Elisabetta Sirani was a highly talented and prolific Bolognese painter and printmaker who lived for all too short a time in the mid 17th century. She paved the way for future generations of female artists through the establishment of a women’s art school and by breaking through many of the barriers to women of that time.
Join me on a walk around Bologna on the trail of Elisabetta Sirani. There is a map with locations marked at the end of the post. Please note that art galleries change their displays from time to time and not all the paintings I saw may be on display when you visit.
Our first port of call is a building at 7 Via Urbana. It was here that her father, Giovanni Andrea Sirani, had his studio and ran an art school. He also worked as an art merchant. The building has a small inconspicuous plaque marking it as Elisabetta’s birthplace.
Giovanni had been one of the students of Guido Reni (1575-1642), one of the most famous Italian painters of his generation. Elisabetta trained with her father, although it is said that he had to be convinced to do this by a family friend and art critic, Count Carlo Cesare Malvasia.
Elisabetta was taught in the style of Reni, but later developed her own distinctive intimate style. With precocious talent, she soon developed into a prolific artist.
This was despite the barriers to a female artist’s training such as an inability to attend life drawing classes of males or to travel to study great art works in other cities.
She had received however an excellent education for the time, studying philosophy, music, science and the classics. She also had access to many of the private art collections in Bologna to study their masterworks.
This was the period of the Counter Reformation, and demand for religious art works was high. Elisabetta gained her first major commission in 1657, at just 19 years of age, for a large painting at what was then a Carthusian monastery.
The next stop on our trail is here at the Certosa di Bologna, located about 3 kilometers to the west of the cente of Bologna. In the former Carthusian monastery church of Saint Girolomo, in the first chapel on the left, hangs this early work, a “Baptism of Christ”. It was part of a cycle of paintings of events from the life of Jesus which also includes one by her father. Her success with this painting gave a great boost to her career.
On either side are copies of original paintings by Sirani of beatified Carthusians.
The Certosa is now a busy cemetery and there are frequent funeral and memorial services in the church, so an early visit would avoid having to wait. However, the cemetery is an interesting destination itself, as described in my previous post La Certosa – Bologna’s Fascinating Monumental Cemetery. so any waiting time could be filled with a stroll around the monuments.
Back in central Bologna, the Pinacoteca Nazionale at Via delle Belle Arti 56 has a fine collection of Bolognese paintings from the medieval period onwards. Whilst they have a number of Sirani’s paintings and prints, usually only one or two are on display.
At the time of my last visit in October 2019, her well known work “Saint Anthony of Padova adoring Christ as a Child” from 1662 was on display. Around this time, Elisabetta had reached artistic maturity and become quite famous.
This painting shows the great influence of Guido Reni on her work as well as a feminine sensibility. The ethereal atmosphere is enhanced by the soft brushwork.
Her works were in high demand in Bologna as well as in other parts of Europe. Women of the Medici family of Florence in particular helped launch her international career.
Around this time, Elisabetta’s father Giovanni contracted arthritic gout that made it almost impossible for him to hold a brush. As a result, Elisabetta took over running the studio and school.
She was responsible for the income to maintain an extended family of 9 as well as up to 20 retainers. She continued the art training of her two sisters in the school she started to train women artists. She also supported the university studies of her brother who became a doctor of medicine.
Elisabetta was elected a full Professor of the Accademia di San Luca, Rome. As such, she was considered a master with the right to head her own studio and teach. It was highly unusual for a woman to have male students at the time.
Our trail leads to the second location of the Pinacoteca Nazionale at Palazzo Pepoli Campogrande, Via Castiglione 7. The entrance fee includes both locations. This palazzo was a 17th century home of the Pepoli family and it boasts fine ceiling frescoes.
Here further works of Elisabetta Sirani can be seen from time to time. In 2019, a 1660 painting of Saint Mary Magdalen was on display. The painting includes the usual symbols of the contemplative life that Mary was said to have lived in later life including a book, a crucifix, a scourge, and skull.
Sirani produced art works at such speed that there was doubt that she was in fact completing the work herself. She allowed clients and visitors to watch her paint which as well as dispelling doubts was also a good marketing strategy. A visit to her studio became a popular activity for important visitors to Bologna.
The next stop on our tour is Palazzo Saraceni at 15 Via Farini. Here the Foundation of a Bolognese bank known by its acronym CARISBO has a small gallery of Bolognese art works. Entry is free. The Foundation has as an aim the purchase of important Bolognese art works that come onto the market from time to time.
Amongst a number of Sirani’s works on display is the often discussed work “Portia wounds her leg”, completed towards the end of her life in 1664. The legend is that Portia was the wife of Brutus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar. By wounding herself with a stiletto, she convinced Brutus that she could be trusted with the secret of the planned assassination and not succumb to torture if the plot was discovered.
Representations of classical stories were very popular at the time and Elisabetta introduced the idea of painting strong and brave women featured in ancient legend.
The Foundation has several other works by Elisabetta Sirani. The Salvator Mundi from 1658 was painted by Elisabetta for her music teacher.
This portrait of Anna Maria Ranuzzi Marsigli and her children was completed in 1665, the last year of Sirani’s life. Ranuzzi Marsigli was a Bolognese noblewoman who procured works of art in Bologna for the Medici family.
Elisabetta catalogued her work in a diary and unusually for the time signed every painting. Her signature was often hidden in obscure parts of the painting. A 2022 exhibition in Bologna’s Palazzo Fava of the paintings from the collection of Michelangelo Poletti included the one below. Painted by Sirani in 1664, it depicts Alexander forcing the prophetess to enter the temple pf Apollo at Delphi.
On Alexander’s tunic are the words “ELISA.TA SIRANI F. 1664”, a good example of her method of signing paintings.
Through the year of 1665, Elisabetta had recurring severe stomach problems and in August she passed away aged just 27. The opinion of several doctors was that she had been poisoned and an unfortunate maid was accused of murder. Eventually Elisabetta’s father dropped the case against the girl. Descriptions of Elisabetta’s symptoms and a later medical examination of her exhumed body can be interpreted today as death from peritonitis caused by an ulcer.
The controversy continued however. In 1833, for example, a booklet containing the original Latin and an Italian translation of the 17th century legal arguments for poisoning was published in Bologna.
Elisabetta was laid to rest in the church of San Domenico, sharing a tomb with the artist who gave her much inspiration, Guido Reni.
Some weeks later Elisabetta, as an extremely well known and respected figure in Bologna, was given an extraordinary funeral. The focal point was a huge catafalque, made from imitation marble, representing the Temple of Fame with a life sized figure of the artist.
The Basilica of San Domenico is the last point of our trail. Her resting place is in the left wall of the Rosary Chapel.
Whilst in the church, be sure to visit the tomb of San Domenico, on the opposite side of the nave to the Rosary Chapel. It features three small sculptures completed by a young Michelangelo, as described in my post, Michelangelo in Bologna.
Elisabetta Sirani is thought to have produced over 200 paintings, 15 etchings, and hundreds of drawings. Her legacy also includes the opening up of new avenues for the education of women by establishing a studio for young women aiming for a career in art. She also pioneered the concept of a female teacher of art to both male and female students.
Elisabetta Sirani’s work has become much better known and appreciated since the mid-20th century resulting in international recognition. In 1948, a women’s school of Arts and Crafts in Bologna was renamed in her honour and in 1994 a crater on the planet Venus was named “Sirani”.
Also in 1994, the US Postal Service issued a stamp featuring a Sirani painting of the Virgin and Child, held by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. It was the first time a woman artist had featured on a US Christmas stamp.
Map of the locations.
Map References :
1. Birth place Via Urbana 7
2. Church of San Girolamo, Certosa di Bologna
3. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Via delle Belle Arti 56
4. Pinacoteca Nazionale Palazzo Pepoli Campogrande, Via Castiglione 7
5. CARISBO Gallery, Palazzo Saraceni, 15 Via Farini.
6. Basilica of San Domenico
Further Reading :