For centuries women’s faces have observed us from the paintings where they’ve been captured for eternity. Women often not known to us by their names but by those of the men who painted or sculpted them. Women whose eyes, faces and bodies have helped inspire and glorify the male artist’s skill, but whose stories have not made it into the museum visitor’s consciousness. Lauretta Colonelli’s highly informative, splendidly illustrated book, Le Muse nascoste, goes towards filling much of this gap in our awareness by introducing us to sixteen of these unsung heroines.
Many of us have heard of the sensuous Costanza Bonarelli, whose beauty was immortalised in a bust by her lover, the illustrious sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a lover who, after discovering that she was also having an affair with his younger brother Luigi, had that beauty disfigured for life. In her book, Colonelli writes:
Gian Lorenzo’s jealousy exploded. After trying to kill his brother at Saint Peter’s, he returned home and ordered a servant to deliver to the unfaithful mistress two flasks of Greco wine, so that when she would have taken them from him, defenceless and with her hands full, the servant had to disfigure her with a razor across her face.
Henri Matisse frequently used his wife Amélie and his daughter Marguerite as models for his paintings. Marguerite looks very striking: dark, almond-shaped eyes, wistful expression, and is always portrayed with a black ribbon around her neck.
When she was seven, she contracted diphtheria, deteriorated and could not breathe. The doctor was forced to perform an emergency tracheotomy, cutting her throat while Matisse held her down on the kitchen table.
Marguerite, we learn, covered the scar with a black ribbon for the rest of her life.
Lauretta Colonelli also tells us the story of Nan Wood, the sister of Grant Wood, painted under false pretences by her brother, who pretended he was going to do her portrait but then added his unsuspecting dentist to the tableau, a tableau that gives a sense of emotional sterility, in the famous 1930 painting American Gothic.
A woman whose artistic talent was suffocated by marriage was Josephine Nivison, a successful painter in her own right until she married Edward Hopper, whose half-hearted acknowledgement of his wife’s talent can be seen in his portrait of her, Jo Painting. We only know what she is doing because of the title. Hopper did not extend his acknowledgement to full representation of her at work.
A fascinating chapter of the book focusses on Lucia, the dwarf standing beside the powerful Gonzaga family in Mantegna’s fresco.
She has the hands of a child, small and chubby. The large face of a middle-aged woman, furrowed by deep lines. She’s barely taller than a doll. For five centuries, she has been watching visitors from the top down, her dark eyes boring into theirs. For five centuries, she has been called “Mantegna’s dwarf”. Because Mantegna painted her, between 1465 and 1474, on the walls of the Wedding Chamber in the northwestern tower of San Giorgio’s Castle in Mantua.
In actual fact, her name was Lucia. Only her name was lost. Like those of an infinite multitude of the anonymous whom Michel Foucault labelled as “hommes infâmes“, not because they lacked morals, but because they lacked fame, a voice, a story to tell about themselves.
Centuries later, in 2016, Lucia was nicknamed ‘Diamantina’ by the Renaissance historian Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen, because she is ‘set’ within the context of the painting of the Gonzaga family like a precious stone.
Arguably, the most famous female face in Renaissance Florentine art was painted by Sandro Botticelli. She appears in the guise of Pallas Athene, in his Pallas and the Centaur, as the serene Venus watching an over-exerted Mars sleep, and there may be echoes of her in the neo-platonic perfection of the goddess rising from the sea in The Birth of Venus. Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci was a well-known beauty in 15th-century Florence, and cousin by marriage of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Giuliano Medici called her “La Sans Pareille“, the unequalled one.
Lauretta Colonelli takes us on a fascinating journey through the stories behind the faces that made many artists famous. The book goes into sufficient detail to be highly informative but never veers towards the inaccessibly academic. It gives food for thought but never ceases to be enjoyable. Moreover, it is scrupulously documented, as demonstrated by the rich bibliography at the end of the volume. A beautifully illustrated, fascinating book, Le Muse nascoste provides a welcome, entrancing insight into the lives behind the canvas.
By Katherine Gregor
LE MUSE NASCOSTE (Hidden Muses) Non-Fiction, Art
by Lauretta Colonnelli (Giunti, 2020)
With warm thanks to LeeAnn Bortolussi, Giunti Editore, Florence & Milan.
Soon to be published in English translation: The Year of Our Love by Caterina Bonvicini (Other Press, June 2021). Translated by Antony Shugaar
Lauretta Colonnelli lives in Rome and Tuscany. After graduating in Philosophy, she taught Theatre History at the University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’ and worked as a programmer and director for Italian national radio. A journalist since 1979, she has written for the culture sections of L’Europeo and Corriere della Sera. She is the author of a number of essays about art.
Katherine Gregor grew up in Italy and France before going to university in England. She has been a theatrical agent, press agent, teacher and one or two other things before becoming a literary translator from Italian, French and, on occasion, Russian. She also writes original material and is currently working on a non-fiction book.
Read previous posts in The Italianist series:
THE ITALIANIST: Riveting Italian Books You Need to Know About by Katherine Gregor. CON I PIEDI NEL FANGO: CONVERSAZIONI SU POLITICA E VERITÀ (With Your Feet in The Mud: Conversations About Politics and Truth) by Gianrico Carofiglio (with Jacopo Rosatelli)