The Only Woman in the Renaissance’s Most Famous Record of Art History

Karen Chernick
Sep 14, 2018 5:26PM

Properzia de’ Rossi, Grassi Family Coat of Arms at the Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna, c. 1510-30. Courtesy of Irene Graziani at the University of Bologna.

Detail of St. Peter in Properzia de’ Rossi, Grassi Family Coat of Arms at the Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna, c. 1510-30. Courtesy of Irene Graziani at the  University of Bologna.

A strange silver object sparkles between exhibits of armor and Murano glass in Bologna’s Museo Civico Medievale. It is Properzia de’ Rossi’s Grassi Family Coat of Arms (ca. 1510–30), a filigreed crest inlaid with 11 quarter-sized stones—Christ’s apostles engraved on one side, female saints on the other. While art historians admire the elaborate miniature sculpture, gemstone dealers might not deem it precious: These stones are of the variety found in peaches, plums, and cherries.

Sculpting fruit pits was a practice in Renaissance Europe, albeit an uncommon one. Similar small-scale marvels can be found at the Grünes Gewölbe museum in Dresden and the Museo degli Argenti in Florence. But in early 16th-century Italy, de’ Rossi was the only artist acclaimed for using stone fruit pits as her medium, and she was no less curious than the materials she chose during her early career.

Sparse details are known about de’ Rossi. She spent most of her approximately 40-year life (1490–1530) in Bologna, where there was a concentration of Renaissance women artists. She probably began her career sculpting fruit pits out of necessity—traditional sculpture materials could be costly. Later, she progressed to marble and, finally, engraving.

“Because she had an intellect both capricious and very adept, she set herself to carve peach-stones,” wrote Italian art historian Giorgio Vasari in his canonical collection of Renaissance artist biographies, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, Architects (1550). “She executed [these carvings] so well and with such patience, that they were singular and marvelous to behold, not only for the subtlety of the work, but also for the liveliness of the little figures that she made in them and the extreme delicacy with which they were arranged.”

Portrait of Properzia de’ Rossi in Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori, Firenze, 1568. Courtesy of Irene Graziani at the University of Bologna.

Louis Ducis, La sculpture: Properzia de Rossi et son dernier tableau, 1822. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.


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.

Properzia de’ Rossi, Joseph and Potiphar's Wife at the Basilica di San Petronio Museum, Bologna, 1525-26. Courtesy of Irene Graziani at the University of Bologna.

Of those commissioned sculptures, only one is now firmly attributed to de’ Rossi: Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1525–26). The marble bas-relief depicts the biblical story in which Joseph escapes the seductive clutches of his slave master Potiphar’s wife. Graziani interpreted the sculpture as evidence that de’ Rossi drew inspiration from other artists, noting the rhythmic succession of verticals and diagonals reminiscent of Raphael, the tenderness of Correggio, and the anatomically correct arm akin to works by Michelangelo: “It is already a work of the ‘modern manner’ for the synthesis that the sculptor has expressed, fusing different models and reaching a personal style,” she explained. Vasari, on the other hand, took a sexist view, reading the relief as an autobiographical expression of de’ Rossi’s unrequited love from an unnamed young man.

In supplementing Vasari’s biography of de’ Rossi, scholars have found a trove of information from an unexpected source: Bologna’s criminal records. De’ Rossi appeared twice before the tribunal: first for allegedly destroying her neighbor’s garden, and later for trespassing and assaulting another artist (including throwing paint in his face and scratching his eyes). “She was, it seems, a talented hell-raiser in her day,” said Fredrika Jacobs, an emeritus art history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University specializing in the Italian Renaissance.

Considering how rare it was for women to pursue sculpture in the 16th century, it’s not difficult to imagine that de’ Rossi was at least a bit of a rebel. Vasari was just one of many Renaissance art historians who believed the graceful female body was unsuited to the physical demands of chiseling marble. “Even so,” he admitted in an epitaph at the end of de’ Rossi’s chapter, “the marbles sculpted by her hand show what a woman can do with vigorous talent and skill.”

Karen Chernick