Sofonisba Anguissola Self-portrait


Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte


1556 - 1557


480 x 570 mm



historical period


Exhibit Artwork

Artwork Details

In this rather small painting, the young painter from Cremona, Sofonisba Anguissola, portrays herself in half-length while playing the spinet, a musical instrument similar to harpsichord. Sofonisba is turning towards the observer, while playing her musical instrument. Her face is young and fresh, characterized by regular features, large bright eyes, slightly round cheeks and blond hair gathered behind her neck. The girl is wearing a dark dress, and a white shirt with a high collar and pleated lace sleeves. The figure emerges from a dark background, softened by chiaroscuro effect. The painting is characterized by a general softness in tones and design, as well as for the delicate chiaroscuro effect. In fact, the work is stepping away from the mannerist harshness that Sofonisba had learned studying under Giulio and Bernardino Campi, which was evident in her previous self-portrait, preserved today at the Kunsthistorishes Museum in Vienna, which was painted just shortly before this version. The work preserved in Naples is dated around 1550s’, when Sofonisba was just over twenty years old, but already familiar with the great Emilian tradition, in particular with the softness of forms of Correggio and refined works of Parmigianino. The painting of Capodimonte belonged to Fulvio Orsini, a sophisticated collector and librarian of the Farnese family in Rome. In fact, he probably acquired the work through his friend Giulio Clovio, a miniaturist of Croatian origin, who also worked for the Farnese family, in a period when Sofonisba portrayed them in a work that is preserved today in Mentana, at the Federico Zeri collection. Orsini left the painting after his death to Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, who placed it in the second room of the family picture gallery, where he mentions it in the inventories of 1644 and 1653: “a canvas painting on a panel [...] with the portrait of painter Sofonisba playing the harpsichord, made by her hand”. The Self-Portrait was then moved to Parma, the city of origin of the Farnese family; first in Palazzo del Giardino, in the sixth room of portraits, then in the Ducal Gallery of Palazzo della Pilotta. In the 18th century Charles of Bourbon, king of Naples, inherited the Farnese collection from his mother Elisabetta, the last descendant of the family, and he moved most of the works to Naples, including the Self-portrait of Anguissola, which then arrived to the gallery of Capodimonte. Here, at the end of the century Tommaso Puccini described it as a work by Parmigianino. Even if the subject of the painting has always been correctly identified as Sofonisba, the author of the work changed in the 18th century. In fact, the painting was not only attributed to Parmigianino but also to Annibale Carracci, and it was only at the end of the 19th century that the work was attributed correctly to Sofonisba herself. Recently some critics have suggested that this could be the self-portrait of Lucia Anguissola, Sofonisba’s sister, who was also a painter. However, the comparison with other self-portraits by the most famous Anguissola, such as the one of Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, confirm that the young woman represented here is precisely the one identified in old inventories.

Artist Details

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Sofonisba was born in Cremona to a family of noble origins. She trained in his hometown with painter Bernardino Campi, a local Mannerist, and she had a very rich education which included study of literature and music as well.

The young lady soon specialized in portraits, which was considered a minor pictorial genre at the time compared to the most important and difficult genre of historical painting, but which was, however, in great demand by rich aristocrats. Sofonisba was a skilled portraitist, who worked in the service of the main courts of the late Renaissance, both Italian and foreign.

In 1559 she moved to Spain, to the court of Philip II, as a lady of companion for queen Elizabeth of Valois, but also as her portrait painter. She lived in the court until the death of her patroness in 1568.

A few years later, in 1573, she married Sicilian nobleman Francesco Moncada and she moved to Palermo, where she left some works, such as Madonna dell’Itria, at the monastery of SS. Annunziata. Her husband died five years later and Sofonisba remarried and stayed in Livorno and Genoa before returning to Sicily in 1615, where she died the following year.

She was a female icon of Renaissance painting and she was highly appreciated by her contemporaries for her skills of great realism and psychological introspection that can be seen in her portraits. Among her admirers was also Flemish painter Antoon Van Dyck, who succeeded her as a court portrait painter in Spain and who admired her for the naturalism of her representations and realistic rendering of clothes and physical appearances.

Collection Details

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The collection of Capodimonte has the origins in the refined and elegant collection of the Farnese family. The first assemblage was formed in 1534 thanks to the initiative of Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589) and Pope Paul III, both interested in ancient objects (conserved today in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Naples) and the most important artists of the period.

In 1734 Charles III of Spain took the throne and inherited mother Elisabetta Farnese’s collection which was moved from Rome to Parma during the 18th century. In this occasion he felt the need to find a suitable location for the collection.

The construction of the Capodimonte building on the hill started in 1738 and it was used both as a residence and as a gallery. The place was first only visited by famous persons, such as Johann Winckelmann, Antonio Canova and Marquis de Sade.

The museum was inaugurated in 1957, thanks to the insistence of Ferdinando Bologna Raffaello Causa, opening to the public extensive collection of 2900 paintings, 150 sculptures, 17700 objects of decorative art, 26000 drawings, extended over 12000 square meters and divided into 114 rooms.

During the 18th century, the collection was enriched with the works commissioned by the sovereigns of the Bourbon family, but the lootings by French troops in 1799 marked the beginning of decline as its function as a museum.

In the 19th century the building was mostly used as a residence. French general Joachim Murat lived in the building with his wife and they brought new furnishing and interior decorations to Capodimonte.

Only after the arrival of the Savoys and thanks to Annibale Sacco, the new era of the museum started: the art objects which were spread in various residences of the Bourbon family were collected and moved to Capodimonte and there was a new attention to contemporary figurative production of art.

For this reason, there are two main groups in the collection. The Farnese collection includes the portraits of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Giorgio Vasari and Andrea del Sarto by Raphael, portrait of Bernardo de’ Rossi by Lorenzo Lotto, portraits of Paul III and Paul III with his Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese and Danae by Titian, Portrait of Antea by Parmigianino and the cartoons by Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci and pictorial cycles of Carracci, donated in 1600 by Fulvio Orsini. The second collection includes the historical pieces of Neapolitan art from circa 1200 to 1700. Among them are the works by Simone Martini and Colantonio’s St. Jerome, an example of the lively and rich Aragon period, and the works of foreign influence such as Pinturicchio’s Assumption of the Virgin. The 17th century was considered as the golden era of Neapolitan art, influenced by the works of Caravaggio and his followers. From this era there are Caravaggio’s Flagellation from 1606-1607, Ribera’s Drunken Silenus, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, Guido Reni’s Atalanta and Hippomenes and Mattia Preti’s St. Sebastian.

The current layout of the museum is a result of the series of restorations in the 1980s’ and 1990s’ which determined the division of the collection onto three floors. The ground floor includes the educational rooms, the mezzanine floor holds the department of drawings and prints, the Farnese collection, the Borgia collection and the royal apartment are in the first floor and finally on the second floor the Neapolitan gallery, the D’Avalos collection, the 19th century gallery and the photographic gallery.