They called her La Maestra.
Elisabetta Sirani was a talented and prolific artist in Seventeenth Century Italy. Trained by her father, she was running his studio by the time she was sixteen and earned her first official commission the following year. Over her short career she produced more than 200 paintings, etchings, and prints, had patrons that included royalty and noble Italian families, and founded one of the first art schools in Europe exclusively for women. When she died aged only 27 of a mysterious ailment, all of Bologna mourned.
Her fame has been eclipsed by her male counterparts, and her work often claimed as theirs. Doubted, scorned, admired, copied, and misunderstood, this is her story.
Click here to view some of the paintings referred to in Unfinished.
1647 – 1649
“I drew this for you, Papa.” Elisabetta held out a piece of scrap paper, her head lowered.
Andrea took the proffered page and put it on the table between him and Cesare Malvasia, a close friend of the Siranis. Both men peered at the drawing. It was a sketch of a sleeping infant, the lines and shading of the babe’s swaddling crude but compelling. The closed eyes and faint smile that played on the sleeping child’s lips made it appear the babe was dreaming.
“It’s Angela,” the girl said quietly.
Andrea’s heart ached at the mention of his dead daughter’s name. She’d been only five months when a fever had taken her the previous week. The likeness in the drawing was a fine one, and a momentary flash of anger rushed through him at the feelings the image had forced on him.
“I thought you and Mama would like it.” Elisabetta finally looked up, a hopeful expression on her young face.
Flustered by the unexpected emotions, Andrea stumbled over his words. “Elisabetta. It’s a, your piece,” he stopped. Seeing the look of pain in his daughter’s eyes, he collected himself and smiled gently. “Thank you. I’ll treasure it.” He nodded his head at her and watched as she walked solemnly from the room. When she was gone, Cesare spoke.
“It’s a child’s scribble.”
“It’s an impressive piece of work for one so young. How old is your eldest now?”
“Nine.” Andrea took a sip of the strong Venetian wine that had been a gift from a patron. His studio received many similar gifts from people who wanted a painting from the renowned Giovanni Andrea Sirani. This one was from a Bolognese senator, an expression of gratitude for an image of the Madonna and Child.
“And she receives no art instruction?”
“She receives the education that all young women receive, including daily religious instruction. She can read and write, is learning the classics, and has started lute lessons. That is enough.”
Cesare Malvasia was thoughtful for a moment. “You should consider expanding her lessons to include art.” At his friend’s doubtful expression, he continued. “There is real talent here.” He pushed the drawing closer to Andrea. “Look more carefully.”
“Just because you style yourself an art critic doesn’t mean you’re always right.” Seeing Cesare about to object, Andrea held up a hand. “All right. As it’s you.” He picked up the paper and brought it closer, noticing it had come from his own workshop: the creases and torn corner letting him know he’d thrown it away.
Ignoring the fact his daughter had snuck into his studio without permission, he focussed on the lines: their strength and precision. Then he examined the shading and overall composition. Malvasia was right. It did show talent.
He threw it back on the table. “I agree there is some skill there.”
“Some? Is that all you’ll admit to?”
Andrea sighed. “Fine. My daughter has a gift. But what point is there in spending the time training a girl? A woman can never come close to the genius of a man when it comes to art. They can do passable work copying the composition of others, but to truly take a subject and present it in a different or new way?” He shook his head. “A woman’s brain just isn’t capable. It takes a man’s skill to create such an image.”
“What of the Gentileschi woman?” Malvasia offered up the first female artist that came to mind.
Andrea frowned and took a long drink of wine. He set the unadorned glass down on the table. “Her art is passable.” At a look from Cesare, he sighed. “All right, she’s good.” He hurriedly added, “But her shading copies Caravaggio’s, her darkness is his. Her subject matter isn’t original in any way, and anyone can see her compositions echo Guido Reni’s.” He shook his head again. “Perhaps if I have a son someday.”
“So, you won’t train her.”
“No. I already have too much to do as it is. I have my own students and my own commissions to complete, both the paintings and the engravings. You know I took over all of Reni’s business when he died.” He lowered his voice. “And my health has been poor.” His face fell, the look of a man embarrassed to admit a weakness. He suddenly grimaced and rubbed his right hand with his left to emphasise the point.
Cesare wouldn’t give up. “Look at that face. The child could at least be taught to paint Madonnas for your less illustrious clients.” He pointed to the drawing again.
Andrea sighed and picked up the sketch once more, hoping to silence his friend. The idea of her creating Madonnas and other simple religious images was an appealing one. The more money the studio brought in, the better.
“Fine. I’ll give her some basic instruction. We’ll see how she does. Are you satisfied?”
Malvasia smiled widely and nodded his head. “Very.”