They called her La Maestra.
Elisabetta Sirani was a talented and prolific artist in Seventeenth Century Italy. Trained by her father, she was running his studio by the time she was sixteen and earned her first official commission the following year. Over her short career she produced more than 200 paintings, etchings, and prints, had patrons that included royalty and noble Italian families, and founded one of the first art schools in Europe exclusively for women. When she died aged only 27 of a mysterious ailment, all of Bologna mourned.
Her fame has been eclipsed by her male counterparts, and her work often claimed as theirs. Doubted, scorned, admired, copied, and misunderstood, this is her story.
This is the story of a relatively unknown (to the most of us) female Baroque artist who was so talented she was able to rise above the usual prejudice against her sex. The daughter of another famous painter, Giovanni Andrea Sirani, our Elisabetta fought against an even more personal demon: her father’s jealousy. Andrea was quite talented in his own right, and was taken down, not by his daughter’s popularity but by a debilitating illness that left him incapable of painting. Elisabetta’s talents were apparent from the first, but her father was absolutely unwilling—or unable—to accept that a woman was capable of following in his footsteps. When the time came that he was no longer able to run his own studio, he was forced to give her the opportunity, but even then he insisted on managing the finances. She quickly learned the tricks of the trade, so to speak, and took on students, while accepting commissions increasingly on her own. Poor Andrea just couldn’t cope with her success, and poor Elisabetta couldn’t gain his approval. It was a battle between them that was to have no end.
Meanwhile, Elisabetta proved herself more than a Maestra, and the author has done a marvelous job of conveying her talent:
The first line was done, a soft curve. Then the next, a thicker one. Using her thumb, she smudged it, creating a shadow effect. Another stroke, thinner and more elegant. The room around her disappeared as the picture from her head slowly came to life on the paper. She drew and smudged and shaded, her hand connected to her mind so solidly there was no concept of doubt. She and the drawing were one.
As a reader, I felt like I was there in the room with her. Elisabetta’s talents were so unexpected and her technique so rapid, that at first people joined her father in their disbelief. It wasn’t until she hosted an exhibition where she painted in public that people began to understand that she was for real. Then the commissions started rolling in. But between her work, her students, and the conflict with her father, Elizabetta never seemed to get a break. Her output was extraordinary. But was there room for her to have a real life?