Sofonisba Anguissola: Portraitist of the Renaissance and Painting Instructor to Queen Isabel of Valois

Pieza del mes: Marzo 2024
Autora invitada: Nelleke de Vries, Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede

Cómo citar este artículo/How to cite this article: Nelleke de Vries, “Sofonisba Anguissola: Portraitist of the Renaissance and Painting Instructor to Queen Isabel of Valois”, Agenart: La agencia artística de las mujeres de la Casa de Austria, 1532-1700, 7 de marzo de 2024. Consultado: 18 de abril de 2024. URL:

From 11 February until 11 June 2023, the Rijksmuseum Twenthe hosted the exhibition Sofonisba Anguissola. Portraitist of the Renaissance on the noblewoman and artist Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532-1625). Organized together with the Danish Nivaagaard Collection, this was the first monographic exhibition on the Italian woman artist ever held north of the Alps, and it featured more than half of her currently known oeuvre.

Sofonisba Anguissola was one of the most successful artists of the Italian Renaissance, praised by her contemporaries for her talent and creativity. In the decades after her death, admiration for Anguissola remained undiminished. For example, in 1674 the historian Raffaele Soprani described her as “la più illustre Pittrice d’Europa”: the most glorious woman painter in Europe. Her life was marked by three important moments: her childhood and education in Cremona, her time as a lady-in-waiting at the Spanish court in Madrid, and her later years in Sicily and Genoa.

The Family Portraits

“[…] but most excellent in painting […] has been Sofonisba Anguisciuola of Cremona, with her three sisters, which most gifted maidens are the daughters of Signor Amilcare Anguisciuola and Signora Bianca Punzona, both of whom belong to the most noble families in Cremona. Speaking, then, of Signora Sofonisba […] I must relate that I saw this year in the house of her father at Cremona, in a picture executed with great diligence by her hand, portraits of her three sisters in the act of playing chess, and with them an old woman of the household, all done with such care and such spirit, that they have all the appearance of life, and are wanting in nothing save speech.”

Figure 1. Sofonisba Anguissola, The Chess Game, 1555. Oil on canvas, 72 x 97 cm. The Raczyński Foundation, Muzeum Narodowe w Poznianu, Poznań.

This quote by the famous Italian artist Giorgio Vasari appears in the second edition (1568) of his Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architettori. He refers to The Chess Game, a uniquely composed portrait of three of Anguissola’s sisters—Lucia, Minerva and Europa—and a servant or chaperone [Figure 1]. They are playing chess on a table with a tablecloth, surrounded by trees and with a typical Italian landscape in the background. This is probably the first group portrait in history that shows only women. In addition to this painting, Vasari expressed admiration for Anguissola’s unusual Family Portrait, which shows her father Amilcare, her brother Asdrubale, and again her sister Minerva, who appears behind them. Vasari writes that the figures were painted with such skill that they seemed to breathe and to be absolutely alive.

The subjects of Vasari’s influential biographies were almost exclusively men, and as such he nearly always reserved the kind of praise he gave Anguissola’s family portraits for the great male artists of the past. But he made an exception for Anguissola because she had “worked with more grace and diligence […] than any other woman of our time.”

Sofonisba Anguissola grew up in a large family in Cremona, a city that was governed by the Spanish court. After the death of Francesco II Sforza in 1535, the Duchy of Milan became part of the Spanish Empire. After years of conflict, the newfound peace and stability restored the economy, population and cultural life of the duchy, including its second city, Cremona, whose considerable financial activity transformed it into a “little Antwerp,” the Flemish city with which it maintained a close commercial relationship. During the following two centuries, Spanish rule was maintained through a local administration, which remained in the hands of Cremona’s aristocracy, including the Anguissolas, who considered themselves descendants of the ancient Roman nobility. As part of a proper education, the sisters Sofonisba and Elena Anguissola were sent to study the art of painting with the Cremonese artist Bernardino Campi. They lived with him and his wife between 1546 and 1549. They were kept separate from the male pupils working in Campi’s studio because female pupils were subject to many restrictions at the time.

Contrary to her male colleagues, for example, Sofonisba was not allowed to study the male nude or attend anatomy lessons, nor was she permitted to travel on her own, not even to observe the landscape surrounding Cremona. Sofonisba turned this limitation into her strength. She focused on the genre of portraiture, and it is no surprise that her early portraits often show family members—models she could easily study and paint at home.

The Self-Portraits

Sofonisba grew up during a period of new ideas about women and their role in society. Various books on contemporary rules of conduct were published during the sixteenth century. One of the most well-known was Baldassare Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano, first published in Venice in 1528. This book lists all the requirements that applied to courtiers and the nobility: the education they should receive, the skills they should possess, the clothes they should wear, the attitudes they should display, and desirable and undesirable forms of behaviour.

In the third chapter, Castiglione focuses on the standards that women must meet. He writes: “No court, however large, can be beautiful, stately, or merry without the presence of women.” Additionally, he writes that they should have a knowledge of literature, music, painting and dancing, among other things. Sofonisba’s education clearly met these requirements, and her self-portraits show her awareness of them. As a young woman, she learned a series of important humanistic and artistic values and incorporated these into her everyday activities. Several of the self-portraits include attributes emphasizing her talents, such as an easel and a spinet or clavichord. Each portrait shows different talents characteristic of a virtuous woman, often combined with the inscription “virgo,” emphasizing her honourable nature [Figure 2]. For example, two self-portraits of Sofonisba behind a musical instrument, as well as one of her holding a book and another of her behind the easel, are still known today. The Self-Portrait at the Easel is also one of the earliest portraits showing a woman painting [Figure 3]. With her portraits, Sofonisba played with the expectations imposed by her gender and used these ideals—or these strictures, depending on one’s perspective—to present herself as a confident and masterful painter.

Figure 3. Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait Behind the Easel, c. 1556-1557. Oil on canvas, 66 x 57 cm. Muzeum-Zamek w Łancucie, Łancut.

At the Spanish Court

In 1559, Amilcare Anguissola received a letter requesting the presence of his daughter Sofonisba at the Spanish court as a lady-in-waiting to Isabel of Valois. In a letter to the king, dated 6 September 1559, Amilcare expressed his gratitude at length, stating that he was honoured that his daughter could be of service to “the most powerful Catholic and Christian king in the world.” Sofonisba arrived in Spain in the same year. Isabel of Valois was only fourteen-years-old at the time, while Sofonisba was around twenty-seven. She first arrived at the court in Guadalajara after several months of travel. There, she attended the wedding of King Philip and Queen Isabel. Thanks to a letter from ambassador Girolamo Neri to the Duke of Mantua in 1560, we know that Sofonisba danced with Ferrante Gonzaga. “On the night of the wedding, the king proposed to dance and since no one wanted to begin, Signore Ferrante Gonzaga was the first to dance; he asked the young Cremonese who paints and who came here to stay with the queen, which opened the way for many who danced after them.”

Figure 4. Sofonisba Anguissola, Isabel de Valois Holding a Portrait of Philip II, 1561-1565. Oil on canvas, 206 x 123 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

The queen was interested in art and took an instant liking to Sofonisba, enjoying her drawing lessons. At this time, Sofonisba already had some teaching experience, having taught her younger sisters in Cremona. We know from historical sources that the relationship between the queen and Sofonisba was close. Moreover, Sofonisba was praised at the court for her beauty, talent, manners, and dancing skills. Life at the court included many social obligations, masked balls, hunts, and performances. Nevertheless, Sofonisba continued to paint portraits in Madrid [Figure 4]. At the time, portraiture was the most important genre in Spanish art. Like the official court painters, Sofonisba left her portraits unsigned and adopted the official courtly style, moving away from the distinctive and innovative manner of her early years in Cremona. Instead, her style came to complement the works by official court artists like Alonso Sánchez Coello, to whom art historians would often later misattribute her paintings.

Isabel of Valois died on 3 October 1568. According to Bernardo Maschi, the ambassador of Urbino, Sofonisba was inconsolable, unwilling to “continue living.” Unlike the other ladies-in-waiting, Sofonisba stayed at the court. She became a governess to Isabel’s daughters, the infantas Isabel Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela and remained in Madrid for another five years. The two little princesses became very attached to Sofonisba. She painted their portraits shortly before she left Spain [Figures 5 and 6]. The younger, Catalina Micaela, had just turned six; in her portrait she holds her beloved pet marmoset, an animal native to South America that here also serves as a reference to the Spanish colonies. Sofonisba’s portraits of both little girls are tender and loving, while according them the adult dignity required by their position. Both infantas would grow up to govern their own territories outside of Spain. Isabel Clara Eugenia would act as sovereign of the Southern Netherlands from 1621 until her death in 1633, and Catalina Micaela would become the Duchess of Savoy.

Back in Italy

In 1573, when Sofonisba expressed her wish to return to Italy, King Philip II arranged for her to marry a Sicilian nobleman, Fabrizio de Moncada, Count of Caltanissetta and Paternò. She returned to Italy after fourteen years in Spain. Sadly, the marriage was short-lived: after less than five years, Fabrizio drowned during a pirate attack off Capri. During her subsequent sea voyage back to Cremona, at age 47, Sofonisba fell in love with the captain of the ship: Orazio Lomellino of Genoa.

In remarrying, Sofonisba cast aside the conventions that would normally apply to a widow of the Spanish court. She asked permission neither from her brother Asdrubale (who was her legal guardian after Moncada and her father had died) nor from Philip II. After a short stay in Pisa, Sofonisba and Orazio moved to Genoa in 1581. Although Sofonisba had long painted religious subjects, it was in Genoa that she painted most of her surviving examples, taking inspiration from a famous local artist: Luca Cambiaso [Figures 7 and 8]. Quite possibly, the two artists knew each other. Sofonisba’s home and workshop was a meeting place for fellow artists, and it is quite probable that Cambiaso visited her there. Moreover, she likely played a role in the establishment of Cambiaso as a court artist in Spain, thanks to the favour she continued to enjoy with the Spanish king. In general, she remained in regular contact with her Spanish connections. Catalina Micaela visited her in 1585, when passing through northern Italy after her marriage to Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy. Isabel Clara Eugenia visited Genoa in 1599 and similarly paid a visit to her former governess.

In 1615, Orazio Lomellino and Sofonisba Anguissola moved to Palermo. She died there at age 93, after forty-five years of marriage. The year before her death, in 1624, she received a visit from the celebrated Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck. In his diary entries, he described Sofonisba as being clear of mind and mentioned her gifts as an extraordinary painter of human nature. Later, he would recall how he had learned more from her than from any other colleague.

Bibliography (selection):

  • Sheila Barker (ed.), Women Artists in Early Modern Italy. Careers, Fame, and Collectors (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2016).
  • Michael Cole, Sofonisba’s Lesson. A Renaissance Artist and Her Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).
  • Mary D. Garrard, “Here’s Looking at Me: Sofonisba Anguissola and the Problem of the Woman Artist,” Renaissance Quarterly, 47:3 (1994), pp. 556-622.
  • Fredrika H. Jacobs, “Woman’s Capacity to Create: The Unusual Case of Sofonisba Anguissola,” Renaissance Quarterly 47:1 (1994), pp. 74-101.
  • Maria Kusche, “Sofonisba Anguissola en España retratista en la corte de Felipe II junto a Alonso Sánchez Coello y Jorge de la Rúa,” Archivo Español de Arte 62:248 (1989), pp. 391-420.
  • Linda Nochlin and Anne Sutherland Harris, Women Artists: 1550-1950 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museumof Art, 1976).
  • Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses. Women, Art and Ideology [1981] (London and New York: I.B. Taurus & Co. Ltd, 2013).
  • Ilya Sandra Perlingieri, Sofonisba Anguissola. The First Great Woman Artist of the Renaissance (New York: Rizzoli, 1992).
  • Leticia Ruiz Gómez (ed.), A Tale of Two Women Painters. Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana (Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 2019).


  • Figure 1. Sofonisba Anguissola, The Chess Game, 1555. Oil on canvas, 72 x 97 cm. The Raczyński Foundation, Muzeum Narodowe w Poznianu, Poznań.
  • Figure 2. Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait, c. 1554. Oil on panel, 19.5 x 14.5 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. © KHM Museumsverband.
  • Figure 3. Sofonisba Anguissola, Self-Portrait Behind the Easel, c. 1556-1557. Oil on canvas, 66 x 57 cm. Muzeum-Zamek w Łancucie, Łancut.
  • Figure 4. Sofonisba Anguissola, Isabel de Valois Holding a Portrait of Philip II, 1561-1565. Oil on canvas, 206 x 123 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. © Museo Nacional del Prado.
  • Figure 5. Sofonisba Anguissola, Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia, c. 1573. Oil on canvas, 56 x 47 cm. Galleria Sabauda, Musei Reali di Torino, Turin. © MiC – Musei Reali, Galleria Sabauda.
  • Figure 6. Sofonisba Anguissola, Infanta Catalina Micaela, c. 1573. Oil on canvas, 56.2 x 47 cm. Private collection.
  • Figure 7. Sofonisba Anguissola, Mystical Marriage of Saint Catharine, 1588. Oil on canvas, 94 x 70 cm. Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao. © Bilboko Arte Ederren Museoa-Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao.
  • Figure 8. Luca Cambiaso, Mystical Marriage of Saint Catharine, c. 1570. Oil on canvas, 180 x 146 cm. Palazzo dell’Opera Pia Causa, Genoa.