130 – Sofonisba and Michelangelo

Sofonisba Anguissola, Asdrubale bitten by a Crayfish, c. 1554. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.

I have talked about Sofonisba before (see Day 77 – Sofonisba Anguissola and Day 90 – Sofonisba, too) but I am being drawn back again – drawn by a drawing, as it happens – because I want to examine a myth and ponder an influence. The myth is about the relationship between the first internationally famous woman of Italian Renaissance art, and the great genius Michelangelo. Almost anything you read about her will say something like ‘In 1554 Sofonisba headed down to Rome, where the story goes that she was introduced to Michelangelo.’ I know that, because that is precisely what I said on Day 90 of Lockdown 1. I also said, in the same post, ‘However, I really need to look into this incident – Michelangelo was a notorious old grump, and the idea that he would be interested in the work of a young woman seems inherently unlikely. However, if it turns out to be true, then how much more remarkable a man he was!’ That was on 16 June last year, and, nearly a year later, I’ve finally got round to it. If you want a reminder, I discussed Sofonisba’s background and her training as an artist back then – I won’t go into it here. I also included this drawing as an illustration, but said relatively little about it. Subsequently I have found a new, post-restoration image which is far clearer, and shows the drawing to be far more delicate, than the photograph I posted last year suggested.

We see a small boy crying. His mouth is open with the lips pulled back, and his cheeks look slightly puffed from the tension. His eyes are screwed up: the emotion is unmistakeable. Drawing this is not as straightforward you might think: it is all too easy to make someone crying look as if they are laughing – and vice versa. Film and T.V. often play on this potential confusion, creating double-takes, where you think you are seeing one emotion, and then are shown that it is the other. But here, we definitely see crying, it is clear from the face, and also from the gestures: the tension in the boy’s right hand, flicked back at the wrist, is one more sign. The left hand seems relaxed by comparison. He has short curly hair, and wears a 16th Century doublet. It has a slashed trim at the shoulders, and wrist-length sleeves which are slightly drawn back to reveal the cuffs of an undershirt, also seen in a modest collar. An older girl has her right arm around his shoulder, and looks at the boy with concern – and a hint of something else. A smile, maybe? Or perhaps she is impressed by the volume of sound this small human can create. Her hair is pulled back from her forehead, above her ears, and is held in place by a plait fixed around the crown of her head. She wears a chemise under a fairly low-cut bodice, with sleeves attached just below the shoulder, and holds something in her left hand.

If we look closer, we can see that it is a small basket. Her index finger stretches along the woven handle, and the basket itself, presumably wicker, or similar, can be seen vaguely below. The boy’s left hand hovers above hers, the back of it horizontal, with the thumb and one of the fingers – the ring finger, as far as I can see – hanging down. And from this bent ring finger hangs the crayfish which gives the drawing its title: Asdrubale bitten by a Crayfish. Now, Asdrubale Barca fought in the Second Punic War, and was the younger brother of the more famous Hannibal. They were both sons of Amilcare Barca. But we’re not dealing with classical history here. Even so, after the Carthaginians had crossed the alps with their elephants, one of the notable battles was near modern-day Cremona, where the 16th Century nobleman Amilcare Anguissola lived. He was presumably named after the warrior, and passed on the tradition by naming his only son after the younger of the brothers – Asdrubale – and by naming his eldest daughter (the eldest of six) after the tragic Carthaginian heroine Sofonisba. So the drawing shows us the artist’s brother – and, presumably, one of her five sisters, usually identified as Europa, the youngest.

One of the reasons why the drawing seems more than a little vague in parts is because it is not in a particularly good condition – large areas of the original paper on which it was drawn have been lost. The ground itself is a light, creamy brown. In order to strengthen it, the remains of the drawing have been mounted on another piece of paper, which is paler in appearance, and looks mottled. If you can distinguish these two background colours, then you will see that everything beneath Asdrubale’s right elbow is missing, as are half of the skirts of his doublet. The original paper ends just above the crown of his head, and cuts across the top of his sister’s, with some of her hair undoubtedly missing. There is also a lacuna between their heads, which goes very close to her right eye. Some of the basket is missing, too. This is a great shame, but given the high proportion of 16th Century drawings which must have been destroyed in their entirety, it is still a remarkable survival – and in all probability it had travelled widely, making that survival even more remarkable.

The story goes – as I was saying – that after her initial training with two ‘Bernardini’ – Campi and Gatti, probably from 1546-49 and 1551-53 respectively – she headed down to Rome, where she was lucky enough to receive instruction from none other than Michelangelo. It seems too good to be true, and is exactly the sort of anecdote that was made up just to make an artist look better, and more interesting. However, in this case it was, in some way, true – although the interaction may have been through correspondence. Letters from dad – Amilcare Anguissola – survive in the Buonarroti archives in Florence. I am quoting them here from an article written by Charles de Tolnay, the chief Michelangelo scholar of his day, back in 1941. So this is old news, it’s just not mentioned much now. On May 7, 1557, Amilcare wrote,

‘…we are much obliged to have perceived the honourable and affable affection that you have and show for Sofonisba; I speak of my daughter, the one whom I caused to begin to practice the most honourable virtue or painting… I beg of you that since, by your innate courtesy and goodness, you deigned by your advice in the past to introduce her (to art), that you will condescend sometime in the future to guide her again… that you will see fit to send her one of your drawings that she may colour it in oil, with the obligation to return it to you faithfully finished by her own hand… I dedicate Sofonisba (to you) both as a servant and daughter…’

A second letter, written just over a year later (15 May 1558), includes the following:

‘…I place among the first of so many obligations that I owe to God, that I am alive during the lifetime of so many of my children and that such an excellent gentleman, the most virtuous above all others, deigns to praise and judge the painting done by my daughter Sofonisba.’

So there we have it – I was entirely wrong: Michelangelo had not only seen Sofonisba’s work, but also praised it. How happy I am to know that! It doesn’t change my opinion that Michelangelo was, undoubtedly, ‘a notorious old grump’ – from time to time – but he was also, undoubtedly, generous with his time and advice – as de Tolnay goes on to say: ‘The correspondence between Amilcare Anguissola and Michelangelo… presents new evidence for the generous character of the artist’.

But does the correspondence have any bearing on this particular drawing? Well, yes, it does. Indeed, in some respects, it was well known for a drawing of its time. There is a reference to it in a letter from Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, the young nobleman with whom Michelangelo seems to have fallen helplessly in love some 30 years before. On 20 January, 1562, Tommaso sent two drawings to Cosimo de’ Medici, who at that point was Duke of Florence (he would become Grand Duke of Tuscany seven years later). One of the drawings was a Cleopatra by Michelangelo, and the other – well, in a letter accompanying the two drawings he wrote,

‘since I have one drawing done by the hand of a noblewoman of Cremona, named Sofonisba Angosciosa [sic], today a lady of the Spanish court, I send it to you with this one and I believe that it may stand comparison with many other drawings, for it is not simply beautiful, but also exhibits considerable invention. And this is that the divine Michelangelo having seen a drawing done by her hand of a smiling girl, he said that he would have liked to see a weeping boy, as a subject more difficult to draw. After he wrote to her about it, she sent to him this drawing which was a portrait of her brother, whom she has intentionally shown as weeping. Now, I send them such as they are, and I beg your excellency to consider me as a servant, which, in truth, I am.’

What a wonderful combination of drawings! A pairing of people being bitten, moving from the mundane to the mythic. It seems that Sofonisba’s family name – Anguissola – was difficult even then, and I find it rather charming that Cavallieri’s spelling implies that she was ‘anguished’ – the literal translation of Angosciosa. His comment that the drawing shows ‘considerable invention’ was high praise indeed. No one doubted a woman’s ability to copy someone else’s ideas: it was the ability to come up with your own that would be respected, and so his use of the word ‘invention’ was a recognition of Sofonisba’s artistic talent. Cavalieri’s letter is not the only mention of the drawing. Vasari was also knew it, describing it as, ‘a little girl laughing at a boy who cries, because, she having placed a basket full of crayfish in front of him, one of them bites his finger; and there is nothing more graceful to be seen than that drawing, nor more true to nature.’ These comments were included in the second edition of the Lives of the Artist in 1568, as an addition to the ‘Life’ of Properzia De’ Rossi, the only woman to get her own ‘life’ in the first edition of 1550. Vasari goes on to say that he has a copy of the drawing in his own collection – so he must have thought highly of it.

Somebody else seems to have been impressed by this drawing – or at least, by the idea of it – and this is what reminded me to look into the story of Michelangelo and Sofonisba. Compare these two images:

The Boy Bitten by a Lizard will, of course, be the starting point of Caravaggio: A life in three pictures this Monday, 24 May at 2pm and 6pm. It bears a remarkable similarity – in some details – to Sofonisba’s drawing. The precise cause of the pain may be different, perhaps, although both boys have been bitten. A lizard, hiding among the cherries, has bitten the boy reaching for the fruit. The expression of pain, the flexing of one wrist and the bent finger of the other hand – held on an equivalent horizontal – are remarkably similar, even if the hands are reversed. There is only one problem with that. In the 17th Century Sofonisba’s drawing could still have been in the Medici collection in Florence. I have read different ideas about how the drawing got from the Medici collection to that of the Farnese, but there is no evidence that Caravaggio had been to Florence. However, it could have been in the collection of Fulvio Orsini in Rome in the 1590s. But even if Caravaggio hadn’t seen the original drawing, that is not necessarily a problem. One theory has it that the painter was surprisingly literate, and that he often attempted to reproduce images of which he had only read descriptions but never seen (more about that on Monday). In this case, he would have read about the drawing in Vasari’s Lives. However, the response to the pain seen in the two hands and wrists is so similar, it does seem likely that he had seen some visual evidence of it. If Vasari had a copy of the drawing (OK, so some people think that he had the original), maybe there were more in circulation. There are, as it happens, several painted versions of Sofonisba’s composition around: as I say, it was a well-known drawing. It has been suggested that one of the versions – drawn or painted – found its way into the studio of the Cavaliere d’Arpino, one of the first artists with whom Caravaggio worked in Rome. It seems unlikely that we will ever find out precisely what the connection between the two is – or indeed, if there really is one. Maybe this similarity is a coincidence. Maybe this is simply how boys behave when they’re bitten when they’re young – or when they forget the conventions that suggest that ‘real men don’t cry’. But that opens up a whole new topic of conversation better suited to a different forum, and I’m certainly not going to go into it now. So, until I come back to the young Caravaggio on Monday, have a great weekend – and don’t play with your food. Some of it bites.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

8 thoughts on “130 – Sofonisba and Michelangelo

  1. Rivetting stuff Richard ; thank you ! Have a good weekend too – and don’t get blown away !? Best wishes Julia


  2. hi – i hv signed up for caravaggio talk but hv not received an e mail nor a code and its 4 mins to go . what do i do – i have not used this webinar site before , and it has a no reply e mail – apologies to bother you.


    1. Hi, I tried to send you a link two minutes before the talk, which is when I saw the message, but it doesn’t look like it my reply got to you… Did you get a link? If not, are you free at 6.00? There is a ‘contact’ button on this website which will send me an email if you need to contact me in the future. All best wishes, Richard


  3. Thank you for enlightenment into my father’s sense of humour. He used to joke that if he had had his way (and I had been a boy) he would have named me ‘ Amilcare Harkaway* Starkadder* Barca’
    R. Barker
    *well known to friends of Cold Comfort Farm

    Liked by 1 person

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