Properzia de Rossi was, arguably, the first professional female marble sculptor of the sixteenth century Italian Renaissance. She lived and worked in Bologna, a haven for many women artists at the time, but the particulars of her life are not well known. Her reputation rests on administrative and court records from Bologna, a modest number of works assuredly from her hand, and her short biography in the first edition of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Architects, Painters, and Sculptors of Italy
, 1550, in which she is the only woman profiled. Sculpting aside, de Rossi was noted for her beauty, intellect, and musical talents.
Because she was not born into a family of artists, as were most of her female contemporaries, de Rossi had additional barriers to cross in order to pursue a sculpting career, especially in marble. Nonetheless, she received training at the University of Bologna, and with master engraver Marc Antonio Raimondi.
De Rossi earned early fame for her ability to carve intricate compositions, usually religious scenes, on tiny peach, cherry, and apricot pits. The quality of her later marble busts, including a bust of Count Alessandro de Pepoli, earned her the commission for the decorative program on the high altar of Santa Maria del Baraccano in Bologna in 1524. Although pitted against male competitors, de Rossi was the winner of a commission for the west façade of San Petronio, also in Bologna. Part of the commission included a marble panel depicting the Biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife
, often referred to as her most celebrated piece. Here, she shows adeptness for arranging heroic figures in a broad and dynamic style characteristic of Italian Renaissance relief sculpture. Vasari praised this work but also assumed it depicted de Rossi’s personal woes of unrequited love. Hospital records from 1530 indicate her quickly deteriorating health and it is rumored she died penniless and alone.
Sculpture commission, Basilica di San Petronio, Bologna, Italy (1525-1526)