LAVINIA FONTANA (1552-1614), the first Italian woman credited with a public commission, for the 1584 altarpiece of the Assumption for a chapel in the Palazzo Communale at Imola, the so-called Madonna di Ponte Santo, is not readily encountered in British collections.
London, Edinburgh, and Belfast hold no officially known works by this extraordinary artist, who grew up in Bologna in her father Prospero’s art studio. Petworth House has one portrait attributed to her, and the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool) has her oil-on-copper copy after Michelangelo, Silentium, in which the exhausted Christ Child is slumped across the Virgin’s lap, in the deepest of sleeps.
Dublin, on the other hand, has three, one recently established by Christopher Wright, The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine (Castletown House), one of 26 Old Master paintings generously loaned from the Schorr Collection, the others the pride and joy of the National Gallery of Ireland itself.
I first went to Dublin in March 2019 for solace from the misery of the Brexit debates and to prove that it was still possible to cross a border in Europe without checks. Fontana’s largest known canvas, The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (1 Kings 10.1-13). which is more than 2.5m tall and stretches 326.5cm along its fictive balcony, was undergoing restoration. Therefore I could not see what is rightly regarded as the gallery’s crowning glory.
Cleaning has established a hidden inscription on the lowest predella step of the king’s dais which dates the work to 1599 and gives the text as 2 Chronicles 9. Aiofe Brady’s close examination convincingly suggests that the allegorical portraits are idealised ones of Duke Alfonso II d’Este and his younger third wife, Margherita Gonzaga, who had married two decades before.
It is lavishly characterised by attention to fabrics and finery. Sheba all but drowns in a sea of pearls embroidered on her rose-pink and gold robe, and her ten waiting women wear so many ropes of pearls as would stretch a catena the width of the monumental canvas more than once.
It is the central focus of the last room of this exhibition where it is deliberately contrasted with the very naked Minerva Undressing, painted in 1613 for Cardinal Scipione Borghese in Rome, one of the artist’s last paintings.
In the same year, with her husband and their surviving children, she joined the Franciscan association of the Figliolanza della Religione dei Padri Cappucini. Throughout her child-bearing years, her proud husband, Gian Paolo Zappi from Imola, had kept a record of the births (and often deaths) of their 11 children born between 1578 and 1595. He also recorded the names of godparents, which show the family’s upward social mobility.
The other Dublin Fontana is a rather workaday portrait of a gentleman in armour which lacks the enquiring gaze that she was able to bring to the university men of her day. Bologna University was founded in 1088 but did not admit women until the 18th century, when it recognised the talented physicist Laura Bassi (1711-78). It is unlikely that (as some claim) Fontana was formally ever part of the university, but that did not prevent her meeting scholars, whose portraits paid the bills for an ever-expanding household until she obtained more lucrative noble patrons.
Here, some of the most engaging works are those of distinguished women. The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC recently bought a sumptuous portrait of Lucia Bonasoni Garzoni, one of the Fontana children’s godparents. It was bought in 2021 from a dealer in Spain and has yet to be shown in Washington. More restrained, as is fitting for a red-eyed widow, is a portrait from the mid-1590s (Bologna, Casa di Risparmio) in which the sitter eyes us up with an unflinching stare.
The group portrait of the Gozzadini family was commissioned by a woman member of the family, Laudomia Gozzadini, as part of a campaign to ensure her own legitimacy to assure her children of their rightful inheritance. Three years later, Laudomia stood at the font for yet another Fontana boy.
Although professing a primary interest in her work as a portraitist, Dr Brady has also included half a dozen other religious paintings. I was only sorry that the little Schorr picture of the late 1580s (painted in oil on copper, it measures just 24/7 × 18.7cm) did not make the cut.
Two conventional altarpieces, of which the Imola Assumption includes the local saints Peter Chrysologus and Cassian kneeling in rich velvet copes either side of an accurately observed model of the city, and the Gnetti Pala, painted 15 years later in 1599, for a chapel in the Bolognese Servite church, show Fontana’s skilful interest in realism, particularly in capturing the texture of fabric.
And, long before Artemisia Gentileschi, she found a market for paintings of Judith with the head of Holofernes, one of which is a rare example of a nocturne viewed by torchlight, painted, it would seem, for another widow whom one hopes was not driven to tyrannicide (Fondazione Retiro San Pellegrino).
The National Gallery of Ireland is a great collection. In 2019, I came principally to see the loaned Caravaggio The Taking of Christ, which was commissioned by the Roman nobleman Ciriaco Mattei in 1602, a couple of years before Fontana became the first woman artist to be admitted to Rome’s Accademia di San Luca, of which he was a member.
From that first visit, I recall that I was swept off my feet by paintings as varied as Guercino’s Jacob Blessing his Sons, the Velázquez Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus, and the recently acquired Flemish Lamentation of Christ (c.1630-35) by Gerard Seghers (1591-1651), which had once hung in a Cambridgeshire church, where it was attributed to Van Dyck. Caroline Campbell, formerly on the staff of the London National Gallery and now newly director in Dublin, has much to be proud of here.
“Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker” is at the National Gallery of Ireland, Merrion Square West, Dublin, until 27 August. Phone 00 353 1 661 5133. www.nationalgallery.ie