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Lavinia Fontana's nude Minervas.

Lavinia Fontana (1552 Bologna-1614 Rome) was a Bolognese nobil donna, an educated and accomplished female artist as well as a loving mother. (1) Her fruitful creativity led her to create 135 paintings, including representations of single and group portraits, (2) religious paintings for church altarpieces or private chapels, (3) and historical paintings, (4) as well as self-portraits. (5) However, she further excelled in composing a new theme for female painters of her time to follow, that is, the depiction of mythological subjects, in particular the portrayal of nude female figures, as seen in her nude Minervas and Venuses. Fontana's new genre paved the way for Artemisia Gentileschi's depictions of female nudes in the seventeenth century. (6)

Fontana's artistic recognition documents her prolific and brilliant career as a painter and manifests her commitment to excel as a person. She trained as a painter in Bologna, with her father, Prospero Fontana, and Ludovico Carracci. She worked in Rome under the patronage of several popes, including Gregory XIII, Clement VII, and Paul V. During her lifetime she received significant appointments, including the Portrait Ordinary at the Vatican by Pope Gregory XIII. Fontana was the first female to be accepted at Rome's old and prestigious Accademia di San Luca. (7) Thus Fontana's good fortune was to have been raised and educated in Bologna, home of one of the oldest universities in Europe, to have been trained as a painter by her successful father, Prospero, and to have received an honorific appointment to the papal court in Rome. Within this framework, Fontana moved in a patronage circle of sophisticated, well-connected nobles, Church officials, politicians, scholars, bankers, and other powerful and affluent men and women in Bologna and Rome.

In 1577, she wed the Count of Imola, Giovan Paolo Zappi, who trained in her father's studio. The marriage was arranged by her father and Severo Zappi, father of the future spouse. Giovan Paolo Zappi collaborated with Fontana in painting compositional backgrounds and details such as drapery. He also assisted in caring for and educating their eleven children. Fontana died in Rome and was buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

Sixteenth-century literature applauded this cultivated female and noted the implications of the social limitations for her artistic success. Baldassare Castiglione suggested in The Courtier that the system of education and patronage during this time, particularly in Italy, precluded females from developing a full range of themes in art and, therefore, from achieving recognized excellence. (8) That is, women were limited to painting acceptable "female topics" such as religious paintings and portraits, in particular self-portraits.

The focus of this essay, however, is Lavinia Fontana's emblematic or mythological paintings, and in particular, her two nude Minervas: Minerva Dressing (Minerva in the Act of Dressing) (1612-13; Figs. 1, 2, and Pls. 13, 14). (9)

It was highly unusual for a woman painter of her time, but during her artistic career, Fontana depicted several mythological paintings with nude figures on the subject of Venus and Cupid, such as Venus and Cupid (1585; at the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad), Venus and Cupid (1585; Pl. 15), Venus Kissing Cupid (1600; private collection, Bologna), an attributed painting after Fontana, Venus and Cupid (1600; private collection), Portrait of Isabella Ruini as Venus (1592; Fig. 3), and Venus Receiving Gifts from Two Cupids (1590s; Pl. 16). (10)

Fontana also composed allegorical paintings with nude figures, such as the Allegory of Prudence (1590s; Pl. 17), based on Achille Bocchi's Symbolicae quaestiones of 1555 (reprinted in 1574) in Bologna. (11) It should come as no surprise that she would draw upon this work, as both she and her father were commissioned to create drawings for the engravings in Bocchi's emblematic volume. Bocchi (1488-1562), a close friend of Fontana, was a Bolognese humanist and teacher at the University of Bologna. (12) He composed this moralistic volume under the influence of his friends Pierio Valeriano, a classicist and emblematist who wrote Hieroglyphica (Venice, 1556), (13) and Francesco Colonna, a Dominican poet who composed the mysterious allegorical tome, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice, 1499). In turn, both of these humanists were influenced by Horapollo's Hieroglyphica, a fifth-century Neoplatonic treatise on ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. In Bologna, in particular, familiarity with Horapollo's writings was due to a grammarian, Filippo Beroaldo the Elder (1453-1505), who translated, annotated, and compiled some of Horapollo's hieroglyphs into a vocabulary of grammar for Bolognese students. (14)

Another significant emblematic source for Fontana's mythological paintings is the jurist and philosopher Andrea Alciato's (1492-1550) ethical book on the Emblemata (1531, with subsequent editions of 1542, 1546, and 1550 published in Paris, Lyon, and Venice). During the Lombardy war between Milan and Pavia, Alciato moved his legal studio to Bologna in 1538. (15) Even though his residence in Bologna lasted only for a few years (1538-41), Alciato's presence and writings had a great impact on the art of his friend Giorgio Vasari (1511-74)," who was decorating the Monteolivetan Refectory of San Michele in Bosco in Bologna at the time, and on Bocchi's emblematic writings, which were also published in Bologna. Both Vasari and Bocchi were friends of Prospero Fontana.


Bocchi was also the leader of the Accademia Bocciana, which was sponsored by two avid collectors and patrons of the arts, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520-89), the nephew of the Farnese Pope Paul III, and Cardinal Scipione Caffarelli Borghese (1577-1633). It should come as no surprise, therefore, that both cardinals patronized Fontana's art while she resided in Rome and even made her trip to the eternal city possible. Thus, Lavinia Fontana's emblematic inspiration and iconographic depictions in her mythological paintings can be derived from her Bolognese cultural milieu.

Fontana's two versions of Minerva Dressing have a most intriguing cultural history. In the space that follows, I shall consider three points: 1) the origin of the commissions, 2) the stylistic sources for the imagery, and 3) and the symbolic signification of the imagery.

Fontana's connections with the Borghese family solidified in 1604, when she moved her family to Rome to work for Pope Paul V, former Cardinal Camillo Borghese (1552-1621). During his papal legate in Bologna (1588-93), Camillo Borghese became Fontana's patron as well as her friend, becoming godfather to her son Severo in 1592. (17)


The 1613 Borghese Minerva Dressing (Fig. 1/Pl. 13) is Fontana's last completed painting before her death. (18) According to the Archivio Borghese Vaticano of 1613-14, Cardinal Scipione Borghese commissioned the work. (19) The archival documents include records on the commission for the frame and the painting as well as information on the restoration. These records confirm that Fontana painted this work for Cardinal Borghese in 1613 and dated "... FACIEBAT MDCXIII" below Cupid's foot. At this same time, Andrea Durante, a painter and decorator residing in the Borghese household, was commissioned to frame Fontana's painting. (20) In 1779, Domenico de Angelis cleaned and restored the painting in Rome, but no documentation exists on the nature of the restoration. During the Napoleonic era, as part of a marriage dowry in 1808, the painting traveled to Paris along with the furniture and personal belongings of Cardinal Borghese. In 1816, these objects and paintings were returned to Rome as part of Pauline Bonaparte Borghese's patrimony. In 1902, the Italian government acquired the Borghese estate. In 1954, the painting was again cleaned and restored. The conservator, Alvaro Espositi, recorded removing the yellow varnish, revealing the date of 1613 below Cupid's foot, and attesting to the previous notations found in the earlier Borghese archive of 1613-14. (21)


Fontana's Borghese Minerva Dressing depicts an original iconography of Minerva (Roman goddess Pallas Athena), the goddess of War, Peace, Wisdom, and the Arts. Her imagery deviates from the more common classical and Renaissance visual conventions of the deity as seen, for example, in a Roman statue of Minerva from the second century CE (Fig. 4) and Marcantonio Raimondi's engraving of Pallas Athena of 1510-15 (in the Bibliotheque nationale de France, Paris). Fontana's Borghese Minerva Dressing contains the traditional attributes associated with the clothed goddess--including an olive branch or tree, an owl, and military attire with a cuirass or coat of mail, a gorget, a helmet, a shield, and a lance. Unusually and significantly, however, Fontana depicted the goddess in the nude, with her military attributes at her feet. With this depiction of the figure of Minerva, Fontana may have been the first female artist of the sixteenth century to study from life the female body and to paint nude female figures. (22)

The Borghese Minerva's Dressing of 1613 comprises both an interior and an exterior setting. The open area, with its blue and pink colorations, suggests a sunset scene, while the elegant interior decoration reveals a regal room. The painting is designed with three vertical rectangles. The first rectangle on the left contains a dramatic green and gold curtain and a dressing table that holds an elaborate royal garment. Two gilded military instruments, a shield and a gilded gorget, rest adjacent to the furniture.


The second rectangle presents a nude female crowned with a coiffure of several strings of pearls. Her ambiguous gesture suggests that she is holding, placing, or lifting from the dresser her regal attire. At her feet lies another military instrument: a gilded cuirass.

In the third rectangle a cupid seated on a loggia step plays with a plumed helmet. Above him, on the pome of the loggia's balustrade, an alert owl (Athene noctua) guards the premises. Framing the owl is a large olive tree whose branches are displayed in the shape of a peacock's fantail. Through the branches, a Roman domical edifice is seen, perhaps the Roman Pantheon of 100 CE or, even more suggestively, the Temple of Minerva Medica of the fourth century. (23) A lance decorated with cardinal-red fringes or tassels rests on the balustrade in front of the owl and points to the olive branches. The diagonal placement of the lance visually connects the interior and exterior spaces.

Fontana displayed her talent in the Mannerist treatment of the vertical space of the overall composition, including depicting reflective light effects, which appear in the skyscape, in the metal armors, and in the velvet curtain. A refined decor milieu with stage-setting ornaments and a colorful embroidered garment enhance the decoration of the room. (24) Moreover, Fontana also infused the painting with Mannerist and moral conceits.

Most scholars have commented on the imagery of the nude Minerva as "an allegorical, moralizing desire completely divested of erotic notions" (una volonta allegorica moraleggiante completamente priva di intenti erotici). (25) In 1994, in the catalogue entry on Minerva in atto di abbigliarsi (Minerva in the Act of Dressing or Minerva Dressing at the Galleria Borghese), Silvia Urbini discussed the connection between the sixteenth-century emblematic tradition and Fontana's painting by making three points. (26) First she mentioned Minerva's invention of the art of weaving, which is noted in Vincenzo Cartari's Imagini degli Dei Antichi. (27) Fontana was clearly familiar with this mythical tradition, as she depicted Minerva holding her woven peplos (outer robe). The second point related to Minerva's offering a gift from the land--the olive tree and its fruit--to the Athenians during the contest with Neptune, which is represented in Bocchi's Symbolicae quaestiones, Emblem LXV, Inanis est infractuaosa gloria (Vain is glory that does not produce fruits). Fontana depicts this in her painting with an olive branch and an owl. And the third point is that Fontana alluded to Alciato's chastity notion--without specific reference to any emblem--in her depictions of the nude Borghese Minerva Dressing and Venus and Cupid (Pl. 15).

In her analysis of Fontana's Borghese Minerva Dressing, Maria Teresa Cantaro did not provide new iconographical interpretation. She merely reiterated Paola della Pergola's documentation and observations and emphasized stylistic connections in terms of gesticulation seen in Fontana's imagery from previous paintings such as Cleopatra (1585), in the Palazzo Spada in Rome, and the Holy Family with Saint John (1589), at the Monastery of El Escorial in Madrid. (28) Vera Fortunati viewed Fontana's use of Minerva's imagery as self-referential and as a theatre of memory, as the painter longing for her past: "Through the goddess's subtle sensuality, Fontana seems to nostalgically project the memory of her long-lost youth-fullness." (29)

In view of these interpretations, I propose some stylistic and symbolic connections not considered by these scholars, provoking further analysis of Fontana's mythological paintings.

Although the visual imagery of a nude female and the overall decor, light, color, and textures are sensual, the subject matter emphasized instead a different allusion, which is a moral message of peace and love. Fontana's Borghese Minerva differs from the traditional portrayals of clothed Minerva. Although her nonsexual nude Minerva symbolizes pudicity, or modesty, at the same time it recalls the nude Mannerist sculpture of Benvenuto Cellini's Minerva (1565; Fig. 5), a bronze statuette located in a niche of the base for Perseus with the Head of the Medusa, in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence. (30)

Fontana was likely familiar with her fellow Bolognese artist Marcantonio Raimondi's engravings of Reconciliation of Minerva with Cupid (1510-15; Fig. 6) after Raphael, (31) where a winged Cupid takes an olive branch from the tree next to him and offers it to the beautiful disarmed goddess Minerva. In the engraving, Minerva's steady stance, a figura serpentinata, contrasts with Cupid's apprehensive action. In a classical tunic, a wet drapery motif, Minerva conceals and reveals her sensual and statuesque body. Her wind-blown veil reveals her long tresses and her breast line. Her modest gesture of pointing to and partially covering her breast with her hand recalls Raimondi's classical source of Venus's chaste act, the Roman statue of the Capitoline Venus of 100 CE (Museo Nuovo, Capitoline Musei, Rome). While shaking hands with Cupid, Minerva exchanges his gift of peace, an olive branch, with her offering of love, as she caresses and points to her bare breast, a symbol of Caritas (Charity). The owl on a tree, Minerva's symbol of prophecy, wisdom, and virtue, (32) is witness to the exchange of gifts. Her presence as a sign of virtue and wisdom is similar to a seal on a peace treaty. Further testimony to this event is a poem inscribed in Raimondi's engravings printed in 1550 for Lorenzo Musis. The poem reads:

From virtuous Pallas:
   The child holds a beautiful olive branch of chaste Minerva
   To show that those who pride themselves on having
     Minerva as friend
   and really follow the path of virtue, enjoy internal peace. (33)



In addition to Raimondi's engraving, for Fontana, another artistic source as witness to a gift of peace or reconciliation would have been Andrea Alciato's emblems of Prudence and Concordia. The emblem of Prudence features an owl on a tree with the motto Prudens magis quam loquax (Wise head, closed mouth), which alludes to wise counsel imparted by a sage Minerva (Fig. 7). (34) In a drawing for Bocchi's emblematic book, Fontana also included an owl in the image of clothed Minerva (Fig. 8). Moreover, in Alciato's Emblemata, the shaking of hands is illustrated in the emblem of Concordia, alluding to peace or reconciliation in time of conflict. (35)

Some interesting paragoni are observed when comparing Fontana's depiction of Minerva's owl with her artistic and cultural milieu, including the Roman sculpture of Minerva Holding an Owl of the second century CE (Archeological Museum, Naples), Raimondi's engraving of the Reconciliation of Minerva with Cupid, and the emblems of Alciato and Valeriano, alluding to Prudence and Concord, for example. Fontana depicted Minerva resting her martial weapons and pointing the lance toward the owl, a symbol not only of wisdom but also of prudence, while the olive branches allude to peace. (36) These attributes of prudence and peace differ from the instruments of war. Hence, disarmed Minerva now personifies reconciliation with the virtues of concord, love, and peace through wisdom and prudence. (37)




The tassel, from the Latin tassu (clasp), (38) not only decorates the lance but also reveals other significations. When associated to Minerva as the Goddess of Weaving, the tassel may allude to her mastery in weaving, also revealed in the beautiful and colorful woven peplos that Minerva holds. Or it may allude to an honorific recognition. From its origin, the tassel had a religious connotation. According to the Bible, Moses urged the Israelites to make tassels (tzitzit) at the end of their clothes in order to remember God's commandments. (39) The Christian Church continued the Jewish tradition, with some variance, by adding tassels to religious garments as an ecclesiastical sign of distinction. Hence Fontana, in decorating the lance with a tassel of cardinal-red color, emphasized the importance of her distinguished patron, Scipione Borghese, as a prominent cardinal in the Roman curia of the Catholic Church. The red tassel on the lance is both decorative and a status symbol. In placing the lance with the red tassel pointing to the owl and the olive branches, Fontana alluded to her patron's virtues of wisdom and prudence. (40) Fontana's lance also directs attention toward a domical edifice seen through the foliage, alluding to Christian and pagan religious buildings, e.g., Saint Peter's, Cardinal Borghese's church, and the Roman temple of Minerva Medica. Both of these edifices were reputed to have divine healing powers.


Furthermore, Fontana removed a helmet from Minerva's head (Figs. 1, 2, & Pls.13, 14) replacing it with an elaborate coiffure of pearls, emulating Venus, the Goddess of Love and disarmer of Mars. Meanwhile, mischievous Cupid discards his wooden instruments, the bow and arrows, in order to play with the metal helmet, admiring the beautiful plumes, glittering design, and his reflection on the instrument of war--a narcissistic motif. Both disarmed and nude, Minerva and Cupid transcend from realms of war and erotic actions to metaphysical realms of Platonic love and peace.


Minerva's actions of disrobing and placing her war instruments (helmet, cuirass, gorget, and shield) on the floor recall similar successful actions of another deity, Venus, the Goddess of Love, who astutely disarmed Mars, the God of War, allowing Cupid and his companions to play with Mars's martial arms, as seen in the Roman marble copy of Disarmed Venus of the second century but restored in the sixteenth century (Fig. 9). Fontana was probably familiar with the works of her fellow Bolognese artists, such as Marco Zoppo's drawing of Disarmed Venus or Venus Victrix (Victorious Venus) (1470s; Fig. 10), (41) where Venus proudly holds a helmet with her left hand and a lance in her right hand, while daring cupids play with martial attire and weapons.

The theme of Disarmed Venus or Venus Victrix (42) achieved great popularity in Renaissance art and literature, e.g., Botticelli's Mars and Venus (1490s; National Gallery, London) and Angelo Poliziano's love poem La Giostra (The Joust). (43) Lucian of Samosata's Dialogues of the Gods, a satire in which Lucian composed a dialogue between Venus and her son Cupid, in which Venus wonders why "his [Cupid's] quiver has no arrows, his torch no fire, and his right hand no cunning" against Athena (Minerva). Cupid explains to his mother that he fears Minerva's bellicose actions. In order to reconcile his anxious state, he prefers peace with the Goddess of War, offering her an olive branch, not arrows of love. (44) While Gilles Corrozet's emblem (Fig. 11) (45) and Raimondi's engravings capture Lucian's irony, Bocchi's emblem, Rivalitas Cupidinis Durissima (Passionate Rivalry Hardest, Fig. 12), reversed the scene, illustrating Minerva attacking Cupid with his bow and arrow, leaving him in a state of submission. Hence chaste Minerva restrains Cupid's passion.

With a similar thought, Fontana's Cupid relinquishes his erotic ardor in order to play with the plumes of Minerva's helmet, a discarded instrument of war. Paralleling the same sentiment, Fontana depicted a different type of Pallas Athena, not the Goddess of War but a Minerva Pacifica, a Minerva of Peace and Prudence, as well as a Minerva Pudica or a Modest Minerva. In putting aside the instruments of war and her military attire, as well as disrobing and revealing her nude body, chaste Minerva reveals and confirms her moral attitude toward virtue, peace, and love, hence moralizing or controlling the eroticism in Cupid and, indirectly, Cupid's mother Venus, the Goddess of Love and Lust. Minerva's act is one of prudence in reconciling or transforming the erotic love of Cupid with Platonic love, achieving a peaceful balance between natural and metaphysical love, thus teaching Cupid and the viewer a moral lesson. Reason or prudence (Minerva) triumphs over passion (Eros).


Only a few observations will be considered here regarding Fontana's 1612 Roman Minerva Dressing (Fig. 2 & Pl. 14), keeping in mind the similar artistic and cultural ambience of the 1613 Borghese version. Perhaps these two paintings of Minerva Dressing were completed in the same year and for the same patron, Cardinal Borghese, as pendant, companion pieces. There are some suggestions of a correlation between Minerva and Venus. Fontana depicted an interior space, a private room, where only a small window gives access to an early sunset. Through the window, in the distance, a temple and hills can be seen, perhaps alluding to Mount Parnassus, where Minerva and the Muses resided, or to Esquiline Hill in Rome, where the Temple of Minerva Medica was dedicated to Minerva as Goddess of Wisdom, Medicine, and the Arts. At the edge of the window, Fontana depicted a large laurel tree (Laurus nobilis), connecting the symbolism of medicinal and healing properties of the herbal plant with Minerva's role as a healer. (46) The Vestal Virgins consecrated the laurel, an evergreen plant, to Minerva as a symbol of their enduring chastity, erecting a Palladium, a statue of Roman Minerva, in her honor in their Temple of Vesta, in the eighth century BCE, in Rome. (47) The perennial nature of the laurel also signifies immortality, hence eternally honoring Minerva's regal and victorious status, or that of the unknown patron. (48) A semi-nude female poses for the viewer, displaying a traditional Renaissance lady's garment while surrounded by the instruments of war. As mentioned earlier, Fontana was inspired by Cellini's bronze sculpture for the depiction of Minerva in the nude (compare Figs. 1 and 2, with Fig. 5). Minerva's coiffure here, however, in contrast to the Borghese 1613 version, is decorated not with pearls but with an elaborate plumed helmet. Her elegant, embroidered attire alludes moreover to Minerva as the goddess of domesticity and inventor of textile arts, such as sewing, weaving, and spinning. In The Imagini delle Dei degl'Antichi, the mythographer and humanist Vincenzo Cartari explained the signification of Minerva's various roles, including her invention of the textile arts. (49)

But what is most interesting in Fontana's 1612 Roman Minerva Dressing is the goddess's veiled attire, which wraps around her body, at once concealing and revealing her sensual female form. In previous paintings on the theme of Venus, Fontana employed the same transparent golden lame veil to cover the body of the goddess of Love, e.g., Venus and Cupid (Pl. 15) and Portrait of Isabella Ruini as Venus (Fig. 3). What is unusual, however, is the lame veil that wraps around Minerva's body, decorated with three red silk-bows that hold the vestment in place.

Fontana was fond of red bows, having depicted them previously as love knots in her Self-Portrait of 1577 (Accademia di San Luca), a betrothal painting dedicated to her husband-to-be. (50) These bows are love knots, tokens, and symbols of love, as seen in emblem books (51) and other marriage paintings. (52) Since information on the patronage of the Roman Minerva Dressing is lacking, one might wonder if the painting was commissioned for a betrothal or some other private commission. (53)

Both paintings allude to a Minerva Victrix, as seen in Bocchi's title page (Fig. 13). The image represented there is of a victorious Minerva, dressed in her military regalia, plumed helmet, breastplate, and warrior's boots. She is holding a cornucopia, symbol of abundance and wealth, with her right hand--a substitution for the Aegis shield--and a traditional banner of victory with her left hand. Minerva's imagery here again replaces instruments of war with instruments of peace; the spear of war now is the banner of victory; hence she is a Minerva Victrix. The Roman goddess is depicted residing on the Aventine Hill, represented by the terrain where she stands. Her sacred tree, the olive tree, a symbol of peace, is at her side. At her feet are books, one of which is inscribed Bocciana Docet, referring to the teachings of the Accademia Bocciana. Bocchi, as founder of the academy, understood the attributions of Minerva as the Goddess of War transformed into a Goddess of Learning, Teaching, and Wisdom and thus reflecting the aims of his academy. (The name Minerva in Latin originally meant "thought.") Ovid called her the "Goddess of a Thousand Works." (54) Minerva was a multi-talented goddess: of Wisdom, Poetry, Music, Medicine, Arts and Crafts (especially wool), Science, Commerce, and War. More generally, she was considered the patroness of intellect and learning, especially academics. In Roman times, she was celebrated as the Patroness of Artisans during the Quinquatrus, the artisans' holiday, from March 19 to 23. Her temple on the Aventine Hill is considered to have been a center for craft guilds. (55)


The 1613 Borghese painting depicts a prudent Minerva, a transformation of a bellicose Minerva into a peaceful goddess, hence a Minerva Pacifica. In the Roman 1612 version, Fontana's bellicose Minerva transforms into a loving Minerva or a Venus Pudica, or a lustful Venus becomes a Minerva Pudica. The harmony between Minerva and Venus and vice versa is illustrated in Bocchi's emblem, "True Pleasure Harmonizes with General Virtue," which was designed by the Fontanas. In view of these observations, perhaps the titles of these paintings should be modified as Minerva Pacifica (Borghese 1613) and Minerva Pudica (Roman 1612), respectively. After all, the Borghese archival records refer to the painting as "Minerva" (Pallas), not as Minerva Dressing or Minerva Undressing.

Fontana's paintings were completed during the Counter-Reformation period, where the moral tone militated against lascivious paintings, as instructed by one of the most important advocates of the Counter-Reformation at the Council of Trent, the Cardinal and Archbishop of Bologna, Gabriele Paleotti (1522-97). Paradoxically, in his De sacris et profanis imaginibus (Discorso sulle imagine sacre e profane, or Discourse on sacred and profane images) of 1582, published in Bologna, Paleotti conceded that mythological or pagan images of gods and goddesses for scholarly purposes might be created and displayed in private villas. (56) At least one of these paintings of Fontana's is recorded for a private patron, Cardinal Borghese. Her paintings evoke the sentiment and concur with the moralistic attitude of the Counter-Reformation, as she depicted a nude Minerva, a virgin goddess, who, aware of her beauty as it is displayed for the viewer, prefers to remain pure and chaste. Fontana's prudent Minerva reconciles lust and war with love and peace, and her triumph is to harmonize over the passion and treachery of Cupid and Venus.

Although Fontana's paintings depicted female nudes turning their heads toward the viewer, possibly suggesting a flirtation or sensual allusion, these figures do not gaze at the viewer. Today's viewers maybe tantalized by the nudity of the figures, but it is important to bear in mind sixteenth-century Italian culture. Artistically, Fontana was an established artist, but a female painter. By painting nude figures, perhaps she wanted to demonstrate that she was as capable a painter as her male counterparts. (57) Culturally, Fontana operated in the ambit of the Roman papal court when she created these paintings. The commission for at least of one of these paintings was for a Roman cardinal. The moral content of images for such patrons was scrutinized by the Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation, as a consequence of previous moral and political abuses by churchmen. (58) Historically, Fontana depicted a traditional Roman goddess, in particular the virgin goddess Minerva, who, like her godly companions Diana and Vesta, vowed chastity. (59)

In depicting a nude or semi-nude Minerva, Fontana visualized a Mannerist conceit: 1) symbolically, integrating Andrea Alciato, Vincenzo Cartari, Pierio Valeriano, and Achille Bocchi's imaginative and emblematic inventiveness; 2) stylistically, revealing Giorgio Vasari's concept of bella maniera (beauty) conceived in an aesthetically beautiful body; and 3) morally, creating a beautiful figure that would educate the senses on the superiority of prudence. Hence this was Fontana's intention in depicting Minerva, whether dressing or undressing, concealing or revealing her body, or impersonating the goddess's multiple roles of Wisdom, Peace, Love, and Prudence.






Liana De Girolami Cheney is a Visiting Scholar in Art History at the Universita di Aldo Moro in Bari, Italy. Her many publications include Self-Portraits of Women Painters (2009), and Essays of Women Artists: 'The Most Excellent, 2 vols (2003). Her forthcoming book is on Lavinia Fontana, Barbara Longhi, and Chiara Varotari.


I am grateful for the comments received from Professors Yael Even of the University of Missouri-Saint Louis, and Sheila ffolliott of George Mason University, VA.

(1.) See Liana De Girolami Cheney, et al., Self-Portraits by Women Painters (London: Ashgate, 2000, rev. 2009, Washington, DC: New Academy), 56-64.

(2.) For example, Portrait of Scholar (1581), and Portrait of the Gozzadini Family (1584), both at the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna. See Carolyn Murphy, Lavinia Fontana (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2003), Figs. 66 and 100, respectively.

(3.) For example, The Stigmatization of Saint Francis (1579), at the Seminario Diocesano, Villa Revedin, Bologna, and The Assumption of the Virgin (1593), in the Collegiata di Santa Maria Maggiore, in the Pieve di Cento. See Murphy, Lavinia Fontana, Figs. 51 and 76, respectively.

(4.) For example, The Visit of the Queen of Sheba (1 600), at the National Gallery, Dublin, and Cleopatra (1604), at the Galleria Spada, Rome. See Maria Teresa Cantaro, Lavinia Fontana Bolognese: Pittora singolare: 1552-1614 (Rome: Jandi, 1989), 188, Fig. 4a.85, and 210, Fig. 4a98, respectively.

(5.) For example, the Self-Portrait at the Spinet (1577), at the Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome, along with a replica (1577) at the Uffizi, is oil on canvas, signed and inscribed: "Lavinia Virgo Prosperi Fonatane/Filia Ex Speculo Imaginem/Oris Suis Expresit Anno/MDLXXVII." See Cantaro, Lavinia Fontana, 72-74, Figs. 4a.12, for illustration of both portraits, and Cheney, et al., Self-Portraits by Women Painters, 57-60, Figs. IV. 10, IV.12, IV.14, and X, on Lavinia Fontana's Self-Portraits.

(6.) See Mary D. Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989), 172, 188, 191-92.

(7.) See Carlo Pietrangeli, ed., L'Accademia Nazionale di San Luca (Rome: De Luca Editore, 1974), 204, 206.

(8.) Baldassare Castiglione, Il Cortegiano (1528). The Book of the Courtier, trans. C.S. Singleton (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), 206-09, 211, 214-15. In Book Three, Castiglione presented a discussion for and against female inferiority. See Margaret L. King and Albert Rabil, Jr., eds. Her Immaculate Hand: Selected Works by and about The Women Humanists of Quattrocento Italy (Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1992), for a study on Renaissance women defending the stigma of "inferiority."

(9.) For clarity, I will refer to Fontana's versions in this manner: the 1613 painting as Borghese Minerva Dressing and the 1612 painting as Roman Minerva Dressing. This study benefits from the scholarship of Maria Teresa Cantaro, Lavinia Fontana Bolognese: Pittora singolare: 1552-1614; Carolyn Murphy, Lavinia Fontana; Vera Fortunati, Lavinia Fontana: 1552-1614 (Rome: Electa, 1994 and 1998); and Rudolf Wittkower, Allegory and the Migration of Symbols (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977 and 1987), Chap. 9.

(10.) See Daniela Benati, Amor e vivo: due dipinti erotici di Lavinia Fontana (Milan: Marco Riccomini, 2002), 20-21, illus., 19 (Plate II). This recently discovered painting is in oil on copper.

(11.) Achille Bocchi, Symbolicae quaestiones (Bologna: Giulio Bonasone, 1574). The engravings were composed after the drawings of Prospero Fontana, assisted by his daughter, Lavinia Fontana. See Silvia Urbini, "Lavinia Fontana," Exhibition catalogue entry 74, Fortunati, Lavinia Fontana, 207. See also Alessandro Zacchi and T. Zennaro "Allegory," in La Pittura Eloquente, exh. cat. (Monte Carlo: Maison d'Art, 2010), Entry 3, 23-27-illus., 25, for the attribution of the painting to Fontana.

(12.) See Urbini, "Lavinia Fontana," Exhibition catalogue entry 74, in Fortunati, Lavinia Fontana, 207; and Murphy, Lavinia Fontana, 16, 18, 52, and 54, for the association of Bocchi with Prospero and Lavinia Fontana.

(13.) Pierio Valeriano, a humanist scholar from Belluno, visited Rome in 1509 with an introduction to Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici, and later became the classical tutor for the Medici family. In 1530, Valeriano returned to his native town and completed the Hieroglyphica. The text is dedicated to several scholars, including Achille Bocchi, Paolo Giovio, and Giorgio Valla. The tome consists of 60 books appropriating and elaborating on the symbols and hieroglyphs of Horapollo's Hieroglyphica. In 1422, Cristoforo Buondelmoti, a Florentine geographer and monk, while visiting Andros, a Greek Island, obtained a copy of Horapollo's Hieroglyphica (today in the Biblioteca Laurenziana, Plut. 69,27). This precious manuscript became an important original source for Florentine humanists such as Aldus Manutius and Giorgio Valla. In the Renaissance, Horapollo's text was only known as a reference in Suda, a Byzantine encyclopedia of the tenth century. In 1505, Manutius published Valla's Greek translation of Horapollo's Hieroglyphica.

(14.) See Brian Curran, The Egyptian Renaissance: The Afterlife of Ancient Egypt in Early Modern Italy (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007), passim.

(15.) See Emilio Costa, Andrea allo studio di Bologna (Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1903), 21-23.

(16.) On Vasari's friendship and art, see enciclopedia/andrea-alciato_(Dizionario_Biografico)/; and Liana De Girolami Cheney, "Vasari and Naples: The Monteoliveto Order," in Parthenope's Splendor: Art of the Golden Age in Naples, ed. Jeanne Chenault Porter and Susan Scott Munshower (Philadelphia: Papers in Art History, Pennsylvania State Univ., 1994), 5: 48-126.

(17.) See R. Galli, Lavinia Fontana Pittrice (Imola: P. Galeati, 1940), 31, 118; Cantaro, Lavinia Fontana, 314, 318; and Murphy, Lavinia Fontana, 91, 171 ... All cite documents relating to Fontana's friendship with the Borghese family.

(18.) In 1614, a year after completing Minerva Dressing, Fontana was buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. However, the tomb has since disappeared. Fortuitously, a registered entry from the Vatican Archivio Segreto, Libro dei Mortuari della Parrocchia di S. Nicola in Arcione, records her death and burial site: "11 agosto 1614 ... Morse la Sig. Lavinia Fontana moglie del Signor Gio: Paolo Zappi da Imola con tutti li SS. Sacr.ti fu sepolta alla Minerva" (On 11 August 1614, ... Died Mrs. Lavinia Fontana, wife of Mr. Gio: Paolo Zappi from Imola with all holy sacraments [she] was buried in [the church of Santa Maria sopra] Minerva). See Galli, Lavinia Fontana Pittrice, 35.

(19.) See Paola della Pergola, "Contributi per la Galleria Borghese. Minerva in atto di abbigliarsi," in Bolletino d'Arte 39 (1954) 2:134-35; The Archivio Borghese Vaticano, Busta (Envelop) 470, depostito, inv. n. 7; Paola della Pergola, Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, 2 vols. (Rome: Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, 1955), 1:35.n. 44; and Cantaro, Lavinia Fontana, 222, for a complete discussion of the history of the commission.

(20.) See della Pergola, "Contributi per la Galleria Borghese. Minerva in atto di abbigliarsi," 2:134-35, citing from the Archivio Borghese Vaticano, Busta (Envelop) 470, Durante's statement: "Una cornice fatta nello stesso modo quale serve per la Pallade della Signora Lavinia Fontana" (a frame done in the same style, which is used for the Minerva of Mrs. Lavinia Fontana).

(21.) See Cantaro, Lavinia Fontana, 222, for a discussion on the painting's restorations.

(22.) See Carolyn Murphy, "Lavinia Fontana and Female Life Cycle Experience in Late Sixteenth-Century Bologna," in Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997), 111.

(23.) The Roman temple contained a nymphaeum and a splendid villa. The dome was covered with a medicinal plant, decagon (althaea officinalis), a cough suppressant but also used by the Romans as an "esculent vegetable." The roof was destroyed in 1828. In the sixteenth century, several statues were found during the excavations, among them Asclepius, Hygeia, and Minerva with serpents. See mallow07.html, n.p.

(24.) Cantaro suggested that the attire held by the nude figure is in the style of Quattrocento princely clothes. See Cantaro, Lavinia Fontana, 222.

(25.) See Urbini, "Lavinia Fontana," Exhibition catalogue entry 74, in Fortunati, Lavinia Fontana, 207; and Anna Maria Fioravanti Baraldi, "Lavinia Fontana," Exhibition catalogue entry 30, Fortunati, Lavinia Fontana of Bologna: 1552-1614 (Milan/Washington, DC: Electa/ National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1998), 108.

(26.) See Urbini, "Lavinia Fontana," Exhibition catalogue entry 74, in Fortunati, Lavinia Fontana, 207.

(27.) See Vincenzo Cartari, Imagini degli Dei Antichi (Imagines Deorum, qui ab antiquis colebantur) (Lyon: Stephanum Michaelem, 1581), 269.

(28.) See Cantaro, Lavinia Fontana, 222.

(29.) See Fortunati, Lavinia Fontana of Bologna: 1552-1614, 36.

(30.) See Yael Even, "The Public's Familiarization with Images of 'Heroic Rape' in Medicean Florence," International Journal of the Arts in Society 1.4 (2007): 103-09.

(31.) Now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, and the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University.

(32.) See J.C. Cooper, Symbolic and Mythological Animals (London: Aquarian Press, 1992), 172; Guy de Tervarent, Attributs et Symbols dans l'Art Profane (Geneva: Droz, 1997), 124; and Pierio Valeriano, Hieroglyphica (Basel: Palma Ising, 1575, princeps 1556), Book XX, Owl, Noctua Sapienza, for the owl as symbol of Minerva's moral virtue and spirit of knowledge.

(33.) A copy of Raimondi's engraving for Lorenzo de Musis in 1550 contains the inscribed poem. See Adam von Bartsch, Illustrated Engravings (Leipzig: R. Weigel 1843, repr. NY: Abaris Books, 1982-97), XIV, 297, n. 393 G.

(34.) See Andrea Alciato, Emblemata (Lyon: Mace Bonhomme for Guillaume Rouille, 1550), trans., ed., and annotated by Betty I. Knott and with an introduction by John Manning (London: Scholar Press, 1996), 25, the owl a sacred bird of Minerva; and Alciato Andrea, Les emblems (Paris: Jean Richer, 1584). The text (subscription) on the emblem explains how the owl is a symbol for Athens, Cecrops's city, for among the birds the owl is known for wise counsel. Deservedly was it dedicated to the service of weapon-bearing Minerva, in the place vacated by the chattering crow. See also, for the image, emblem.php?id=A46a076.

(35.) See Alciato, Emblemata, trans., ed., and annotated by Knott and Manning, 45. On the emblem page, the text (subscription) explains the pictura and motto:
   In bellum civile duces cum Roma pararet,
   Viribus & caderet Martia terra suis:
   Mos fuit in partes turmis coeuntibus easdem,
   Coniunctas dextras mutua dona dare.
   Foederis haec species: id habet Concordia signum,
   Ut quos iungit amor, lungat & ipsa manus.

(When Rome was marshaling her generals to fight in civil war and that martial land was being destroyed by her own might, it was the custom for squadrons coming together on the same side to exchange joined right hands as gifts. This is a token of alliance; concord has this for a sign--those whom affection joins the hand joins also).

(36.) Another observation on this painting: since it was Fontana's last painting before her death, perhaps Lavinia, as her name indicates--"She knows"--had a premonition about her own death, a prophetic explanation about her health. In Roman mythology, the owl is considered a nocturnal animal that may reveal its secret in dreams or sleep. Since a nocturnal animal is also a symbol or a death omen, is this why Fontana depicted the sunset scene, the owl resting on the balustrade, and a nude Minerva?

(37.) See Vincenzo Cartari, Imagini delli Dei degl'Antichi (Venice: Francesco Marcolini 1556/1557, 1571, and 1647), repr. and ed. by Marco Bussagli (Genoa: Nuova Stile Regina Editrici, 1987), 194. See also the English translation by John Mulryan, Vincenzo Cartari's Images of the Gods of the Ancients: The First Mythography (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2012).

(38.) The composition of the tassel was to create a decorative object by forming a knot where bands of silk filaments were vertically interwoven, forming an internal lacing. See Martin Pegler, The Dictionary of Interior Design (London/New York: Fairchild, 1983 and 2006), see entry on Tassels.

(39.) See James Kugel, The Bible as it Was (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1997), Numbers 15:37-40.

(40.) See Anthony Majanlahti, The Families Who Made Rome (London: Chatto & Windus, 2004), 180.

(41.) See British Museum, London, MN 1920-0214.1.25; and for a discussion on how Zoppo's drawings were known in the Emilia-Romagna area, see Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings, exhib. cat., ed. Hugo Chapman and M. Faietti. (London: British Museum, 2010; Florence: Galleria degli Uffizi, 2011), "Hugo Chapman has shown that Zoppo's compositions must have been known by artists later in the century, as one of his figurative compositions is copied by Cesare Cesariano in the 1490s in a fresco in San Giovanni Battista, Reggio Emilia," cited in the catalogue from London, 2010, 146-49 and Figs. 4-5, no. 25 by Hugo Chapman. I am grateful to Prof. Lilian Armstrong of Wellesley College (emerita) for this citation.

(42.) During the time of Julius Caesar and after, Roman coins contained the label of Venus Victrix, alluding not only to Venus's victory but also to Venus as a symbol of Minerva Pacifica. See Wittkower, Allegory and the Migration of Symbols, Chap. 9, 138-39.

(43.) See ibid., citing Politian's Stanze, L'Orfeo e le Rime, ed. Giosue Carducci (Florence: G. Barbera, 1863), 1: 381.

(44.) See H.W. Fowler, ed., The Works of Lucian of Samosata (Lucian's Dialogues of the Gods) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905), Dialogue 19 (23), Aphrodite and Eros, n.p. See LucianDialoguesGods1.html.

(45.) The image of Corrozet derives from the woodcuts of Petrarch's Trionfi, commentary by Bernardo Lapini da Siena (Venice: Bernardinus Rizus, Novariensis, 1488). See Gilles Corrozet, Hecatomgraphie (Paris: Denis Laton, 1540), Emblem 14, Chastete vaincq Cupido. Subscript comments: "Contre Pallas Cupido son dard lance, / Mais au devant elle mect son escu, / Et faict si bien qu'elle le rend vaincu, / Tout desnue d'armes & de puissance." See emblematic reference and image in php?id = FCGa014. See also Emblem 10, Contre la foyblesse des amoureux. Subscript comments: "Si Cupido me vient lancer ses flesches, / Ses grans flambeaulx, & ses ardentes mesches, / Lors que je dors & suis ensommeillee, / Que fera il quand seray resveillee?" And see also Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (New York: Harper and Row, 1939), 95-128, on the iconography of Cupid.

(46.) See Hans Biedermann, Dictionary of Symbols: Cultural Icons and The Meaning Behind Them, trans. James Hulbert (New York: Meridian, Penguin, 1994), 202, and Grant Heiken, Renato Funiciello and Donatella de Rita, The Seven Hills of Rome: A Geological Tour of the Eternal City (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2007), The Esquiline Hill.

(47.) See Cartari, Imagini delli Dei degl'Antichi, 190.

(48.) See J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), 96.

(49.) See Cartari, Imagini delli Dei degl'Antichi, 193; and Urbini, "Lavinia Fontana," exhib. cat., entry 74, in Fortunati, Lavinia Fontana, 207.

(50.) See Cheney, et al., Self-Portraits by Women Painters, 59-60, on Lavinia Fontana's Self-Portraits.

(51.) See Jacobus Boschius, Symbolographia, sive, De arte symbolica: sermones septem (Augsburg; Dillingen: Bencard, 1701/2), III, 138, on the love knot.

(52.) See Alessandro Moretto, Portrait of a Woman in a Wedding Dress (1540), National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

(53.) Likely the painting was cut at the bottom, since part of Minerva's cuirass and feet are missing.

(54.) See Ovid, Fasti, trans. and ed. James G. Frazer (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard Univ. Press, 1931), Book 3.

(55.) See Robert E. Bell, Women of Classical Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), 308-09.

(56.) See Gabriele Paleotti, Discorso intorno alle imagine sacre e profane (Bologna: Alessandro Benacci, 1582), repr. in Paola Barocchi, ed., Trattati d'arte fra manierismo e contrariforma (Bari: Laetrice, 1960-62), 117-509 (esp. 289-93); and Murphy, Lavinia Fontana, 102. For further discussion on Fontana and Paleotti, see Murphy, Lavinia Fontana, 8-12 and 184-85.

(57.) For example, when comparing Michelangelo's Risen Christ (1514-19), in the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome (, with Fontana's Venus and Cupid (1585), in a private collection in Venice (Fig. 3), several similarities are noted in the composition, contrapposto stance, and treatment of the figure. When flipping the image of Michelangelo's Risen Christ, the comparison is remarkable. In her Venus's actions, Fontana appropriated the gestures of Christ in Michelangelo's statue, e.g., Christ holding a rope with his left hand is paralleled by Venus holding a Cupid's bow with her left hand, while Christ's right hand resting on a tree trunk is equated with Venus's right hand caressing Cupid. There are two possibilities regarding Fontana's knowledge of Michelangelo's statue: 1) familiarity with the sculpture in Rome while she was working for the Roman papal curia (see William E. Wallace, "Michelangelo's Risen Christ," Sixteenth Century Journal 28:4 [Winter 1997]: 1251-80); or 2) awareness, through the Bolognese humanist circle of Ulisse Aldrovandi, with the history of the statue's duplication--due to a flaw in the marble (see Irene Baldriga, "The First Version of Michelangelo's Christ for S. Maria Sopra Minerva," The Burlington Magazine 142, no. 1173 [December 2000], 740-45, 740).

Another coincidental observation: the goddess's name, Minerva, and her attribution of holiness reveal that in depicting mythological paintings on Minerva, Fontana was aware of the strong veneration for the virgin goddess during Roman times: numerous temples were dedicated to her, including the sacred edifice where Michelangelo's Risen Christ was displayed. Also, the foundation of the church Santa Maria sopra Minerva rested on what was believed to be an ancient temple dedicated in 50 BCE to the Roman goddess.

(58.) See Christopher Black, The Italian Inquisition (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2009), passim; Marcia B. Hall and Tracy E. Cooper, The Sensuous in the Counter-Reformation Church (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013), passim; and Virginia Cox, The Prodigious Muse: Women's Writing in Counter-Reformation Italy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2011), passim.

(59.) See Bell, Women of Classical Mythology, 308.
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Author:Cheney, Liana De Girolami
Publication:Woman's Art Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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