Virtuoso painter Elisabetta Sirani lived a short life, but one distinguished by her immense artistic talent. Elisabetta gave the gift of her talent freely and founded the first Academy for female painters in Europe. Incredibly prolific, Elisabetta made a major contribution to Rennaissance art despite her early death at 27 years old.
Born in Bologna in January 1638, Elisabetta Sirani was destined to be a great artist. The first child of Giovanni Andrea and Margherita Sirani, Elisabetta grew up in and around her father’s art studio. Giovanni and Margherita had four children. All four displayed great artistic talent, but Elisabetta’s talent was exceptional.
Giovanni was a painter in the School of Bologna and had studied under Guido Reni. Reluctantly, Giovanni passed his Bologna School training on to Elisabetta. Elisabetta benefited from her father’s affiliation with Guido Reni. As her star began to rise, the painter of Bologna insisted Elisabetta was the female reincarnation of the Baroque master.
When Elisabetta was sixteen years old, Giovanni became incapacitated with gout. On top of training her younger sisters and painting constantly, Elisabetta took on the management of her family’s workshop. Elisabetta’s younger sisters were still too young to contribute to the family’s finances. As a result of Giovanni’s illness, Elisabetta became the sole Sirani family breadwinner.
Elisabetta worked with focus and speed and by the age of 24, she had completed more than 90 artworks. During this era, Bologna had a spirit of progressiveness yet to take hold in other parts of Europe. The people of Bologna celebrated Elisabetta's talent and Elisabetta returned their love by sharing her gift. Elisabetta opened an art academy where she tutored young female painters, otherwise excluded from learning valuable techniques. Elisabetta’s academy was the first school of painting for women in Europe, outside of a convent.
Often, Elisabetta opened her studio to curious artists and fans, who watched her work with awe. Dedicated to her craft, Elisabetta’s artistic talent overshadowed that of her father and sisters. Soon it came to overshadow most of Bologna. Elisabetta’s oil paintings usually depicted historical and Biblical narratives. Elisabetta’s striking portraits of female heroines have been compared to those of Artemisia Gentileschi, another pioneering Rennaissance painter. Elisabetta also painted at least 13 public altarpieces, a great honor for any artist at the time.The Baptism of Christ at the Certosa di Bologna, painted in 1658, is one of Elisabetta's most famous works.
Elisabetta was prolific and by early adulthood had created more than 200 paintings and hundreds of drawings. But at the age of 27, a mysterious illness interrupted Elisabetta's work. Elisabetta had stomach pain. She lost weight and experienced dramatic mood swings. Over time, the pain grew more intense until it was unbearable. Elisabetta wasn’t responding to any remedies and in August of 1665 she received sacraments from the local priest and died.
Mourners carried Elisabetta’s body to Bologna’s chapel of the Rosary. Elisabetta's funeral was not an intimate family affair but a huge community event. The church itself was prepared for the funeral of a noble. The walls were hung and the pillars swathed with rich fabric, wreaths, and lamps.
The people of Bologna admired Elisabetta and her early death shocked and angered them. Whispers of foul play began to circulate. The family doctor conducted an autopsy and recorded Elisabetta’s the cause of death as corrosive poison. Someone was going to have to pay.
One of Elisabetta’s maids, Lucia Tolomelli, was the prime suspect in what was now Elisabetta’s murder. Lucia had put in her notice to leave only a few days before Elisabetta’s death, a suspicious enough act that the courts charged her with poisoning. Lucia went to trial but Giovanni later withdrew the charges he laid against her. Most of Bologna still suspected the beloved artist had been poisoned but no-one else was charged with Elisabetta's murder.
Carlo Cesare Malvasia, who included Elisabetta’s biography in an art history book in 1678, suggested Elisabetta died of love-sickness. Elisabetta never married and it was Malvasia’s idea that this had contributed to her death. Malvasia offered a second opinion. That someone murdered Elisabetta because of professional jealousy. Elisabetta was too talented, too young and too beautiful to live.
Modern historians believe it to be more likely that Elisabetta actually died of peritonitis. Elisabetta’s symptoms are consistent with a ruptured peptic ulcer. A stomach ulcer would make sense considering the level of stress Elisabetta was under. Elisabetta was clearly a workaholic, spurred on by the pressure of providing for her entire family. With her untimely death, Elisabetta was canonized as a martyr. Elisabetta’s work ethic, talent and mentoring of other young women in her community made her an artist to look up to, in Bologna and beyond.