The great Renaissance women of the Italian Renaissance are not as widely known as the men and are often underrepresented in general knowledge. This is because the Italian Renaissance, which roughly spanned the 14th through 17th centuries, was a time when women were not always welcomed into the field of art, and their works remained largely unsupported. Despite this, many women forged paths for themselves, making lasting contributions to the field of art and its development. Here are just 10 of these incredibly accomplished women.
1. Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588)
Plautilla Nelli was an Italian Renaissance painter born in 1524 in Florence, Italy. Nelli was one of the few women artists of her time and is considered today to be the first known woman artist in Florence. Nelli was a member of the Dominican convent of Santa Caterina da Siena, where she lived and worked, and the Church primarily commissioned her paintings. As such, Nelli’s work commonly portrays religious scenes but often features powerful female figures.
Perhaps Nelli’s most significant work is the Last Supper, a large-scale painting that features a diverse group of apostles, including women, with Jesus. The painting was completed in 1568 and is believed to be the first known painting of the Last Supper by a woman artist and hangs today in the Santa Maria Novella Museum in Florence, Italy.
Unlike many women of the 16th century, Nelli’s works were highly regarded. Unfortunately, much of Nelli’s work has been lost or destroyed over the centuries, and her legacy was largely forgotten until the 20th century. In recent years, however, philanthropist Jane Fortune rediscovered much of Nelli’s work, albeit in poor condition, inspiring the founding of the Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA). Since then, much of Nelli’s work has been restored and is found in galleries worldwide.
2. Marietta Robusti (1550/60-1590)
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Marietta Robusti, also known as La Tintoretta, was a prominent Venetian painter of the 16th century. She was the daughter of the renowned painter Jacopo Tintoretto and trained in her father’s workshop from a young age. Known in her time as buona ritrattista or “a good portrait painter,” Robusti was known for her portraiture skill and ability to capture her subjects’ personalities.
Despite her success as a painter, Robusti received little to no financial reward for her works, and her reputation was often overshadowed by that of her father. This meant that Robusti struggled to establish her reputation as an independent artist. Moreover, she was criticized for her decision to pursue a career in painting, as it was considered inappropriate for a woman.
Today, Marietta Robusti is recognized as an important figure in Venetian art history and a pioneer for women in the arts. Her paintings are found in museums and galleries around the world, where her legacy continues to inspire future generations of artists.
3. Sister Eufrasia Burlamacchi (1482-1548)
Sister Eufrasia Burlamacchi was a manuscript artist and scribe born in 1482 in Lucca. Burlamacchi joined the San Nicolao convent at a young age but left to found the convent of San Domenico with her sister and ten other nuns, where she would later serve as Mother Superior.
Sister Eufrasia was highly skilled in calligraphy and manuscript illumination and produced several beautiful manuscripts during her lifetime. Sister Eufrasia died in 1548, but her work as a manuscript artist and illuminator has continued to inspire and captivate scholars and art enthusiasts throughout the centuries. Today, her manuscripts are highly prized and can be found in museums and private collections worldwide.
4. Properzia de’ Rossi (1490-1530)
Properzia de’ Rossi was an Italian sculptor from Bologna who lived from around 1490 to 1530. Unlike many women artists of the time, de’ Rossi was not the daughter of an artist, and her craft was self-taught. However, de’ Rossi was not only one of the first women artists in Renaissance history but has even been cited as being the first known professional sculptor in Europe’s history. Among de’ Rossi’s marble sculptures, she is also credited with creating copper plate engravings and coats of arms. Moreover, Properzia was skilled in creating intricate carvings in ivory, bone, and fruit pits, and her work often depicted scenes from classical mythology or Christian iconography.
Sadly, de’ Rossi died young and poor, but her reputation as a pioneering woman for her time lives on. For example, in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, Architects (1550), Properzia de’ Rossi is the only woman, out of 142 artists, to receive her own biographical chapter.
5. Diana Scultori Ghisi (1547-1612)
Diana Scultori Ghisi, or Diana Mantuana, was an Italian engraver and printmaker of the Renaissance period who lived from around 1547 to around 1612. She was born in Mantua, Italy, and was the daughter of the renowned Italian painter and printmaker, Giovanni Battista Scultori. Diana Scultori Ghisi was one of the first known women printmakers, and she was known for her exceptional skill in engraving.
Scultori’s work often depicted scenes from classical mythology and the Bible, and she was also known for her portraits and book illustrations. Diana’s skill as an engraver was widely recognized, and her work was praised for its precision, clarity, and depth. She was particularly known for her use of line and shading to create a sense of texture and depth in her prints, and her work had a strong influence on the development of the art of engraving in the Renaissance period. Scultori’s first dated print was in 1575. In the same year, she received a Papal Privilege to make and market her work. These privileges were rare for women, making her one of the few women artists of the Renaissance to obtain a professional license.
6. Fede Galizia (1578-1630)
Fede Galizia was an Italian Renaissance painter who lived from 1578 to 1630. She was born in Milan and was the daughter of a prominent miniaturist painter, Nunzio Galizia. Writings from when she was alive describe Galizia as a prodigy, but unfortunately, little else is known about her life. Galizia’s work is characterized by exceptional attention to detail and the ability to capture the delicate textures and colors of flowers and fruit. Galizia’s work is coveted today, having been part of several auctions and sales in the twenty-first century. One reason for the demand for these paintings is their unfiltered naturalism and their ability to capture the beauty and fragility of the natural world.
Unlike many women artists of the time, Galizia was able to produce a diverse body of work. For example, she was well known for her portraits and public commissions for altarpieces in Milanese churches, and her fruit and flower paintings are some of the earliest of any Italian artists. The uniqueness of Galizia’s still life paintings makes her a pioneer in her field during the Italian Renaissance.
7. Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614)
Lavinia Fontana was an Italian Mannerist painter who lived from 1552 to 1614. She was born in Bologna, Italy, and was the daughter of the painter Prospero Fontana. Lavinia’s work was characterized by its realism and ability to capture her subjects’ individuality and character. She was exceptionally skilled at painting women and is credited with being the first woman artist to paint female nudes. By some, Fontana is also considered the first woman professional painter of the period.
Despite her challenges as a woman artist in a male-dominated field, Lavinia achieved great success during her lifetime and was highly regarded by her contemporaries. She also brought 11 children into the world, meaning that she was pregnant for the majority of her artistic career! Lavinia also received numerous commissions for her work, including gaining the position of portraitist at the court of Pope Paul V.
8. Barbara Longhi (1552-1638)
Mentioned in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists for having “purity of line and soft brilliance of color,” Barbara Longhi was another one of the few women artists of the Italian Renaissance. Vasari’s father, Luca Longhi, was also a painter, and her works are sometimes difficult to distinguish from those of her father.
Longhi’s talent as a painter was widely recognized, and she significantly influenced the development of painting in Italy. Her work was characterized by its use of vibrant colors and her ability to capture human form and emotion. Furthermore, Longhi’s artworks were distinctive in contrast to the grandiose historical paintings depicting biblical scenes that were prevalent in art during her time. Instead, she focused on creating understated and contemplative portrayals that evoked a sense of connection and compassion toward the depicted subjects.
9. Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625)
Sofonisba Anguissola was a Baroque painter who lived from 1532 to 1625. Anguissola was born in Cremona and was one of six sisters, all of whom were talented artists. Considered virtuous and beautiful, a superbly educated conversationalist, accomplished in music, and a charming dancer, Anguissola was highly regarded by her contemporaries and accomplished much in her life. For example, she became a lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Spain, Elisabeth de Valois, and continued producing works at King Philip II’s court.
Like many women artists of the Italian Renaissance, Sofonisba’s fame and significance were rediscovered in the twentieth century, and she is regarded today as one of the most important painters of the early modern period.
10. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)
Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter who lived from 1593 to 1656. She was born in Rome and was the daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi. Artemisia’s work was characterized by its emotional intensity and powerful depictions of women. She was exceptionally skilled at painting biblical and mythological scenes, and her work often featured strong, dynamic women who were depicted with a sense of realism and humanity.
In addition to her skill as a painter, Artemisia was also a survivor of sexual assault and used her art to express her experiences and seek justice.
Artemisia’s talent as a painter was widely recognized, and she significantly influenced the development of Baroque painting in Italy. Her work was characterized by its use of chiaroscuro and its ability to convey powerful emotions and dramatic scenes.
It is not common for many people to think of the great women artists who pioneered women’s art and art in general during the time of the Italian Renaissance. Despite this, many women have contributed to a field primarily dominated by men. Moreover, many of these women were the first artists in their field to produce work of their kind, making them pioneers worth remembering.
Today, many more of these women are being recognized, and the art landscape has become a place where women can make their mark with significantly more ease than these pioneering predecessors. With determination and drive, these women conquered unprecedented institutional barriers to make valuable contributions to one of history’s most significant movements.