by Michael W. Cole. Princeton University Press, February 2020. 312 p. ill. ISBN 9780691198323 (h/c), $60.00.

Reviewed July 2020
Stephen J. Bury, Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian, Frick Art Reference Library, bury@frick.org

coleSofonisba (ca. 1535-1625) was the daughter of minor Cremonese nobility, Amilcare and Bianca Anguissola, who made the unprecedented decision to have Sofonisba and her younger sister, Elena, trained professionally as artists outside the family abode, first under Bernardino Campi 1546-9 and then from 1550, Bernardino Gatti. Michael Cole, professor of art history and archaeology at Columbia University, a Renaissance specialist, argues that Amilcare, unable to provide dowries for his daughters, was influenced by notions of fame, probably deriving from Giuseppe Betussi’s 1545 version of Boccaccio’s On Famous Women. It was one way of keeping the family name alive – though ironically, she was and is known by her first name. Amilcare circulated Sofonisba’s paintings and drawings, and visitors came to see her work. Vasari came in 1566, though by that time Sofonisba had become an instructor and dama to Isabel de Valois, the wife of Philip II of Spain, who later provided a dowry for Sofonisba’s marriage in 1573.

The “lesson” of the title may refer to the precedent that Sofonisba set as a woman artist and portrait painter, the importance of learning and then of instruction and influence. Cole is excellent in exploring these themes whether it is through books on education, learning the keyboard, chess, painting, or embroidery. He also provides a close reading of the paintings themselves from hands and gestures to clothes and jewelry, and how self-portraits might have been made. This gives one confidence in his catalog of works by Sofonisba. Excluding works untraced or without illustration, they number 174 and are organized by location. Surprisingly, only fifteen are uncontested works; nineteen have attributions largely accepted by specialists; twenty-four are contested; ninety are accepted by few specialists. Cole acknowledges the difficulties of the Sofonisba oeuvre – the circulation of works, copying or attribution (from esteem), and the particular problems around the Spanish court portraits: for whatever reason, perhaps social, Sofonisba seemed reluctant to sign work in this period, and there was an interesting artistic dialogue with the court painter, Alonso Sánchez Coello, who painted Queen Isabel with a “face after Sofonisba.”

The book is well written and an enjoyable read. The only minor issues are the inconsistent (sometimes they are provided and sometimes not) references to the figures in the main text, and the arrangement of the catalog by date rather than by location – though dating is in many cases problematic.

It is recommended that this book should be in every library - college or public - that has art history in its scope. It is also of great use to courses that cover the Renaissance and its material, intellectual, and social culture.