The Grassi Family Coat of Arms is one of two surviving works attributed to de’ Rossi, and in addition to her peachy choice of material, she is also distinguished as the only woman—out of 142 artists—awarded her own chapter in Vasari’s first edition. (The second, published in 1568, includes a few more females, but they are appended to de’ Rossi’s biography and other chapters on male artists.) De’ Rossi’s inclusion was certainly tokenism: She was the contemporary of over 25 professional women artists active in Italy.
“Women artists were unusual, but women sculptors were practically unheard of,” explained Babette Bohn, an art history professor at Texas Christian University and author of the forthcoming book Women Artists, Their Patrons, and Their Publics in Early Modern Bologna. “Vasari included her as a curiosity, an attention-getting anomaly.”
Vasari classified de’ Rossi as an outlier, but scholars today are more interested in fleshing out the details of her career that he overlooked. “Properzia’s [artistic] development is unfortunately unknown,” noted Irene Graziani, an art history professor at the University of Bologna and co-author of Properzia de’ Rossi: Una scultrice a Bologna nell’ eta di Carlo V (2008). “How she learned the art of engraving also remains mysterious.”
“The real mystery,” added Bohn, “is not so much why she turned to cheap, readily available fruit stones, but how she learned the art of sculpture and became capable of marble carving.” Vasari omitted details of de’ Rossi’s training, despite the fact that he typically included this information as a way of boasting an artist’s pedigree. Instead, he skips from her early fruit-stone carvings to the mature marble works she was commissioned to make for the façade of the Basilica di San Petronio in Bologna, without explaining how she acquired the necessary, specialized skills.