The Most Famous Woman Painter of the Italian Renaissance You’ve Never Heard Of

Professor Michael Cole's new book, "Sofonisba's Lesson," illuminates the work of an artist ahead of her time.

Eve Glasberg
May 04, 2020

Sofonisba Anguissola (ca. 1535–1625) was the daughter of minor Lombard aristocrats who made the unprecedented decision to have her trained as a painter outside the family house. She went on to serve as an instructor to Isabel of Valois, the young queen of Spain. In his new book, Sofonisba’s Lesson, Davis Professor Michael Cole, chair of the Department of Art History and Archaeology, sheds light on Sofonisba’s work, offering a major reassessment of a Renaissance painter who changed the image of women’s education in Europe and transformed Western attitudes about who could be an artist.

Columbia News caught up with Cole recently to discuss his new book and Sofonisba’s connection to #MeToo, as well as what he’s going to read next and his current research project.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A. I have been teaching her paintings in my classes for years, and I always found it some of the most exciting material to introduce. I was bothered, though, by the fact that when I read through the scholarly literature on her work, I found dramatically different accounts of just what it was that she had painted. I couldn’t very well assign students a book in which the captions to most of the images seemed like they might be wrong. During my last research leave, I decided to go back to basics and work systematically through all the primary evidence. It was so absorbing that I decided to shelve the project I had intended to pursue and write on this instead.

A book cover with text and an image of a woman with a lace color and light brown hair pulled back from her face.

Q. In the era of #MeToo, do you think Sofonisba was offered the same educational opportunities as a man during the time she lived—the Italian Renaissance—or was she held back because she was a woman?

A. She was certainly not offered the same educational opportunities that a man would have been. Still, accounts of pre-modern women artists are too often framed primarily in terms of limitations. I don’t think Sofonisba’s paintings need any special pleading: They’re thrilling pictures that can generate endless discussion. Her circumstances, moreover, gave her a perspective no man had. No man made works like hers, and none could have.

Q. Why is Sofonisba virtually unheard of, despite the fact that she’s regarded by art historians as the first major woman artist of the Renaissance?

A. For one thing, her paintings ended up in less frequented places—Poland, Denmark, Hungary, British private collections. There’s no securely attributed painting by her in the Louvre or the Uffizi or the National Gallery in London. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has a major work, but it’s not on display. The only other painting that’s unquestionably by her in an American public collection is at the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables, Florida. Most people just don’t encounter her pictures very often.

A detail of "The Chess Game," circa 1555, by Sofonisba Anguissola: A paintining of a woman and a young girl sitting in a wooded area wearing colorful clothing that might have been worn during the 1500s. The woman has a chessboard with chess pieces, one of which she is holding in her hand.

Q. What books are currently on your night table?

A. I’m finishing Jonathan Crary’s 24/7, a remarkable book I should have read years ago. I’m looking forward to reading The Drama of Celebrity by Sharon Marcus.  

Q. What’s the last great book you read?

A. It was not the last, but one that has stayed with me is Brian Sutton-Smith’s The Ambiguity of Play. It’s a wonderful study of a basic human activity, but for me it was particularly inspiring to see his curiosity about the way that different disciplines approach the same topic.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. Alessandra Russo and I are leading a research group that’s studying regions of Italy that were historically controlled by Spain. We are thinking about these regions in the context of Spain’s broader global dominions. The idea is to create a conversation between scholars who work on Renaissance Italy and colonial Latin America, but also to explore regions like Puglia and Sardinia, on which there is very little art historical scholarship in any language.