Strong Female Characters

01 08 elisabetta siraniToday is the birthday of Elisabetta Sirani who was born in Bologna in 1638. Elisabetta was a painter. Women artist were, in seventeenth century Italy, more common than you might think. This was particularly the case in Bologna where there was a liberal attitude towards the education of girls. There were also a lot of family run artists’ workshops in the city that allowed access to training for female family members. From her paintings, we can guess that Elisabetta was taught Bible stories, Greek and Roman history, a bit of mythology and the lives of the saints.

Elisabetta’s father, Giovanni Andrea, was painter. He was a favourite student of Guido Reni and it was Guido who first saw Elisabetta’s potential and suggested that he train his daughter as an artist. She proved to be an excellent student but, before long, Giovanni began to suffer from rheumatic gout and could no longer paint or teach. It fell to sixteen-year-old Elisabetta to support the family with her painting and to teach the other students. She taught both men and women, including her own younger sisters Barbara and Anna Maria. We don’t know much about the details of her life other than that she was virtuous and hard-working. She lived in her father’s house for all of her sadly short life, never married and produced around two hundred paintings and fifteen engravings. She lived simply and gave all her earnings straight to him. He worked her hard and was quite bad-tempered, but she bore it without complaint.

01 08 cleopatraWe can draw some conclusions about her character from the subject matter she picked for some of her paintings. Women in art are often shown as quite passive figures but Elisabetta chose to paint some powerful images of powerful women. She tackled several female subjects that are quite common in painting. Among her work you will find Delilah with scissors, ready to cut off Samson’s hair; Herodias with the head of John the Baptist on a plate and Judith with the head of Holofernes. The picture on the left is Cleopatra. She is about to win a bet with Marc Anthony. She bet him that she could spend ten million sesterces in a single meal. She is doing this by dropping an incredibly expensive pearl into cup of vinegar. The pearl will dissolve and she will drink it.

01 08 portia

The picture above is of Portia, the wife of Brutus wounding herself in the thigh. Many artists and writers approaching Portia tend to focus on the story that she died after swallowing red hot coals. But Elisabetta has chosen this moment, which requires a little background information. Brutus was secretly planning the murder of Julius Caesar. Portia could see something was troubling him but he didn’t want to trust her with his secret. He thought if things went badly, she would reveal his part in the plot under torture. The cut on her thigh is to prove to him that she could bear the pain. He then trusted her with his secret and her bravery strengthened his resolve. Portia was the only women who knew of the plot to assassinate the Emperor. Elisabetta’s point in choosing this subject is to illustrate the ridiculous lengths women had to go to in order to be taken seriously by men.

01 08 elisabetta sirani-timoclea c.1659

Lastly, I have chosen Timoclea. She is mentioned in the history of Alexander the Great. Timoclea lived in Thebes at the time it was attacked by Alexander and his army. She was raped by a Thracian captain. Yes, that’s him. Afterwards he asked her if she knew of any money hidden in the city. She told him yes, there was some money hidden in her well. As he leaned over to look, she tipped him in and then threw stones on top of him and killed him. She was brought before Alexander for the murder of his captain, but he was so impressed by her bravery that he let her go.

Elisabetta was a well loved figure in Bologna and when she died, rather suddenly at only twenty-seven, she was given a huge funeral. Among the crowds who attended were the must distinguished people in the city. The whole chapel was draped with black cloth, fringed with gold. In the centre of the nave they built an enormous octagonal edifice made from faux marble. It had a cupola roof supported on eight columns. It was gilded and decorated with angelic figures and a candelabra shaped like a Siren, if you can imagine such a thing. Inside, there was a life-sized figure of the artist seated before her easel. Elisabetta’s father was sure that she had been murdered, and a servant called Lucia Tolomelli was charged with poisoning her. Poisoning was, in those times, the go to explanation for an unexpected death but after her body was exhumed, the cause was found to have been a ruptured stomach ulcer and Lucia was acquitted. So the actual cause of her death was likely brought on by exhaustion and overwork. Elisabetta Sirani worked hard, both to support her family and to achieve success as an artist in a male-dominated profession. Whilst outwardly she appeared to be a virtuous, hard-working and devoted daughter, I’d like to think she managed to get some of her true feelings out in her paintings.


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