Elisabetta Sirani (8 January 1638 – 28 August 1665) was a pioneer female artist in Bologna, Italy, where she worked and established an art academy for other women. She died in 1665, aged 27, and the mysterious circumstances of her death, alongside her young age, led to believe there was foul play involved. A maidservant […]
Elisabetta Sirani (8 January 1638 – 28 August 1665) was a pioneer female artist in Bologna, Italy, where she worked and established an art academy for other women. She died in 1665, aged 27, and the mysterious circumstances of her death, alongside her young age, led to believe there was foul play involved.
A maidservant who had just exited the family’s service was charged with poisoning Elisabetta and she was put on trial but, even more suspiciously, the father withdrew the charges soon after the trial, without giving an explanation on what other information he might have had to guide this decision. Some contemporary biographers started spreading the theory that she died of love-sickness and longing, because she was not married to the man she loved or, according to others, because she was not married at all. An explanation that, of course, satisfied everybody: how can a woman withstand the bare thought of not being married?
The most common theory around her death nowadays is stress-induced peritonitis after a ruptured ulcer. Being a female entrepreneur will do that to you.
The actual cause of death still remains unknown.
She was extremely popular and successful and was given an incredible public funeral.
She was buried in the Basilica of San Domenico alongside her father’s teacher Guido Reni, of which her admirers said she was the reincarnation of (because a woman cannot simply be good without her channelling a dude). She’s praised in Carlo Cesare Malvasia’s biographies of Bolognese Painters.
The painting of Portia was commissioned by Simone Tassi in 1664 and then acquired by Ludovico Foschi from Tassi’s estate, around 1675. It then became part of the Bonfiglioli collection (1696) and, then, its traces are lost.
It reappears in London, at Christie’s, anonymously sold as “The Property of a Lady” on December, 11th 1984 (lot 80).
It was briefly displayed at the Spencer A. Samuels Gallery in New York and then acquired by the Stephen Warren Miles and Marilyn Rose Miles Foundation in Houston (1988).
In 2008 it went on auction at Sotheby’s, where it was purchased by a Bank for its collection and brought back to Bologna, Italy.
Instead of showing us her “romantic suicide”, she shows us her act of strength.