FONTANA, Lavinia

Lavinia Fontana is credited with being the first female painter in Italy to enjoy a successful career as an artist working in an urban context. Lavinia accepted private and public commissions, painting numerous portraits and public altar-pieces. Lavinia had the advantage of being trained by her father, Prospero Fon­tana, a painter regarded as one of the leading artists in Bologna. Lavinia also had the good fortune to be born in Bologna, an important Italian artistic center.
Lavinia was best known as a portraitist, but her oeuvre included a wide range of subject matter. Her works frequently drew on biblical and mythological set­tings, which incorporated numerous figures, including male and female nudes. Another of Lavinia's significant accomplishments included earning the degree of dottoressa from the University of Bologna in 1580.
Breaking artistic ground, Lavinia accepted and completed several large-scale public commissions. The Spanish court provided her with her first opportunity to execute a large-scale religious commission of the Holy Family (c. 1589). Lavinia's altarpiece painting of the Holy Family with the Sleeping Christ Child, which is in the Escorial, the Spanish royal palace located near Madrid, is still considered a masterpiece.
Lavinia's international reputation earned her the patronage of a succession of popes. Lavinia, along with her artist husband, Gian Paolo Zappi, whom she had married in 1577, and their family, moved to Rome in 1603 in response to a papal invitation. The best-known public commission she executed in Rome, her painting of The Stoning of St. Stephen Martyr for the altarpiece in the church of S. Paolo Fuori le Mura, an important pilgrimage church in Rome, proved a disappointment for her contemporaries upon its completion (1603-4). It was destroyed in a fire in 1823, making it impossible to judge the success or failure of this significant work today.
A portraitist and a producer of religious paintings, Lavinia Fontana enjoyed a successful career as a respected artist who achieved international fame. In 1611 a medal was struck in honor of Lavinia's artistic accomplishments. Her contemporaries and patrons, such as Pope Gregory XIII and Pope Clement VIII, held her in high regard, so much so that she was elected to membership in the Roman Academy. Of the over one hundred works she is credited with producing, only thirty-two signed and/or dated works can be securely attributed today.
A. S. Harris and L. Nochlin, Women Artists, 1550-1950, 1976: 111-14. C. Murphy, "Lavinia Fontana: The Making of a Woman Artist," in Women of the Golden Age, ed. E. Kloek, N. Teeuwen, and M. Huisman, 1994: 171-81.
Debbie Barrett-Graves

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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