Artistic ferment bubbled in Italy in the late 1400s and early 1500s, but despite the later idealization of that period as the Renaissance, it was also a time of extreme violence. As the armies of Spain, France, and the Holy Roman Empire battled to control the peninsula, Machiavelli was devising his brutal ideas about political science, and Leonardo da Vinci was juggling his masterpieces with military designs for guns and cannons. War and patriarchal values kept women at home and ensured that the names of Renaissance luminaries almost all belong to men.
Born amid the gore and glory of the era, Sofonisba Anguissola was exceptional on many levels: She won fame in her own lifetime as one of a tiny number of Renaissance women who painted their way out of domesticity and, later, into the world’s art museums. Her prodigious talent dazzled Michelangelo, and at age 27 she went to Madrid to become one of Europe’s most brilliant court painters. Her many works inspired a later generation of baroque artists, including Anthony Van Dyck and Caravaggio.
Sofonisba was born around the year 1532 in Cremona, northern Italy, the eldest child of Bianca Ponzoni and Amilcare Anguissola. The last of the seven Anguissola children was born in 1555, completing a close-knit, creative family of six girls and one boy. Amilcare encouraged not only his son Asdrubale but also all his daughters—Sofonisba, Elena, Lucia, Minerva, Europa, and Anna Maria—to obtain a high level of education and to cultivate the arts. Sofonisba’s talent soon became too obvious to ignore.