Four Passionate Italian Women Artists

Mar 7, 2019

Italy’s dazzling pantheon of artistic geniuses seems a man’s world. Yet as I discovered in researching my upcoming book, a few women with singular passion defied all obstacles and created important works of art. As a way of celebrating International Women’s Day, here are four artists whose stories I recount in LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World:

Plautilla Nelli (1524-88)

At age fourteen, Nelli, a merchant’s daughter in Florence, entered a local convent (as did many girls whose families could not afford marriage dowries) and won the respect of prominent painters of the time. Florence’s first recognized female artist, Nelli set up a studio to train other nuns to paint. Her most remarkable composition represents a first in the history of women’s art: a massive Last Supper (above), almost twenty-three feet long, for her convent’s dining hall. Thanks to a crowdfunding campaign by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation, a recent restoration is unveiling rich colors and subtle details unseen for centuries.

Properzia de’ Rossi (ca. 1490–1530)

A sculptress in Bologna, Properzia carved intricately detailed scenes in an odd and challenging medium: the pits of peaches and apricots. On one pit Properzia carved a detailed Passion of Christ that so impressed the city wardens that they commissioned a marble sculpture above a set of doors in Bologna’s Basilica of San Petronio. Properzia chose an Old Testament scene in which the wife of the Egyptian pharaoh’s chamberlain, burning with lust for their Hebrew slave, strips off his tunic—a work the art historian Vasari interpreted as an expression of Properzia’s unrequited desire for “a handsome young man, who seemed to care but little for her.” Although the Bolognese applauded Properzia’s achievement, she died nearly penniless at about age forty.

Sofonisba Anguissola (ca.1532–1625)

As an eleven-year-old in Cremona, Sofonisba apprenticed herself to one of the few male artists willing to accept female students. At age twenty, she painted her three sisters playing chess, considered the first realistic depiction of domestic life. As Donna DiGuiseppe recounts in Lady in Ermine, a novel based on Sofonisba’s life, the young artist was summoned to the Spanish court, where she won international acclaim as a professional painter.

When she married a Sicilian nobleman, the couple moved to Paternò, but Sofonisba’s husband was killed in a pirate raid as he sailed to Spain. Two years later, as she was returning to mainland Italy, the widow’s boat was shipwrecked on the Tuscan coast. Sofonisba fell in love with the ship’s dashing captain. They married tand settled in Genoa, where Sofonisba established a school for painters. In 1615, they relocated to Palermo, where Sofonisba continued to tutor young artists until her death at about age 93.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–ca.1652)

Artemisia learned how to paint in the studio of her father, a friend and follower of Caravaggio. A colleague her father hired to tutor her raped the teenager. In a sensational seven-month trial in 1612, Artemisia testified under torture against her attacker, who was convicted of defiling a virgin.

Married off to a minor artist in Florence, Artemisia won high-profile commissions from the duke and duchess and became the first woman inducted into Florence’s prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). Most of her almost sixty known works portray women, often as the strong, passionate heroines of mythology and the Bible. All reflect her determination to “show what a woman can do.”

A cache of long-lost letters discovered in 2011 revealed that the artist herself had a passionate affair with a Florentine nobleman—a liaison her husband seemed to encourage. With many international fans, Artemisia painted in Venice, Naples and England, where she and her father decorated the queen’s house in Greenwich.

After her death at about age 60, Artemisia slid into anonymity but was resurrected in the late twentieth century as a feminist icon who overcame ignominy to gain respect and acclaim. The late Jane Fortune, founder of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation, described her as “one of history’s most influential painters.”

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language, MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and the upcoming LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World. For more information, visit her website:

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