Art History, Artists, On this day..., Painters

On this day… died Elisabetta Sirani

Elisabetta Sirani was an Italian painter and printmaker of the Baroque. She was seminal artist in early modern Bologna and established an academy for other women artists.

Sirani was born in Bologna in 1638, she was the first of four children. Her father was a painter of the School of Bologna and at first, he was not inclined to teach his daughter the way f Bolognese painting. He was one of the favourite pupils of Guido Reni. She picked up his technique nonetheless and became one of the most renewed painters in Bologna.

Self-portrait by Elisabetta Sirani, 1660

To prepare for her career, she received an education in popular subjects as the outlines of the Bible History, stories of Greece and Rome, a smattering of Heathen mythology, and legends of saints, etc.

Her biography is included in Carlo Cesare Malvasia’s two-volume Felsina pittrice: vite de’pittori bolognesi, or Lives of the Bolognese Painters which was first published in 1678. Malvasia was personally acquainted with the Sirani family and actually took credit for recognizing Elisabetta Sirani’s talent and persuading her father to train her as an artist, although this was not completely true. In the biography he compares her with Lavinia Fontana (an earlier Bolognese painter, who he describes as timid), he praises the originality of Sirani’s compositions, her style of drawing and her professionalism.

Sirani died suddenly and in unexplained circumstances at the age of 27 in Bologna. Her death was considered suspicious and a maidservant was charged with poisoning the artist and put on trial. It was thought suspicious because the servant requested to end her service to the family only days before Sirani’s death. Sirani’s father withdrew the charges soon after the trial. The actual cause of her death was most likely the onset of peritonitis after a ruptured peptic ulcer, which may have been the result of the intene stress she was submitted to ater she was charged with providing for her entire household.

Illustration of Sirani’s catafalque in Malvasia’s biography

She was given an elaborate funeral including an enormous catafalque with a life-sized sculpture of the artist (it is illustrated in Malvasia’s biography), orations and music composed in her honour. Sirani was buried in the Basilica of San Domenico, in the same tomb of Guido Reni, who was her father’s teacher.  

Curiosities:

  • Sirani never married. Some believed that her father prevented her from marrying, however, this is unproven.
  • According to some scholars, she overshadowed her father and her two sisters, who were also painters.

References:

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