Lavinia Fontana and the Female Self-Portrait

This month marks one year since my friend Hasan Niyazi, blogger from Three Pipe Problem, unexpectedly passed away. I have thought about Hasan a lot lately, particularly because I think he would enjoy some of the topics I am exploring with my students. I also miss the enthusiastic emails, comments, and tweets that he would write. I thought that this month I would post one or two of the guests posts that I wrote for Hasan’s blog. The following post first appeared on Three Pipe Problem in March 2011. Currently, the content of Hasan’s blog is no longer online, although I hope that will change in the near future. In the meantime, I would like to make this post I wrote available again, in Hasan’s memory.

Lavinia Fontana, "Self-Portrait at the Spinet," 1577

Lavinia Fontana, “Self-Portrait at the Spinet,” 1577

As an art historian who is interested in female artists, I am particularly intrigued by the way that Lavinia Fontana chose to depict herself in self-portraits. Since Renaissance women weren’t always in control of how they were portrayed in art (women were often depicted by male artists), I like to see how a female artist represented herself when she did have control over her image.

There are five self-portraits by Lavinia Fontana that are known: four paintings and one drawing. I would like to examine two of these self-portraits, including my own ideas with those that have been previously presented by Catherine King and Babette Bohn.1 I think these two portraits are quite revealing in terms of what Fontana felt was important to communicate about herself.

Fontana’s earliest self-portrait is quite unique, since it was created as a marriage portrait. This painting, Self-Portrait at the Spinet (also called Self-Portrait at the Keyboard) was made in 1577 for Fontana’s future father-in-law, Severo Zappi.2 I think Fontana felt some pressure at this time, since she was marrying into a family which held a higher social status than her own.3 One senses that Fontana felt a need to emphasize her wealth and status by observing various elements in her painting: her lavish clothing, jewels, and a servant in the background. Fontana also chooses to emphasize her accomplishments and abilities: she is playing an instrument and her easel is distinctly placed in the background. In addition, her knowledge and learning are emphasized by the fact that she includes a Latin inscription in the upper corner of the canvas.

I think this Latin inscription is rather interesting, since it is indicative of the social situation for female Renaissance artists. In translation, the inscription reads, “Lavinia virgin/maiden of Prospero Fontana has represented the likeness of her face from the mirror in the year 1577.” Isn’t it interesting that Fontana is emphasizing her virginity? Unsurprisingly, virginity was highly desired by prospective husbands at the time, but I think that Fontana mentions her virginity to fit further societal expectations. As Catherine King points out that in terms of self-portraiture, “the act of showing oneself to another was very different for a young woman than it was for a young man.”4 Hence, female artists needed to be careful in how they presented themselves in portraits. Fontana visually manifests this care by not only stressing her virginity, but by appearing in modest red dress that suggests marriage (red was the traditional color for wedding dresses in Bologna).5

Lavinia Fontana, "Self Portrait In a Tondo," 1579

Lavinia Fontana, “Self Portrait In a Tondo,” 1579

The self-portrait by Fontana that interests me the most was painted just two years after Fontana’s wedding portrait. This portrait is a tondo painted on copper (1579) and was created expressly for placement in a collection. On 17 October 1578, Dominican scholar Alfonso Ciacón wrote to Fontana and requested her portrait; Ciacón intended to publish an engraved gallery of 500 portraits of respected scholars, artists, and statesmen.6 No doubt Fontana felt honored to have her portrait be included in this engraved “gallery.” Fontana sent this portrait to Ciacón in 1579, but the book of engravings was never published.

Nonetheless, we can see that Fontana wanted to portray herself in a certain way, especially since she knew that her image was intended for display alongside portraits of other prominent individuals. As with the marriage portrait, Fontana opts to emphasize her learning and wealth. She manifests her scholarly pursuits (she’s not just a mere “craftswoman”) by showing herself among anatomical casts and classical statuettes. (A nineteenth century engraving of Fontana’s painting is helpful in seeing these details.) In addition, Fontana is interested in suggesting her wealth; she depicts herself in lavish clothing and she is sitting in an armchair (poor people owned only stools at this time).7

Once again, Fontana is careful in how she has presented herself (in order to meet societal expectations). Not only is she wearing modest clothing, but she further emphasizes her respectability by stating that she is married. The inscription in the right-hand corner of her portrait states: “Lavinia Fontana married into the Zappi family made this 1579.” In fact, this reference to her marriage was advantageous not only for purposes of societal decorum, but also a way to emphasize her social status, since the Zappi family held a comparatively high status in society.

As I have been writing this post and thinking about Fontana, I’ve come to a realization as to why I am drawn to female self-portraits. For one thing, I’m an art historian who is a woman. Although I am hopeful that the job market for women in academia is ever-improving (and equalizing), I think many women still feel cautious in how they present themselves in the academic world (in order to keep a competitive edge against men). I certainly feel that way. Along these lines, as a female blogger, I sometimes find myself concerned with how I portray myself in writing. Although I don’t feel that I experience the same difficulties as women in the Renaissance period, I experience an element of self-awareness when I need to portray myself (either visually or in writing). I think blog posts are my equivalent for self-portraits, especially since I’m not an artist!

UPDATE: Since writing this initial post in 2011, I have written more about Lavinia Fontana’s “Self-Portrait” for the Ciacón collection elsewhere on my blog: “Lavinia Fontana’s ‘Self-Portrait’ and Gender.”

1 Catherine King, “Italian Artists in Search of Virtue, Fame, and Honour c. 1450-c.1650,” in The Changing Status of the Artist, eds. Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 72-74. See also Babette Bohn, “Female Self-Portraiture in Early Modern Bologna,” in Renaissance Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): 251-256. If you are interested in seeing information about the remaining three self-portraits which are not discussed in this post, see article by Bohn.

2 Bohn, 253.

3 Ibid., 254.

4 King, p. 67. For an example of extreme modesty in portraiture, see Sophonisba Anguissola’s Self-Portrait from c. 1555, in which she modestly covers herself with a mirror (which she protectively places in front of her body like a shield).

5 Bohn, 254. The red knot that is placed on the instrument was a symbol of love and betrothal at the time, which can also tie into Fontana’s interest in maintaining social decorum. For more information, see Liana De Girolami Cheney, et. all, Self-Portraits of Women Painters (London: Ashgate/Scolar Press, 2000), p. 60 (revised. Washington: DC: New Academia, 2009). The red knot is also discussed in Caroline P. Murphy, Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and her Patrons in Sixteenth-century Bologna (New Haven and London, 2003), 41–3.

6 Name also appears in art history texts as Alonso Chaçon and Alfonso Chacon.

7 King, 73.

  • Hels says:

    She is one of my favourites!

    Re your note that Fontana was careful in how she had presented herself, in order to meet societal expectations. Agreed totally, since an artist who did not meet societal expectations was unlikely to find a market for his/her paintings. That might have been acceptable to van Gogh, but almost every other artist wanted acceptance, admiration and a steady income stream.

    My problem is that it is difficult for us to establish what the artist’s true values were. Perhaps Fontana truly valued virginity before marriage.. or perhaps she thought it was an absurd, sexist concept. Did she welcome the idea of marrying into a high status family or did she find them pompous bores? Few artists, especially women artists, would risk expressing their true feelings in writing.

  • Hello Monica,
    I have written the following e-mail to Hasret Celalettin of Latrobe University in Australia. I will let you know if anything comes of it.

    Dear Ms. Celalettin,
    I believe it correct that your brother, Hasan Niyazi, owned a web site called

    He is sorely missed. We have learned that his web site has now been taken down and the
    community of his many admirers would very much like to see it restored in some form.

    Mr. Niyazi was a gifted art historian and researcher and made many contributions to the
    wide circle of his admirers. We do not wish to appropriate his content; merely to see his
    erudition on display again for those who knew him and for those who have yet to come into
    contact with his thought. If Mr. Niyazi was some pedestrian blogger I would not bother but
    he definitely had very good insights into western art from which a much larger community
    would potentially benefit. Perhaps his content could be displayed again on his web site
    which could be re-hosted? I’m sure that I could be responsible for any reasonable hosting

    My very best wishes to you and please accept my condolences on your loss

    Robert H. Consoli

  • Hello Monica,
    Ms. Celalettin has written back to me just now and this is what she has to say:

    Dear Robert,

    Thank you for reaching out to me and for the condolances, Hasan Niyazi is my brother.

    I am currently in the process of restoring the content of, I was lacking the technical knowledge but have now found someone to assist with that. I too, am very keen for his blog to be back online for educational purposes and for those who just wish to admire his work.

    Thank you very much again, it really touches me that there are so many people who have so much respect for him and his passion.

    Many kind regards,

  • Heidenkind says:

    Lovely tribute, I hope Hasan’s blog comes back online at some point!

  • Val S says:

    Excellent post, which I didn’t see the first time. Besides evoking interesting points about chastity and propriety, the inscriptions are a reminder that the status of a woman was based on marriage, even as she shed her own identity. For instance, my mother and women of her generation still signed their names as Mrs. Husband’s Name, as if they were subsumed by their marriage. I hope Lavinia was able to continue to express her individuality in spite of societal obligations.

  • Dilshat says:

    Thank you for this interesting post about Fontana’s self-portraits. I have seen the “wedding” portrait first time several months ago, and was intrigued by the role of the servant. Of course, she marks the high status of Lavinia, but what exactly is she doing with musical sheets? She can’t be helping Lavinia, because in that case the music would stand before the eyes of the player, so what then? Do you, by chance, have any ideas?

  • Hi Dilshat! Thank you for your comment. I’ve never considered the role of the servant very much, beyond how she functions as a symbol of status. I assumed that she is bringing music for Lavinia to play. Maybe the servant’s actions are less important in comparison to the fact that she is bringing printed music (i.e. musical notation) to Lavinia, which ultimately stresses Lavinia’s education as one who can read music? This might account for why the musical pages are tilted up at an angle, so they can be easily seen by the viewer.

  • Liana Cheney says:

    Although I appreciate your writing on Lavinia Fontana. Your footnote no. 5 is
    incorrect it was not Bohn, but I, who was the first scholar to observe, associate, and published on the red knot on the clavichord as a symbol of love. See Liana De Girolami Cheney, et. all,Self -Portraits of Women Painters. London: Ashgate/Scolar Press, 2000, p. 60 (revised. Washington: DC: New Academia, 2009). Previously, in 1998, I presented a lecture to an international symposium at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C. (May 9, 1998) on “Lavinia Fontana’s Self-Portraits,”where I unveiled this symbolism.

    Thank you for making the corrections. With good wishes, Liana

  • Hello Llana! It’s nice to hear from another art historian who loves Lavinia Fontana! Thank you for your citation and information. My discussion of the red knot came from the Caroline Murphy text (2003) that I mentioned in the fifth footnote, but she must have gotten that information from your previously-published/presented work. I’ve included that citation in the footnote and updated it accordingly. I appreciate your taking the time to let me know.

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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.