Elisabetta Sirani 'Virtuosa': Women's Cultural Production in Early Modern Bologna.
By Adelina Modesti
In the Felsina Pittrice of 1678, Carlo Cesare Malvasia elevated Elisabetta Sirani (1638-65) into the top rank of Bolognese painters, closing the second volume of his magisterial historiography of Bolognese art with an extraordinary encomium to the painter. Despite the professional success and great fame she enjoyed in her own day, Sirani does not rate a mention in either Rudolf Wittkower's Pelican History of Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750 (1958/rev. ed. 1999) or even in Seventeenth-Century Art and Architecture (2005) by Ann Sutherland Harris, who first brought modern attention to the artist in the pioneering 1976 exhibition, "Women Artists: 1550-1950" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Adelina Modesti's monograph offers the first full-length scholarly study of Sirani and aims to reclaim the painter's historical significance.
Born in Bologna, Elisabetta Sirani was the eldest daughter of the painter Giovanni Andrea Sirani (1610-1670), a pupil of Guido Reni. As a woman, she was unable to study the male nude in local drawing academies, and her direct access to art was limited to her father's workshop where she trained, her parish church, patrons' palaces, and public exhibitions on holidays. Her formation thus relied on the study of plaster casts and prints, and consultation of her father's extensive library. All the more remarkable was her rapid development as a painter, so that when gout crippled her father, sixteen-year old Sirani directed his workshop, supervising his male apprentices and assistants. She soon outstripped her father in talent and fame and tackled an unusually wide range of subject matter and commissions for a woman painter, including large-scale public altarpieces for churches in and around Bologna. Her first major commission was the monumental Baptism of Christ (1658) for the Certosa of Bologna (cat. 19). Not yet twenty at the time, she was the youngest and only female of seven painters chosen for the church's new decorative program. Most of her work consisted, however, of easel pictures for the nobility and professional classes of Bologna, as well as for distinguished foreign collectors of Bolognese art. By her twenties, Sirani had achieved local celebrity. Her studio became an obligatory stop for visitors to the city, whom she impressed by dashing off portrait heads with nonchalance. Bolognese noblewomen, among her patrons, frequented the studio and sent their daughters to study in her painting academy for women, the first of its kind. At twenty-seven, Sirani suddenly fell ill and died after a short and painful illness. Suspicion of poisoning prompted an autopsy and her maid's arrest, but a later inquiry concluded she died of natural causes, most likely peritonitis brought on by perforated ulcers. Her untimely death provoked an outpouring of grief, expressed in a grand public funeral and many eulogies. A professor from the University of Bologna delivered the funeral oration in the church of San Domenico, which was draped in mourning and decorated with a monumental, temporary catafalque presenting a life-size sculpture of Sirani in the act of painting. That she was buried in the same tomb as Guido Reni held symbolic weight, granting her the status of heir and equal to a major protagonist of the Bolognese school.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Modesti's book, comprising six chapters plus epilogue and catalogue raisonne, first appeared in Italian without the catalogue (Bologna, Editrice Compositori, 2004). Part I's three chapters closely investigate the culture of seventeenth-century Bologna based on the testimony of early sources and archival materials. Modesti explores the distinctive Bolognese tradition that promoted a high level of education and achievement for women, offering an ideal environment for Sirani's career, as it had for Lavinia Fontana almost a century earlier. Among various topics, Modesti examines the status of unmarried women during the period, arguing that Sirani chose to be single so as to devote herself to her profession, a new option for women in Bologna. The venerable University of Bologna had boasted female professors, though not in Sirani's day, and the city housed a high proportion of literate women, female writers, and female teachers who held private schools in their homes. Modesti discusses at length the patronage network of Bolognese noblewomen who supported cultural events and philanthropic activities, reconstructing the exceptional milieu in which Sirani flourished. Special attention is paid to the private academy for women she formed from around 1660, which enrolled fourteen pupils plus her two younger sisters, Barbara and Anna Maria. Sketching the biographies of each pupil, Modesti observes that the total number represents two-thirds of the city's women artists who went on to practice professionally in the second half of the seventeenth century (68). She overstates, however, the historical significance of Sirani's academy. While the founding of such an academy is indeed a noteworthy landmark, demonstrating Sirani's status as a professional artist and teacher, its importance is belied by its limited impact; none of her pupils stands out as particularly talented or famous, and the concept of a women's painting academy died with her. Had she lived longer, the story might have turned out otherwise.
The stage set in Part I; Part II turns to Sirani's art. Following discussion of her artistic formation (chapter 4), Modesti addresses Sirani's images of women (chapter 5) and her early critical reception (chapter 6), but does not furnish any overview of the painter's artistic development. In a career spanning just over a decade, Sirani painted an impressive number of works, the best known of which are her representations of illustrious women from history, a fashionable theme in Baroque art. Like her predecessor Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653), Sirani specialized in portraying heroic women, responding to the demand for a woman painting women. Unlike Artemisia's femmes fortes, Sirani portrayed these heroines as fully or mostly clothed. In the Triumphant Judith (1658; cat. 28), she did not depict Judith in the act of beheading Holofernes, a grisly scene first conceived by Caravaggio that Artemisia rendered even more shocking. Sirani's recondite subject of Timoclea Throwing the Thracian Captain in the Well (1659; cat. 36) does illustrate violent action in contrast to the static Triumphant Judith. The rare themes or specific episodes of these and other of her works reflect, as Modesti shows, Sirani's familiarity with literary sources and deliberate choice of subjects displaying female fortitude and virtue. But on their overall artistic impact, the author is silent. Although ambitious in theme and their life-size scale, the pair betrays inexpert handling of human proportion, movement, and expression, and difficulty with convincingly portraying drama. The cartoonish Timoclea simply lacks the murderous forcefulness of Artemisia's Judith Beheading Holofernes (1612-13: Naples, Capodimonte), painted at even an earlier age than Elisabetta. But within five years of the Triumphant Judith, Sirani made strides in her art, unremarked by Modesti, yet evident in the accomplished composition and figural portrayal in Portia Wounding Herself in the Thigh (1664; Fig. 1), a striking image of female courage. Here, and in the contemporaneous Penitent Magdalen (1663; cat. 91), and Venus Chastising Cupid (1664; cat. 119), Sirani succeeded in integrating the figure into space, experimenting with lighting effects, and lending a new corporeality to the protagonists suggesting study from life of the female nude, conceivably herself. Modesti found no documentary evidence for any life drawing in Sirani's academy, but Elisabetta might well have studied her own body or used her sisters as models. The depiction of Portia's expression is also more subtle than in earlier works, Venus engages the viewer with startling immediacy, and the sensuous Magdalen is a palpable and affecting figure.
How do Sirani's paintings compare to those of the greatest seventeenth-century Bolognese artists, the Carracci, Guido Reni, Guercino, and Francesco Albani? Was her extraordinarily high reputation deserved? Modesti's book treats Sirani in isolation, missing the opportunity to assess her achievement within the Bolognese school, a defining tradition of the Baroque. Nor does Modesti make any sustained comparison between Sirani and Artemisia Gentileschi, the most famous woman painter of her generation and far eclipsing Elisabetta today. Both women were the subject of poetic tributes hailing them as marvels of nature who wielded masterful brushes like men.
The English edition of Modesti's book (in Brepols's Late Medieval and Early Modern Studies series) appends an impressive catalogue raisonne of Sirani's paintings, many identified by the author: 149 entries, arranged chronologically with data on provenance, archival references, copies, bibliography, and related drawings. Elisabetta's own register of works, begun in 1655, constitutes an important source for reconstructing the oeuvre. The photographic repertory records an uneven production, raising unaddressed questions about workshop assistance even in signed works. Regrettably no index of subjects or present locations, nor a checklist of drawings is provided. A generous number of color plates enhances the volume, predominantly reproducing Sirani's easel pictures, the rest illustrated in small black and white photographs.
Modesti's text would have greatly benefited from judicious editing for its numerous grammatical and syntactical errors, and incorrect word choices. Mistranslations or partial translations of Italian appear throughout: "rappresentative" for "representative," "castellated" for "crenellated." The text also needed tightening to avoid the frequent slowing of pace for lengthy expositions of provenance, unnecessary given its repetition in the catalogue. Furthermore, the author is prone to turgid and feminist prose: "denarratizes the discourse," "female cultural producer," "paintress," "matronage." Apart from exhausting the reader, the language has the unintended consequence of circumscribing Sirani's considerable achievements within an exclusively female world. Notwithstanding these flaws, the book will be indispensable for its comprehensive catalogue of Sirani's work, repertory of photographs, and rich history of Bolognese culture.
Catherine R. Puglisi is Professor of Art History at Rutgers University. Her many publications include the catalogue raisonne Francesco Albani (1999); Caravaggio (1998); articles, and catalogue essays on Guido Reni, Carracci drawings, and the Man of Sorrows in Venetian Art, the subject of a forthcoming coauthored book with William Barcham.