Sofonisba: Portraits of the Soul

Written by Chiara Montani
Review by Vicki Kondelik

Sofonisba is a biographical novel about Sofonisba Anguissola, who was one of the first women to make a living as an artist in 16th-century Italy. Born in Cremona, where her father supervised the artists in the city’s churches, Sofonisba wanted to become an artist at a very early age. She learned to paint along with her sisters, but after her extraordinary talent stood out and drew praise from Michelangelo, Sofonisba accepted an invitation to the court of Philip II of Spain. She became a lady-in-waiting to his wife, Isabel, and taught her to paint, although, as a woman, Sofonisba could never be accepted as a court painter. Montani’s descriptions of life in the repressive Spanish court are vivid. Sofonisba is horrified to see people burned as heretics, but she and the queen become devoted to each other.

Leaving court after the queen’s early death, Sofonisba enters into an arranged marriage with a Sicilian nobleman she has never met. Her husband loves her but does not understand how essential her art is to her existence, and she must also deal with a hostile sister-in-law. When her husband mysteriously dies at sea, Sofonisba feels guilty that she did not love him more. But she eventually finds love with a sea captain who truly appreciates her.

Montani writes beautifully about a passionate woman and extraordinarily talented artist and her struggles with the limitations placed on female artists of the time. Sofonisba is not allowed to study anatomy or even to sign her paintings. Montani explains the details of what went into Sofonisba’s art, including how she prepared the canvases and ground the pigments. Her descriptions are so vivid, you can imagine each painting in your mind. Montani’s website contains reproductions of all the paintings described in the book.