National Museum of Women in the Arts
Lavinia Fontana
August 24 1552 - August 11 1614
Place of Birth:
Phonetic Spelling:
lah-VEEN-yah fohn-TAH-nah
Work Type/Media:
Artistic Role(s):
Court Artist, History Painter, Painter, Portraitist
Artist's Biography:
Like most female artists in late-sixteenth century Italy, Lavinia Fontana was born and raised in a major art center (Bologna) and was related to a successful male artist (her father, Prospero Fontana). However, she was unusual in that she was commissioned to make not only portraits, which were the typical subject matter for women painters, but also religious and mythological themes, which sometimes included female nudes. Fontana also made great strides in the field of portraiture, for which she was justly famous, both within and beyond Italy. In fact, Fontana is regarded as the first woman artist, working within the same sphere as her male counterparts, outside a court or convent.

At the age of twenty-five Fontana married Giovanni Paolo Zappi, a fellow painter from a noble family, who acted as his wife’s assistant and managed their growing household (the couple had eleven children only three of whom outlived their mother). For twenty years beginning in the 1580s, Fontana was the portraitist of choice among Bolognese noblewomen. She also painted likenesses of important individuals connected with the University of Bologna. Because of the popularity of her portraits and a number of prestigious commissions to create large altarpieces, Fontana’s fame spread to Rome, where she moved in 1604. There she became a portraitist at the court of Pope Paul V and was the recipient of numerous honors, including a bronze portrait medallion cast in 1611 by the sculptor and architect Felice Antonio Casoni.

Place(s) of Residence:
Where Trained/Schools:
Private lessons
Related Visual Artists:
daughter and student of Prospero Fontana wife of Giovanni Paolo Zappi friend of Ludovicio Carraci influenced by Diana Scultori influenced by Antonio Allegri Correggio influenced by Scipione Pulzone influenced by Federico Barocci
Fellowships, grants and awards:
Elected Member, Roman Academy, Rome, Italy (ca. 1611) Painting Commission, (Virgin Appearing to St. Hyacinth), Santa Sabina, Rome, Italy (1599)
Earliest exhibition:
Women Artists, 1550-1950, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA, USA (1976)
NMWA exhibition(s):
Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque
Four Centuries of Women's Art: The National Museum of Women in the Arts
An Imperial Collection: Women Artists from the State Hermitage Museum
Lavinia Fontana of Bologna (1552-1614)
Artist retrospective(s):
Lavinia Fontana of Bologna (1552-1614), National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, USA (1998)
Related places
Rome (died at)
Portrait of a Noblewoman, ca. 1580
Portrait of Costanza Alidosi, ca. 1595
Holy Family with St. John
Portrait of a Noblewoman
Portrait of Costanza Alidosi