Sofonisba Anguissola

Sofonisba Anguissola “had a tenacious spirit combined with artistic gifts and received early contemporary recognition and commissions—all this despite the Renaissance masculine bias that women lacked intelligence and creativity,” writes Ilya Sandra Perlingieri.

Anguissola, daughter of a noble family in the northern Italian provincial city of Cremona, received encouragement in her talent from her kind, liberal father, studied with Michelangelo, and lived as lady-in-waiting to the queen and painter at the Spanish court of Philip II for more than two decades. She died at ninety-three in 1625, having produced a notable body of portraits and religious paintings and having set a precedent for women painters in centuries to come. Sadly, she has been neglected by history, and many of her paintings have been lost or misattributed.

Perlingieri’s book is a welcome and richly illustrated labor of love. Placing her subject’s work in context, she introduces the reader to Anguissola’s distinctive and original qualities. Anguissola’s paintings—especially THE CHESS GAME, a youthful portrayal of her three sisters, and the lovely unfinished PORTRAIT OF AMILCARE, MINERVA, AND ASDRUBALE ANGUISSOLA—display a human warmth unwonted in Renaissance portraiture. She exquisitely re-created details in her subjects’ richly embroidered clothing. And she anticipated later Dutch and Flemish painters in using still lifes in portraits and in portraying familial love and humanity in noble sitters.

Perlingieri is not a writer. Her prose is often stilted, and shame on her publisher for a rather indifferent job of copyediting. But Perlingieri plainly researched her subject carefully and assiduously (sixteen years’ work, involving travel from Italy and Spain to Scotland and Toledo, Ohio); she has done a service by unearthing and reattributing a number of paintings; and her enthusiasm for her subject is infectious and admirable.