February 2012

“Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence” by Jane Fortune

"Invisible Women: Forgotten artists of Florence" by Jane Fortune. The Florentine Press, 2010

I recently have had the pleasure of reading Jane Fortune’s book, Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence. The next time I visit Florence, I want to take this book with me! Jane Fortune explores some of the lesser-known female artists, whose works are located in some of the great galleries and institutions (and their storage vaults, unfortunately) in Florence. In addition to discussing the lives of these artists, the book aims to introduce the reader to the restoration and rediscovery of unknown or famous works by women artists.

Invisible Women is divided into very short chapters that are dedicated to a particular artist, or a short theme (like the restoration for a work of art). However, even though the chapters are short, they provide a wealth of information about female artists who lived between the 15th and 20th centuries. I was continually surprised at learning new facts and information about these female artists, even though some have long been familiar to me. I also was pleased to see how the book included a range of artistic techniques and traditions, including those of Dutch and French artists.

Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Self-Portrait at an Easel, 1790. Uffizi Gallery, Vasari Corridor

To give somewhat of a sense of the book, I thought that I would write down some short facts that I learned while reading the book (loosely similar to how Fortune presents different artists in short chapters):

  • Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun (self-portrait shown above) painted no less than 600 portraits (and her oeuvre is about 800 works). Her rise to become the court painter for France is very impressive, considering that Vigée-Le Brun was primarily self-taught by copying the masters (p. 73). It has been remarked that the woman depicted on the left side of Vigée-Le Brun self-portrait resembles Marie Antoinette, Vigée-Le Brun most famous subject.
  • Angelica Kauffmann was conned into marrying a man who fraudulently posed as a count from Sweden. Given her friendship and connection with the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, Kauffmann was able to avoid the social stigma of separation. Years later, after her charlatan-cum-husband passed away, was Kauffmann free to marry again. She married the Venetian painter Antonio Zucchi (p. 77).

Wallerant Vaillant, Maria van Oosterwijck, 1671. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

  • Maria Van Oosterwyck (shown above) weaseled out of a marriage proposal to fellow floral painter Wilhelm Van Aelst. Maria originally accepted the proposal with a few conditions. The marriage could take place after the following: 1) Van Aelst needed to work for one year, working 10 hours days at his studio and 2) Van Aelst could not display his affections for Maria at any time. At the end of the year, Maria “cunningly refused his proposal, showing him her ticks for the times he had failed to maintain his part of their pact” (p. 93).

Drawing of Sofonisba Anguissola from Van Dyck's sketch book, 12 July 1694

  • Near the end of her life, Sofonisba Anguissola was the tutor to the 24-year old Flemish painter, Anthony Van Dyck. Anguissola was losing her eyesight (possibly due to cataracts), but still continued to advise Van Dyck on his painting technique. Later, Van Dyck remarked “that he had learned more from a sightless old woman than from all the master painters in Italy” (p. 146).
  •  Artemisia Gentileschi didn’t learn to read or write until she was an adult (p. 157).
  • Artemisia Gentileschi was commissioned to make a painting (one of the first in the cycle of 15) to commemorate the life of Michelangelo. The Allegory of the Inclination (c. 1615-1616) is part of the Casa Buonarroti collection.

I noticed that Jane Fortune focused her book on artists who made two-dimensional art (like paintings or pastels). This made me wonder about female sculptresses who worked in Italy (such as Properzia de’ Rossi) between the 16th and 20th centuries. Would there be enough information to write another book on sculptresses (whose works are in Florence or elsewhere in Italy)? Painting and drawing seem to have been a more popular and accessible activities for women during that time, but perhaps I only make that assumption because there isn’t much written information about sculptresses.

Anyhow, this book was very interesting and fun. The chapters are written in a warm, approachable tone which compliments the beautiful color reproductions. The book is written in both English and Italian, so it has appeal to a broader audience. The other great thing about this book is that is provides “The Women Artists’ Trail Map” at the end of the chapters, so that a visitor to Florence can easily locate paintings by female artists that are currently on public view. Isn’t that neat?

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in art or women artists. The proceeds from Invisible Women goes to support projects funded by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation and the Florence Committee of National Museum of Women in the Arts. What great causes!

Thank you to Linda Falcone and The Florentine Press for the review copy of this book.


The Sting of Love

Albrecht Dürer, “Cupid the Honey Thief,” 1514. Pen, ink, and watercolor on paper.

Happy Valentine’s Day! I thought that this year I would highlight slightly different theme: the sting of love. The material for this post formed over several weeks, partially due to some conversations on Twitter with H Niyazi (of Three Pipe Problem) and Agnes Crawford (of Understanding Rome). Our conversation was sparked by some discussion in one of my earlier posts, which examined whether Fragonard depicted a dolphin or a beehive in his painting The Swing (1767).

In some tweets, Agnes Crawford pointed out that cupid has been depicted with a beehive in many instances. As far as I have found, Dürer’s Cupid the Honey Thief (1514, see above) is the earliest known example of this subject matter in a Northern European context. This association between Cupid and the bee goes back to a fable which is found in the Idylls (which historically has been attributed to the Greek poet Theocritus, but such attribution is unsubstantiated). In this little story, Venus compares her son to a bee and laughs, “Are you not just like the bee – so little yet able to inflict such painful wounds?” Here’s a translation of Idyll XIX:

When wanton Love designed to thieve,

And steal the Honey from the Hive,

An impious Bee his Finger stung,

And thus reveng’d the proffered Wrong.

He blew his Fingers, vex’d with Pain,

He stamp’d and star’d, but all in vain;

At last, unable to endure,

To Venus runs, and begs a Cure,

Complaining that so slight a Touch,

And little Thing, should wound so much.

She smil’d, and said, how like to thee,

My Son, is that unlucky bee?

Thy self art small, and yet thy Dart

Wounds deep, ah! very deep the Heart.

You can see an older English translation of the poem here. A similar poem by Anacreon (which is more witty, in my opinion) is found here.

It seems that this story was especially popular in Germany during the Renaissance. Two Latin translations of “Idyll XIX” were published in 1522 and 1528.1 One such translation copy was made by the humanist Johann Hess, who included the manuscript note “Tabella Luce” (“Picture by Lucas”). It is possible that Hess was referring to a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Cranach made his first version of Cupid and the Bee story in 1526-27. Some estimate that Cranach made at least twenty-five versions of this subject matter. Here are a few of my favorite Cranach variations on this theme:

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Cupid Complaining to Venus,” 1526-27. National Gallery of Art, London.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Venus with Cupid Stealing Honey,” 1527. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Venus and Cupid with a Honeycomb,” c. 1531. Borghese Gallery.

Want to see another version by Cranach? Here’s Venus and Cupid (1531) from the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. (And if you know of another version, please share in the comments!) It seems like this type of painting was so popular during Cranach’s day because of the moralizing message (which fit with Protestant sensibilities): there is no pleasure without pain.

That being said, I hope that your Valentine’s Day (with your own honey!) is more pleasurable than painful. But if this doesn’t end up being the Valentine’s Day of your dreams, never fear. Cupid can commiserate with you about the sting of love.

1 You may have noticed that the Latin translations I mentioned actually post-date Dürer’s 1514 watercolor by almost a decade! Dürer undoubtedly became familiar with this poem through his friend Willibald Pirckheimer, and even provided illustrations of a text (thought to be by Theocritus) for his humanist friend. 


To Hack Off a Leg: Michelangelo’s Florence “Pietà”

Michelangelo, "Pietà," Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence, c. 1547-1555

Several months ago I wrote a post on Michelangelo’s Florence Pietà (also called the “Bandini Pietà” or “Duomo Pietà”). Back then, I promised to explore in a future post some of the reasons why Michelangelo might have mutilated this sculpture (which originally was intended for the artist’s own tomb). When I promised to write this post, I didn’t realize that I would be opening a big can of worms! I’ve spent several hours combing through a lot of research and ideas – and to tell the truth, I still haven’t completely formed an opinion about what I find the most compelling.

Although I wrote down a lot of information in a lengthier draft of this post, I’ve decided to condense a few thoughts here. (If you want to see more research or a semi-detailed historiography of mutilation research, contact me!)

Our good ol’ friend Vasari gives several contradictory suggestions for why the sculpture was mutilated: 1) the marble contained flaws; 2) the marble was too hard, and sparks would fly from the chisel; and 3) Michelangelo’s standards for the piece were too high, and he was never content with what he had completed. (This last suggestion seems like a musing on Vasari’s part.) Vasari also explains that Michelangelo was pressured to work on the piece: “It was because of the importunity of his servant Urbino who nagged at him daily that he should finish [the Pietá]; and that among other things a piece of the Virgin’s elbow got broken off, and that even before that he had come to hate it, and he had had many mishaps because of a vein in the stone; so that losing patience he broke it, and would have smashed it completely had not his servant Antonio asked that he give it to him just as it was.”1 In the end, Michelangelo lets his pupil, Tiberio Calcagni, restore the group. As we will see, the left leg may or may not have needed restoration before Calcagni got his hands on the sculpture.

Many scholars in the 20th century have interpreted this mutilation to include the removal of Christ’s left leg, which appears to have been created to hang across the thigh of the Virgin. (An eighteenth-century wax model of the sculpture gives in indication for how it may have originally appeared.) Some scholars, such as Henry Thode (1908), feel that the mutilation may have been done for compositional purposes; the sculpture might have appeared to unattractive and cluttered with the left leg.2

In 1968, Leo Steinberg wrote an interesting (and controversial) article about “the missing leg” of the Florence Pietà. Steinberg argues that the left leg originally existed and was slung over the Virgin’s thigh, as a solemn symbol of a sexual union (a motif that is found in later sixteenth- and seventeenth-century art). Such a composition would have emphasized the symbolic and mystic marriage between the Virgin and Christ. However, it could be that the vulgarization of this motif (during the very years of Michelangelo’s work on this piece) and metaphor might have threatened the symbolic significance that Michelangelo sought.3 For that reason, Michelangelo may have become frustrated and attacked that specific part of the statue. Steinberg got much criticism and was misinterpreted on some accounts, which he explores in twenty years later in another essay (see third footnote).

The most recent and seminal writing on the Florence Pietà was published in English in 2003 by Jack Wasserman. This book unfortunately is out-of-print, but I was able to snag a lonely (yet very deserving!) copy at my university library. Wasserman has issues with Steinberg’s argument on a few levels, but basically argues that the placement of Christ sitting or reclining on the Virgin’s lap does not constitute an “aggressive” action.4 Wasserman gives the example of Caroto’s Pietà (c. 1545) as another example of an “unadulterated Pietà, without, that is, the carnal and symbolic accretions Steinberg imposes on it.”

Detail of stump and dowel hole, Michelangelo's Florence "Pietà"

Wasserman also cautiously suggests that Tiberio Calcagni might have actually been the one to remove the left leg of Christ (foot, thigh and calf) as he went about restoring the rest of the statue. Wasserman then finds, in turn, that Calcagni did not succeed in his attempt (or perhaps never attempted) to replace the limb. Calcagni may have created the stump (and the visible drilling hole, see above) with the intention of adding/reattaching a limb, but no traces of binding stucco have been found in the dowel hole. Wasserman even posits that Calcagni might have contrived the story that Michelangelo intended to destroy the Pietà (as reported by Vasari). Instead, “Calvagni desired to benefit from the fact that Michelangelo had broken away several other parts of the Pietà to disguise his own guilt for having demolished Christ’s leg without replacing it, thereby irrevocably disfiguring the great work of art.”5

Virtual image of limbless model and detached limbs, Michelangelo's Florence "Pietà"

The other interesting thing about Wasserman’s book is that he discusses how the several limbs of the sculpture were intentionally severed. Wasserman finds that the outlying limbs were removed in an effort to recarve the marble, not destroy the statue. Wasserman believes that Michelangelo used a point chisel to first remove Christ’s and the Virgin’s left arms, and then the right arm of the Magdalene. Then Michelangelo removed Christ’s right forearm, but left the Mary Magdalene’s head without damage.

With this new, practically limb-less marble, Michelangelo gained access to the reserve marble just left of the Virgin’s leg, in order to “excavate” a new left leg for Christ that would parallel the angle of Christ’s right leg.6 Perhaps, considering this new design, the Florentine Pietà might have more closely resembled Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà (1564).

1 Vasari, Lives of the Artists (1568 edition), as translated in Leo Steinberg, “Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà: The Missing Leg,” Art Bulletin 50, no. 4 (1968): 347.

2 Steinberg, 347.

3 Henry Thor, Michelangelo und das Ende der Renaissance, as translated in Leo Steinberg, “Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà: The Missing Leg Twenty Years After,” in Art Bulletin 71, no. 3 (Sept, 1989): 503.

4 Jack Wasserman, Michelangelo’s Florence Pietà (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 84.

5 Ibid., 84.

6 Ibid., 70.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.