Women in History Series


Self-Portrait by Elisabetta Sirani

Self-Portrait, by Elisabetta Sirani

Born into an artistic family, Elisabetta began her training in her father’s studio in Bologna, Italy. A painter of some renown in Renaissance Italy, she took over her father’s workshop after his death and became her family’s primary breadwinner. In the progressive artistic Bolognese environment, Elisabetta opened her studio to other women artists. And her studio was recognized as the first painting school for women outside of convent Europe.

Elisabetta never married and produced more than 200 paintings and hundreds of drawings in her short life. She is commonly thought to be the first woman to specialize in history painting. Her education in Greek and Roman mythology and poetry is evident in her paintings, as is her precise understanding of the male anatomy (rare for the time). Her death at age 27 under mysterious circumstances led to an elaborate and massively-attended funeral, with orations and music composed in her honor by Bologna’s most prominent citizens.

One of the most exciting places to view her work is at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In 2018, they featured her in a special exhibition there. Here is some of her work:

timoclea slaying Alexander's captain

Timoclea Kills the Captain of Alexander the Great, by Elisabetta Sirani (1659)

Painted at just age 21, this depiction of Timoclea killing a captain of Alexander the Great talks feminine truth to power. It is based on Plutarch’s retelling of actual events in his book, The Life of Alexander. Timoclea was a prominent Theban citizen. During Alexander’s Balkan campaign of 335 BC, she was raped by Alexander’s captain, who then asked her where any hidden money might be. She led him into the garden, where she pointed to the well. When he leaned over to look, she pushed him in and then stoned him to death. Alexander was apparently impressed by her actions, and allowed her and her children to live without punishment.

Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy

Melpomene, The Muse of Tragedy, by Elisabetta Sirani (date unknown)

Sirani was enthralled with mythology, and Melpomene, the Greek goddess and Muse of Tragedy, was just one of many depictions of mythology in her work. The tragic mask on the table is commonly seen in most depictions of Mepomene, but usually she is holding the mask in one hand and a brutal knife or club in the other. Sirani has chosen not to portray her as an aggressor here. In Roman and Greek poetry, it was thought that invoking the goddess Melpomene would inspire beautiful lyrical phrases; hence Sirani has her grasping a book.

Cleopatra by Sirani

Cleopatra, by Elisabetta Sirani (date unknown)

Sirani’s work includes several paintings of Cleopatra. This is our favorite, as it portrays the Egyptian ruler as commanding, confident, and comfortable in her own skin.

All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.