Lavinia Fontana has been called the first woman artist from Bologna to achieve fame throughout Italy. She was best known for receiving a papal commission from Pope Clement VIII for an extremely large altarpiece for the basilica of S Paolo fuori le Mura. This magnificent altarpiece, that stood over twenty feet tall, was named it The Stoning of Saint Stephen Martyr. It was destroyed by fire in 1823.

Lavinia Fontana was born in Bologna, Italy in 1552. Her father, Prospero Fontana was an artist, who taught Lavinia to paint at a very young age. In Bologna at this time, young women were encouraged for their artistic and academic talents.

Soon her fame surpassed the fame of her father and his works. Many art scholars have debated whether Lavinia or Sofonisba Anguissola should be called the first woman to be a success in the art world.

Lavinia was best known for her portraits, religious subjects, and mythological paintings. Her first paintings were made in 1570, within 2 years; she had become a well known portrait painter in her hometown of Bologna.

She married Gian Paolo Zappi (one of her father’s art students) in 1577. Zappi was a wealthy man, who gave up his own art career, so he could help Lavinia care for their eleven children, this would give her more time to work in her art studio. Zappi would also help Lavinia, by building her frames for her paintings, and would help her paint the background images on some of her artwork, as well acting as her agent.

Lavinia painted more than still-life and portraits, she had made several large mythological and biblical paintings, some included nudes of both males and females. Lavinia was able to paint the nudes, thanks to artists like Properzia de Rossi who had paved the way for women artists to paint nude subjects in their work. At that time for it was rare for a female artist to paint a nude. These paintings helped her to get several commissions for paintings. The first commissioned work she did was titled Assumption of the Virgin, this was commissioned in 1584.

This altarpiece for the basilica of S Paolo fuori le Mura, was to be her last commission; it had a controversial reception by the people of Rome. Even though it was her last commission, she continued doing portraits and still-life paintings.

Lavinia's lifestyle was nothing particularly innovative, her wide variety of subjects and format make her a noteworthy artist, and the number of works she created makes her quite exceptional. She is famous for making the largest body of work produced by a female artist before 1700. She created 135 documented paintings, of which thirty that are known to have survived.

Lavinia broke new ground for women by receiving both private and public commissions, continuing to paint after she was married, and even supporting her family with her work. Lavinia died in 1614, it was a great loss for the art world.

Examples of her artwork:

  • http://www.nmwa.org/collection/portfolio.asp?LinkID=243
  • http://www.mystudios.com/women/fghij/fontana_holy_family.jpg
  • http://www.kfki.hu/~arthp/html/f/fontana/index.html
  • http://tinyurl.com/4nwr2
  • http://tinyurl.com/5v3po

Her paintings are on display at some very prominent galleries like:

I have only seen her paintings on the internet, but they still look very beautiful. She was truly a talented artist.


More information on other lesser known female artists can be found here


Source: Women Artists. 1st ed. : Ruggio Publishing, 1977.

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