Elisabetta Sirani, Portia wounding her Thigh, 1664, Cassa di Risparmio, Bologna.
One of the questions I have been asked several times while teaching – although not often – is ‘How do you know that? Is it the artist’s idea, or is it your interpretation?’ and it can be a difficult question to answer, because, after a couple of decades of study and experience you sometimes realise you don’t actually know where the ideas originally came from. And that is a good thing, as it makes you go back to the original source. With this particular painting we are lucky that the artist, Elisabetta Sirani, was particularly thorough: she kept a record of everything she painted.
This is what she wrote about today’s picture:
A Portia in the act of wounding herself in the thigh, when she desired to know of the plot that worried her husband, an overdoor painting, and in the distance in the other room women, who are at work, for Simone Tassi.
This is particularly useful, as it tells us not only the subject of the painting – Portia – but also where the painting was going to go – over a door – and who had commissioned it. The patron, Simone Tassi, was a keen collector of her work: when he died, he owned 66 paintings of which at least five were by her, more than any other single artist in his collection. He had 16th and 17th century paintings (i.e. ‘modern’ art), the most famous of the ‘moderns’ being Guercino. Like so many of the successful women artists, Sirani was initially trained by her father, who was himself one of the leading students of Guido Reni. Neither Guercino nor Reni are especially famous today, but they were leading members of the School of Bologna. As home to Europe’s oldest University (and so, some would say, the World’s), Bologna had a well-informed and liberal outlook, and women were more likely to succeed there than anywhere else. By the time Elisabetta was 16, her father was no longer able to work – gout was to blame, apparently – and she took over the workshop. However, she died at the age of 27 – no one knows why – but in her frustratingly short career she produced around 200 paintings. Today’s is one of her last.
21st Century museum displays are generally clearer than those of centuries past, with paintings given plenty of space, and hung roughly at eye-level. The idea of sticking paintings above a door might seem unusual, but it was common practice, going back to the 15th Century at least. Given the high-ceilinged rooms that anyone commissioning paintings would have had, there would always have been a bit of dead space above the door. It might seem like a way of marginalising an image, but as people always have to use doors they would regularly look in that direction – even if only when leaving – so it could be quite a good place to have your paintings seen, as long as you knew how to make your work stand out. And of course, Sirani did. The format is right, for a start: ‘landscape’, probably the width of the door itself, and not too high, so that the top would not be in shadow. The principal figure is in the foreground, making her big and bold and easy to see – especially as she is dressed in a rich red. And there is also quite a lot of lighter flesh, grabbing our attention to the most significant parts of the painting – face, hands and leg. The heel of the foot is cut off too, as if the top of the door frame – or for that matter the frame of the picture itself – has got in the way, giving us the sense that we are looking up at this woman from below. The subject also works conceptually as an overdoor painting, given that it includes people in different rooms – the door itself could almost be part of the narrative.
Portia was the wife of Brutus, the friend of Caesar who seemed least likely to plot against him. As Sirani says, she wanted to know more about the ‘plot that worried her husband’, and having become aware that something must be afoot, she wanted her husband to trust her – so she puts herself to the test. Her story is reported by Plutarch in his Parallel Lives dating from the beginning of the second century. This is from the Loeb edition of 1918:
Porcia [sic], being of an affectionate nature, fond of her husband, and full of sensible pride, did not try to question her husband about his secrets until she had put herself to the following test. She took a little knife, such as barbers use to cut the finger nails, and after banishing all her attendants from her chamber, made a deep gash in her thigh, so that there was a copious flow of blood, and after a little while violent pains and chills and fever followed from the wound. Seeing that Brutus was disturbed and greatly distressed, in the height of her anguish she spoke to him thus: “Brutus, I am Cato’s daughter, and I was brought into thy house, not, like a mere concubine, to share thy bed and board merely, but to be a partner in thy joys, and a partner in thy troubles. Thou, indeed, art faultless as a husband; but how can I show thee any grateful service if I am to share neither thy secret suffering nor the anxiety which craves a loyal confidant? I know that woman’s nature is thought too weak to endure a secret; but good rearing and excellent companionship go far towards strengthening the character, and it is my happy lot to be both the daughter of Cato and the wife of Brutus. Before this I put less confidence in these advantages, but now I know that I am superior even to pain.” Thus having spoken, she showed him her wound and explained her test; whereupon Brutus, amazed, and lifting his hands to heaven, prayed that he might succeed in his undertaking and thus show himself a worthy husband of Porcia.
Sirani clearly read this text attentively, even down to details like the ‘little knife’ used ‘to cut the finger nails’. That is not a large dagger she is holding in her right hand, but something smaller, taken from the case she holds in her left, which must be some form of 17th Century personal grooming kit (the story may be ancient, but the dress is modern). Placed at the bottom of the painting, this would have been clearly visible, even above the door, especially as it’s grey and silver geometric forms contrast with the richly coloured background of the red and gold brocade. The latter is lovingly depicted with short brushstrokes of creams and oranges, revealing the lustre of the gold threads and the undulations of the fabric. The brocade contrasts with the sleeve of the white blouse, which is applied freely with laden brushes, a bravura display of painterly skill.
Petrarch tells us that Portia had taken care to banish all her attendants from her chamber – and we can see them in the background, through two doorways, a baroque sewing circle, with the oldest doing nothing but gesturing, a stereotypical gossip. Although we shouldn’t dismiss them – after all, Sirani talks of women ‘who are at work‘. Nevertheless, the artist has taken care to distance Portia from her companions not just physically, but also in terms of character: she is determined, she is active, and she is strong. The knife is firmly clasped, pointing downwards, although her thigh is already wounded and blood already flows. The threatened repeated stabbing is made more dynamic by painting the knife in front of a doorframe, the vertical lines of its architectural form catching the light like the knife, and connecting the weapon with the wound. In all of this, her face remains placid.
It is the red that dominates – her dress, the dress of the woman spinning in the background and the chair all circle round the wound, which seems to show three puncture marks, already, at least. The gold plays a complementary role, grabbing our attention at the bottom of the image, and echoing in the chain across her shoulder, at a diagonal which emphasizes the disarray of her dress, while also drawing our eye back down to the blood. And she signs the painting, subtly, with an equivalent yellow, along the bottom of the back of the chair, just above the tassels.
It would be great to know who chose the subject. Did Tassi commission a Portia from Sirani, or did he ask for any painting, and she wanted to do this? Either way, it makes its point. Men can get on and do things, whether they are good at it or not (I’m sure you can think of one or two examples just now), but women have to prove their worth. After Sirani’s father became incapacitated she was the family’s principal breadwinner, and also had to care for her younger siblings. She even trained two of her younger sisters to paint, and earned money by teaching: she set up the first school for women artists. It’s hardly surprising she died young – stress-related illnesses are the most commonly cited hypotheses. But there are questions about her status as a proto-feminist: yes, a strong woman, trying to take her place in a man’s world, but also, a woman in her chamber, her skirts lifted and her shoulder revealed. It’s a heady mixture. But it does make the point that this woman is truly determined. And by this woman, I mean these: Portia – and Elisabetta.