as a ‘citizen of Imola and a painter’ (‘Cittadino imolese, et Pittore’) and states that he is ‘obliged to practice his craft’ (‘che esso m. Gio. Paolo sia tenuto esercitarsi nell'arte sua’, p.43), with his earnings passing to Prospero Fontana, Lavinia’s father. 

The exhibition is organised thematically to reflect early modern Bologna’s gendered socialisation. The approach pays homage to Caroline P. Murphy’s Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and her Patrons in Sixteenth-century Bologna (2003), employing several roughly similar chapter divisions. The curatorial separation of works representing men, women, children and mythical figures would seem prima facie to be an expedient, yet Brady makes striking exceptions to this neat taxonomy. The violations of such seemingly natural divisions draw attention to the complexity of Fontana’s era. The artist’s two self-portraits (1577; Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome; no.1; and 1579; Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence; no.4), for example, appear in the room labelled ‘Fontana and Men’, underlining Fontana’s protean ability to enter traditionally male spheres of activity. Similarly, the room of ‘Fontana and Women’ includes Fontana’s monumental group portrait of the Gozzadini family, which, although commissioned by a woman, pertains to the masculine realm not only because of the authoritative postures of the men in the work, but also because it was instigated by a patrilineal inheritance dispute that exposed the tenuousness of the female heir’s claim to her father’s estate since she could not produce a son. 

Just as significant as these muddied gender boundaries is the inclusion of religious histories, altarpieces and devotional works among all the thematic sections. It could be argued that this intermingling reflects the osmotic penetration of Catholic ideology into every sphere of life during the Counter-Reformation. That assumption has long lingered around Fontana’s oeuvre, particularly since Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti, chief exponent of the Counter-Reformation position on images, was a patron of Fontana. However, on the basis of this exhibition this reviewer’s impression was that Fontana’s era, much as it represents a peak of theological house-cleaning, also belongs to the larger story of the rise of secular materialism in Western Europe. This view is prompted foremost by the undeniably lubricious erotic art Fontana made for both male and female patrons, including Minerva dressing (1613; Galleria Borghese, Rome; no.66), commissioned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese. It is reinforced by the vainglory that emerges from her depictions of Bolognese elites dressed in symbols of their wealth and prestige (which Paleotti ranted against in portraiture). It is even evident in two of the late religious paintings in this show, the aforementioned Judith with the head of Holofernes and Judith and Holofernes (c.1595; Fondazione Ritiro San Pellegrino, Bologna; no.48), in which Judith’s luxurious raiment decidedly emphasises the carnality of her feminine body. 

Because issues of authorship are best explored in a chronological framework, this reviewer refrains from raising them except to note that Unknown noblewoman seated in a chair (c.1599; National Trust Collection, Petworth House, Sussex, no.60) might be by a Venetian or Paduan master, and that the Portrait of a boy (late 1590s; private collection; no.39) appears close to the Carracci school. If iconography has taken precedence in this hanging, there is good reason. Several of the works on display have long represented iconographical challenges for art historians. The catalogue delves into these issues with gusto, presenting a welcome new interpretation in the case of Visit of the Queen of Sheba (which Brady proposes portrays the Duke and Duchess of Ferrara, Alfonso II d’Este and Margherita Gonzaga), while also acknowledging that some works, such as Scene of sacrifice (1592; Musée de San Domenico, Imola; no.43), remain unresolved riddles.[1] 

In the case of Casoni’s lead medal cast in 1611 in Fontana’s honour, the catalogue follows an established interpretation by associating the figure on the medal reverse (a woman painter seated at her easel, wearing a gag while her loose hair billows and whips behind her) with a description in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593) of an allegorical figure representing the art of painting. Ripa indicated that the figure should have wild locks, presumably to show the intellectual activity he considered intrinsic to painting. This reviewer does not dispute the link to Ripa, but wonders if the figure can be recognised not only as a representation of the art of painting, but also as Lavinia’s namesake, Aeneas’s third wife. According to the Aeneid, the historical Lavinia was known for having become a kind of omen when her hair caught fire during a temple sacrifice and she ‘scattered divine fire’ from her flaming tresses. 

With regard to Fontana’s painting on copper titled Galatea and cherubs riding the stormy waves on a sea monster (no.42; Fig.15), this reviewer proposes that it does not represent Galatea but rather the goddess Fortuna, who is often depicted holding a sail and traversing a stormy sea as she balances precariously – often with one leg raised – on a small sphere, shell or sea creature, as in the early sixteenth-century engraving Fortuna (Rhamnousia) from the workshop of Hendrick Goltzius, or in Hans Jacob I’s silver medal of Fortuna (1554; Historisches Museum, Basel). An erotic painting that includes images of small boys, Fontana’s copper may very well have functioned as a fertility talisman for couples wishing to conceive male children. Someone in that very position was the patron of the Gozzadini family portrait, Laudomia Gozzadini, who, as mentioned above, needed to produce a son in order to inherit her father’s estate. A closer look at the figure chased on the pendant jewel that Laudomia wears in the family portrait is warranted. It appears to have a raised leg and, under magnification, might possibly prove to be a figure of Fortuna. As Brady explains, luck was not with Laudomia. All three of her sons perished in infancy, a sorrowful experience that was familiar to Fontana herself, who buried eight of her eleven children. But unlike the somewhat tragic figure of Laudomia, whose inheritance – and thus her fate – rested on her fertility, Fontana prevailed, as Girolamo Mercuriale wrote to the Duke of Urbino in 1588, ‘beyond the condition of her sex’ (p.33). By painting ‘on a par with the first men of that profession’ (p.124), according to a Roman dispatch of 13th August 1614, Fontana set out to make her own fortune, and she succeeded gloriously at it. 

[1] Catalogue: Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker. By Aoife Brady, with contributions by Babette Bohn and Jonquil O’Reilly. 160 pp. incl. 120 col. ills. (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, 2023), £35. ISBN 978–1–911716–00–6.