For women of the higher social classes, writes historian Wendy Slatkin, “all the advances of Renaissance Italy … worked to mold the noblewoman into an aesthetic object: decorous, chaste, and doubly dependent—on her husband as well as the prince.” With the publication of Il Cortigiano (The Book of the Courtier) by Baldassare Castiglione in 1528, an influential framework was established for the education of upper-class girls where the skills of painting and drawing, along with musical talents, were regarded as desirable and attractive attributes, to be mastered sufficiently to entertain and amuse a husband and his guests, but certainly not to be practiced outside the home. Given the prevailing ideology, the decision of the noble Amilcare Anguissola to allow, even encourage, his daughters to become professional painters becomes even more surprising.
Sofonisba Anguissola was born in Cremona, Lombardy in 1532, the oldest of seven children, six of whom were girls. Cremona was a northern Italian city then under Spanish dominion. Her father, Amilcare Anguissola, was a member of the Cremonese nobility, and her mother, Bianca Ponzone Anguissola, was also of noble background. The family lived near the site of the famous 2nd century B.C. battle of the Trebbia, which was the first major battle of the Second Punic War between Romans and Carthaginians. Several members of the Anguissola family, following a family tradition, were named after ancient Carthaginian historical figures to emphasize their ancient noble roots and possibly because of their allegiance to the Spanish king. Amilcare was named for the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca; he named his first daughter after the tragic Carthaginian figure, Sophonisba, and his only son Asdrubale after the Carthaginian warlord Hasdrubal Barca, the brother of Hannibal.
Amilcare, inspired by Baldassare Castiglione’s book Il Cortigiano (The Book of the Courtier), gave his children an extensive humanist education as was expected of all children of the elite during the Renaissance. This classical education would have included studying Latin, Ancient Greek and Roman writers, painting and music, as well as contemporary humanist authors, such as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. He encouraged all his daughters (Sofonisba, Elena, Lucia, Europa, Minerva and Anna Maria) to cultivate and perfect their artistic talents. Four of the sisters (Elena, Lucia, Europa and Anna Maria) became painters, but Sofonisba was by far the most accomplished and renowned and taught her younger siblings. Elena Anguissola (c. 1532-1584) abandoned painting to become a nun. Both Anna Maria and Europa gave up art once they were married, while Lucia Anguissola (c.1536–c.1568), the best painter of Sofonisba’s sisters, died young. The remaining sister, Minerva, became a writer and Latin scholar. Asdrubale, Sophonisba’s brother, studied music and Latin, but not painting.
Sofonisba was the brightest and most talented artist of the family. Her level of learning seemed to people who met her to be truly exceptional, as was her ability in painting. From an early age, Sofonisba had demonstrated a talent for drawing, some examples of which still exist: Autoritratto con la Donna Anziana (Self-Portrait with Old Woman, c.1545), a chalk sketch, that showed the artist in her early teens with a woman who, by her costume, appeared to be a servant of the household. Although unpolished, the skill evidenced by the sketch is, by any standard, precocious for such a young, untrained girl.
In providing this education above and beyond expectations, Amilcare perhaps sought to increase Sofonisba’s chances of an advantageous marriage when she came of age, which was something he himself had made in his marriage to Bianca, who was slightly higher than he in social rank. At the very least, he wished to give Sofonisba some degree of independence, just as some of his wealthier relatives had done for their own daughters.
While members of the nobility during the Renaissance were expected to have knowledge of the arts, it was not conventional for them to pursue the arts professionally. In a radical move, Amilcare arranged specialized training in painting for Sofonisba and her sister Elena. They joined the household of Bernardino Campi as apprentices in 1546. Campi was a respected young artist of the Lombard school who specialized in portrait and religious paintings. He had met Giulio Romano (aka Giulio Pippi) while working in Mantua and became influenced by his artistic endeavors. Pippi had been a pupil of Raphael, and his stylistic deviations from High Renaissance classicism helped define the 16th-century style known as Mannerism. Campi gained fame for his elegant compositions when he returned to Cremona.
Since their gender prohibited the sisters from the usual workshop training, Sofonisba and Elena lived and worked as paying guests in the Campi house, chaperoned by Bernardino’s wife. When not drawing or copying their master’s works at his home or in the churches where they were displayed, the girls learned the key techniques of contemporary art practice. In addition to demonstrating their representational skills, artists of the time had to be able to mix natural pigments to make their own oil paints, having first prepared an oil base by a laborious cooking process. The canvas or panel that was to be painted upon also demanded tedious preparation, involving the boiling of dried rabbit skins to make a type of glue that was applied in thin layers before painting took place. In Campi’s workshop, Sofonisba learned to copy from established masters, although she preferred to paint from life as she worked to develop her own Mannerist style under his influence.
Sofonisba’s most inventive early work under Campi’s tutelage was Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1550). The double portrait depicted her art teacher, Campi, in the act of painting a portrait of Sofonisba. In this painting, she made herself larger and more central to the picture than her teacher, and showed her teacher using a mahlstick (to steady the hand), which some scholars think portrayed his lesser ability or his lack of confidence. However, others point out that she later painted herself using a mahlstick. Thus, Anguissola may have simply intended to portray her master as helping to “create” her, while at the same time indicating that she planned to go on to become greater than he.
The sisters remained under instruction with Campi for three years until he moved from Cremona to Milan in 1549. Sofonisba then continued her training with another important Cremonese painter, Bernardino Gatti (Il Sojaro). Under his tutelage, she became acquainted with the painting styles of Correggio and Parmigianino, and gained a taste for everyday scenes. It is very likely that she also collaborated in some of Gatti’s commissions.
In 1554, at age twenty-two, Sofonisba traveled to Rome, where she spent her time sketching various scenes and people and observing the great works of art in the city. The paintings she produced in the early 1550s show a sense of innovation that became one of her hallmarks: imbuing portraits with narrative and intellectual nuances. It was this type of composition that interested one of the legendary masters of the Italian Renaissance, Michelangelo Buonarroti. She was brought to his attention through a letter her father sent to him asking him to help Sofonisba further develop her skills as a painter. While she doesn’t appear to have been apprenticed to Michelangelo, she began corresponding with him through letters. Michelangelo advised her and critiqued her work, which helped her a great deal. After receiving her drawing of a smiling girl teaching an elderly woman how to read, Michelangelo responded that a drawing of a crying boy would be more challenging. In response, Sofonisba almost immediately sent him Boy Bitten by a Crawfish (1554), which highlighted not only the draftsmanship that Michelangelo so admired but also her sense of humor. The painting is an intimate portrait of Sofonisba’s young brother, Asdrubale, being comforted by her youngest sister, Europa, who smiles at the crying boy. It is thought that this sketch inspired the important Baroque artist Caravaggio to paint his own painting—Ragazzo Morso da un Ramarro (Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1594-95). For at least two years, Sofonisba continued this informal study with Michelangelo, receiving substantial guidance from him. About 30 of her paintings from this period, including many self-portraits and the well-known Lucia, Minerva, and Europa Anguissola Playing Chess (also known as The Chess Game, 1555), have survived into the 21st century.
In 1558, already established as a painter, Sofonisba went to Milan, where she painted the Duke of Alba. He in turn recommended her to the Spanish king, Philip II. The following year, she was invited to join the Spanish Court, which was a turning point in her career. She became an attendant to the infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia (later the archduchess of Austria) and as a lady-in-waiting to Philip’s third wife and queen, Elisabeth (Isabella) of Valois (eldest daughter of King Henry II of France and Catherine de Medici). During her time at the Spanish court, Sofonisba tutored the queen in drawing and painting. She also completed a portrait of the queen at the request of Pope Pius IV, and numerous full-size and miniature portraits of Spanish royals and courtiers, including Philip II’s sister, Joanna, and his son, Don Carlos. In these portraits she invented new ways to show her subjects formally but with the life-like quality that gained her praise from Italian and Spanish art critics and collectors. These types of painting were far more demanding than the informal portraits upon which Sofonisba had based her early reputation, since it took a tremendous amount of time and energy to render the many intricate designs of the fine fabrics and elaborate jewelry associated with these royal subjects. Yet despite the challenge, her paintings of Elisabeth of Valois—and later of Anne of Austria, Philip II’s fourth wife—were vibrant and full of life.
During her 14-year residence at the Spanish court, she guided the artistic development of Queen Elisabeth and they became close friends. When Elisabeth died in October 1568 in childbirth along with her new-born daughter, other members of Elisabeth’s entourage returned to France but Sofonisba remained in Spain at the king’s request to educate his young infantas, Isabel Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela in painting. She also painted a portrait of Philip II’s fourth wife, Anne of Austria, soon after their marriage. (Most of Sofonisba’s paintings of this period are no longer extant, having burned in a fire at the Spanish court during the 17th century).
After the death of his queen, Elisabeth, Philip II took a special interest in Sofonisba’s future. He wanted her to marry one of the nobles in the Spanish Court. So, in 1571, when she was approaching the age of 40, Sofonisba entered into an arranged marriage to a Sicilian nobleman chosen for her by the Spanish court. Philip II paid a dowry of 12,000 scudi for her marriage to Fabrizio Moncada Pignatelli, son of the Prince of Paternò, the Viceroy of Sicily. Fabrizio was supportive of her painting career. After several years, by some accounts, she and her husband left Spain with the king’s permission, and are believed to have lived in Paternò (near Catania) from 1573 to 1579. However, some recent scholarship has suggested that the couple remained in Spain until Fabrizio’s death in 1579. She received a royal pension of 100 ducats that enabled her to continue working and tutoring would-be painters. Her private fortune also supported her family and brother Asdrubale following her father’s financial decline and death. At this time, she painted and donated La Madonna dell’Itria to the court in Paternò.
Sofonisba’s husband died in 1579 under mysterious circumstances. Two years later, while traveling to Cremona by sea, she fell in love with the ship’s captain, Orazio Lomellino, a sea merchant. Against the wishes of her brother, they married in Pisa on December 24, 1584 and lived in Genoa until 1620. She had no children, but maintained cordial relationships with her nieces and her stepson, Giulio.
Lomellino’s fortune, plus a generous pension from Philip II, allowed Sofonisba to paint freely and live comfortably in her later years. By the start of the 17th century, she had become quite famous, and she received many colleagues who came to visit and discuss the arts with her. Several of these were younger artists, eager to learn and mimic her distinctive style. In her later life, she painted not only portraits but paintings with religious themes, as she had done in the days of her youth, although many of these earlier paintings have been lost. In 1620 she painted her last self-portrait. She was the leading portrait painter in Genoa until she moved to Palermo in her final years.
On July 12, 1624, Sofonisba was visited by the young Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck, who recorded sketches from his visit to her in his sketchbook. Van Dyck, who believed her to be 96 years of age (she was actually about 92) noted that although “her eyesight was weakened” (she suffered from cataracts), she was still mentally alert. Excerpts of the advice she gave him about painting survive from this visit, and he was said to have claimed that their conversation taught him more about the “true principles” of painting than anything else in his life. Van Dyck drew her portrait while visiting her. This last portrait made of her still survives today. During these final years, after the weakening of her eyesight, she became a wealthy patron of the arts.
In 1625, Sofonisba Anguissola died at age 93 in Palermo after she had returned to Sicily. Her adoring second husband, who described her as small of frame, yet “great among mortals,” buried her with honor in Palermo at the Church of San Giorgio deiGenovesi. Seven years later, on the anniversary of what would have been her 100th birthday, he placed an inscription on her tomb that read in part:
To Sofonisba, my wife, who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, is 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.
Sofonisba’s Experiences as a Female Artist and Her Legacy
Sofonisba’s education and training had different implications from those of men since men and women worked in separate spheres. Her training was not to help her compete with male artists for commissions in her profession but to make her a better wife, companion, and mother. Although she enjoyed significantly more encouragement and support than the average woman of her day, her social class did not allow her to transcend the constraints of her gender. Without the possibility of studying anatomy or drawing from life (it was considered unacceptable for a lady to view nudes), she could not undertake the complex multi-figure compositions required for large-scale religious or history paintings. (In fact, her work, like that of many early female painters, was often attributed by critics to male painters of the period because they could not believe that a woman could paint such pictures—in Sofonisba’s case, painters as various as Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Giovanni Battista Moroni, Alonso Sánchez Coello, and Francisco de Zurbarán were often thought to be the artists of some of her paintings).
Instead of focusing on traditional forms and subject matter in her paintings, she experimented with and developed an expertise in new styles of portraiture, especially setting subjects informally in her paintings. Self-portraits and family members were her most frequent subjects, as seen in such paintings as Self-Portrait (1554), Portrait of Amilcare, Minerva and Asdrubale Anguissola (c. 1557-1558), and her most famous painting, The Chess Game (1555), painted when she was only 23 years old. The Chess Game was an intimate representation of an everyday family scene, combining elaborate formal clothing with very informal facial expressions, which was unusual for Italian Renaissance art at the time. In this painting she explored a new kind of genre painting which placed her sisters in a domestic setting instead of the formal or allegorical settings that were popular for portraits at the time. This painting has been regarded as a “conversation piece,” which is an informal portrait of a group engaging in lively conversation or some activity.
Sofonisba’s self-portraits also offer evidence of what she thought her place was as a woman artist. Normally, men were seen as creative actors and women as passive objects, but in her self-portrait of 1556, she presents herself as the artist, separating herself from the role of the object to be painted. Additional pieces show how she rebelled against the notion that women were objects, in essence, instruments to be played by men. Her self-portrait of 1561 showed her playing a musical instrument, reversing the traditional depiction of gender roles.
Her work had a lasting influence upon subsequent generations of artists, male as well as female. Her portrait of Queen Elisabeth/Isabella of Valois (early 1560s) holding a zibellino (the pelt of a marten set with a head and feet of jeweled gold) was the most widely copied portrait in Spain. Copiers of this work included many of the finest artists of the time, including Peter Paul Rubens.
Her success most assuredly inspired a larger number of female artists than before, including Lavinia Fontana, Barbara Longhi, Fede Galizia, and especially Artemisia Gentileschi (see my earlier essay on Artemisia), who all ignored social expectations of female domesticity and female seclusion to the private, domestic sphere and presented women as vigorous participants who were fully engaged in various activities in their paintings.
Certainly, Sofonisba was among the most accomplished painters of the late Renaissance. No less a commentator than Giorgio Vasari, who had seen her work in her father’s house in 1566, noted in his famous Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects that she had “done more in design and more gracefully than any other lady of our day, for not only has she designed, colored and copied the works of others most excellently, but she has produced rare and beautiful paintings of her own.”
Even though she had been popular and had been seen as a great artist in her own time, after her death her reputation died, perhaps because of her gender. She was rediscovered in the 1970s by Western feminists who began to look more closely at her work. While it would be incorrect to assign Sofonisba the title of “feminist,” her success demonstrated that her talent, work and reputation were equal, if not superior, to those of any other artist. As scholars have continued to unveil details of her life and production, she has provided scholars and artists with a key to rethink how we understand the Renaissance period in which she lived.
One recent honor given to her and not to many artists was this: on August 4, 2017 a crater on the planet Mercury was named after her.
* Members can enjoy a 2021 video presentation by author and speaker Donna DiGiuseppe for her book “Lady in Ermine” about Sofonisba Anguissola.
Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:
Birch, Ellie and Gimenez-Berger, Alejandra. “Sofonisba Anguissola – Biography and Legacy: Italian Painter.” TheArtStory.org website, January 10, 2019;
Kuiper, Kathleen. “Sofonisba Anguissola: Italian artist.” Encyclopedia Britannica website, October 28, 2021;
“Sofonisba Anguissola .” Encyclopedia of World Biography website. June 27, 2018;
“Sofonisba Anguissola.” New World Encyclopedia website, November 17, 2019;
Slatkin, Wendy. Women Artists in History. NY: Prentice-Hall, 1985.
Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, 4 vols. Translated by A. B. Hinds. London: J. M. Dent & Sons (Everyman’s Library), 1963. Quote is from Vol. 2, pg. 328.