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Elisabetta Sirani | Baroque painter

Elisabetta Sirani (8 January 1638 - 28 August 1665) was an Italian Baroque painter and printmaker who died in still unexplained circumstances at the early age of 27.
She was the most famous woman artist in early modern Bologna and established an academy for other women artists.


Elisabetta Sirani was born in Bologna in January 1638, the first of four children of Margherita and Giovanni Andrea Sirani. Sirani, like many other female artists, was born into an artistic family and was first trained in her father’s studio.

She was trained by her father, a painter of the School of Bologna, who was a pupil of Guido Reni and an art merchant.
Her biography is included in Carlo Cesare Malvasia’s two-volume Felsina pittrice: Vite de’pittori bolognesi, or Lives of the Bolognese Painters, first published in 1678.

Malvasia was personally acquainted with the Sirani family and actually took credit for recognizing Elisabetta’s talent and persuading her father to train her as an artist, although this was likely self-aggrandizing.

There is evidence that Sirani’s father was not inclined, at first, to teach his daughter the way of Bolognese painting.
She picked up his technique nonetheless and became one of the most renown painters in Bologna, as a cult grew around her as the female reincarnation for Guido Reni.

According to some scholars, she overshadowed both her father and two sisters, who were also painters.
In short, Sirani became a legend in her short lifetime.

Throughout his biography of Sirani, Malvasia praises the originality of her compositions, her style of drawing, her fast manner of working, and her professionalism, contrasting her with Lavinia Fontana, an earlier Bolognese woman painter whom he describes as timid.
Giovanni Andrea Sirani became incapacitated by gout later in his career and Elisabetta began running her family's workshop by 1654.

Elisabetta Sirani was at this point the primary breadwinner for the family.
Between her student fees and portrait commissions, she was able to be the sole supporter of her family.
Her studio was incredibly successful, likely due to the progressive atmosphere of Bologna, where women artists were more welcome and celebrated.


Elisabetta Sirani never married, despite her personality being warm-hearted and lively temper, gracious and winning manner.
Some believed, such as Malvasia, that her father prevented his daughter from marrying, however this theory may be biased.

Many Italian family during the seventeenth century decide to marry their daughters to preserve their reputation or provide for their protection.
The Sirani household had no intention of such and determined that Elisabetta could help with providing for the family.


Elisabetta Sirani’s death brought many conspiracies to light. She died suddenly in August 1665, in Bologna.
Her death was considered suspicious and a maidservant, Lucia Tolomelli, was charged with poisoning the artist and put on trial, It was deemed suspicious because Tolomelli had requested to end her service of the family only days before Sirani’s death.
Giovanni Andrea Sirani withdrew the charges soon after the trial.
Laura Ragg comments that Sirani died at "an age regarded as young indeed for death, but hopelessly late for marriage".
Malvasia attributed her death to love-sickness because Sirani never married.

Her actual cause of death was most likely the onset of peritonitis after a ruptured peptic ulcer.
This may have been the result of the intense stress she was submitted to after she was charged with providing for her entire household.

Sirani was given an elaborate funeral which included an enormous catafalque with a life-sized sculpture of the artist (illustrated in Malvasia's biography), orations and music composed in her honor by Bologna's most prominent citizens, and she was buried in the Basilica of San Domenico, Bologna, in the same tomb as her father's teacher, Guido Reni.

Sirani’s public funeral is regarded as some, including Laura Ragg, esteemed American author, as a eulogy to Bologna, the city that gave birth to Sirani, considered a precocious and prolific artist by her contemporaries.
Sirani was described by a poet as the "Lamented Paintbrush". Malvasia suggests that it was not poisoning but a condition that arose spontaneously in the body of a "vivacious and spirited woman, concealing to the highest degree her craving for a perhaps coveted husband denied to her by her father".
A city official at the time wrote that:
"She is mourned by all. The ladies especially whose portraits she flattered, cannot hold their peace about it. Indeed it is a great misfortune to lose such great artist in so strange a manner".
The ostentatious and elaborate funeral she received reflects the high esteem she was held in by her contemporaries and indeed her international fame.


Elisabetta Sirani received her professional training from her father, Giovanni Andrea Sirani. Giovanni Andrea was amongst the favorite pupils of Guido Reni, one of the pronounced artists of Bologna.
Elisabetta’s father did not produce many works during his lifetime, instead, he took over Reni’s job as a teacher, and became the master in the first life school held in the House of Ettore Ghislieri.
However, Giovanni Andrea was repelled to take her in as pupil originally, due to his concern of her talent eclipsing his.

To prepare for her career, Elisabetta Sirani received education regarding popular subject matter during the time besides professional training.
She was taught the outlines of Bible History, stories of Greece and Rome, a smattering of Heathen mythology, and legends of saints.
Elisabetta was also knowledgeable in the field of music, one of the reason being her brother-in-law was a musician.
Although music was considered "the most detrimental to the modesty fitting to the sex, distracting them from their proper activity and occupation", her and her family reputation was never hurt by her interests in music.

Elisabetta Sirani drew from a number of painters including Annibale Carracci, Lorenzo Pasinelli, Desubleo, Simone Cantarini and Cignani. Malvasia, who considered Sirani his creature, presented her as the epitome of Bolognese genius in his Felsina Pittrice.


Not only was Elisabetta Sirani the successor of her father’s workshop, she was also a great teacher of many, especially contributing to women artists’ development during the Renaissance period.
She trained a number of men and women artists, including her younger sisters Barbara and Anna Maria and at least 12 other young women at a school she set up train artists.

Some of her pupils include Veronica Fontana, later known throughout Italy as a first-rate wood-engraver; Caterina Pepoli and Maria Elena Panzacchi, who also had an art career in Bologna.
Camelia Lanteri and Lucretia Forni, who specialized in large-scale religious paintings. Veronica Franchi, whose predilection was for mythological subjects. Lucrezia Scarfaglia was another pupil.

Lastly, there was Ginevra Cantofoli, represented during her career as Sirani’s enemy and rival.
She founded the first school of painting for women outside a convent in Europe, and made sure that it was inclusive to women, regardless of if they were daughters of painters or would otherwise have lessons made available.
Sirani received her first commission in her teens, a Baptism of Christ, a companion piece to an earlier done painting by her father at the Campo Santo of Bologna.


Elisabetta Sirani produced over 200 paintings, 15 etchings, and hundreds of drawings, making her an extremely prolific artist, especially considering her early death.
Of these hundreds of drawings, about a quarter of these relate to known paints or prints done by Sirani.
Sirani kept a meticulous list and records of her paintings and who commissioned them beginning in 1655, which is recorded in Malvasia’s biography and many of her paintings are signed.

By Sirani signing her paintings when her male counterparts did not, this could be because she did not want her work to be confused with work of her father, her signature also offered a way to further prove her powers of invention, which, according to Vasari, distinguished her from other Italian women artists.
Sirani's exceptional prodigiousness was the product of how quickly she painted. She painted so many works that many doubted that she painted them all herself.
To refute such charges she invited her accusers on May 13, 1664 to watch her paint a portrait in one sitting.

Her works cover a number of subjects, including historical and Biblical narratives, often featuring women, allegories, and portraits.
Sirani was also the first female artist to specialize in history painting, a style that many other female painters that Sirani trained also followed.
Sirani’s specialization in history painting is very different than other female painters of the time, who usually only painted still lives. 1657 was when she receive her first major public commission in Bologna, from Daniele Granchi, prior of the Carthusian church of Certosa di Bologna.

She painted at least 13 public altarpieces, including The Baptism of Christ at the Certosa di Bologna of 1658. Around 1660, she began focusing extensively on small-scale devotional images, particularly Virgin and Child and Holy Family, which were enormously popular with private collectors.
Her patrons ranged from cardinals to kings, princes, dukes, merchants, and academics from Bologna and across Europe.

Sirani became a celebrity in her city as visitors, such as diplomats, political leaders, and noblemen, would come to her studio to watch her work.
Sirani’s style is close to that of her father’s teacher, Guido Reni, but Elisabetta employed more dramatic contrasts of light and shade, virtuoso brushstrokes, and more brilliant color.
More similarities of her works may be found in the draftsmanship of Ludovico Carracci, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Guercino), and Simone Cantarini (Bohn).
Her striking images of female heroines, such as Portia Wounding Her Thigh are comparable to the work of Artemisia Gentileschi.
Sirani often selected lesser-known subjects for her paintings and her unique interpretation of iconography drew praise from a number of contemporaries.
"Sirani made drawings in a variety of media, such as brush and wash, pen and ink with wash, black chalk, red chalk, and a combination of the two".
Her drawings, while done in many different media, usually in pen or brush and ink, display the same brilliance as her paintings, often quickly executed with what Malvasia describes as "nonchalance".

Sirani managed to thwart visual gender conventions, whereby portraiture was the expected genre for female artists. Instead, she transformed the format into an allegorical mode that solicits the observer's interpretation of the work. Sirani based many of her allegories on Cesare Ripa's descriptions from his Iconologia, published in 1611. Some of her favored topics included Greek and Roman mythology and mythological figures, and the poetry of Horace.

They were aware of the prurient effect inclusion of such subject matter may have on their reputations. If the male figure was depicted, it was usually done in a religious tone, depicting Jesus Christ for example. Ten Thousand Crucified Martyrs' composition is replete with male figures. While it does fall under this religious category of the male figure, Sirani’s work displays a strong sense of individuality.

In popular culture

Sirani is referenced in Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party
In 1994, a crater on the planet Venus was named after Sirani.

Sirani's painting Virgin and Child of 1663, now in the collection of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, was selected for the United States Postal Service Christmas Holiday Stamp series in October 1994. This was the first work by a woman artist chosen for the series.
Her Herodias with the Head of John the Baptist is featured on the cover of the Canadian technical death metal band Cryptopsy's 1996 album None So Vile. | © Wikipedia

Elisabetta Sirani (Bologna, 8 gennaio 1638 - Bologna, 28 agosto 1665) è stata una pittrice e incisore Italiana, di stile barocco.


Elisabetta fu la prima dei quattro figli di Margherita e Giovanni Andrea Sirani, affermato pittore bolognese, primo assistente di Guido Reni e mercante d'arte. Mentre Antonio, il più piccolo e unico figlio maschio, si sarebbe dedicato alla medicina, Elisabetta studiò con le sorelle Barbara ed Anna Maria alla scuola paterna dove dimostrò subito talento e maestria realizzando alcuni ritratti già all'età di diciassette anni.
Iniziò la sua attività producendo dipinti di piccole dimensioni commissionati per la devozione privata, i cosiddetti "quadretti da letto". Uno di questi suoi primi lavori è il Sant'Antonio da Padova e Gesù bambino in collezione privata, in cui però la mano del padre interviene a dipingere il Cristo infante ed il manto del santo.

Elisabetta divenne quindi nota per le sue rappresentazioni ispirate a temi sacri (in particolare come pittrice di Madonne) o di natura allegorica, nonché per i ritratti di eroine bibliche o letterarie (da Giuditta a Dalila, da Porzia a Cleopatra), di quest'ultima è recente il ritrovamento in collezione modenese di una versione con il seno scoperto sino ad oggi sconosciuta e pubblicata dal ricercatore Alex Cavallucci. Il dipinto conservato a Cesena nella Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio già dato all'opera di Elisabetta, è da attribuire con certezza al padre Giovanni Andrea Sirani.
La sua tecnica era decisamente inconsueta per il tempo: tratteggiava infatti i soggetti con schizzi veloci e quindi li perfezionava con l'acquarello dimostrando gran disinvoltura o, per usare un termine dell'epoca, con "sprezzatura".
In un ambiente come quello artistico, ritenuto una prerogativa maschile e che di conseguenza mal tollerava "l'intrusione" di protagoniste femminili, Elisabetta eseguì in pubblico e alla presenza dei suoi committenti (tra cui figuravano nobili e aristocratici, ecclesiastici e personalità di spicco come alcuni membri della famiglia Medici, la duchessa di Parma e quella di Baviera) una parte delle proprie opere non solo adeguandosi a una diffusa abitudine dell'epoca, ma anche per allontanare qualsiasi sospetto che non fosse una donna a dipingere con tanta bravura e «per sfatare le voci che vedevano il padre furbo "sfruttatore" di una inesistente capacità o abilità della figlia».

Accanto alle tele, fin da giovane la Sirani realizzò anche apprezzate incisioni all'acquaforte ricavate in genere dai suoi quadri.
Le sono attribuite all'incirca 200 opere: una quantità ritenuta esagerata nei soli dieci anni in cui lavorò, anche se in verità non se ne conosce il numero reale a parte una lista che lei stessa iniziò a stendere in una fase già piuttosto avanzata della sua pur breve attività.

La "scuola bolognese" e la "scuola delle donne"

L'artista fa parte di quello straordinario movimento pittorico barocco comunemente noto come scuola bolognese, ed è entrata a pieno titolo fra i maggiori artisti europei del Seicento.
Sotto questo punto di vista, Bologna fu la più prolifica officina italiana di artiste donne, che poterono esprimersi così efficacemente anche grazie alla protezione loro accordata dai rispettivi padri, come fu appunto per Elisabetta ma anche per Lavinia Fontana, figlia di Prospero, o per la romana Artemisia Gentileschi, figlia di Orazio, e la veneziana Marietta Robusti, figlia del Tintoretto e perciò chiamata "la Tintoretta".

Va comunque ricordato che in realtà nella casa e studio dei Sirani (di Giovanni Andrea prima e poi di Elisabetta, che gli subentrò intorno al 1662, quando la podagra e la chiragra gli impedirono di proseguire l'attività) operava una buona bottega di sole donne, tant'è che nelle opere della giovane pittrice è visibile una certa discontinuità, dovuta in alcuni dipinti proprio alla collaborazione delle allieve, mentre in quelli sicuramente autografi è chiara l'eredità ricevuta dall'insegnamento del padre e, attraverso lui, di Guido Reni ed, ancor prima, di Raffaello.

Nel dipinto raffigurante San Giuseppe nell'atto di donare un fiore a Gesù bambino del 1662 c'è un chiaro riferimento al San Giuseppe di Guido Reni di medesimo soggetto e composizione.
Successivamente, con l'attenuarsi delle influenze dei suoi maestri, Elisabetta andò sviluppando progressivamente uno stile proprio e indipendente, più naturalistico e realistico, più vicino alla sensibilità del Guercino e della scuola veneta, in cui pare stabilirsi una sorta di dialogo emotivo fra l'artista e il soggetto delle sue opere.

La morte

Tra le sue discepole figurava anche Ginevra Cantofoli, divenuta poi famosa non solo per le opere realizzate ma anche per essere stata sospettata di veneficio ai danni della maestra per un'esasperata gelosia d'amore. In verità anche il padre, forse per invidia nei confronti della figlia, fu visto come responsabile della morte di Elisabetta.
Nessuno dei tre indagati, compresa la domestica Lucia Tolomelli, fu però accusato formalmente e la pittrice fu dichiarata morta a causa di un'ulcera perforante (peritonite).
Mito e supposizioni arbitrarie che però negli anni non si sono mai spenti, anche per la sua prematura scomparsa a soli ventisette anni d'età.
Il conte e biografo Carlo Cesare Malvasia, che all'epoca stava scrivendo le vite dei pittori bolognesi poi riunite in Felsina pittrice, quando seppe della morte della sua favorita compose un sentito e accorato necrologio come se gli fosse venuta a mancare una figlia, più che un'analisi critica sulla vita e le opere dell'artista come per tutti gli altri pittori presenti nella sua raccolta.

Il 29 agosto 1665 fu sepolta, accanto a Guido Reni, nel sepolcro della famiglia Guidotti nella cappella del Rosario della Basilica di San Domenico in Bologna ed, alcuni giorni dopo, vennero celebrate le esequie con gran pompa.
Poeti e letterati le dedicarono varie composizioni in versi, che Giovanni Luigi Picinardi diede alle stampe insieme alla sua orazione funebre sotto il titolo Il pennello lacrimato, mentre il trentatreenne Bartolomeo Zanicchelli, assiduo frequentatore della scuola dei Sirani da quindici anni, ne fece il ritratto da morta.

La "riscoperta"

Dopo un primo, modesto ridestarsi d'interesse nell'Ottocento romantico, che ne privilegiò gli aspetti biografici più "eroici" e patetici, la Sirani ha conosciuto un recente successo di critica dovuto a nuovi studi d'approfondimento sulla sua opera, arricchitasi notevolmente negli ultimi anni, tanto da spingere gli studiosi a diverse pubblicazioni monografiche a poca distanza l'una dall'altra.
Un primo segnale di rivalutazione si può individuare nel 1947 quando, con la sostituzione dell'ordinamento repubblicano a quello monarchico, a Bologna l'antica "Scuola provinciale femminile di arti e mestieri", già denominata "Istituto femminile di arti e mestieri Regina Margherita" sotto il patronato reale, fu definitivamente intitolata a Elisabetta Sirani.

Nel 1994 le è stato dedicato un cratere di 28 km di diametro sul pianeta Venere e, in quello stesso anno, è stato emesso un francobollo raffigurante il suo dipinto Madonna con Bambino di Washington all'interno della tradizionale serie natalizia dello United States Postal Service (la prima volta per l'opera d'arte di una donna).
La prima mostra monografica è datata 1995, mentre la prima monografia moderna è quella curata da Adelina Modesti nel 2004.

Più di recente (luglio 2011), la compagnia teatrale bolognese Il Chiostro ha ripreso, fra storia, mito e leggende popolari, il tema del processo a Lucia Tolomelli per l'avvelenamento di Elisabetta Sirani in L'enigma della tela (un giallo nell'arte), uno spettacolo che combina i toni tragici del giallo con quelli comici della commedia, scritto da Giovanni Gotti ed Eugenio Bortolini che ne è stato anche regista ed interprete. | © Wikipedia