Updated: Jun 7
Shocking notion, I know! During my four years in an Honors Visual Arts degree program was there any acknowledgement of the works of accomplished female Renaissance artists besides those of Artemesia Gentilleschi and Sofonisba Anguissola.
So, it gladdened my heart, to say nothing of opening my mind, that during research for book three, Long Way Home, I discovered the incredible work of American philanthropist, art devotee
and honorary citizen of Florence, Jane Fortune (deceased 2018).
Ms. Fortune funded the foundation AWA, Advancement of Women Artists, whose mandate was to uncover and restore 78 works of women Renaissance artists, (often misattributed to men), and keep them on public display in Florence.
And they accomplished that task, setting the stage for more discoveries to appreciate and study the works of women artists through history, as this article in Artnet News, by Sarah Cascone attests:
A Newly Rediscovered Artemisia Gentileschi Painting Comes to Auction—Along With Work by Three Other Women Old Masters The auction also includes works by Fede Galizia, Orsola Maddalena Caccia, and Diana De Rosa. Sarah Cascone, April 11, 2023
Artemisia Gentileschi and Onofrio Palumbo, Abraham and the Three Angels. Courtesy of Dorotheum.
A quartet of paintings by Italian female Old Masters—all newly rediscovered—are hitting the auction block at Dorotheum in Vienna. Headlining the bunch at the May 3 “Old Master Paintings” sale is a work by Artemisia Gentileschi, painted with her studio assistant Onofrio Palumbo, which is expected to fetch €150,000 to €200,000 ($160,000 –220,000 ). The last time the work, titled Abraham and the Three Angels, came to market, it was presented as a Bernardo Cavallino painting at Artemisia in Paris in 2014. It was bought in, according to the Artnet Price Database, but Dorotheum’s provenance records for the painting show it found a buyer through the auction house post-sale.
Cavallino is a significant name in his own right, with a $3.9 million sale at Sotheby’s New York in January breaking an auction record that had stood at $1.9 million for 34 years. But with a growing market interest in historical women artists, the reattribution of the canvas could spark new interest in the work. “Artemisia is an artist who is much more in the consciousness of art historians at the moment,” Dorotheum specialist Mark MacDonnell told Artnet News. “Her personal history was disturbing, let’s say, to 19th century taste,” he added, alluding to the artist’s rape by her art teacher and her subsequent torture at trial. “Therefore, her works were often given to male artists who were working in the same arena. Her authorship was somehow lost for political reasons. These were deliberate misattributions.” It was the art historian Giuseppe Porzio who first proposed the new attribution, pointing to stylistic similarities to other known Gentileschi works, as well as a written record of payment to the artist in 1645 for a large painting featuring Abraham that is otherwise unaccounted for. Close examination of the painting suggests the hand of not one but two artists, indicating it was a collaboration with Palumbo, one of her known studio assistants. “He’s probably responsible for one of the angels and some of the background,” MacDonnell said. “This kind of two-handed composition done by two artists was common practice. We tend to attribute paintings to single artists, but often they’re working with collaborators.” Gentileschi’s record was set at €4.8 million ($5.3 million) at Artcurial in 2019. (The painting, Lucretia, was acquired by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.) The first of the artist’s eight million-dollar plus auction sales come in 2014, with seven since since 2017 including one at Dorotheum. Artemisia Gentileschi, Lucretia. Courtesy of Dorotheum. Nevertheless, the auction house seems to have erred on the side of cautious estimates for its upcoming sale of women Old Masters.
The Milanese Renaissance artist Fede Galizia, for instance, set an auction record of $2.4 million for her still life A Glass Compote With Peaches, Jasmine Flowers, Quinces, and a Grasshopper, which sold in 2019 at Sotheby’s New York. Dorotheum has set expectations lower, at just €200,000 to €300,000 ($220,000–330,000), for her Judith With the Head of Holofernes, even though the previously unpublished painting is signed—a rarity for a female artist of the period. Fede Galizia’s Glass Compote with Peaches, Jasmine Flowers, Quinces, and Grasshopper. Courtesy Sotheby’s. One factor the auction house took into account is that Galizia is better known for her still-life works than her portraits or religious scenes. (Although another Judith and Holofernes painting by the artist is in the collection of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.)
“There was nothing comparable on the market, so it’s a very cautious estimate,” MacDonnell said. “It’s in amazing condition. It comes from a collection where it hasn’t been seen for many years, and it was unpublished. And the fact that it’s signed is really quite unusual. So it’s got all the ingredients to create interest at auction.” He likened Galizia’s take on the well-known subject to paintings of the story by Gentileschi in that both artists cast Judith as the protagonist, rather than centering the composition on Holofernes. “It’s definitely about her, about the heroism, the strength of the woman,” MacDonnell said. “It could be argued that this is a very female interpretation of the subject.” Fede Galizia, Judith With the Head of Holofernes. Courtesy of Dorotheum. Another religious composition by a female artist better known for her still life in the sale is Saint Catherine of Alexandria by the Mannerist painter Orsola Maddalena Caccia. Trained by their father, Guglielmo “il Moncalvo” Caccia, Orsola and her sister became nuns, setting up a successful studio at their convent. The artist made a splash at auction in 2020, when her Still life of birds, including a marsh tit, chiffchaff, chaffinch, blue tits, goldrest, lapwing and a great tit sold for more than 1,300 percent above its high estimate at Sotheby’s London, setting her auction record at £212,500 ($262,378). (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also recently acquired a pair of her paintings.) A low estimate for the upcoming Dorotheum sale could yield similar fireworks: The work, newly added to Caccia’s oeuvre thanks to art historian Alberto Cottino, is expected to sell for just €20,000 to €30,000 ($22,000–33,000 ). Orsola Maddalena Caccia, Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Courtesy of Dorotheum. The fourth female Old Master included in the auction is perhaps the least well known, the 17th-century Neapolitan painter Diana De Rosa, also known as Annella di Massimo. The artist has only had seven works come up at auction, according to the Artnet Price Database, and all at Dorotheum within the past five years. Many of those painting were previously attributed to Giovan Francesco “Pacecco” De Rosa, who was most likely her brother. Based on stylistic similarities to known paintings by the artist, art historian Riccardo Lattuada has been working to expand de Rosa’s corpus. The Saint Cecilia painting in the upcoming sale was previously identified only as the work of a “Neapolitan Master 17th century” when included in a 2000 exhibition at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome.
“When these paintings are rediscovered, sometimes they’re hiding in plain sight and they’ve just been misattributed,” MacDonnell said, adding that, like Gentileschi, De Rosa may have fallen out of favor for reasons unrelated to her talent. Diana De Rosa, called Annella di Massimo, Saint Cecilia. Courtesy of Dorotheum. “Diana De Rosa is documented as having a dramatic personal history,” he explained. “There are some sources that say she was murdered by her husband. We’re not sure if that is fact or just romantic fiction. But she was certainly unusual in the fact that she was a successful woman painter in that period.” Dorotheum has put the presale estimate on Saint Cecilia at €30,000 to €40,000 ($33,000–44,000)—but De Rosa’s work has previously sold for as much as €165,500 ($190,646), reflecting the growing demand for work by even previously obscure women Old Masters. “Any work from a 17th-century female painter is of interest, just because they’re so rare. And these kind of paintings are increasingly more and more significant, in part due to issues of gender representation,” MacDonnell said. “Public collections are interested in purchasing these works just to correct imbalances within their collections.” #FemaleRenaissanceartistsFlorencestoryhistory
Scenes related to this theme from, Long Way Home; Time-out in Tuscany, book three:
"It was a scholarly interest which led Nick, on this late autumn Friday, to the conservation studios in the basement of the Pinacoteca Nazionale, the region’s preeminent public picture gallery. Hurrying along the via San Pietro, Nick regretted sleeping past the alarm and wondered if he had enough time to grab a pastry and cappuccino as he approached a brightly lit bar, but checking his watch, decided against it. Perhaps he could tempt Enza to take a coffee break with him later, in the meantime, he prayed his usually vocal stomach would stay quiet.
Nick turned into the entrance of the Pinacoteca, an extensive gallery housed in two adjacent former ducal palaces, the Palazzo Buonsignori and the Palazzo Brigidi, and spied a flash of platinum grey bob; Enza, huddled against a wall close to the entrance, her red cardigan held tightly closed with one hand, in the other a cigarette from which she deeply drew a long plume of smoke.
“Hello there!” Nick greeted her, “Sorry I’m a bit late.”
Enza peered at him over electric blue, titanium half-glasses, her heavy-lidded brown eyes greeted him warmly through long, thick lashes, assuring him that she was not annoyed.
“It’s only fifteen minutes,” she shrugged. “Remember, now you are on Italian time,” Enza said, taking one last drag of her cigarette. “I needed a break anyway. Come. I have something interesting to show you that just came in for evaluation.”
Nick followed her to the basement with growing anticipation. Through Enza, he found a whole new world of Renaissance art to explore; the hidden female artists of that exalted era who labored unsung in their families’ art bottegas, few having practices or studios in their own name. Others were talented, untrained nuns, inspired by religious devotion, creating works for their convent’s private devotion, or perhaps even commissions for patrons of their orders.
This quest to discover Renaissance female artists was created and supported by the aptly named American philanthropist, Jane Fortune, who, upon doing an art tour of Florence, naively wondered, “Where are the women artists?” Affronted that the art representing half the world’s population was made invisible, unexamined, and unappreciated, she resolved to dig into the archives of galleries and museums, unearthing this lost legacy and fund its restoration by female restorers, funded by her non-profit organization, Advancing Women Artists (AWA) in Florence.
But their mandate, and funding would soon end. Something that deeply concerned retired art historian and restorer, Enza Falcone. So, she decided to train more restorers, to carry-on the work, expanding their activities beyond Florence, while perpetually seeking philanthropy, government, and public support. Something she found exhausting and exasperating, especially dealing with the byzantine workings of all government levels. All this left her no time for her writing, abandoning the retirement plan.
“Ciao,” Nick exchanged greetings with a young art restorer, bent over her work bench, assiduously undertaking, with a cotton swab, the meticulous cleaning of a large still life by baroque painter, Giovanna Garzoni. Nick stepped-in beside her, putting on his reading glasses for a closer look.
“Interesting, looks influenced by the Flemish school, with the flies and slight rot on the peach here, and the flagging leaves of the figs. An allegory of a barren marriage…or perhaps an admonition to a profligate son for the lack of grandchildren?” Nick chuckled.
“Perhaps,” the restorer responded without looking up. “We think it may be a commission from one of the Chigi family who seems to have lacked an appropriate heir, so yes, this interpretation is likely.”
“Tempera, is it?”
“Yes, tempera, the colors therefore are still very vivid, but it is delicate work to clean, being on parchment, luckily this one isn’t badly cracked. If you’re interested in the restoration of another of her works, there’s one in Florence, in the Galleria Paletina, a still-life of a bowl of broad beans, commissioned by the Medici.”
“Thank-you, I’ll look for it.”
“And here she is! Come look, Nick,” Enza said, wheeling-in a dolly bearing a five-foot piece covered in a tarp. “Voila!” she revealed a polychrome, woodcarving of Mary Magdalene, which had definitely seen better days. It was found in one of the cellars of The Oratory of St. Catherine, here in Siena.”
“Well, well…this is new for you, isn’t it?” Nick said, walking around the piece, observing it carefully.
“I know, we rarely get to work on sculpture, that’s why I’m so excited. And not only for that, but also because of who I think the artist is.”
“Oh, and who might that be?”
“It’s a nascent thesis of mine” said Enza, tentatively, “but I think I may have uncovered an artist whom I call, for now, la Maestra di Milano, a woman artist who may have had a thriving bottega of her own, first in Siena, supplying some private patrons, but more usually, convents and monasteries or maybe even was a monastic herself. Then during the devastating plague of 1450, she, like many others fled the city.
“I believe she and her followers eventually established themselves in Milan. She is intriguing, as I’m sure she and her followers influence endured into the High Renaissance, retaining a very expressionistic, Gothic sensibility, which is very specifically Sienese.”
“Uh-huh, yes, I concur. It compares favorably with Donatello’s unusual, late work, The Penitent Magdalen in the Bargello, which similarly lacks emotional restraint.”
“Absolutely. You see, I don’t believe that every patron’s taste, in the sacred or secular, exclusively favored the neoclassical approach of Michelangelo and Raphael. I think many still loved the emotional immediacy of the original Gothic, but as in Masaccio, rendered technically more realistic and in a slightly more idealized way.”
“Yes, I see what you mean. The trajectory being from the Proto-Renaissance style, beginning with Cimabue, developed by his pupil, Giotto, then finally, on the cusp of the burgeoning Renaissance movement, Masaccio, and perhaps enduring past it, in the work of your, ‘la Maestra di Milano’?”
“That’s the thesis,” Enza smiled, elated that Nick seemed to embrace it without the usual, academic dismissiveness.
“What evidence, beyond this piece, do you have of ‘la Maestra’s’ existence?”
“I have a friend, Venera, who is an assistant curator in the Pinacoteca di Brera, she has been reviewing and cataloguing the archives from this period and area. She has found pieces which have a strong aesthetic connection to this Neogothic Expressionism, quite distinct. They range from small works on panel to larger sculptures, mainly devotional images. She and I are currently working on finding textual evidence to support our thesis, but finding time and resources is an issue.”
“I understand. Have you been to Milan to see these other works?”
“No, not yet. I plan to clear some time next week, four days is all I can spare from here, one day either side of a weekend.”
Nick, still eyeing the work with fascination, fingering the deeply carved folds of the stylized drapery, said, “Can you come early to dinner Saturday? I think I have a proposition for you.”
“Yes, what time?”
“Make it six-thirty, so we can talk business first.”
“Six-thirty then. Now, I need to take some pictures of her before I begin the assessment. You can help me set-up,” Enza said, walking over to the light stands. Nick rolled the sculpture over to the blank backdrop and helped placed the lights as Enza took some readings.
“You don’t have to bother with that, Nick,” Enza said as she saw him getting ready to take pictures with his phone. “I’ll send you mine.”
“Thanks, but I just want a few shots to take with me now, for reference.”
Getting what he needed, he put his phone away, then feeling his stomach rumbling, asked, “When you’re done with the pictures, want to get coffee?”
“Sorry, no time. I have a meeting with the director in an hour and a half, and I want to at least get some preliminary notes on this piece, what it might need, how long, etcetera.”
“Alright, then see you Saturday, six-thirty,” Nick replied making his way out.
He hurried to the little café he’d spied on his way from the bus, quickly downed a cappuccino and pastry before hustling out to the station, to catch the twelve-thirty back to Florence. Just in time, he sat, winded, in the dual carriage seats, placing his valise on the seat next to him, as the bus was half-empty. He dropped his head back on the rest, squinted his eyes against the slanting sun, and laughed quietly.
How lucky am I? Enza’s discovery could be big for me; to be editor and co-author of a ground-breaking book on an undiscovered female Renaissance master! One with a Gothic, non-mainstream sensibility, an artistic rebel no less! Could just be the beginning of several monographs on women Renaissance painters and the female art restoration movement. With my connections to an academic publisher, or even later, a mainstream one, I can bring these works and their creators, their times, to the general public too! ‘Publish or perish’ is the academic’s dilemma; well, I don’t plan on perishing in the weeds of academia and obscurity any longer. If I play this right, I’ll be a Professor Emeritus, no more teaching, only publishing and research! This could be my breakthrough.”
Nick is obviously pleased with discovering the work of AWA and the artists whose long-hidden works they restore, but his motives, in terms of advancing the cause of women in art restoration, academia, and Art History aren't entirely altruistically pure. It's obvious he sees a way to polish his own star with their work, as Lidia observes, when later Nick reveals more of his plan to her:
"Lidia felt his emotions about to carry them both off into the land of popular authorship, and the doors it might open.
“So, you’re destined to be the next Dan Brown? And your ‘La Maestra’, the new feminist discovery as big as Artemisia Gentileschi or Hildegard von Bingen?”
“Are you mocking me? It’s possible, that this will be my golden opportunity, Lidia. Anything’s possible, if you set a goal and push hard for it, get the right connections,” Nick replied, a little deflated.
“I’m not mocking you, but please keep your feet on the ground, otherwise this could get exploitive, not only of the subjects, but of Enza as well. Does she know your plan?”
“For the sabbatical, no, I wanted to talk to you first. As far as publishing, she would be credited too, and some of the net proceeds would go to further her work, which relies now on government grants and private patronage. She will always receive her due and could get on the lecture circuit, even outside of Italy, her English is certainly good enough.”
“Well, it all seems exciting, but let’s not see history just repeating, okay?” Lidia warned.