THE WOMEN PAINTERS
OF THE ISOLA BELLA
Gilbert Burnet, the Bishop of Salisbury, travelled through Italy in 1686 with a highly critical eye with regard to the ecclesiastical censorship and the absolutist forms of government in many Italian states, and was one of the first visitors to Isola Bella. Thrilled to visit the place while the building site was still open, Burnet sensed the wonder of the site and also commented on the quality and number of paintings displayed in the rooms of the palace:
Here is a great collection of noble pictures, beyond any thing I saw out of Rome.
Such a flattering judgement confirmed the criteria with which Vitaliano VI Borromeo had begun to assemble his collection of paintings, filling the house with large pictures, mostly by modern artists.
Around 30 June 1666, the scenario was becoming more clearly defined, as Vitaliano VI wrote to his brother:
I have arranged the writings, paintings and other ornaments. The house is singularly decorated and I can tell Your Excellency that it contains approximately three hundred paintings and most of them good and with frames carved and adorned in gold and turquoise.
From left: the Sala delle Medaglie (Medals Room), the Sala della Regina (Queen’s Room) and the Sala del Trono (Throne Room), Palazzo Borromeo, Isola Bella
The interiors of Isola Bella as we know it today were thus beginning to take shape, especially with regard to the rooms that have retained their original appearance, such as the Sala delle medaglie, la Sala del trono and Sala della Regina, where the frames connected by ribbons painted in gold and blue are almost as important as the paintings they contain.
The picture gallery, which was still being finished just before the death of Vitaliano VI, is a long room measuring 15 × 5.85 m, with a barrel vault decorated with coffers and a cross-vaulted keystone.
Since the end of the seventeenth century, the walls beneath the vault adorned with a stucco cornice created by Lombard craftsmen, have been home to a closely-packed series of paintings occupying every inch of the surface.
The walls are literally covered with a mosaic of paintings in carved and gilded frames.
The gallery is of an architectural type that was very common in Europe between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was a mark of social prestige and was traditionally used for collecting and showing paintings, sculptures and objets d’art.
There are illustrious examples of these long rooms in other parts of the country, but the Borromeo Gallery on Isola Bella is the only surviving intact trace of the early fortunes of this architectural type in Lombardy.
Formerly known as the ‘old paintings gallery’ and later as the ‘alcove gallery’, it was also called Generale Berthier’s Gallery from the end of the nineteenth century, in memory of the stay on the island of the French general Louis-Alexander Berthier (1753-1815), who slept in the gallery’s alcove in August 1797 as he travelled in the train of Napoleon and his wife Josephine.
Among the paintings on display are three works by women painters with compelling stories, to say the least.
How did a woman embark upon this career at the time?
Only those born into noble families received an education that could include art. Daughters of artists who inherited their trade from their fathers or brothers also had the opportunity to become painters. Finally, nuns too were also given the opportunity to devote themselves to miniatures and the decorative arts in their convents, turning their activity into a real profession.
Some of them attained a degree of recognition in the society of the time assuring them great prestige, as in the case of Elisabetta Sirani, who in 1660 was elected full professor of the Accademia d’arte di San Luca in Rome and became “capomastra”, or manager, in her father’s workshop when the latter had to retire due to gout, eclipsing him in terms of quality, skill and popularity.
Fede Galizia, who was born in Cremona but moved to Trento, also enjoyed a certain fame, as her paintings were much appreciated not only by the elite of Milan, in which city she lived from 1587, but also at the Prague court of Rudolph II. Known above all for her still lifes, Fede Galizia was in reality an all-round artist, multifaceted and very gifted, who also tried her hand at painting altarpieces, a genre very rare for a woman.
And finally there was Francesca Volò Smiller, known as Vicenzina in homage to her father, Vincenzo Volò, called Vincenzino dei Fiori (1601-1671). Francesca was unsurpassed in painting still lifes with trophies of fruit and flowers in which daffodils, anemones, tulips and jasmine stand out, painted with such abundance that you can almost smell their perfume.
Francesca Volò Smiller called Vicenzina, from left to right: Still Life with Orange Blossom, Peaches and Grapes, circa 1680; Still Life with Cut Flowers, circa 1680; Still Life with Jasmine and Grapes, circa 1680; Still Life with Cut Flowers and Peaches, circa 1680