Italian Renaissance is remembered as the birth of our modern concept of western art. Actually, the word “renaissance” means “reborn” and this is what it was. A time when the sciences and the art were born again, the way we know them today. When you walk through the squares and streets of Italian cities, as Florence or Rome, you can see that the art of Renaissance is everywhere you look, but only the art that was created by men. All you can see are symbols of masculinity: heroes, as examples of virility and male dominance.
The respectable Italian women of Renaissance could not be seen in the squares, the only exception admitted is if she was going to the church. Modesty, obedience and virtue were some of the demanded qualities of the Renaissance ladies. They should not show their individuality, it was something to be kept hidden behind decorum.
It’s in this context that was born Properzia de Rossi, in 1490 (Bologne, Italy). But she was not a current lady of Renaissance, she had a “crazy” ambition and desire: she wanted to be an artist. More than this, she wanted to create a kind of art that was forbidden to women, she wanted to be a sculptor.
The only art women could create in Renaissance were tapestry and needlework, both still today considered as minor art. It was considered art with capital “A” only the painting, architecture and sculpture, the art that was allowed only to men.
The hammer and the chisel are, until today, archetypal male tools, wielded by artisans and sculptors, generally associated to the image of muscular men. To the Renaissance mentality it was a virile art, and women seemed to lack the physical strength and also the intellectual vigour to this art.
Now and then, any artist hoping to make it, need an apprenticeship and years of training in a workshop, but for a woman in the Italian Renaissance, each step in this path was forbidden.
We don’t know if she was excluded from a workshop, because it was not found any diary or letters that could explain how she learnt. All we could find were fragments of her early art, that can show us how she handled to develop her skills.
An example is the Grassi family crest: the family comissioned this crest, what brought her initial fame and recognition. It was an extraordinary silver filigree crest that has inset 11 carved bottoms, these bottoms are in fact the stones of nectarines. One of these bottoms is the Madonna of mercy, in that one we can see how the Madonna is opening her cloak, showing to us the tiny little faces, a proof of her skill.
According to Amanda Vickery, Properzia de Rossi might not be able to work in stone but she transformed a piece of domestic waste into a magical sculpture. As we can see, necessity was, in this case,the mother of her artistic invention.
By 1525 (she was 35 years old), she had honed her skills and in an audacious act entered the competition against her male contemporaries, she wanted to become one of the select team of sculptors working in the basilica of San Petronio, the most important church of Bologna, and she won.
But if you enter in the church today, you would never think she did. They’ve placed one of her works, probably her masterpiece, in a corner beside the place where they sell the postcards of the church.
It is a morality tale called Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. In one of the scenes we can see Potiphar’s wife hanging on to a man who’s leaving. Looking at the details as the strength of the outstretched arm or the torsion all across the piece we can see the skill of the sculptor behind it.
Properzia was the first female sculptor in marble in 16th century Italy, and she had mastered what lay at the very heart of all Renaissance art, the nude. It was unthinkable for a woman to study and recreate the male body, and less for a modest woman as she was.
Why is she almost unknown?
The answer is not easy. As we can see, she had a good understanding of anatomy, she must have known everything about bodies in movement, even male bodies, the problem is that she probably knew too much as she demonstrated in this marble piece. This could have aroused the envy of other artists. Jealousy is the first problem with the artists. And she had a personal enemy, Amico Aspertini, he was her main opponent and he gossiped very badly about her, to slur her reputation.
She had to face many attacks on her reputation and character what made her retreated from public works. In 1530, only five years after working in San Petronio’s church, she died penniless and alone.
- She was the only woman artist included in Giorgio Vasari‘s book Lives of the most eminent painter, sculptors and architects.
- BBC series: The story of women and art. 2014
- Basilica di San Petronio
- Daniela e Dintorni blog
About Vasari’s book and Properzia de Rossi