Five things to know about Lavinia Fontana

Lavinia Fontana's painting after conservation treatment.
Photo © National Gallery of Ireland.Credit

Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker is our summer exhibition, a celebration of a ground-breaking sixteenth century artist. It brings together a selection of her most highly regarded works from international public and private collections, with a focus on her extraordinary portraits.

Book your ticket here, and read on to discover five interesting facts about this pioneering woman and her art before your visit.

#1 - Fontana’s artistic family

Lavinia Fontana was born in 1552 into an artistic family. Her father, Prospero Fontana, was a successful artist and gave Fontana her early start. Outside of a court or convent, studying with a family member was one of the only ways a woman could learn to paint. Due to the ill health of her father, Lavinia was trained to take over the family business from her early 20s, comparatively late to her male counterparts who would start training as teenagers!

An oil painting showing a woman in a pink dress sitting at a virginal (musical instrument like a harpsichord). Her hands are on the keys, and she is looking directly at the viewer. In the background, another figures stands, holding a music score.
Lavinia Fontana, Self-Portrait at the Virginal, 1577. © Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Roma. Photo: Mauro Coen.

#2 - The first celebrity artist

At the height of her popularity, Fontana could not walk down the fashionable streets of Bologna without being stopped by flocks of women, according to biographer Carlo Malvasia. For these ladies, the appeal of having a woman portraitist had a number of benefits. There was no need to worry about any rumours of improper behaviour that might come from spending time alone with a male painter, and they could also form a strong relationship with this artist, who they saw as one of their peers. This led to huge demand amongst Bolognese women for a portrait painted by Fontana, and groups of women crying out for her attention and friendship!

Lavinia Fontana, Venus and Cupid, 1592. © Réunion des Musées Métropolitains Rouen Normandie, Musée des Beaux-Arts

#3 - Her work featured the latest Bolognese fashion accessory

When visiting the exhibition, you can’t help but notice the number of small dogs in Fontana’s portraits. Not unlike the celebrities of today, these tiny dogs were the ultimate fashion accessory in Lavinia Fontana’s Bologna. Bedecked in earrings and necklaces, they are almost as richly dressed as their owners! When you visit the exhibition, try and spot how many portraits contain these very cute additions!

Painting of a female figure in an elaborately decorated black dress with white lace collar, sitting on a red velvet chair holding a small dog
Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of Costanza Alidosi, c.1595. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth.

#4 - Bolognese fashion history

The opulent portraits of Bolognese society tell the story of Bolognese fashions in the late–16th century. Bologna was renowned for producing silks, which are a major feature of the portraits in this exhibition. Heavy and expensive embroidery are also a key component, as the sitters wanted to show their wealth and status. If you have a close look at The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon in the final room of the exhibition, you may be able to see that the pattern of every lace ruff that the members of the court are wearing is slightly different. This may be a nod towards a book of lace designs published in 1591 by Arcangelo Passerotti, which explains that every major house in Bologna had their own heraldic pattern, completely unique and individually recognisable!

Image composed of four smaller images, detailing elaborate white lace cuffs and ruffs in different patterns

#5 - The ultimate businesswoman?

Lavinia Fontana lived in a comparatively liberal city in terms of the rights and freedoms of women, but she still faced a lot of obstacles. To become a successful professional artist, she would have needed someone to engage in business negotiations on her behalf. She also needed to build a list of clients and develop a strong reputation for her art. Her marriage to Zappi was, in part, to facilitate the financial aspect of Fontana’s career. She also developed an extremely close relationship with some of her most esteemed patrons. The names of the most powerful and influential families in Bologna are dotted amongst the baptismal records of Fontana’s children, recorded as godparents. These godparents, such as Laudomia Gozzadini, later commissioned portraits from Fontana that decorated their lavish houses in Bologna.

Portrait of a small child in a green dress with white ruff and a green pointed hat, holding a small dog.
Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), Portrait of Ippolita Savignani at Twelve Months, 1583. Hopetoun Collection. Photo: Bruce F. Pert.

Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker can be seen in our Beit Wing until 27 August 2023.

This exhibition is proudly supported by Bank of America, Exhibition Partner.

The Gallery would like to thank the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media for their ongoing support.


Book tickets to visit  Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker

Or, become a member and visit all exhibitions for free for a year.

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