The Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola

16 November 1625, the Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola died in Palermo at the age of 93.

“To Sofonisba, my wife, who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, outstanding in portraying the images of man. Orazio Lomellino, in sorrow for the loss of his great love, in 1632, dedicated this little tribute to such a great woman.“ (Orazio Lomellino, Inscription on Sofonisba's tomb.)

A sophisticated self-portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola, showing Bernardino Campi painting her likeness

What can a man named Amilcare after Hannibal’s father Hamilkar Barkas and blessed with seven daughters do otherwise than give at least one of them a Punic name, especially if a famous play featuring a Carthaginian heroine was all the rage when the girl in question was born. Besides that, euphoniously labelled Sofonisba and her sisters received the humanist education that was de rigueur during the days of the High Renaissance among the gentlemen of Cremona, even for girls. Minerva became a poetess, Elena, a bit atypical of her breed, studied to become a Dominican, Lucia, Europa, Anna Maria and Sofonisba chose painting. When the pater familias realised the latter’s considerable talent, he corresponded with the crème of the artists, Michelangelo among them, to procure art commissions and at the age of 28, she was assigned to portrait the Spanish royal family in Madrid and teach the young queen Elisabeth of Valois to paint professionally. The relationship formed between teacher and student was obviously quite deep, Sofonisba stayed in Madrid until the queen’s death in childbed in 1568. The paintress married a Sicilian nobleman afterwards, relocated to Palermo, was widowed in 1579 and fell in love with the captain of the ship that carried her back to her native Tuscany. They married in Pisa and lived in Genoa until 1620. At the age of 88, Sofonisba and her husband Orazio moved to Palermo, where she died five years later.

Sofonisba Anguissola: "The Chess Game", showing the artist's sisters Lucia, Minerva and Europa (1555)

Never been one for the vast epic historical and religious paintings rather popular during the last phase of the Renaissance, allegedly because she, as a woman, was not allowed to study naked human bodies, Sofonisba became one of the best portrait artists of her time. Over and above that, she painted some of the rare quotidian scenes that emerged during the late 16th century. One of the very first art historians, her contemporary Giorgio Vasari, wrote "Anguissola has shown greater application and better grace than any other woman of our age in her endeavours at drawing; she has thus succeeded not only in drawing, colouring and painting from nature, and copying excellently from others, but by herself has created rare and very beautiful paintings." Her eyesight began to fail her later in her life, but she still taught painting and was visited and portrayed by such worthies as the young van Dyck and Rubens. When she died, the world of art had changed considerably, Baroque had finally superseded the serene calm of the Renaissance, but in hindsight, Sofonisba Anguissola was considered the greatest paintress of her epoch and paved the way for successors such as Lavinia Fontana, Barbara Longhi, Fede Galizia and Artemisia Gentileschi.

Sofonisba Anguissola: "Self Portrait" (1610), showing her at the age of 83

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