This Italian artist became the first female superstar of the Renaissance

Sofonisba Anguissola's undeniable talent attracted the attention of Michelangelo and the king of Spain. Today more and more of her works are being identified, securing the legacy of this remarkable woman.

By Alessandra Pagano
Published 25 Mar 2022, 11:55 GMT
Artist at work
Sofonisba Anguissola created “Self-portrait While Painting the Madonna” in Cremona when she was around 24 years old.
Photograph by Erich Lessing, Album

Artistic ferment bubbled in Italy in the late 1400s and early 1500s, but despite the later idealisation of that period as the Renaissance, it was also a time of extreme violence. As the armies of Spain, France, and the Holy Roman Empire battled to control the peninsula, Machiavelli was devising his brutal ideas about political science, and Leonardo da Vinci was juggling his masterpieces with military designs for guns and cannons. War and patriarchal values kept women at home and ensured that the names of Renaissance luminaries almost all belong to men.

Born amid the gore and glory of the era, Sofonisba Anguissola was exceptional on many levels: She won fame in her own lifetime as one of a tiny number of Renaissance women who painted their way out of domesticity and, later, into the world’s art museums. Her prodigious talent dazzled Michelangelo, and at age 27 she went to Madrid to become one of Europe’s most brilliant court painters. Her many works inspired a later generation of baroque artists, including Anthony Van Dyck and Caravaggio.

Genius in the family

Sofonisba was born around the year 1532 in Cremona, northern Italy, the eldest child of Bianca Ponzoni and Amilcare Anguissola. The last of the seven Anguissola children was born in 1555, completing a close-knit, creative family of six girls and one boy. Amilcare encouraged not only his son Asdrubale but also all his daughters—Sofonisba, Elena, Lucia, Minerva, Europa, and Anna Maria—to obtain a high level of education and to cultivate the arts. Sofonisba’s talent soon became too obvious to ignore.

Bianca Ponzoni, as painted by her daughter, Sofonisba Anguissola, 1557
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI
Amilcare Anguissola with his daughter Minerva and son, Asdrubale, painted by Sofonisba Anguissola, 1558-59
Photograph by Album/Fine Art Images

In 16th-century Italy, young women who wanted to become painters were not allowed to be apprentices in professional studios. The only hope for budding female artists was to receive tuition from male relatives (the later, baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, for example, was taught by her father). Since Amilcare Anguissola was not an artist, he took the unusual step of allowing Sofonisba to study under the painter Bernardino Campi when she was about 14.

Michelangelo's guidance

Sofonisba studied through her late teens and early 20s under Campi, and later Bernardino Gatti. At 22, she met Michelangelo Buonarroti. Impressed by her talent, he offered to help her and provided feedback and critiques of her work.

In 1562 a friend of Michelangelo wrote to Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici of Florence enclosing one of Sofonisba’s sketches, a work titled “A Boy Bitten by a Crawfish.” The work came about, he explained, “because Michelangelo, having seen her drawing of a laughing girl, said he would like to see a weeping boy, this being more difficult. So she sent him this, a portrait of her brother whom she studiously made to cry.”

"A Boy Bitten by a Crawfish" by Sofonsiba Anguissola was created circa 1554.
Photograph by Mondadori, Album
"Boy Bitten by a Lizard," by Caravaggio, circa 1595
Photograph by Album/AKG/Rabatti & Domingie

Sofonisba would have been familiar with the works of Michelangelo, who created works with similar emotion. The relationship between the young woman and aged genius was conducted via letters, supervised by her father. Despite the limitations of her encounters as a woman, the effect of her drawing was profound: Forty years later, its gestures and expression inspired one of Caravaggio’s most expressive works “Boy Bitten by a Lizard” (circa 1595).

The long Italian wars that had dragged on through Sofonisba’s youth were ended in 1559. The Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis drew Cremona, already a dominion of Spain, deeper into the Spanish orbit after France renounced its claim to the Duchy of Milan.

Sofonisba’s brilliance had come to the attention of the Spanish governor of Milan, the Duke of Sessa. He recommended her appointment to the court of the Spanish king, Philip II. While Sofonisba was technically lady-in-waiting to Philip II’s new French queen, Elizabeth (Isabel, in Spain) of Valois, she actually served as the drawing mistress and portrait painter of the royal family. 

From the Torrazzo (bell tower) of the city’s cathedral is a bird’s-eye view of Sofonisba Anguissola’s birthplace, Cremona, in northern Italy. The city was also home to the composer Claudio Monteverdi and the violin maker Antonio Stradivari.
Photograph by Karol Kozlowski/Alamy

The Madrid court may not have seemed a congenial place for a young artist from a close-knit family. Ruler of Spain, its American colonies, swathes of Italy, and the Low Countries, Philip II had a reputation for being gloomy and austere. Nevertheless, Sofonisba’s long sojourn in Madrid was marked by close friendships, especially with Queen Isabel, who on arrival in Madrid was only 14 years old. Sofonisba stayed by her side through her pregnancies, and taught the royal children—Isabella Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela.

These art classes helped forge an intimate bond with the family. In 1561 an Italian ambassador reported: “Sofonisba the Cremonese says that her pupil [Queen Isabel] is very good and paints naturally with a crayon in a way that one recognises the sitter.” Sofonisba’s royal portraits included her 1565 likeness of King Philip. Her familiarity with some of the other sitters, especially Queen Isabel, and later, her two daughters, enabled her to blend warmth and expressiveness with the rigid canons of royal portraiture.

In 1568 tragedy struck when Queen Isabel, 23, died in childbirth. Italian ambassadors reported Sofonisba’s intense grief at her friend’s death. Even though many of Isabel’s courtiers left Madrid after her death, Sofonisba remained at the request of Philip II, who wanted her to help educate the young princesses Isabella Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela (in Spain, known as the infantas). 

Her position at the court, where she was highly regarded, allowed her to achieve near-unprecedented fame for a female artist. A stream of pensions from the monarch attest to her high standing at the palace.

Mystery artist, mystery woman

Many art historians now believe that some of Sofonisba Anguissola’s works have been wrongly attributed to other painters—notably the chief court painter, Alonso Sánchez Coello. One of the most famous paintings that may have been painted by her was “Lady in a Fur Wrap.” For many years the painting  was attributed to El Greco, the Crete-born artist who lived in Spain. 

Reflecting an awareness that Sofonisba Anguissola’s paintings had often been wrongly attributed to male painters, historians have suggested this portrait was painted by her. In 2019 a joint study by Pollok House in Glasgow—the painting’s owners—and the Prado Museum in Madrid concluded that “Lady in a Fur Wrap” is not by El Greco or Sofonisba, but by Spanish court painter Alonso Sánchez Coello. 

"Lady in a Fur Wrap," attributed to Sofonsiba Aguissola and Alonso Sánchez Coello, is dated circa 1577-79.
Photograph by Album/Oronoz
The Infanta Catalina Micaela is portrayed in an 1854 painting attributed to Sofonsiba Anguissola and Alonso Sánchez Coello. Prado Museum, Madrid
Photograph by Artefact/Alamy

Although many historians accept this new attribution, others continue to insist that the painter was indeed Sofonisba, and that her sitter (whose identity is also unconfirmed) was the infanta Catalina Micaela. This assertion brings another painting under the spotlight: The portrait of Princess Catalina. The Prado attributes the work to Sánchez Coello while acknowledging that others attribute it to Sofonisba. In 1584, when the picture was painted, the infanta left Madrid for Savoy, not far from Genoa, where Sofonisba was then living.

Later life

In 1573 King Philip approved the marriage of Sofonisba to a Sicilian nobleman, Fabrizio Moncada, and provided his brilliant court painter with a dowry. The infantas, then six and seven, attended the proxy ceremony in Madrid. The couple set up home in Sicily, but their marriage was cut short by Fabrizio’s death, at the hand of pirates, in 1579.

Details of Sofonisba’s life on the island are scarce, but it appears she kept working. In 2008 researchers confirmed the discovery of a document proving Sofonisba’s authorship of a painting of a Madonna in the Sicilian church of Santa Maria de la Annunziata, in Paternò. For centuries, the work—one of a small number of religious paintings she produced—had been wrongly attributed to another painter.

Sofonisba returned to northern Italy, possibly to be near her family. After remarrying, she lived in Genoa, where she may have painted the then adult infantas. She lived there for 35 years. When she was in her 80s, and nearly blind, she moved with her second husband back to Sicily.

The young baroque artist Anthony Van Dyck visited her sometime in 1624; he was intrigued to meet a woman who had painted the “old” king of Spain and corresponded with Michelangelo and later painted her portrait. Alongside a line drawing of the elderly Sofonisba, Van Dyck describes meeting her in the pages of his sketchbook: “She recounted how she had been a miraculous painter from life, and the greatest torment she had known was not being able to paint anymore, because of her failing eyesight. Her hand was still steady, without any trembling.”          

Sofonisba Anguissola lived to age 93. She died in 1625 in Palermo, Sicily, after long outliving the siblings whom she had depicted with such freshness and joy. Her husband had these words engraved on her tomb in the church of San Giorgio dei Genovesi: “To Sophonisba, one the illustrious women of the world for her beauty and for her extraordinary natural abilities, so distinguished in portraying the human image that no-one of her time could equal her.”


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