Properzia de Rossi was a 16th-century sculptor who gained fame for carving very intricate compositions, such as an entire scene of a crucifixion, on the pits of apricots and cherries. She once carved sixty-five heads on a single walnut, the smallest of all recorded carvings. Her first true success was when she beat several male competitors in a competition to do the sculpture for the church of San Petronio.  Rossi is known in the art world as the only woman to have worked in marble during this period in history, which is famous for great masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo.

Properzia de Rossi was born sometime between 1450 and 1490,  it is unclear as to her exact year of her birth, which made her history hard to trace, since the dates vary by some 40 years. She was born in Bologna, Italy, her father was a notary, not a painter like other female artists of the Renaissance such as  Lavinia Fontana.  Since her father was not an artist, her avenues for training were limited. A father teaching his daughter how to sculpt, paint, and draw, was primarily the only way the daughters would learn the artistic skills they wanted to learn.

Bologna was known as a place where women received great success in the art world. They were encouraged by the popularity of art in general, and for women artists in particular.  Rossi was enrolled at the University of Bologna at a very young age  Since her father was not an artist, he could not teach his daughter any artistic skill, and wanted her to receive training in different forms of art, like most other women of that era. The university, which had allowed women to enroll for over a century.  She  trained with such artists as Michelangelo, when he was just nineteen years old.

Rossi studied drawing with  Marcantonio Raimondi, he was a master artist of that time, as well as being a much sought after art instructor. He is best known for the engravings he did of Raphael's works of art.. Rossi was said to have made several drawings and engravings in the same style as Raphael, sadly though, her drawings, and many other pieces by Properzia de Rossi and other female artists of the time have been lost through the centuries.

Women were not encouraged to do sculptures, since it was deemed to be a improper form of art for women.  Rossi still wanted to work in 3 dimension art, and since she was not allowed to sculpt models, she started working in miniatures. She gained the reputation around Bologna as the miniaturist who could carve intricate scenes onto items such as peach pits, cherry pits, and would set them in silver when the carving was completed. Miniature carvings date back to ancient China where it is said to have been originated. The art world in Bologna did not know what to think of the miniature carvings by Rossi.  Giorgio Vasari describes her work as "miraculous" in his book Lives of the Artists.

Rossi in her early 30's gained a reputation as a superb artist, she would carve busts out of marble with many minute details, that were said to be absolutely stunning. She had received many public commissions while living in Bologna, with works such as the decorations that adorned the canopy and the high alter at the Santa Maria del Baraccano Church.

Rossi's marble sculpture titled "Joseph and Potiphar's Wife" ¹, received many accolades.  It is based on a story from the Old Testament, There are several versions of the story behind this sculpture. In this version the young Joseph had been sold to Potiphar, who was a eunuch (A castrated man employed as a harem attendant) in the court of the king of Egypt.  Potiphar's wife fell in love with young Joseph. When he rejected her advances, she accuses him of trying to take advantage of her, even though Joseph's coat was torn which proves that Potiphar's wife was the one trying to seduce him.  Joseph, who is completely faithful to his master Potiphar, struggles to get away from the scene.  It demonstrated Rossi's skill for displaying and uncovering the human body, and also demonstrated her knowledge of the classic style of Greek sculpture.  The sexual temptation and resistance theme of "Joseph and Potiphar's Wife", was quite a common theme for women artists of the time period.  It was about both religion and chastity, this allowed women to express themselves through their art, even though they were confined to only scenes that were deemed "decent" for them to portray.  The church officials refused to display "Joseph and Potiphar's Wife", but, since they believed it was made as an expression of her unrequited love for Anton Galeazzo Malvasia, who ignored Rossi's advancements, and married another woman.

Rossi died in 1530 in Bologna. It has been said that she died penniless and completely alone.

Felicia Hemans, an early 19th century poet, wrote a poem about Rossi three centuries after her death. In this poem, entitled "Properzia Rossi", she calls Rossi, "the dejected artist who failed at love." Though she may have failed at love, she was an outstanding sculptor, working in mediums from carving miniatures, to doing oversized sculptures, each one beautiful in its own unique way. An except from this poem that stood out to me is as follows:

"When I am pass'd away. Thou art the mould,
Wherein I pour the fervent thoughts, th' untold,
The self-consuming! Speak to him of me,
Thou, the deserted by the lonely sea,
With the soft sadness of thine earnest eye,
Speak to him, lorn one, deeply, mournfully,
Of all my love and grief! Oh! could I throw
Into thy frame a voice, a sweet, and low,
And thrilling voice of song!–when he came nigh,
To send the passion of its melody
Thro' his pierced bosom–on its tones to bear
My life's deep feeling as the southern air
Wafts the faint myrtle's breath,–to rise, to swell,
To sink away in accents of farewell,
Winning but one, one gush of tears, whose flow
Surely my parted spirit yet might know,
If love be strong as death!"

It is sad that very few of Rossi's works still remain. While doing research for this write-up, I imagined what her artwork would look like. I hope that I have portrayed her beautiful works in this write-up. The 16th century produced some great artists, I consider Rossi to be one of the better artists, even though we have very little history on her. If you come across any links to pictures of her artwork, please send me a message so that I may add the link to this write-up.

 

¹  "Joseph and Potiphar's Wife" can be viewed at: http://tinyurl.com/4xjxy


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


Source: The Story of Art: The Lives and Times of The Great Masters. : Shoolman & Slatkin, 1944.

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