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Joseph and Potiphar's Wife.

Properzia de'Rossi (ca. 1490-1530)

Vasari's Lives of the Artists





IT IS an extraordinary thing that in all those arts and all those exercises wherein at any time women have thought fit to play a part in real earnest, they have always become most excellent and famous in no common way, as one might easily demonstrate by an endless number of examples. Everyone, indeed, knows what they are all, without exception, worth in household matters; besides which, in connection with war, likewise, it is known who were Camilla, Harpalice, Valasca, Tomyris, Penthesilea, Molpadia, Orizia, Antiope, Hippolyta, Semiramis, Zenobia, and, finally, Mark Antony's Fulvia, who so often took up arms, as the historian Dion tells us, to defend her husband and herself. But in poetry, also, they have been truly marvelous, as Pausanias relates. Corinna was very celebrated as a writer of verse, and Eustathius makes mention in his "Catalogue of the Ships of Homer "--as does Eusebius in his book of "Chronicles "--of Sappho, a young woman of great renown, who, in truth, although she was a woman, was yet such that she surpassed by a great measure all the eminent writers of that age.

And Varro, on his part, gives extraordinary but well-deserved praise to Erinna, who, with her three hundred verses, challenged the fame of the brightest light of Greece, and counterbalanced with her one small volume, called the "Elecate," the ponderous "Iliad" of the great Homer. Aristophanes celebrates Carissena, a votary of the same profession, as a woman of great excellence and learning; and the same may be said for Teano, Merone, Polla, Elpe, Cornificia, and Telesilla, to the last of whom, in honor of her marvelous talents, a most beautiful statue was set up in the Temple of Venus.

Passing by the numberless other writers of verse, do we not read that Arete was the teacher of the learned Aristippus in the difficulties of philosophy, and that Lastheneia and Assiotea were disciples of the divine Plato? In the art of oratory, Sempronia and Hortensia, women of Rome, were very famous. In grammar, so Athenaeus relates, Agallis was without an equal. And as for the prediction of the future, whether we class this with astrology or with magic, it is enough to say that Themis, Cassandra, and Manto had an extraordinary renown in their times; as did Isis and Ceres in matters of agriculture, and the Thespiades in the whole field of the sciences.

But in no other age, for certain, has it been possible to see this better than in our own , wherein women have won the highest fame not only in the study of letters--as has been done by Signora Vittoria del Vasto, Signora Veronica Gambara, Signora Caterina Anguisciuola, Schioppa, Nugarola, Madonna Laura Battiferri, and a hundred others, all most learned as well in the vulgar tongue as in the Latin and the Greek-- but also in every other faculty. Nor have they been too proud to set themselves with their little hands, so tender and so white, as if to wrest from us the palm of supremacy, to manual labors, braving the roughness of marble and the unkindly chisels, in order to attain to their desire and thereby win fame; as did, in our own day, Properzia de' Rossi of Bologna, a young woman excellent not only in household matters, like the rest of them, but also in sciences without number, so that all the men, to say nothing of the women, were envious of her.

This Properzia was very beautiful in person, and played and sang in her day better than any other woman of her city. And because she had an intellect both capricious and very ready, she set herself to carve peach-stones, which she executed so well and with such patience, that they were singular and marvelous to behold, not only for the subtlety of the work, but also for the grace of the little figures that she made in them and the delicacy with which they were distributed. And it was certainly a miracle to see on so small a thing as a peach-stone the whole Passion of Christ, wrought in most beautiful carving, with a vast number of figures in addition to the Apostles and the ministers of the Crucifixion. This encouraged her, since there were decorations to be made for the three doors of the first facade of S. Petronio all in figures of marble, to ask the Wardens of Works, by means of her husband, for a part of that work; at which they were quite content, on the condition that she should let them see some work in marble executed by her own hand. Whereupon upon she straightway made for Count Alessandro de' Peppoli a portrait from life in the finest marble, representing his father, Count Guido, which gave infinite pleasure not only to them, but also to the whole city; and the Wardens of Works, therefore, did not fail to allot a part of the work to her.

In this, to the vast delight of all Bologna, she made an exquisite scene, wherein--because at that time the poor woman was madly enamored of a handsome young man, who seemed to care but little for her--she represented the wife of Pharaoh's Chamberlain, who, burning with love for Joseph, and almost in despair after so much persuasion, finally strips his garment from him with a womanly grace that defies description. This work was esteemed by all to be most beautiful, and it was a great satisfaction to herself, thinking that with this illustration from the Old Testament she had partly quenched the raging fire of her own passion. Nor would she ever do any more work in connection with that building, although there was no person who did not beseech her that she should go on with it, save only Maestro Amico, who out of envy always dissuaded her and went so far with his malignity, ever speaking ill of her to the Wardens, that she was paid a most beggarly price for her work.

She also made two angels in very strong relief and beautiful proportions, which may now be seen, although against her wish , in the same building. In the end she devoted herself to copper-plate engraving, which she did without reproach, gaining the highest praise. And so the poor love-stricken young woman came to succeed most perfectly in everything, save in her unhappy passion.

The fame of an intellect so noble and so exalted spread throughout all Italy, and finally came to the ears of Pope Clement VII, who, immediately after he had crowned the Emperor in Bologna, made inquiries after her; but he found that the poor woman had died that very week, and had been buried in the Della Morte Hospital, as she had directed in her last testament. At which the Pope, who was eager to see her, felt much sorrow at her death; but more bitter even was it for her fellow-citizens, who regarded her during her lifetime as one of the greatest miracles produced by nature in our days.

In our book are some very good drawings by the hand of this Properzia, done with the pen and copied from the works of Raffaello da Urbino; and her portrait was given to me by certain painters who were very much her friends. But, although Properzia drew very well, there have not been wanting women not only to equal her in drawing, but also to do as good work in painting as she did in sculpture. Of these the first is Sister Plautilla, a nun and now Prioress in the Convent of Santa Caterina da Siena, on the Piazza di San Marco in Florence. She, beginning little by little to draw and to imitate in colors pictures and paintings by excellent masters, has executed some works with such diligence, that she has caused the craftsmen to marvel. By her hand are two panels in the Church of that Convent of Santa Caterina, of which the one with the Magi adoring Jesus is much extolled. In the choir of the Convent of Santa Lucia, at Pistoia, there is a large panel, containing Our Lady with the Child in her arms, St. Thomas, St. Augustine, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Agnes, St. Catherine the Martyr, and St. Lucia; and another large panel by the same hand was sent abroad by the Director of the Hospital of Lelmo. In the refectory of the aforesaid Convent of Santa Caterina there is a great Last Supper, with a panel in the workroom, both by the hand of the same nun.

And in the houses of gentlemen throughout Florence there are so many pictures, that it would be tedious to attempt to speak of them all. A large picture of the Annunciation belongs to the wife of the Spaniard, Signor Mondragone, and Madonna Marietta de' Fedini has another like it. There is a little picture of Our Lady in San Giovannino, at Florence; and an altar-predella in Santa Maria del Fiore, containing very beautiful scenes from the life of San Zanobi. And because this venerable and talented sister, before executing panels and works of importance, gave attention to painting in miniature, there are in the possession of various people many wonderfully beautiful little pictures by her hand, of which there is no need to make mention. The best works from her hand are those that she has copied from others, wherein she shows that she would have done marvelous things if she had enjoyed, as men do, advantages for studying, devoting herself to drawing, and copying living and natural objects. And that this is true is seen clearly from a picture of the Nativity of Christ, copied from one which Bronzino once painted for Filippo Salviati. In like manner the truth of such an opinion is proved by this, that in her works the faces and features of women, whom she has been able to see as much as she pleased, are no little better than the heads of the men, and much nearer to the reality. In the faces of women in some of her works she has portrayed Madonna Costanza de' Doni, who has been in our time an unexampled pattern of beauty and dignity; painting her so well, that it is impossible to expect more from a woman who, for the reasons mentioned above, has had no great practice in her art.

With much credit to herself, likewise, has Madonna Lucrezia, the daughter of Messer Alfonso Quistelli della Mirandola, and now the wife of Count Clemente Pietra, occupied herself with drawing and painting, as she still does, after having been taught by Alessandro Allori, the pupil of Bronzino; as may be seen from many pictures and portraits executed by her hand, which are worthy to be praised by all. But Sofonisba of Cremona , the daughter of Messer Amilcaro Anguisciuola, has labored at the difficulties of design with greater study and better grace than any other woman of our time, and she has not only succeeded in drawing, coloring, and copying from nature, and in making excellent copies of works by other hands, but has also executed by herself alone some very choice and beautiful works of painting. Wherefore she well deserved that King Philip of Spain, having heard of her merits and abilities from the Lord Duke of Alba, should have sent for her and caused her to be escorted in great honor to Spain, where he keeps her with a rich allowance about the person of the Queen, to the admiration of all that Court, which reveres the excellence of Sofonisba as a miracle. And it is no long time since Messer Tommaso Cavalieri, a Roman gentle man, sent to the Lord Duke Cosimo (in addition to a drawing by the hand of the divine Michelangelo, wherein is a Cleopatra) another drawing by the hand of Sofonisba, containing a little girl laughing at a boy who is weeping because one of the crayfish out of a basket full of them, which she has placed in front of him, is biting his finger; and there is nothing more graceful to be seen than that drawing, or more true to nature. Wherefore, in memory of the talent of Sofonisba, who lives in Spain, so that Italy has no abundance of her works, I have placed it in my book of drawings. We may truly say, then, with the divine Ariosto, that-- "Le donne son venute in eccellenza / Di ciascun' arte ov' hanno posto cura."

And let this be the end of the Life of Properzia, sculptor of Bologna.




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