(Bologna 1552 – 1614 Rome)


Portrait of a Lady of the Gonzaga or Sanvitale Family


Oil on canvas

45 ¼ x 34 ¼ inches

(115 x 87 cm)


Probably Sanvitale Collection; by descent to Count Giovanni Sanvitale di Fontanellatto, until ca. 1940
Private Collection, France


Probably no. 64, in an undated Eighteenth Century Sanvitale Inventory, Archivio di Stato di Parma, Fondo Sanvitale, Busta 809-810, Nota di Quadri e Pitture: “n. 63. Ritratto di Donna con sghiratto in tela maniera di Girolamo Mazzola molto ritocco. N. 64 Come sopra suo compagno, meno ritocco.”

Probably no. 1395, in an undated inventory for Count Stefano Sanvitale, thus compiled between 1764 and 1838. Busta n. 811a, Inventario Generale delle Mobiglie di ragione del Patrimonio di S.a E.a il Sign.r Co. Stefano Sanvitale; pp. 137-138: “N. 1394 … quadro senza cornice rappresentante un Ritratto di donna con scojatolo, di Girolamo Mazzola intatto, in tela per alto. Alto p.mi 57. Largo p.mi 48;  N. 1395 Altro quadro senza cornice rappresentante come sopra un ritratto di donna di maniera di Girolamo Mazzola in tela per alto. Alto p.mi 57. Largo p.mi 48.”

Probably Mostra iconografica gonzaghesca, exh. cat., Mantua, Palazzo Ducale, May 16-Sept 19, 1937, p. 70 s.v. no. 312


Lavinia Fontana has the distinction of being considered the first woman artist working within the same sphere as her male counterparts outside of a court or convent.  She achieved her independent success and celebrity in one of the most intense of artistic environments, Bologna of the late Cinquecento.   The daughter of the artist Prospero Fontana, Lavinia is best known as a portrait painter of elegance and sympathy, and her fame in her own lifetime extended throughout Italy and beyond.  In an arrangement unusual, if not unique for the age, Lavinia married a fellow painter from a noble family, who then acted as his wife’s assistant and managed their large household (the couple had 11 children, only three of whom outlived their mother).  From the 1580s until the turn of the seventeenth century Lavinia was the portraitist of choice among Bolognese nobility. She then moved to Rome, where she became a painter at the papal court and the recipient of numerous honors.  Her art and career have recently been the subject of renewed scholarly attention and collector interest.

The present painting is a stunning addition to the known corpus of Lavinia Fontana’s works.  It has been recently studied by Maria Teresa Cantaro, author of the standard monograph on the artist, whose essay is here appended.  Cantaro dates the painting to ca. 1585, contemporary with some of the artist’s most distinguished celebrated works: the Portrait of the Gozzadini Family (1585, Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale), the Portrait of a Man of the Tozzoni Family (1584, Imola, Palazzo Tozzoni), the Portrait of Fra Francesco Panigarola (1585, Florence, Galleria Palatina), and the Venus and Cupid (1585, Venice, Private Collection).

Our painting is closely related to another portrait by Lavinia, of nearly identical size and format.  The sitter in that work, now in a private American collection, is so close to that of the present portrait that Cantaro considers it likely that the same woman is depicted, but at different times – ours, she suggests, at the time of her engagement, and the other after her marriage.  Certainly they share many similarities --in their physiognomy, hairstyle, dress, jewelry, and pose.  But the differences are notable as well, although the significance of the changes may be difficult to appreciate.  While a closed book appears on the table next to the sitter in our portrait, a letter rests on the table next to the lady in green.  A fragmentary inscription formerly on that letter gave the name of “Laura Gonzaga, contessa di Sabbionetta,” however her identification as the sitter of the portrait has been rejected by Cantaro, both because the inscription was later addition (and disappeared during the recent cleaning) and as the historic Laura Gonzaga, born in 1547 or 1548, had become a nun and entered a Benedictine convent in 1566.

Lavinia Fontana (the subject painting)

Lavinia Fontana (the subject painting)

Lavinia Fontana, the so-called “Laura Gonzaga”

Lavinia Fontana, the so-called “Laura Gonzaga”

Cantaro associates both portraits with a pair of identically-sized portraits recorded in eighteenth-century Sanvitale inventories, as in the “manner of Girolamo Mazzola.”  These would have descended from either the Sanvitale family or from the Sabionetta or di Bozzolo branches of the Gonzaga.  They evidently remained with the Sanvitale family until the dispersal of the family collections in the 1940s.  The Lady in Green was photographed when in the collection of Count Giovanni Sanvitale at the at the Rocca di Fontanellato in 1931; our portrait appears to have been recorded there at the same time.  Cantaro discusses the Sanvitale provenance in her essay, in which she makes the tentative proposal to identify the sitter of our portrait as Isabella Gonzaga, daughter ofVespasiano, Lord of Sabbioneta, who married Don Luigi Caraffa in 1584.

The portrait is framed in an elaborate period frame, which may be original.  Lavinia Fontana’s authorship has been confirmed as well upon first-hand inspection by Dr. Babette Bohn (January 2014), who also dates the portrait to the mid 1580s.