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
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
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
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
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
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
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
thoughts, th' untold,
The self-consuming! Speak to him of me,
deserted by the lonely sea,
With the soft sadness of thine earnest
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,
voice of song!–when he came nigh,
To send the passion of its melody
his pierced bosom–on its tones to bear
My life's deep feeling as the southern
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
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
Source: The Story of Art: The Lives and Times of The Great Masters. : Shoolman & Slatkin, 1944.