Skip to main content
Category

Renaissance Art

Flora the ambitious blonde

By Elevenses, Renaissance Art, Talking art
Palma Vecchio Flora

Palma Vecchio, A Blonde Woman, 1520, National Gallery

Flora the ambitious blonde? Well, yes. Palma Vecchio’s A Blonde Woman is most certainly blonde. But where does ‘Flora’ come in? And why might we say that this lady has ambition?

Read on!

Firstly, that is a knowing gaze. Also, because her eyes are sliding off to the left, our eye is drawn to the gorgeous pink nipple first and then to the posy of flowers. Before we get onto the flowers, I need to linger on the nipple and the breast (!) because, whoops, does she even know that her pretty blue ribbon has come undone? Or that the loop of the ribbon against this again rather soft and sensual abundance of white chemise perfectly frames her perfectly pert right bosom?

And so to the flowers. Firstly, isn’t it gorgeous the way that the colours echo the gold of her hair and jewellery, her ribbon and the green of her dress and of course the rosy pink of her nipple. They also may have symbolic meaning. The forget-me-nots ask us to do what they say on the tin, buttercups are all about dazzling charms and the primrose (pink flower) associated with first love ‘prima rosa’ because they flower in early spring.

It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that perhaps this unapologetically erotic portrait is of a courtesan. But if you were in any doubt, let’s delve deeper into the clues, starting with the gaze. No up standing member of the 16th century community is going to sit around for hours on end with her chemise undone and slipping off her shoulder to expose a boob. And they are definitely not going to look invitingly at you as they do it!

Palma Vecchio, A Blonde Woman detail of posy of flowers

The posy of flowers, however, is fairly innocent, right? Wrong! The flowers allude to the goddess Flora which in itself is lovely. Classical antiquity was all the rage in the 1520s and to depict a goddess showed a certain erudition. But Flora, ah! Flora was the goddess of the flowering or blossoming of flowers and plants, especially agricultural crops. Violently abducted by Zephyr the west wind , she was subsequently given a beautiful garden. So she is the goddess that makes things grow, by which I mean ‘things’ other than flowers and crops. We can thank ancient Rome for that bit of double entendre. Courtesans in the Renaissance era were commonly called Flora as a result of this. And just another connection to antiquity; all prostitutes in ancient Rome had to have blonde hair. Do we think she’s a natural blonde? Unlikely!

There was, in the 16th century, a fashion for Venetian women to bleach their hair. This 16th century version of sun-in may well have had similar results but was quite a lot more disgusting to apply and seems to have involved pigeon shit rinsed off with horse urine. It’s surprising perhaps, given the smell, that bleaching the hair was a sure sign of vanity – I look good but I smell like shit (literally) – although many women apparently succumbed.

In a world in which portraits were essentially displays of wealth and the importance of lineage, why a courtesan and who commissioned this? Well, courtesans played quite an important role in 16th c Venice. There was absolutely a distinction between the honest or intellectual courtesan who often had what we would call ‘sugar daddies’ and the ladies that hung around the Rialto Bridge. The intellectual courtesans were relatively frequently not low born but born into patrician or merchant families and were, to a degree, educated. The problems started when they were at marriageable age because dowries were exorbitant. So if a couple had several daughters, they were in real danger of going bankrupt trying to marry them off. The options were that they remained spinsters and stayed at ‘home’ and then could be in the really weird position of having their baby brother’s wife as the mistress of the house; they could go into a nunnery – that also required a dowry albeit less; or they could become a courtesan which meant that they earnt a lot of money, often becoming the sole support of their family. In a society in which wealthy men often weren’t expected to marry until they were in their 30s, a cultured woman who provided entertainment and extras was almost a necessity.

‘Honest’ courtesans, as they were known straddled the gap between the noble and the lower classes but had the opportunity to mix in interesting circles and, to an extent, had power over their destiny. Those canny enough could wield considerable influence.

In sixteenth-century Venice, therefore, it wasn’t unusual for images of beautiful young women to be commissioned by collectors and the wealthy clients of courtesans. There is also evidence that successful courtesans commissioned such paintings of and for themselves, both as solid financial investments and as lasting records of their charms to be prominently displayed in their own apartments.

An ambitious blonde? Oh yes!

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

The tender and cruel Sofonisba Anguissola

By International Women's Day, Renaissance Art, Talking art

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about an incredible female artist called Lavinia Fontana. This week is all about the ‘tender and cruel’ Sofonisba Anguissola who made her name in Rome and later worked for Philip II Spain in Madrid.

Anguissola’s talent was recognised very early on, she was lucky enough to have a forward thinking and liberal father who was keen to educate his daughters (he had six in total and just one son) and he encouraged her to draw and paint and even got her a tutor, the artist Bernadino Campi.

self portrait Sofonisba Anguissola

Sofonisba Anguissola,
Self-portrait, 1560-1,
Pinacoteca Brera, Italy

That isn’t to say that life as a female artist was plain sailing for Anguissola. It is true that when she met Michelangelo in Rome in 1554 when she was in her early 20s he gave her sketches from his notebooks to help her develop her own style. There’s also evidence that he helped and guided her quite substantially over at least a couple of years. She must have really impressed him; Michelangelo was known to be massively grumpy and critical!

Around the same time that Anguissola met Michelangelo, the Florentine painter Francesco Salviati wrote a letter to her tutor, Campi, congratulating him on his great achievement. It went on to say that this achievement was born of his beautiful intellect. Was it that Anguissola was being educated and trained by the best of the best? Michelangelo and Campi?

Not so much.

Campi’s achievement was Anguissola!

The slight must have made Sofonisba at least a little bit peeved and we all know that revenge is a dish best served cold. Although there is no documentation that I’m aware of that lays out Anguissola’s intent, take a look at this double portrait.

It was described to me once as both incredibly tender and incredibly cruel.

It is an image of Bernadino Campi painting Sofonisba Anguissola’s portrait painted by Anguissola in 1559. Got it?! Anguissola has imitated his style in the painting of her portrait – the one that Campi is supposed to painting – but the thing is that he was a less accomplished artist than she was. So she is imitating his style, which should be flattering, but because he is the lesser artist, it isn’t. There’s another thing. She has also made herself the larger of the two so that she dominates him. Two fingers to Salviati? I think so. On the other hand, honouring Campi in her work in the first place was a lovely thing to do and the intimacy between them is, I feel, very apparent, especially when her original design is taken into account.

Anguissola portrait of Campi

Sofonisba Anguissola, Bernardino Campi painting Sofonisba Anguissola, c.1559, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

Take a look at these three images. The first is of the painting before it was restored in 1996. The second is during restoration and the third is post restoration.

Anguissola's portrait of Bernadino Campi pre restoration
Sofonisba Anguissola portrait of Campi during restoration
Anguissola portrait of Campi

In the the first and third image her left hand is holding a pair of gloves. During restoration, she appears to have grown a limb! A second left hand is visible reaching up as though to remove the brush or at least the mahlstick from Campi’s grasp. Or maybe she’s helping by holding the mahlstick steady as he paints the delicate lace of her dress?

You could say that this is a simple pentimento – a change that occurs as the artist works through their design on the canvas – but this version is very detailed so Anguissola got a long way down the line before she decided to let Campi get on with it and stopped trying to intervene / help, instead occupying her hand with the gloves.

It was decided to restore the painting to the image that Anguissola finally intended, hence the after restoration image doesn’t include the third arm.

Finally, I had to include this by painting by van Dyck of Anguissola in the last year of her life. It was painted in 1624, she died in 1625 aged 93.

Sofonisba Anguissola by Van Dyke

Van Dyke, Sofonisba Anguissola, 1624, Knole House, Kent

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.