Spotlight on Lavinia fontana

An independent spirit ahead of her time

Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of Count Gentile Sassatelli (1530s-1583), oil on canvas, 217.5 x 120 cm, 1581.

This edition of Spotlight features the Bolognese painter Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614). The Klesch Collection is the proud custodian of her Portrait of Count Gentile Sassatelli (fig. 1), believed by some scholars to be the most important male portrait she ever painted.

Lavinia Fontana’s history as a woman and artist is unique. She is considered to be the first woman in the 16th century to overcome social practices that restricted female artists to paint only within convent walls or court settings. Furthermore, in an exceptional arrangement, Lavinia agreed to marry fellow painter Gian Paolo Zappi, on the conditions that she would continue to paint in a professional capacity and that her ensured financial success would be accepted in lieu of a dowry. Even more remarkably, due to her unstoppable ascendancy, the couple decided that Zappi would give up his own painting practice to act as assistant and manager of Lavinia’s workshop, as well as take on the parenting responsibilities for their 11 children. This exceptional talent and independent spirit was rightly celebrated in the exhibition ‘Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker’ at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. This 2023 exhibition was the first monographic exhibition on the artist in over 20 years.

The exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland mainly focussed on Fontana as a portraitist, featuring the Klesch Collection’s Portrait of Count Gentile Sassatelli as a prime example of her most famous genre. A colonel and captain of the Papal State cavalry, Sassatelli (1530s–1583) was a prominent nobleman from Imola and in 1562 he was made a Knight of the Order of St Stephen by Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574). Befitting of Sassatelli’s status and achievements, Fontana chose to depict him in the official aristocratic style of portraiture prevalent in Europe at that time and showcased his wealth and refined taste. The table beside him displays a plumed helmet and intricately embroidered belt holding a dagger, which complement his ceremonial armour. Behind him, an illusionistic recession of rooms hints at the sprawling size of Sassatelli’s palazzo and the upper right corner of the painting features the Sassatelli coat-of-arms, proudly including the Cross of the Order of St Stephen. Measuring 217.5 cm in height, this imposing portrait was intended to hang in the grand salon of an aristocratic palace, ensuring that Sassatelli’s achievements could be admired and remembered for generations to come.