Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 5, 2023
Liana De Girolami Cheney Lavinia Fontana’s Mythological Paintings: Art, Beauty, and Wisdom Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020. 318 pp.; 26 color ills.; 61 b/w ills. Cloth £67.99 (9781527557000)

In the last five years, Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) has received increased attention in terms of exhibitions and scholarly publications, as well as a resurgence of interest in her work in the art market. In 2019–20, the Museo del Prado hosted the exhibition A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana and this year, the National Gallery of Ireland will unveil Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker. Both shows are accompanied by substantial exhibition catalogs; in addition, a handful of articles and volumes have been devoted to Lavinia Fontana, including Un apice erotico di Lavinia Fontana by Enrico Maria Dal Pozzolo (2019), as well as additional studies of her work by Daniele Benati, Fausto Gozzi, Stefania Vai, and Emanuele Lugli. The scholarly anchors in the field of Fontana studies remain, in chronologically descending order, Murphy (2003); Fortunati (1994); Cantaro (1989); and Galli (1940). The 1998 exhibition and companion catalog for the show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., stand out for having first introduced the American public to Lavinia Fontana.

This current volume by Liana De Girolami Cheney focuses on the artist’s mythological pictures as revealing her role in post-Tridentine Bologna and Rome. As Cheney makes clear, this study is not a catalogue raisonné of Fontana’s mythological paintings nor does it address issues of connoisseurship, dating, or disagreements on attribution among scholars. In short, “this book is merely a short interpretative iconographical and iconological study on an aspect of Fontana’s inventiveness as revealed in some of her mythological paintings” (xxii). Cheney felt compelled to write this volume because “Fontana was the first female painter of the sixteenth century in Italy to depict female nudes as well as mythological and emblematic paintings that not only interpret a beautiful form but also manifest metaphorically the meaning of knowledge . . .” (xviiii). In other words, for Cheney, Fontana is an overlooked trailblazer whose “secular imagery provides a challenging paragone with the male tradition of history painting during the sixteenth century; and her work paved the way for new subjects to be depicted and interpreted by female and male painters of the seventeenth century” (xviiii). This relatively short volume, which is divided into eight brief chapters, which Cheney calls “essays,” seeks to dig more deeply into the meaning-making of Fontana’s oeuvre.

For Cheney, Fontana’s understanding of art stems from the Mannerist conception of beauty promulgated by Vasari and filtered through the lens of her training under her father, Prospero Fontana (1512–1597). The basic Vasarian tenets of studying nature, imitating it, and then improving on it through ones’ artistry apply here. But, according to Cheney, more is at stake than just imitation and amelioration; “. . . Fontana’s mythological paintings incorporate not only Mannerist aesthetics but also the sense of humor and enjoyment of inventing a Mannerist conceit under the cloud of controversial visual and moral reforms” (xxi). 

In chapter 1, Cheney makes plain that “as a consequence of her artistic training, education, and familial, personal, and professional contacts, Fontana became aware of the literary and printed traditions associated with emblematic and mythographic sources” (3). Among the most notable sources for Fontana, Cheney cites Andrea Alciato, Achille Bocchi, Horapollo, Francesco Colonna, Cesare Ripa, and, of course, in Bologna, Gabriele Paleotti. She returns repeatedly to this rich array of sources throughout the volume. In chapter 2, Cheney offers a brief overview of Fontana’s life and career as well as the socio-political circumstances of the period. The first part treats biographies on Lavinia Fontana and the second section turns to the cultural environment. Cheney suggests that the now lost painting Child Monkey painted at age twenty-three may, in fact, be Fontana’s Portrait of Antoinetta Gonzales, today in Blois, if we can date it to 1583 rather than the customary 1575. Cheney also wonders whether Fontana could have contributed to Ulisse Aldrovandi’s encyclopedia of naturalia. Two compelling suggestions! Cheney also posits that, unlike her portraits of men, which emphasize their accomplishments, Fontana’s portraits of women depict their status and domestic circumstances. The portrait of Lucia Bonasoni Garzoni, ca. 1590, newly acquired by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., however, refutes such a simple bifurcation by gender. Lucia Bonasoni Garzoni status is promoted as well as her accomplishments in this portrait. As signified by the still life of the instrument and musical score on the table at the sitter’s right, we know that she was an accomplished lutenist and singer in addition to being a member of Bolognese nobility. That said, Cheney provides a useful overview of Fontana’s literary sources and cultural context in the first two chapters of the volume.

In chapter 3, on Fontana’s self-portraits and her inspirations for “self-imaging,” Cheney compares her practice to other women artists of the period, including Sofonisba Anguissola. In her discussions of individual paintings, there are a number of debatable assertions. Cheney believes the Brera family portrait to represent the Fontana family, with Lavinia depicted as the young girl. This theory is not widely accepted among scholars. Cheney also offers an unlikely suggestion for the hard-to-decipher initials in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’s self-portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola; Cheney reads ACELMPK as Arte; Cremona; Elena or Europa; Lucia; Minerva; Ponzone; possibly Karat hadast. An unfounded, discussion ensues about a proposed Self-Portrait as a Mother-to-Be, 1580, in a private collection (50–51), as well as the so-called Seattle Self-Portrait, attributed by the author (51–52). As for her discussion of Fontana’s portrait medal by Antonio Casini (54–56), she interprets the Latin inscription on the verso, “PER TE STATO GIOIOSO MI MANTENE,” as evoking the “creative inspiration of the painter” (56). Only recently, Emanuele Lugli has recognized this inscription as a line from a canzone by Petrarch, opening up the interpretive possibilities considerably. In order to understand Fontana’s “self-fashioning,” in chapter 3, the reader is left to parse fact from fiction in terms of self-portraits attributed to the artist.

In chapter 4, Cheney explores Fontana’s mythological images of Venus, arguing that the artist selected the figure of Venus purposefully to explore Mannerist conceptions of beauty, as well as Renaissance Neoplatonic philosophy and literary treatises on love. According to Cheney, Fontana’s depictions of Venus fall into three types: Venus and Cupid; Venus with a Lover; and Venus as a donna nobile. Cheney writes “it is unclear whether she used any specific live models” (82) in preparing to paint Venus in the nude. To this reviewer’s eye, it is quite clear that she did not employ live models, but rather relied on other paintings, prints, and sculpture to establish the Mannerist contours of her female forms.

Chapter 5 focuses solely on the mythological representation of Galatea by Fontana in a private collection in Bologna, as “a fine example of Fontana’s exploration of new artistic techniques and materials as well as testimony to her bold artistic interpretation” (105). The work is painted on copper and offers overtly titillating subject matter. In chapter 6, Cheney concentrates her attention on two versions of Minerva dressing or undressing—as the case may be—in the collections of the Borghese Gallery, Rome, and the Pavirani Collection, Bologna, as manifestations of peace as well as moral virtue. Chapter 7 focuses on wisdom as a human virtue, in the form of prudence, featuring an exploration of Lavinia Fontana’s painting of the subject, now in the Galerie Maison d’Art in Monte Carlo. Here, Fontana, as Cheney points out, plays with mirrors (two are represented in the picture) in addition to the mirroring of the period in terms of iconological representation. In chapter 8, Cheney turns to Fontana’s enigmatic painting of Cleopatra in the Galleria Spada in Rome. Painted during her Roman period, Cheney argues that in this picture, which she calls Cleopatra the Alchemist, the artist “visualizes the cultural aura of the Roman curia in promoting diplomatic relations with Persia and the Middle East,” (155) reflecting Paul V Borghese’s diplomatic engagement with this region in his work and commissions of art. Cheney finds the traditional identification of the figure as Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, problematic; instead, she puts forth the theory that Fontana presents Cleopatra the Alchemist, who lived in Alexandria during the third century BCE, and was a scientist and devotee of Isis. Hence, the first sculpture on the armoire is an ibis, a sacred bird of Isis. In short, all the objects on the dresser have “Egyptian mythical connections,” (162) enabling Cheney to identify the protagonist. In the book’s coda, Cheney ruminates on Fontana’s fascination with the nude body, concluding that the artist’s “mythological paintings continue to surprise the viewer with their versatility in technique, style, and conceits; her visualizations thus invite the viewer to ponder on artistic creativity and its merit: a journey into wonderment” (173). Chapters 5 through 8, in this tome, offer the reader useful case studies where Cheney applies her emblematic and iconographic approach to Fontana’s work.

As Cheney signals in her preface to the book, “hopefully, it will generate new impetus into the study of female artists of other centuries—not just in terms of their lives, careers, sociopolitical patronage (Whitney Chadwick), and specific gender issues (Mary Garrard and Linda Nochlin) but also in terms of emblematic historicism and mythological manifestations, capturing the ample creativity of female painters in their respective cultures” (xx).

Not a light read, Cheney’s book rewards the reader who seeks deep knowledge of the intellectual realm of Fontana’s period and her erudition. The dense text might best be used as a series of essays to be delved into and excavated as needed by the scholar. In sum, it is a broadly useful tome intended, as the author writes, “first and foremost for students of the humanities (classical, emblematic, and mythological studies), art and literary criticism, and lovers of Italian culture” (xxii).

Eve Straussman-Pflanzer
Curator and Head of Italian and Spanish Paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.