28 August 2018

Elisabetta Sirani – artist

Sudden death of talented young woman shocked Bologna

A self-portrait by Elisabetta Sirani
A self-portrait by Elisabetta Sirani
The brilliant Baroque painter and printmaker Elisabetta Sirani died in unexplained circumstances at the age of 27 on this day in 1665 in Bologna.

The body of the artist was carried to the Chapel of the Rosary in the Basilica of San Domenico in Bologna to be mourned, not just by her family, but by an entire community as she was loved and respected as an important female painter.

Elisabetta has been described as beautiful, focused and selfless and she became a symbol of the progressive city of Bologna, where the creativity of women was encouraged and they were able to express themselves through art and music.

Elisabetta’s father, Giovanni Andrea Sirani, was himself an artist and she was trained in his studio, although contemporary writers have recorded that he was reluctant to teach her to paint in the Bolognese style, as established by artists in the city in the 16th and 17th centuries as a way to distinguish themselves from the artists of Florence and Rome.

But Elisabetta acquired the technique anyway and became one of the most renowned painters in Bologna , overshadowing her father. He had been a pupil of the highly regarded Bolognese painter Guido Reni, who had died in 1642, and many local people considered Elisabetta to be a female reincarnation of him.

Sirani's beautiful painting Sant'Antonio da Padova in adorazione del bambino
Sirani's beautiful painting Sant'Antonio da
Padova in adorazione del bambino
When she was just 16 her father became incapacitated by gout and so Elisabetta began running his workshop and became the breadwinner for the whole family.

She never married, despite being described as attractive, lively and warm-hearted. Some people believed that her father prevented her from marrying.

When Elisabetta died suddenly on 28 August 1665 in Bologna her death was treated as suspicious and a servant, Lucia Tolomelli, was charged with poisoning the artist. She was put on trial but Elisabetta’s father later withdrew the charges.

Modern thinking, based on the descriptions recorded of her symptoms, is that she probably died of peritonitis after suffering a ruptured peptic ulcer.

Elisabetta was given an elaborate funeral that included an enormous catafalque - a kind of moving platform - containing a life-sized sculpture of her and she was buried in the same tomb as Guido Reni.

During her brief career she had produced more than 200 paintings, 15 etchings and hundreds of drawings. She painted many religious subjects but was also an accomplished portrait painter and was much mourned by the women of Bologna who had sat for her.

She established an academy for women painters in Bologna and trained many artists at what was the first school in Europe for women painters that was outside a convent.

Her 1663 painting Virgin and Child is now in the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington . In 1994 it was selected by the United States Postal Service for their Christmas holiday stamp series.

The Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna houses a number  of paintings by Elisabetta Sirani
The Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna houses a number
of paintings by Elisabetta Sirani
Travel tip:

You can see paintings by Elisabetta Sirani in The Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna in Complesso di Sant’Ignazio in Via Belle Arti, a gallery close to Due Torri, the two towers that have become symbols of Bologna . One of the most beautiful paintings on show is Sant’Antonio da Padova in adorazione del bambino, which shows the saint kneeling at the baby’s feet. Also on display is her striking painting of Santa Maria Maddalena, which shows the saint bare-breasted and holding a crucifix.

Guido Reni's ceiling The Glory of San Domenico is a feature of the basilica
Guido Reni's ceiling The Glory of San
is a feature of the basilica
Travel tip:

Elisabetta Sirani is buried with the artist Guido Reni in the Rosary Chapel of the 13th century Basilica of San Domenico in Piazza San Domenico. The church is close to the Archiginnasio, once the main building of the University of Bologna . Behind the red-brick façade of the church, which was added as recently as 1910, lies a treasure house of art including works by Pisano, Michelangelo, Iacopo da Bologna and Guido Reni. In the Rosary Chapel, the most important work is the Mystery of the Rosary, a group of paintings worked on by Lodovico Carracci, Bartolomeo Cesi, Denis Calvaert, Lavinia Fontana, Guido Reni and Domenichino.

More reading:

The Bolognese master Guercino

How the Bolognese painter Annibale Carracci influenced art in Rome

Why Domenichino is seen as the Raphael of the Bolognese School

Also on this day:

1909: The birth of Bicycle Thieves actor Lamberto Maggiorani

1938: The birth of journalist and TV talk show host Maurizio Costanzo


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