Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 16, 1999
Fredrika H. Jacobs Defining the Renaissance 'Virtuosa': Women Artists and the Language of Art History and Criticism New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 229 pp.; 32 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0521572703)

How is the critical language of art different for the women artists of sixteenth-century Italy than for the men? In a history of art dominated by male artists, how did writers from 1550 to 1800 differentiate the female capacity for creativity from that of males? In particular, what did it mean to be called a virtuosa, a term reserved for few women artists during the cinquecento? The author addresses these and other important questions in this provocative and illuminating study.

Jacobs begins with an extraordinary statistic: Half of the forty women artists of cinquecento Italy have no surviving works. “This lack of visual evidence determined the focus of this book” (1) on written accounts of works of art rather than on the works themselves. How effectively, however, can commentaries on art be analyzed in the absence of the works? The author herself expresses some ambivalence on this issue.

The second chapter discusses artistic virtuosity, as it was understood during antiquity and the Renaissance, to connote both moral goodness and artistic excellence. Jacobs considers how virtù was gender specific for classical writers like Plutarch and for Renaissance writers like Annibale Caro, who termed painting “the profession of gentlemen.” Literary recognition of women artists begins in the sixteenth century, according to Jacobs, due to their unprecedented numbers, to critics’ desire to prove the miraculous nature of the age, and as a way of controlling by describing. Here the author poses a tantalizingly unanswered question: What accounts for the dramatic increase in the number of female artists after 1500? A second key question is not addressed: Why did numerous works by some women, like Lavinia Fontana, survive, when the oeuvres of other famous virtuose, like Irene di Spilimbergo, have largely disappeared? This is just one instance in which more consideration of historical context would have been constructive.

Chapter 3, aptly titled “(Pro)creativity,” considers how the language of artistic creation, founded on Aristotelian concepts of biological procreation, was gendered for ancient and early modern writers. The central notion, from Aristotle, that giving form is a male prerogative, is traced to Renaissance writers like Aretino, for whom the male painter constituted the active force capable of manipulating passive pigment. In this paradigm, the woman artist is an oxymoron.

In one of the best sections of the book, Jacobs considers how these notions led to the idea, in antiquity and the Renaissance, that portraiture was an appropriate metier for women artists. Since portraits are replications of nature, rather than true inventions, such work suited women, who were consequently absolved of the necessity for true creativity. Thus, although many women, including Lavinia Fontana, Sofonisba Anguissola, and Marietta Robusti, were praised for their portraits, no women from this century were praised for their history paintings, a genre that required powers of invention.

The next chapter considers how ideas of melancholia were gendered, with the theory that melancholia was often conducive to artistic creativity in males but not females. Jacobs examines the female predisposition for erotic melancholia in the Bolognese sculptor, Properzia de’ Rossi, the only woman among 142 artists to receive a biography in the 1550 edition of Vasari’s Lives. Jacobs shows that Vasari and later writers interpreted Properzia’s work as demonstrating her inability to control her erotic passions. Posterity’s view of Properzia exemplifies the tendency for female biographies to be “reduced to essentialisms that relate to . . . their sexuality” (Kathleen Barry, “The New Historical Syntheses: Women’s Biography,” Journal of Women’s History 1990; 75-76).

One of the most valuable contributions of Jacobs’s book is her discussion of little-studied artists like Rossi and Suor Plautilla Nelli, both known from few surviving works. Rossi’s unconventional lifestyle and criminal record, which have also been examined in an unpublished paper by Sheryl Reiss and in an article of 1993 by Jacobs, seem as anomalous as her sculptural activity. This intriguing figure merits further study, with more documentation of her life and an expanded body of extant works.

Chapter 5, “La Donnesca Mano” considers aesthetic evaluations of style and how these were based on “culturally constructed notions of gender” (5). Since to Renaissance writers, art was self-revealing, feminine style, which was inferior to masculine style, invariably revealed the female hand. Significantly, when Malvasia praised the Bolognese painter Elisabetta Sirani, he characterized her manner as “virile” and related her artistic lineage to her male, as well as female, predecessors. In this gendered language, words like sprezzatura and invenzione were reserved for descriptions of male productions, whereas such terms as diligenza and stento were favored for discussions of female artists’ works. “La donnesca mano” was characterized by a preference for ornament and preciosity, as exemplified by Malvasia’s admiration for the “gentleness, diligence, and delicacy” of Lavinia Fontana’s portraits. Such comments suggest that women artists worked slowly and painstakingly.

Jacobs notes that the dearth of drawings by Renaissance women makes this hypothesis difficult to verify. Although three dozen drawings are ascribed to Fontana and a few sheets are attributed to Anguissola, no other drawings are securely credited to any other sixteenth-century woman. Does Jacobs mean to imply that Fontana’s drawings confirm her diligence? Her proclivity for drawing is typical of Bolognese artists during the age of the Carracci and reflects their commitment to visible reality, a zeitgeist that was shared by such contemporary Bolognese poets and scientists as Giulio Cesare Croce and Ulisse Aldrovandi.

Resulting from the notion of “la donnesca mano,” portraits, still lifes, and small devotional images became the proper genres for women artists. In a fascinating discussion of Norman Bryson’s comparison of two still lifes by Fede Galizia and Caravaggio, Jacobs shows how even a contemporary critic who is sensitive to gendered constructs can fall into the traditional view of female productions as replication rather than creation, as low art rather than high art. Not even feminists are immune: Germaine Greer called Properzia “a prodigy of littleness” (The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and their Work [New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1979], 108).

Suor Plautilla Nelli, one of twelve Dominican nuns whose artistic activity is mentioned in early texts, was inspired by access to drawings by Fra Bartolomeo. Only two of her paintings can be securely identified today, but her extensive oeuvre originally included large altarpieces, small devotional pictures, and miniatures (new information presumably emerged in a symposium, jointly sponsored by Syracuse University in Florence and Georgetown University in Fiesole, which was held in Florence last May. The papers will be published in Studies in Italian History and Culture, 2000). Although Jacobs discusses Nelli chiefly as an example of a woman who copied and was influenced by the works of a male artist, Nelli’s oeuvre struck this reviewer as an exception to the typical specializations of women painters. Evidently a religious vocation provided an opportunity to supersede the usual constraints that kept most women away from history painting. History paintings became more accessible to nonreligious women in the next century, as evidenced by the works of Artemisia Gentileschi and Elisabetta Sirani.

The sixth chapter examines female self-portraiture, which became popular during this period. Jacobs discusses the equating of the female maker and model, given the connection of feminine beauty with art. A long discussion of the language used to describe female beauty, influenced particularly by the work of Elizabeth Cropper, follows. This section seemed less coherent and original than other parts of the book, until it concluded with a discussion of two self-portraits by Lavinia Fontana. Jacobs perceptively explains how different patrons inspired iconographically distinct images. In the portrait made in 1577 for her future father-in-law on the occasion of her engagement, Fontana portrayed herself as a proper gentlewoman. In contrast, the self-portrait commissioned two years later by Alonso Chacion for his collection of portraits depicting famous people portrays an accomplished artist. This section demonstrates the clarity and probity Jacobs achieves when she can employ specific paintings to elucidate theoretical matters.

The concluding chapter poses two questions: Who among Renaissance women artists was a virtuosa? And what does virtuosa mean? Women qualify for different reasons: Anguissola for imparting life and grace to her images; Nelli for her moral virtue; and Rossi for working in a masculine medium. Jacobs argues that the term usually denoted women who combined talent with physical attractiveness and good behavior. Only for Anguissola did the appellation exclusively signify her exceptional gifts as a painter. If she rose above the condition of her sex and painted like a man, this talent links her to other learned women of the Renaissance, aptly characterized by Margaret King as “not quite male, not quite female” (“Book-Lined Cells: Women and Humanism in the Early Italian Renaissance,” in Beyond Their Sex: Learned Women of the European Past, ed. Patricia H. Labalme [New York: New York University Press, 1980], 75).

Two appendices follow this text: a list of women artists cited by writers from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries and a collection of short writings on women artists, sometimes usefully juxtaposed to descriptions of male artists by the same writer. Selections appear in the original Italian followed by English translations.

This thoughtful, stimulating book answers many key questions about women artists in sixteenth-century Italy. For this reader, the arguments were most compelling when theoretical ideas were demonstrated in specific works. Some readers may also feel that more consideration of historical context would have strengthened the text. But the author has made a significant contribution to feminist art history in elucidating the critical discourse on women artists of the early modern period.

Babette Bohn
Professor of Art History, School of Art, Texas Christian University