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Insights | 07/08/2018

Maestra Elisabetta Sirani “Virtuosa del Pennello”

Maestra Elisabetta Sirani “Virtuosa del Pennello”

Baroque painter and printmaker Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) was one of Bologna's most innovative and influential artists, especially on the women artists of the city. Considered by her contemporaries as the "best brush in Bologna" and an established "maestro", she developed an elegant and expressive style. This article will examine Elisabetta's artistic agency and legacy: her promotion to head of the Sirani workshop and establishment of an art school for girls; and propose some new attributions.

On the occasion of the exhibition recently held at the Uffizi's Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe, Dipingere e disegnare "da gran maestro": il talento di Elisabetta Sirani (Bologna, 1638-1665)[1] I take the opportunity to write about this erudite and prolific painter, printmaker and draftswoman. Elisabetta Sirani was the more famous daughter of the established Bolognese artist and art merchant, Giovanni Andrea Sirani (1610-1670), who taught her the art of the pennelli. Giovanni Andrea's own master had been Guido Reni, the most important painter of Italy, and Elisabetta was initially taught in Reni's classical style, before she developed her own independent expressive and intimate manner, “far maniera da sè” as her biographer and mentor Count Carlo Cesare Malvasia put it.[2]            

Elisabetta was born on Friday 8 January 1638 in post-tridentine Bologna, the most important city of the Papal States after Rome. The Counter-Reformation assured artists continuing employment that came from not only the Catholic Church but also private patrons who sought devotional pictures for their homes. Bologna's more prominent families also desired secular paintings to decorate their patrician palaces, whilst the city's university intelligentsia sought portraits of its most celebrated doctors, scientists and lawyers. Elisabetta was able to satisfy this demand for both sacred and secular pictures in a variety of genres and subject matter, from history painting, large-scale religious altarpieces and smaller devotional works (fig. 1), classical mythologies (fig. 2), literature (fig. 3) and allegories, to portraits.

Women in Europe during this period did not have many opportunities to pursue a profession or career, as they were normally denied an education or training, expected to become wives, mothers or nuns. But Elisabetta was fortunate in that she lived in a progressive city with a liberal attitude towards female education. Most women wanting a professional career in the arts had a male relative who taught them in the family workshop. Having an artist-father helped Elisabetta establish herself as a successful professional painter in a male-dominated profession. What is remarkable about Elisabetta Sirani, however, is that she developed a new teaching model whereby girls and young women were taught to draw and paint by the artist herself, rather than by their fathers, husbands or brothers. She thus is revolutionary as one of the first woman artists outside of a convent to establish a professional art school for female students, which included her two younger sisters Barbara and Anna Maria as well as Ginevra Cantofoli, an already established artist who became Elisabetta's friend and assistant. Malvasia claimed a number of Bolognese young girls and women followed her artistic example "seguono l'esempio di questa tanta degna pittrice", listing eleven in all, including Elena Maria Panzacchi, Veronica Fontana, Lucrezia Scarfaglia, Teresa Coriolano and Angela Teresa Muratori.[3] Whether taught by Elisabetta directly at "la sua scuola", as contemporaries such as her dear patron and agent Marchese Ferdinando Cospi referred to it,[4] or influenced by her pioneering example, as Muratori likely was, all of these young women went on to work as established professional artists in Bologna and throughout Italy.[5]           

Despite dying unexpectedly young at 27, Elisabetta completed over 200 canvases, fifteen prints and innumerable drawings and wash sketches in a career that barely spanned more than a decade (1654-65).  This averages about twenty canvases a year, a remarkable number for any artist. Not only was Elisabetta extremely productive, she also demonstrated an extraordinary speed of execution (facilità), reputed for being able to complete a portrait bust in one sitting. Elisabetta was thus considered a highly talented High Baroque virtuoso, admired for her technical bravura and artistic virtuosity.           

Rumours, however, circulated that being a woman she could not have possibly painted all the works that bore her signature, so to dispel these Elisabetta let her clients watch her paint in her studio, an obvious strategy of self-promotion. She also documented her paintings and prints in a work diary Nota delle pitture fatto da me Elisabetta Sirani, later published by Malvasia in his Felsina Pittrice of 1678.[6] This diary is an extremely important primary source, as no female artist before Elisabetta is known to have kept such a record of their work. Via this document we can establish the range and breadth of her artistic production, because Elisabetta carefully described each commission and its subject matter, identifying the patron for whom each work was painted. She further provides important insights into the daily operation of the Sirani studio and her own artistic practice, and sets out the ideas and concepts for her many inventive and varied works.        

By the time Elisabetta reached her artistic maturity between 1662-64, she had become one of the most important and sought-after artists in Bologna. Everyone desired to own a work painted by this talented woman so that her paintings, prints and drawings were in high demand amongst all levels of Bolognese society: mercantile, commercial, professional and intellectual circles, as well as the aristocratic, ecclesiastical and political élite. The artist also developed an international reputation, feted by royalty and diplomatic leaders throughout Italy and Europe. The Medici of Florence, for example, became important patrons, with the women of this dynasty in particular launching her international career:  Margherita de' Medici with her Madonna and Child with Saints Elizabeth and Margaret (San Lorenzo in Fonte, Rome) and Vittoria della Rovere with the famous Amorino Trionfante (Bologna, Private Collection) both from 1661, the latter intended as a wedding gift for Vittoria's new daughter-in-law Princess Marguerite-Louise d' Orléans of France. Inspired by these two women's example the great Medici collector Prince Leopoldo (Margherita's brother) was to later commission his Allegory of Medici Good Government (Justice, Charity and Prudence) (1664, Comune di Vignola).


Capomaestra of the Sirani Studio          

A sure indication of Elisabetta's professional standing and acceptance by the male art establishment was her election as a full Professor of the Accademia di San Luca, Rome.[7] The Roman academy had admitted women since 1607, as full professors but without the permission to attend meetings (Statute 20), but by 1617 they were fully integrated into the institution's functions.[8] Being a full professor meant that Elisabetta was considered a "maestro", that is she could be head of her own studio and teach, taking on students and apprentices, for whom she was to provide food and guild dues.  We know that Elisabetta did indeed become a master of her own workshop by her early twenties taking over her father's primary role.            

Giovanni Andrea Sirani had been both the household head of the Sirani family, as well as the capomaestro of the Sirani workshop located in Via Urbana, Bologna.  Whilst relatively less known now than his famous and more talented daughter Elisabetta, Giovanni Andrea was considered one of the key figures of the Bolognese School. After training as Guido Reni's closest assistant Sirani ran a busy and productive workshop of his own, one of the most successful in seventeenth-century Bologna, later described by Luigi Crespi as a "flourishing school".[9] Malvasia identified Giovanni Andrea, professor also at the city's drawing academies, as one of Bologna's pre-eminent painting and printmaking teachers, "second to none".[10] Sirani's many assistants and apprentices included his daughters Elisabetta, Barbara and Anna Maria, whom he initially trained and who all worked as professional artists in the family business. Its production ranged from high-end public altarpieces, history painting and private devotional and allegorical works, portraiture and presentation drawings, commissioned from Bologna's religious and aristocratic élite, and emerging bourgeoisie of merchants, to prints, religious prayer sheets and santini for the lay populace, and book frontispieces, illustrations and thesis conclusions for the university city's humanists and intellectuals.            

An important change in this household and bottega occurred around 1662 when already an established artist, Elisabetta became head of the Sirani family workshop, after her father became seriously ill. The older artist suffered from arthritic gout that greatly distorted his hands. The earliest documented reference to Giovanni Andrea Sirani's illness is found in a letter from Pietro Antonio Davia in Bologna to Antonio Ruffo in Messina, dated 19 June 1649, after which the artist's condition worsened progressively over the years until he could no longer paint. Elisabetta took on Giovanni Andrea's apprentices and assistants, at the same time teaching in her female art school.            

In effect Elisabetta, being now the main economic source for the Sirani family, can be considered the head of the household, usurping the traditional patriarchal role of both studio maestro and family head. This gender role-reversal was unique in that no other Italian woman painter is known to have run and taught in a male workshop. Malvasia and Cospi both acknowledged her status as a maestro, claiming that the income from Elisabetta's much-in-demand work supported her entire family: "la figliola la quale in oggi quì è ritenuta maestra et è lei che mantiene con sua lavori tutta la sua numerosa famiglia".[11]  With the money earned it is documented that the artist not only paid for her own music lessons, but also purchased household goods, and paid for medical care for her mother and siblings. As Malvasia was to write, Elisabetta's ab honorarium payments (which comprised mainly expensive jewellery) counted "a comun beneficio della Casa",[12] which, as I have discussed elsewhere, consisted not only of the extended Sirani family of nine, and their retainers, but also the bottega apprentices and assistants, which numbered at various times over twenty[13]. According to Bologna's artist guild regulations the capomaestro was to be responsible for payment not only of the wages of workshop assistants and apprentices, but also their guild membership dues.[14] And they would have had to be fed whilst at work in the Sirani bottega, thus as Capomaestra and Sirani household head Elisabetta came to hold not only a large degree of independence but also economic, material and moral responsibility in this artistic dynasty.            

Being first-born also gave Elisabetta the added responsibility of primo-genitura, yet another example of gender role-reversal. Sandra Cavallo has stressed the economic obligations of the eldest brother in artisan households towards his younger siblings.[15] In the Sirani family's case, although female, Elisabetta's role as household head and capomaestra enabled not only her two younger sisters to finish their artistic training with her and develop as independent professional artists, but also assisted her brother Antonio Maria (b. 1649) to study under the renowned university professor Luigi Magni from 1664, and eventually graduate as a doctor of Medicine and Philosophy from Bologna University in 1670.         

Thus running the Sirani workshop meant that Elisabetta not only headed the family business, with her father as her manager, but also the household, maintaining her large family with the economic proceeds of her work. This was a unique position for a woman at the time; usually only men were considered household heads and provided economically for the family. It was no wonder that her father Giovanni Andrea was devastated when Elisabetta died suddenly in the flower of her youth. Overcome with grief as he undoubtedly was, he had also lost the business's primary producer. Giovanni Andrea had to reinstate himself as capomaestro of the Sirani studio, which he now ran again assisted by Lorenzo Loli and his two remaining daughters, Barbara and Anna Maria.

Themes and additions to Elisabetta's œuvre            

Elisabetta Sirani’s popular and professional success and critical acclaim in her time and her subsequent fortuna, firmly established her significance in the history of art, and her contribution to reworking existing artistic traditions. She was very inventive and innovative, developing new and unusual subject matter with unique content and iconography with narratives featuring female heroes from Biblical and Classical History (known as femmes fortes - strong and brave women: Judith, Delilah, Portia, Timoclea, Artemisia (fig. 4), Cleopatra, Circe, Iole, Pamphile). In these history paintings, Elisabetta depicted her heroines with positive virtues, as independent active beings, intelligent, courageous and dignified. The artist learnt about these strong historical women and prepared for her canvases by reading the ancient texts and handbooks in her father’s extensive library, including the bible, and studying the visual sources in the Sirani family art collection.[16]

A newly found example of such a femme forte is Elisabetta's Cleopatra (1664) in an Italian private collection (fig. 5), which highlights the artist's virtuosity, her technical bravura, dramatic colour orchestration and strong chiaroscuro. Elisabetta has carefully arranged the light to fall on Cleopatra's exposed flesh (breasts, arm, and face), as well as picking up the reflected light on the glass cup held in the queen's left hand and on the vase in the right background. This displays Elisabetta's mastery of the paint medium and brush (she was considered a "Virtuosa del pennello" by her contemporaries), being able to so realistically depict the transparency of glass. Also beautifully and gracefully rendered are Cleopatra's hands, in their elegant pose, as they hold the large baroque pearl (one of her earrings) and cup in which it is about to be dropped. Her right arm reveals a pentimento, showing how the artist rethought her compositions as she worked on them. Elisabetta was known for these iconic images of powerful women, in which she gives prominence to the dignified figure of the heroine, both thematically and visually, often excluding the male protagonist "hero" through whom these women’s identity had come to be defined, in this case Cleopatra's absent lover the Roman general Marc Antony.

In her novel representations of these femmes fortes Elisabetta operated in an equally virile painterly manner which contemporaries gendered as masculine, "da gran maestro".  Malvasia claimed that she painted "più che da uomo" in a "virile and grand manner (ebbe del virile e del grande)".[17] Elisabetta was one of the first women artists to be publicly acknowledged by colleagues and critics as a female “virtuoso” possessing artistic genius and invenzione, which since Aristotle was considered beyond the scope of women. She was also one of the few Bolognese artists to sign her work, in an age when women’s signatures held little legal status, developing ingenious ways of asserting her professional artistic and social identity and authority. She did this by “embroidering” her name onto buttons, cuffs, necklines and cushion braiding or tassels, or incised in the architectural elements of her canvases, with the form of the signature often bearing direct relation to the content and meaning of her images[18]        

Elisabetta was also renowned for producing allegorical society portraits, that is, portraits of Bolognese nobility in the guise of some mythical, religious or abstract concept, such as Contessa Anna Maria Ranuzzi Marsigli as Charity (Bologna, Fondazione Ca.ris.bo, 1665), Vincenzo Ferdinando Ranuzzi as Cupid (Warsaw, National Museum, 1663) and Ortensia Leoni Cordini as St Dorothy (Madison, Chazen Museum of Art, 1661). She also produced allegorical self-portraits as La Musica (Fort Worth, private collection, 1659) and La Pittura  (Moscow, Pushkin Museum, 1658). A recent addition to her catalogue is the Self-portrait painting a portrait of her father (St. Petersburg, The Hermitage, c. 1665, fig. 6), long considered lost, one of two versions Elisabetta painted for the Hercolani and Polazzi families [19] The Hermitage example I believe to be the version Malvasia recorded as being in Palazzo Polazzi in the 1670s, and which the following century was found in the Boschi collection, whilst the Hercolani version was displayed at Elisabetta's civic funeral.[20

According to Malvasia, Elisabetta's paintings of the Virgin and Child and the Holy Family represented some of the most beautiful and divine Madonnas of the period, and were the artist's staple form of income[21]. These were known as quadretti da letto, small paintings used for private devotional use for meditation and prayer, in which maternal images dominate in intimate and affective interactions between mother and child, through sweet exchanges of looks and delicate interchanges of hand gestures (Madonna della Rosa, 1664 (location unknown), Madonna del Cuscino, 1665, Bologna, private collection), what Vera Fortunati has defined as a "teologia in lingua materna"[22]. Elisabetta thereby developed an emotional intimacy in her works, based on emotive and affective rapport between artist and her subject.

Even in her paintings of male saints we find this intimacy and feminine sensibility, such as the St. Anthony in Adoration of the Christ (Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale,1662) and the previously unpublished St Joseph in an Italian private collection (fig. 7). The latter painting can be dated to the middle of Elisabetta's career, by which time she had successfully developed her religious works for the private devotion of Bologna's nobility. The Counter Reformation, as seen in Archbishop of Bologna Gabriele Paleotti's Discorso intorno alle immagini sacre e profane (published 1582), generated a demand for holy images to inspire devotion of the faithful, and Elisabetta was able to furnish the city's private homes and palaces with beautifully rendered scenes of the Holy Family or Madonna and Child, her speciality.  Joseph as a witness to Christ's coming had traditionally been seen as a marginal figure where paintings often show him in the shadows or background, but during the Counter Reformation his presence came to be seen as more central to God's divine plan. The Holy Family developed as an important iconography of the period, and in the 17th century we also see images of St Joseph on his own or with the Christ Child. This was especially due to the writings of Teresa of Avila, for Joseph was her patron saint; she dedicated the new convent of the discalced Carmelites which she founded in Avila in 1562 to him, thereby promoting the cult of St Joseph during this period. In her Libro della mia Vita St Teresa wrote of a vision of the Holy Family, with Mary and Joseph placing upon her a dazzling white cloak and a golden necklace with a cross[23]            

Elisabetta, in this painting, has chosen to present the saint as the main subject in his important role as the earthly father, in adoration of the Infant Christ whom he embraces lovingly in protection. Christ is seated on a blue cushion resting on a table, and is nestled into Joseph's left arm, whilst He reaches out to accept the pink carnation that the saint offers with his right hand, itself beautifully and delicately rendered by the artist. Elisabetta was to produce another version of this theme, in 1664 (Faenza Pinacoteca), in which we see the same sculptural treatment of the folds of Joseph's yellow cloak that envelops both father and son, and similar colour orchestration. Another work that can be compared to the painting is the so-called Holy Family of the Cherries (Milan, private collection, 1662) that Elisabetta produced around the same period. The head of St Joseph in this holy family is almost identical to that of our Joseph, and indicates that Elisabetta utilized the same model and preliminary drawings for both paintings[24]



Remaining unmarried and thus a single working artist, Elisabetta Sirani was a particularly significant figure in the professionalization of women’s artistic practice in Italy in the Early Modern period. Her agency lies in the establishment of alternative avenues for the education of women, opening her studio up to young girls - not all from artist families, there were noblewomen as well – who wished to pursue a career in the visual arts.  As a professional practicing artist, a maestro, teacher and a woman, Elisabetta offered a radical alternative to the established male mentor (male-to-male/male-to-female) model of art education, developing a matrilineal transmission of artistic training. In this way professional, technical knowledge and cultural capital were mediated by and through women, not only men. Bologna in particular proved to be a fertile ground for such developments, with its humanist tradition of famous women who had taught at the university, wrote and published, as well as painted and sculpted. Elisabetta is the epitome of this rich cultural patrimony.  Elisabetta Sirani "Virtuosa del Pennello" thus represents the “exemplum” of the successful professional woman artist in Northern Italy, her own artistic practice serving as a paradigm of women’s cultural production during this period, with her work overall leaving a lasting impression and having major influence in the development of Bolognese painting in the second half of the Seventeenth Century.




[1] Curated by Roberta Aliventi and Laura Da Rin Bettina, under the academic co-ordination of Marzia Faietti, 6 March - 10 June 2018.

[2] Malvasia-Arfelli 1961, p. 105.

[3] Malvasia (1678) 1841, II, p. 407.

[4] In a letter to Prince Leopoldo de’ Medici, Bologna 27 January 1665, ASF, Mediceo del Principato 5532, filza 35, fol. 298r.

[5] For Sirani's pupils see Graziani 2004; Modesti 2014, pp. 67-79.

[6] Malvasia (1678) 1841, II, pp. 393-400.

[7] Ghezzi 1696.

[8] Missirini 1825, p. 83 and appendix.

[9] Crespi 1769, p. 73.

[10] Malvasia (1678) 1841, II, p. 407:"nell’insegnare ancora ha pochi uguali".

[11] Cospi to Leopoldo de’ Medici, letter dated 19 August 1662, ASF, Carteggio degli Artisti XVI, fol. 34.

[12] Malvasia (1678) 1841, II, p. 400.

[13] Modesti 2013.

[14] See Statuti 1670, especially Cap. XI, XII, XIII. BCABo, MS B 2443.

[15] Cavallo 2009, pp. 327-350. See also Cavallo 2010, pp. 1-13.

[16] For the Sirani library and art collections see Sabatini 1995; Modesti 2014, pp. 93-96, 101-105, 113-115.

[17] Malvasia (1678) 1841, II, pp. 386, 402.

[18] I have discussed Elisabetta's strategic use of her signature throughout my publications on the artist: e.g. Modesti 2004, pp. 20-22.  See also Bohn 2004, pp. 107-117.

[19] For a discussion of these see Modesti 2014 pp. 11-12. The St Petersburg painting was first published by Sokolova 2012.

[20] Malvasia (1678) 1841, II, index, p. cx: "Ritratto della Sirana, che mostra di dipingere il padre in un quadro di mano del detto suo padre, e, di questi da lei dipinto in un solo quadro appresso il Polazzi".

[21] Malvasia (1678) 1841, II, pp. 400–01.

[22] Fortunati 2004, pp. 21, 26-27.

[23] Elisabetta herself painted a Holy Family with St Teresa for the Cremonese jeweller Gabriele Rizzardi in 1664 (fig. 1). On Counter-Reformation iconography, see Mâle 1984.

[24] Preliminary drawings for the Holy Family are located in the Uffizi, on display at the exhibition Dipingere e disegnare “da gran maestro”: il talento di Elisabetta Sirani (Bologna, 1638-1665) held at the Gabinetto di Disegni e Stampe (6 March - 10 June 2018). 




Primary Sources

ASF, Carteggio degli Artisti XVI.

ASF, Mediceo del Principato 5532, filza 35.

Ghezzi 1696: ”Catalogo delle Donne Pittrici, ed Accademiche di Honore, come di Merito, dell’Insigne Accademia S. Luca di Roma”, in Il Centesimo dell’anno 1695 celebrato in Roma dall’Accademia del Disegno essendo prencipe il signor cavalier Carlo Fontana architetto. Descritto da Giuseppe Ghezzi pittore, e segretario accademico, Roma 1696.

Crespi 1769: L. Crespi, "Vita di Giovanni Andrea Sirani", in L. Crespi, Felsina Pittrice: vite de’ Pittori Bolognesi tomo terzo, Roma 1769, pp. 69-74.

Malvasia-Arfelli 1961: C. C. Malvasia, Vita dei pittori bolognesi: appunti inediti, ed. by A. Arfelli, Bologna 1961.

Malvasia (1678) 1841: C. C. Malvasia, Felsina Pittrice. Vite de' Pittori Bolognesi (Bologna 1678), ed. by G.P. Zanotti and others, 2 vols., Bologna 1841.

Missirini 1825: M. Missirini, Memorie per servire alla Storia della Romana Accademia di San Luca, Roma 1825.

Statuti 1670: Statuti della Compagnia de’ Pittori di Bologna, Bologna 1670 (BCABo, MS B 2443).

Secondary sources

Bohn 2004: B. Bohn "Il fenomeno della firma", in Elisabetta Sirani 'pittrice eroina' 1638-1665, exhibition catalogue, ed. by J. Bentini and V. Fortunati, Bologna 2004, pp. 107-117.

Cavallo 2010: S. Cavallo, "Family Relationships", in A Cultural History of Childhood and Family, vol. 3 The Early Modern Age, ed. by S. Cavallo and S. Evangelisti, Oxford and NY 2010, pp. 1-13.

Cavallo 2009: S. Cavallo, "Le emancipazioni. Una fonte per lo studio dei rapporti famigliari intra e inter-generazionali", in Famiglia e poteri in Italia tra Medioevo ed Età Moderna (XIV-XVII Secoli), ed. by A. Bellavitis and I. Chabot, Roma 2009, pp. 327-350.

Fortunati 2004: V. Fortunati, "Frammenti di un dialogo nel tempo: Elisabetta Sirani e le donne artiste", in Elisabetta Sirani 'pittrice eroina' 1638-1665, exhibition catalogue, ed. by J. Bentini and V. Fortunati, Bologna 2004, pp. 19-39.

Graziani 2004: I. Graziani, "Il Cenacolo di Elisabetta Sirani", in Elisabetta Sirani 'pittrice eroina' 1638-1665, exhibition catalogue, ed. by J. Bentini and V. Fortunati, Bologna 2004, pp. 119-133.

Mâle 1984: E. Mâle, L’Art Religieux du XVII siècle, 2nd ed., Paris 1984.

Modesti 2013: A. Modesti, "‘A Casa con i Sirani': A Successful Family Business and Household in Early Modern Bologna", in The Early Modern Domestic Interior 1400–1700: Objects, Spaces, Domesticities, ed. by E. J. Campbell and others, Farnham 2013, pp. 47–64.

Modesti 2004: A. Modesti, Elisabetta Sirani: Una virtuosa del Seicento bolognese, Bologna 2004.

Modesti 2014: A. Modesti, Elisabetta Sirani 'Virtuosa': Women's Cultural Production in Early Modern Bologna, Turnhout 2014.

Sabatini 1995: S. Sabatini, ‘Per una storia delle donne pittrici bolognesi: Anna Maria Sirani e Ginevra Cantofoli’, Schede Umanistiche, 2 (1995), pp. 83-101.

Sokolova 2012: I. Sokolova "Una nuova attribuzione al Museo Statale Ermitage", in La pittura italiana del Seicento all'Ermitage. Ricerche e riflessioni, ed. by Francesca Cappelletti and Irina Artemieva, Firenze 2012, pp. 13-23.


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