Day 92 – Vanity vs Prudence

attributed to Ginevra Cantofoli, Vanity, n.d., Private Collection.

Occasionally I like a bit of a challenge, and today’s painting certainly qualifies. It was sold on the art market in 2009 (I think) as an undated work by the 17th Century Bolognese artist Ginevra Cantofoli, about whom there is almost no information available, and is now in a private collection. However, the main authority on women artists in Bologna in the 17th Century, Babette Bohn, is dubious about the attribution. But I’ve never let anything like that get in the way of a good story… So why do I want to look at it? Well, it’s a rather beautiful painting, I think, and deserves some attention, whoever it is by. I’m also interested in any artist I’ve never heard of before. I came across it because I’m also getting interested in mirrors: I’ll be delivering a Zoom talk about Velázquez and his interest in reflections this coming Wednesday evening (contact Art History Abroad if you’re interested!).  

We see a woman in a delicate lavender dress, belted at the waist, with a low cut neckline that has a richly embroidered border. A form of cape, made from the same lavender material, is pinned to her shoulder, and wraps around her waist in copious spiralling folds. A dark blue headdress, decorated with gold, is just visible as it touches her forehead, curving over her hairline, and holding down a plait which circles her head. Her blonde hair falls down the side of her face in waves, with a few strands lying on her pale flesh. This is not the strictly controlled coiffeur of the plait, but seems freer. Her left shoulder is brought forward, as if she were previously looking at the mirror, but she has now turned towards us, creating an interesting twist through the body – the turn of her head counteracts the reach of her left arm.

It is not entirely clear whether she is holding the mirror up, or resting her hand on it – the lower edge seems to rest on a shelf, implying that she could be twisting it towards us, allowing us to see an alternative view of her face, in profile, from a slightly low angle as a result of the position of the mirror. She looks at us, with an almost sphinx-like expression, challenging us, perhaps – or simply inviting us – to make up our own minds about what we see.,

Her left hand reaches across her body, fingers open and palm downwards. Underneath are a few golden elements, two of which look like jewelled pins – my guess would be that they are hair pins she has just taken out, and has dropped onto the table – which would explain why the curls to the left of her head flow more freely. 

Mirrors function in different ways in paintings, and are a good example of the complexities of symbolism. It is not always possible to pin down a single meaning for an individual object: context is everything. We’ve come across mirrors before. One was held by Prudence, one of the four Cardinal Virtues, at the lowest level of the decorations of the Scrovegni Chapel (Picture Of The Day 59). Prudence – the ability to make wise decisions based on experience – is often seen as relying on self knowledge, and hence the need for self reflection. Here is another example, in a painting by Elisabetta Sirani.

Elisabetta Sirani, Caritas, Fortitudo, Prudentia, Private Collection, Modena.

Not only do we have two women artists today, but in this painting we have three Virtues – it being an Allegory of Charity, Justice and Prudence. Giotto’s Justice was also discussed in POTD 59, whereas his Charity, one of the three Theological Virtues, appeared in POTD 45.  In all three cases Sirani’s choices for the Virtues are more traditional than Giotto’s, but that is undoubtedly because there had been more time for ‘tradition’ to develop. Charity, or ‘Love’, is shown with three children, one clambering over her shoulder, one breast-feeding, and another reaching up to play with the baby. I have often thought that ‘Charity’ in these cases should be re-named ‘Long Suffering’ – but it is undoubtedly Love! The central Virtue of the painting (in more ways than one) is Justice, holding her sword aloft in her right hand, with the scales of Justice put to one side in the other. She looks out to her left, into the middle distance, as if contemplating a judgement, whereas the other two both look towards her – as if to say, be charitable in your judgements, and make the right choice. Prudence points to her mirror with her right hand, and rests her left, which is holding the mirror firmly, on a sizeable tome – presumably containing all the knowledge needed to make a wise and cautious decision.

As I said when discussing Elisabetta Sirani (POTD 62 ), the study of her work is enormously enhanced by the log book that she herself kept, which lists around 200 different works (by comparison Artemisia Gentileschi, a far more famous 17th Century artist, was not as productive: about 120 works are known). In it, she lets us know that this Allegory was commissioned by Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici, one of her most important patrons. Apparently he was so happy with it that he gave her a cross, studded with 56 diamonds, as a reward. These three virtues were chosen as being those especially exemplified by the Medici family, who in the 17th Century were the Grand Dukes of Tuscany (you will notice that Modesty was not one of the Virtues that they claimed). Sirani signed the painting – rather presumptuously perhaps – on the hem of Justice’s bodice.

As well as being a very productive artist, and keeping good records of her works, Sirani was also important as a teacher. According to contemporaries, her most gifted student was Ginevra Cantofoli.  A couple of decades older than Sirani, her family had no previous connection to painting (unlike Sirani herself, who had learnt from her father). One of our main sources of information about her is Carlo Cesare Malvasia, the 17th Century version of Vasari in Bologna, who published his Lives of the Bolognese Painters in 1678. He heaps special praise on the women: not only does Bologna have great artists, he says, but has more talented female painters than anywhere else. He lists a number of paintings by Cantofoli, some of which are still in the churches for which they were painted. However, he does not always heap praise on her in particular. She may have been the best of Sirani’s pupils, but Malvasia describes at least one of her paintings as cattiva – i.e. ‘bad’ – and suggests that Sirani would often design and then correct Cantofoli’s work, citing at least three examples that he knew of.  If the Vanity is by Cantofoli, it would rank among her best works, and Babette Bohn is not convinced it is by the same hand as the verifiable paintings. 

It might be worthwhile comparing it to a self portrait in the Brera, the main art gallery in Milan. This is Cantofili painting a copy of what, in Bologna, was an especially famous painting, the Madonna di San Luca – a 12th Century work which, for a very long time was believed to have been painted by none other than St Luke himself (who, as you may have noticed, was not alive during the 12th Century). The composition of the two paintings is not entirely dissimilar – with the main character’s head tilted in one direction, balanced by another face on the other side of the picture, which, in both cases, is an image – one a reflection, the other a painting. Each also has an arm crossing the foreground. The faces are not entirely dissimilar either, sharing a sweet simplicity, a quality also apparent in the lack of articulation of the hands in the foreground of each. However – and this is tricky as the Brera painting is clearly in need of a clean, and a better photograph – the self portrait does not come across as being equally elegant, or for that matter refined. The subtle shifts in tone and colour in the Vanity are unmatched in the relatively drab draperies of the Self Portrait. I’m really not an expert, though – but as Bohn is not convinced, I would also hesitate to accept the attribution. 

Whoever painted it, though, it is a rather glorious image – but why is it Vanity rather than Prudence? Both have a mirror, after all. There are two things, at least, which sway the balance. First, there is nothing to say that this woman is about to make a decision based on knowledge or experience – no book, as in Sirani’s version, no desk, as in Giotto’s. And secondly, she is beautifully attired, with fine clothes and jewellery, some of which she appears to be discarding, as if she has realised that her focus on physical appearance and finery is ‘vanity’. In this respect, we are more likely to understand the concept in terms of Vanitas rather than ‘vanity’. As a modern concept, ‘vanity’ is about excessive pride and interest in one’s own appearance. In its origins, though, this was seen as ‘vain’ because it wouldn’t last. This is the way we use the word in the phrase ‘all that attention to your looks will be in vain’ – because we can’t always stay as we were when we were young (no, not you, of course, I know you are eternally youthful). As such ‘vanity’ refers to the vanities of worldly existence, all of which will pass away (in Christian terms). We should be relying on eternal values, rather than fleeting, superficial ones.

This then creates a problem, especially for a female artist. ‘Vanity’, in Italian, is a feminine noun – La Vanità – and so the personification is specifically a woman with a mirror. If any woman were to want to paint herself, she would have to look into a mirror to do so – and so the act of self-portraiture, for women, implies that they are embodying Vanity. Not only that, though: women were supposed to be meek, modest, and mild, keeping themselves to themselves and always averting their eyes. The female gaze had always been seen as a threat to men – but for an artist it was essential. This attitude was just one of the things that held women back: if they weren’t allowed to look at things, how could they possibly paint them? And even though Justice and Prudence are also represented by women – La Giustizia and La Prudenza – both of these qualities, in society, were part of a man’s realm. 

However, if you were really clever, as a woman, you could represent yourself as La Pittura – Painting – which Artemisia, of course, did (POTD 69). She uses a mirror in order to see herself – so for self-knowledge, and not for vanity. After all, art is seen as a mirror onto the world around us… which is what I will be thinking about this coming Wednesday. It is a symbolism used both by Jan van Eyck in his Arnolfini Portrait, and also by Velázquez in Las Meninas. As it happens, the latter was probably influenced by the former, as the Arnolfini Portrait was part of the Spanish Royal Collection in the 17th Century. But more of that on Wednesday (although no more about the Arnolfini – I’ve said enough about them already!)

Of course, the mirror does something else in the painting by Cantofili (?). As well as identifying the woman as ‘Vanity’, it also allows the artist to show us one woman from two points of view: full face, and in profile. This is a ploy sometimes used for portraits, allowing us to see more of the sitter. This painting could even be a self-portrait. It also confronts the nature of painting, a framed image of the world, just like the reflection in the mirror. We can see that it is a mirror, because the image is so much like the woman herself. But that, in itself, lends credence to the full-faced image, which is, in a different sense, a ‘mirror’ onto nature, a true reflection of someone’s appearance. I don’t know what the frame of this painting looks like, which is a pity. I would love it to be framed in the same style as the painted mirror, though.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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