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BOLD STROKES

Bologna opened studio doors to women artists long before other European cities did.

MIDWAY BETWEEN VENICE AND FLORENCE, THE ITALIAN CITY OF BOLOGNA is known for meaty pasta sauce and a vibrant cultural scene.

Babette Bohn, professor of art history, published a recent book: Women Artists, Their Patrons and Their Publics in Early Modern Bologna. She is photographed in her home with a portrait of a female saint painted circa 1630 by Giovanni Luigi Valesio in Bologna, Italy. Photo by Rodger Mallison, October 2021

Babette Bohn, professor of art history, published a recent book: Women Artists, Their Patrons and Their Publics in Early Modern Bologna. She is photographed in her home with a portrait of a female saint painted circa 1630 by Giovanni Luigi Valesio in Bologna, Italy. PHOTO BY Rodger Mallison

 

In Women Artists, Their Patrons and Their Publics in Early Modern Bologna (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021), Babette Bohn writes that Bologna should also be famous for incubating female artists.

Bohn, a retired professor of art history, devoted years to studying female artists who worked in the city from the 15th to 18th centuries.

In November 2021, Bohn presented her findings during the Sydney J. Freedberg Lecture on Italian Art at the National Gallery of Art. Her talk was the first in the series’ 25-year history to focus on female artists.

In her book, Bohn writes that “women artists were more successful in Bologna than in any other Italian city because they were celebrated by early Bolognese writers.”

These writers “saw local women artists as a key component of Bologna’s cultural identity, distinguishing their home as a city with unique claims to women’s excellence in the visual arts.”

Bologna’s barrier-breaking female artists earned acclaim as painters, sculptors, printmakers and more.

“I’m always interested in projects that are visiting and revisiting women’s history and gender history, and Babette’s book is a one-stop resource for any scholar or student who wants to learn more about the 68 documented female Bolognese artists — an astonishing number — that she writes about,” said Eleanor H. Goodman, executive editor at the Pennsylvania publisher.

For Bohn, the book represented a shift in perspective on research.

“I always used to say that I’d so much rather be drooling over a painting than poring over an illegible handwritten manuscript from the 16th century,” Bohn said, “but it turns out that archival research can be absolutely thrilling.”

Bohn spent months in various archives in Bologna. She was searching for any information on these women — birth records, marriage certificates, wills, inventories of possessions and the like.

She stumbled upon people like printmaker Veronica Fontana (1651-1688), who enjoyed significant commercial success during her lifetime but died in poverty.

“She had only enough money to pay for one candle to be lit for a Mass in her memory,” Bohn said.

Many female Bolognese artists in the 17th century thrived, thanks in part to support from the city’s patrons. Bohn discovered that more than half of Bologna’s female painters during that time received public commissions, “an achievement probably unmatched anywhere else in Europe.”

Bohn credited the city’s artistic patronage, which operated with little regard to class, for providing professional opportunities to Bolognese women.

Bohn wrote much of the book in the nation’s capital in 2017-18 as a Samuel H. Kress Senior Fellow in the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art.

Until Bohn’s work disproved them, scholars credited the art school that baroque painter and printmaker Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) ran for women as a reason that Bologna remained an epicenter for female artists.

Bohn questioned the assumption that women were not permitted to study art with men who weren’t their relatives. She learned that in Bologna, women could become students of men regardless of familial ties.

The discovery overturns the popular yet inaccurate assumption that women artists were usually the daughters of male artists while also offering compelling evidence that the concept of women as artists was widely accepted in the Italian city.

“Perhaps most significantly,” she said, “it opened the door for many more women to gain access to professional training.”

BY LISA MARTIN