Lavinia Fontana’s Gozzadini Family (1584)

This unusually large sixteenth-century family portrait from Bologna has been interpreted at length as a visual illustration of the long and complex dramas that the Gozzadini family  experienced in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Caroline Murphy believes that Laudomia Gozzadini (the patron in the red dress) confided her marital and financial problems to the artist who then depicted them, ever so subtly, in the painting.1 If this were so, it would not be art but illustration and the painter would not be an artist but a narrator. Lavinia Fontana may not be a great artist, it is true, but she was not just an illustrator. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Fontana, The Gozzadini Family (1584) Oil on canvas. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna

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I do not believe that there is a particularly complex poetic thought behind this painting; to a great extent it is what it is, a family portrait of five figures, two of whom were dead. It is noticeable, though, that all the heads are posed in exactly the same way, each looking out at us with a raised eyebrow like the artist herself.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Fontana's The Gozzadini Family (1584) 

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Laudonia, however, looks more "alive" than the other two seated figures, both of whom were by then dead. Her face has more "life" to it and she is dressed in red which, according to Murphy, gives her figure further vitality.2 It is not surprising then that Lavinia principally identified with Laudomia by inscribing her name on her chair.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Laudonia Gozzadini, the patron in Fontana's The Gozzadini Family
R: Self-portrait detail from Fontana's Self-portrait at a Keyboard (1577), inverted. Oil on canvas. Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome.

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She also made use of the fact she and her patron shared the same initial. Here's how. Her husband, Camillo, stands behind her, his hand, the pre-eminent symbol of the artist's craft, resting on a long sword (upper image). We show elsewhere how swords represent paintbrushes and this one, directly behind the artist's principal alter ego, does too.3 To its right Fontana has turned a portion of the Cross embroidered on her husband's costume into the form of an L. When compared to how Lavinia inscribed the L of her own name below it (lower image), the link is clear. Other artists used their initials in similar ways.4

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Captions for image(s) above:

Two details from Fontana's The Gozzadini Family

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Laudomia as Lavinia and her husband strokes the fur of what appears to be a flayed lynx on her lap, its fur suggestive of a paintbrush. Her other hand touches the fur of a live dog as if both hands represent the process of painting and the ability of a great artist to breathe life into dead matter. "Lavinia", it seems, does just that in painting the two dead figures beside her whose arms are joined. Thus, whatever demands the patron placed on the artist and whatever the patron thought she could "see" in the painting, Fontana was able to insert her own artistic identity into the group using a few of the methods in common use among poetic painters as this site continues to demonstrate.

Captions for image(s) above:

Fontana, The Gozzadini Family (1584)  

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More Works by Fontana

Notes:

1. Caroline P. Murphy, Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and Her Patrons in Sixteenth-Century Bologna (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) 2003, pp. 117-136

2. Murphy, op. cit..,p. 126

3. See examples under the theme Swords/Weapons as Brushes.

4. Examples include Dürer's St. Dominic (1506), Poussin's Ordination (1640's) and Manet's Monet Painting on His Studio Boat (1874). There are many others under the theme Letters in Art.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 28 Oct 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.