Previous scholarship on the portraits of Sofonisba Anguissola focused primarily on the way the artist depicted herself and the influence of her education on her portraits. Throughout the scholarship on Sofonisba, little attention has been given to one of the most important subjects of her early career; her family. Anguissola depicted her family on several occasions in early sketches and paintings as she developed as an artist, yet her siblings are rarely discussed. This week, I turn the attention away from Sofonisba and towards her distinguished siblings who have received little attention in the shadow of their eldest sister. In her 1555 painting, The Chess Game, Sofonisba Anguissola celebrates three of her younger sisters by emphasizing their high level of education and their virtuous noble status. This excellence served as a source of family pride as well as a way in which the Anguissola family could advertise their daughters as suitable courtiers and brides.
The Anguissola family had been one of the most celebrated families in Northern Italy since the twelfth century and dated their lineage back to the liberation of Constantinople in 717. Annibale Anguissola, the Anguissola sisters’ grandfather, had been the captain of the bishopric of Cremona, Lord of Soncino, and was granted the title of patriziato. Amilcare, their father, was Annibale’s illegitimate son and was legitimized later in life to allow him to inherit Annibale’s noble title. Despite his nobility, Amilcare owned little property and his financial situation was often uncertain. He supported his growing family through various businesses such as selling books, medicine, and buying grain for the city of Cremona. The Anguissola sisters also received status from their mother’s family. Bianca Ponzoni was the niece of Galeazzo Pallavicino, another prominent Northern Italian family who were significantly wealthier and more powerful than the Anguissolas. Amilcare and Bianca had six daughters and one son: Sofonisba (b. 1535), Elena (approx. b. 1536), Lucia (approx. b. 1537), Minerva (approx. b. 1539), Europa (approx. b. 1542), Asdrubale (b. 1551), Anna Maria (approx. b. 1555). At the time the painting was created in 1559, Elena had already left home in 1551 to become a nun and entered the Dominican abbey of San Vincenzo in Mantua, which explains her absence in the painting of the sisters. The youngest sister, Anna Maria, would have been a newborn or not yet born and much too young to include in the painting. While Amilcare was not always successful in business, he excelled at educating this children and elevating them within society through their education. It is his excellence at educating his children that Sofonisba highlights in her painting.
Amilcare Anguissola understood the importance of a proper education for his children, perhaps because he did not receive a traditional noble education due to his illegitimate status. He and his wife insured their children received a well-rounded humanist education, drawing on the example of humanists such as Vittorino da Feltre, Juan Luis Vives, and Marco Girolamo Vida. Humanists during the first half of the sixteenth century stressed the importance of a good education for young women as it was believed a humanist education lead to virtuous behavior. Vives, in his text on the proper education for a Christian woman, noted that in looking to the women of the past, “we should not find any learned woman who was unchaste. In Cremona, humanist and poet Marco Girolamo Vida began educating a gifted young woman, Partenia Gallerati, around the time of Sofonisba’s birth. In their shared intellectual circle in Cremona, Vida and Amilcare often discussed education and were particularly interested in the education of young women. Vida’s teachings and thoughts on the education of young women would have been well known in the Anguissola household and the Anguissola sisters may have been well acquainted with Vida himself. Education became a necessity for a proper noble woman, especially a woman who lived at court. Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier outlines the appropriate behaviors for a courtier through a hypothetical discussion at the court of the Duke of Urbino. In his third section of the courtesy book, the court subjects discuss the qualities of a proper female courtier. It was accepted that female courtiers should share all the same abilities as their male counterparts. Female courtiers were expected to entertain and interact with male courtiers and a humanist education insured they were well-read enough to participate in court conversation. Noble families began taking pride in the accomplishments of both their sons and daughters and the courts surrounding Cremona boasted high numbers of literate women they could send to court. As the daughter of an important Northern Italian family, Bianca may have received a humanist education as well. She is remembered as not only a great beauty, but also a strong and opinionated woman. Her opinion was just as important as Amilcare’s and she was undoubtedly a part of the decision to provide their daughters with an education. A good education not only raised the girl’s esteem within the community, but more importantly for the Anguissolas, it could eventually lower the dowry required by prospective suitors. This may have been a significant factor in why Amilcare provided such strong educations for his daughters and may also be a reason why Sofonisba highlights her sister’s education in the painting that was prominently displayed in the family’s home. The primary way Sofonisba displayed her sisters’ education is through the inclusion of the game of chess.
As chess spread throughout Europe, it was understood as a masculine activity. The game was considered a disciplined exercise for noblemen that allowed them to entertain themselves, but also sharpen their combat strategy for war. In the mid-16th century, politician Luigi Guicciardini dedicated “Comparison of the Game of Chess with the notable treatises of war” to his lord, Cosimo I de’ Medici as a way of illustrating this close connection between chess and battle. The game also gained popularity as an alternative to gambling. Paintings such as Paris Bordone’s Two Chess Players (1550-1555), contrast the superiority of the game of chess against the superficiality of gambling by comparing the two main figures engaged in chess with the group of men engaged in gambling behind them. It was also especially popular over chess because it required a great deal of study and learning to play and was not left up to chance. In “The Courtier,” Castiglione criticizes chess for this very reason, calling it “a pleasant and ingenious amusement,” but for anyone to excel, they would need to study the game when that study could be focused on more noble pursuits. Later texts throughout the 16th century also discussed the learned aspect of the game. In Pedro de Cobarrubias’ Rimedio de giocartori, he proclaims that chess is not only a leisurely activity, but also one “for contemplating things of significance and acquiring knowledge.” Despite Castiglione’s protests over the study required to play the game, chess remained a tell-tale sign of skill and learning and was used in literature and paintings as a sign of the well-educated elite.
Near the end of the 15th century, the rules of chess changed. The Queen piece exchanged rules with the Bishop so the Queen became more powerful on the board, which lead many to call the new game “the queen’s game” or more critically, “scacchi alla rabiosa” or “madwoman’s chess.” Shortly after the game changed, the Anguissola family’s acquaintance Marco Girolamo Vida, wrote a powerful poem about the new rules. In the poem, Scacchia Ludus, he mentions the Queen’s new “vengeance,” but also her new ability to defend her king; “with noble courage and superior might, the dreadful Amazons sustain the fight” until “the female white slew with fatal haste the swarthy queen.” Vida recognized the newfound power of the queen, proclaiming her a “virgo,” but also an Amazon in battle. Despite the change in rules and name, there were few depictions of women playing chess prior to Sofonisba’s painting. If they were depicted playing the game, it was only in playing against a man and it was traditionally a sexual metaphor. Chess was cast as a sexualized activity if played by heterosexual pairs with the understanding that the woman was playing to protect or give away her virginity through the game. Cremonese painter Guido Campi created his The Game of Chess (1530) to depict a woman playing against a man in a public setting. The woman points towards the board while she turns her head away from the game. Her possible opponent is anonymous, dressed in armor and turned away from the viewer. The focus is on the woman risking her virtue by playing the game. She is demure and static, disengaged from the game and her expression perhaps saddened as she prepares to lose.
This painting stands in contrast to Sofonisba’s painting which depicts three lively young women actively participating in chess. In comparison to this earlier painting of chess in Cremona, Sofonisba’s painting strips any sexual connotation and removes men from the scene entirely. This allows the women in the painting to pursue a highly intellectual activity without the threat of indecency or corruption. In her analysis of the painting, Naomi Yevnah goes so far as to liken the game of chess in the painting to the achievement of virtuous womanhood, the powerful queen symbolizing the virtuous woman they aim to become. Perhaps recalling the poem by their father’s friend, Vida, the Queen-Amazon-Virgin becomes a symbol for the virtuous and powerful sisters.
Lucia, the eldest in the painting, is holding the powerful queen. She has successfully traversed the board and is the virtuous queen and daughter. Minerva, the second oldest in the painting, is still learning, but has some mastery of the game, and will one day soon hold the queen. And Europa, the youngest, is shown holding a pawn. She is at the beginning of her journey and is just starting to learn. Once she crosses the board, much like when a pawn crosses the whole chess board, she will achieve womanhood and become a queen like her older sister. This analysis also closely ties the achievement of virtuous womanhood with the achievement of education and learning by mastering the game of chess.
While chess is the primary focus of the painting, the careful creation of the sisters’ surroundings and appearance elevates them beyond educated young women to proper noblewomen. In her self-portraits, Sofonisba creates the image of a virtuous noble woman through her simple clothing and proper environment and she carries over these themes to the painting of her sisters. Sofonisba displays her sisters in the chaste, noble, and virtuous way she typically depicts herself through their clothing, the objects around them, and the physical environment they are placed in. While the painting depicts three of the Anguissola sisters, Sofonisba includes her own presence through an inscription on the chessboard. The inscription reads;
“Sephoniba Anguissola. Virgo. Amilcaris Fila. Ex Vera Efigie Tres Suas Sorores. Et Ancillam Pinxit. MDLV. (Sofonisba Anguissola, virgin daughter of Amilcare, painted from life three of her sisters and their maid-servant in 1555).”
The signature and inscription highlights her own virginity and virtue in tandem with her sisters’. This signature also notes it was painted from life and that the painting depicts an accurate depiction of not only the sisters appearance, but also their behaviors and activities.
In the painting, Sofonisba first highlights her sister’s virtue and status through their appearance. The three sisters are shown as noblewomen through their attire, dressed in fine clothing made of velvet and silk. The appearance of her sisters’ gowns is strikingly different from the austere clothing Sofonisba chose for her own portraits, emphasizing the importance of the garments for the construction of the sisters’ identities. Sofonisba pays specific attention to the intricate detailing in their clothing, showing the embroidery and small jewels that decorated their gowns and hair. Embroidery was considered an appropriate activity for noble women and it is expected that Sofonisba and her sisters would have been very familiar with the traditionally feminine art. In Ilya Sandra Perlingieri’s book on the life and career of Sofonisba, she describes the sisters’ clothing in the painting in great detail, making note of the specific features such as the scalloped edging on Lucia and Minerva’s dresses and the expensive blackwork embroidery on Europa’s gown. She pays special attention to the jewelry worn by the young noblewomen. They all wear small simple pieces of jewelry, but the display of pearls in their hair serves as a symbol of the family’s status. Pearls were amongst the most expensive materials during the 16th century and displaying them in the painting illustrated the family’s wealth. Their attire are suited for their status as noble women and advertise the sisters as daughters of wealth and nobility to visitors who may see the painting in the family’s home. More importantly, their gowns are modest as each gown features a high collar which obscures the young women’s bodies to emphasize their chastity and virtue. Rules surrounding the proper attire for women were strict, insuring women did not dress above their status. While their family may not have always been financial stable, the noble Anguissola sisters were allowed to wear fine jewelry and textiles and the painting displays the sisters in their finest gowns to advertise their position.
The sisters are surrounding by additional signals of their education, chastity, and status. Firstly, the sisters sit around a display of luxury objects which point towards the Anguissola family’s potential wealth. The oriental rug laid over the table reflects the goods from Asia and the Middle East that served as status symbols for wealthy families that could afford them. Additionally, the chessboard the sisters use is a hand-crafted inlaid board instead of the more common painted boards or table like that seen in Campi’s Game of Chess. The presence of chess itself is a symbol of wealth and nobility as well.
Another symbol of the Anguissolas’ wealth is the watchful chaperone over Minerva’s shoulder. The maid, as identified in Sofonisba’s inscription, is visually older than the three beautiful young women, her lined and weathered face a foil to highlight the beauty and youth of the aristocratic daughters. Her presence establishes the Anguissola family as wealthy enough to employ a maidservant, but also she acts as a protector of the young women’s virtue. Her Latin label, ancilla, recalls a quote about from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, “Ecce Ancilla Domini (Behold the handmaiden of God)” and evokes this description of the Annunciation as a reminder of the maid’s job as the protector of their virtue. However accomplished these young women may be, her presence served to insure the women would remain chaste and virtuous even while engaging in a traditionally male activity. She appears to be a well-loved maid to the Anguissola family as she makes an appearance in a later portrait of Sofonisba in 1561 in which she plays a similar role of chaperone over Sofonisba’s virtue.
Her watchful eye insures the sisters are behaving in a proper manner and to signal to viewers of the painting they are virtuous. Furthermore, the entire setting is homosocial, including the female painter. The absence of any men asserts the sisters’ purity and allows them to enjoy the intellectual pleasures of chess without threat of indecency.
Lastly, the garden environment the sisters are located in communicates further themes of chastity and learning. The sisters sit within an enclosed garden supposedly at their own home in Cremona, signaled by the appearance of an idealized Cremona seen in the distance. While the city of Cremona was flat, the mountainesque landscape in the background is recognizable as the Anguissolas’ home city due to the presence of the Il Torrazzo belltower, a well-known landmark of Cremona. They are pictured in the safe setting of their home, exercising their intellectual pursuits within the feminine domestic space. They are also in an enclosed garden, physically separating them from the masculine public sphere while still allowing them to be immersed in nature. The garden, a locus amoenus, evokes ideas of Eden or Paradise and the safety and comfort found in an outdoors where they could pursue intellectual and creative activities without fear of corruption or danger. It also draws comparisons with the hortus conclusus, or walled garden, that was emblematic of the Virgin Mary. First evoked in the Song of Songs, the enclosed garden signified the Virgin’s chastity and the impenetrability of her body. By placing her sisters in the enclosed garden, Sofonisba was associating her sisters with the same virginal status and not only physically representing their virtue as separate from the public space, but spiritually representing their virginity. Also prominently shown in their enclosed garden is an oak tree, placed directly behind Europa. The oak tree carries many symbolic meanings, both in Christian and classical traditions, and Sofonisba may have intended to conjure up a variety of readings. Firstly, the oak tree is a popular symbol of wisdom, serving as a representation of the daughters’ education as it continues to grow and flourish within the safety of the garden. Tree iconography was also prominent in discussions of fertility and women’s roles as mothers and wives. Women were often discussed as trees that would bear good fruit, making reference to the hopes the daughters would marry well and have prosperous families. This lends itself to the interpretation that this painting not only served as a celebration of the Anguissola daughters and their education, but also as a display for future suitors who may have visited the family home.
Sofonisba’s painting of her sisters is a celebration of the young women and their family. It highlights the family’s education and success, but also serves as a way for Amilcare to advertise the status and availability of his daughters. The virtuousness of the sisters must have made an impression even years after it was painted, as Giorgio Vasari commented on the Anguissola sisters’ virtue and liveliness when he viewed the painting during a visit to their home in Cremona in 1566. Placed in the family home, it served as a familial celebration of their family’s excellence, even after four of the sisters were no longer in the home. By the end of 1566, Sofonisba had already left to serve as a lady-in-waiting at the court of Philip II in Spain, Elena was living in the abbey in Mantua, and Lucia and Minerva passed away. Lucia passed away in 1565, but not before she learned how to paint from Sofonisba and a few of her works survive today. Minerva followed in her namesake and excelled in Latin, but passed away early in 1566. Europa became a painter like her sisters, but more than likely stopped after she married an Cremonese architect, Carlo Scinchinelli, in 1568. The Anguissola sisters were truly a marvel in their community as the sisters all received varying levels of success as artists and scholars. Today, they are still perceived as a family of wunderkind, primarily due to their parent’s emphasis on their education. The work put into educating their daughters and their success would have been a source of great pride for Amilcare and Bianca and having this painting in their home would have been a constant reminder of that. It also served as a way for the Anguissolas to display the chastity and virtue of their daughters to visitors and potential husbands. The Chess Game captures the brilliant minds of the sisters, deeply engaged in a game of chess, while still maintaining their proper, virtuous, and chaste nature as suitable noble women worthy of marriage.
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Perlingieri, Ilya Sandra. Sofonisba Anguissola: the First Great Woman Artist of the Renaissance New York: Rizzoli, 1992.
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Simons, Patricia. “(Check) Mating the Grand Masters: The Gendered, Sexualized Politics of Chess in Renaissance Italy.” Oxford Art Journal 16, no. 1 (1993): 59-74.
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Vives, Juan Luis. The Education of a Christian Woman: A Sixteenth-Century Manual. Edited and translated by Charles Fantazzi, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.