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First Female Italian Painter to Paint Nudes

Lavinia Fontana accomplished things that very few women artists of her time could ever hope to achieve.

When you think of the Italian Renaissance you typically think of Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, and Michaelangelo. People remember the men who made history, but women are often forgotten. Though their stories are not often told, the Italian women of the Renaissance played a vital role in creating some of the beautiful art we still see today. 

Take for instance Lavinia Fontana.

Self Portrait by Lavinia Fontana Source Image

Fontana was born in Bologna, Italy in 1552. Her father, Prospero, was a painter at the local school and taught his daughter all he knew about the craft. Fontana proved to be quite talented and continued to excel throughout her childhood. Her paintings became the family’s main source of income around 13 years old. 

Initially, Fontana was commissioned to paint portraits. She created pieces for the upper-class women of society, including Costanza Sforza the Duchess of Sora. Fontana’s gender earned her a level of trust amongst her female patrons that a man would never have received. 

She became a painter known for vivid use of color and a willingness to push the boundaries. Fontana was one of the first female painters of the time to depict nude women in her works. Often, she had live models pose for these drawings, which was provocative for a woman to do at the time.

As her career progress, Fontana began to branch out. She started painting religious and mythological works of art like ‘Visit of the Queen of Sheba’ and ‘Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalen’. Her creations grew in popularity and earned her commissions throughout Italy. Eventually, news of her talent spread beyond Italy’s borders. King Phillip II of Spain had her paint an altarpiece for him; the paint is called ‘The Holy Family with the Sleeping Christ Child’. 

This notary gained her an audience with Pope Clement VIII in 1603. At his request, she painted a 20-foot altarpiece called ‘The Stoning of Stephen Martyr’ to be displayed at one of Rome’s holy sites. Sadly, this piece of art was lost to a fire in 1823. Fontana then moved to Rome and continued painting for the Vatican. She was even honored with a membership in the Academy of Rome for her achievements. 

Portrait of Pope Gregory XIII Source Image

Fontana amassed this enormous success while raising 11 children with her husband Paolo Zappi. He even helped with her painting career often acting as her assistant throughout their marriage. When she died in August 1614 she left behind over 135 paintings and legacy that still lives on today. 

Currently, many of Fontana’s works can be seen in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. They also have some of her work in Dublin’s National Gallery, Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the National Art Gallery of Bologna. 


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