Ah, the Italian Renaissance. An age of artistic mastery and amazing men: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Sandro Botticelli, Donatello, and so many more. The Renaissance Man is believed to be a multi-talented gentlemen with a thirst for knowledge and a cosmopolitan outlook. Except actual Renaissance men advocated strict social classism, didn’t want women to read or write because the idea frightened them, settled disputes by stabbing each other with pointy metal sticks, and were adamant that the world was flat. Sounds fancy. And yet, they are idealized and admired. It’s the Renaissance women who should be applauded. Not only did they have to put up with the men, but they had to fight to be included in any field of study or practice. Women were believed to ruin creativity, but a few still managed to become great artists.
Barbara Longhi was born in Ravenna, Italy in 1552, during the Counter-Reformation. Her father was a Mannerist painter and she learned to paint in his studio. She was involved in all aspects of the business: she helped on large commissions, modeled, interacted with patrons, and worked on her own paintings and commissions. Longhi was well-known in the artistic community of Ravenna and respected for her talent. She was prolific, but many of her works were lost and many were unsigned and thus unknown. Longhi has only 15 known works, though some of the paintings attributed to her father may well be hers. Only one of her known works depicts an adult man; the ‘Camaldolese Monk’ was done in either 1570 or 1573. Longhi was commissioned by a monastery to paint St. Catherine and the resulting ‘Saint Catherine of Alexandria’ is believed to be a self-portrait. Most of her subjects are religious and devotional. Longhi painted several St. Catherines, Judith with the head of Holofernes, and many depictions of the Virgin and child. She was included in Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in 1568. Her paintings can be seen at the Museo d’Arte della Citta di Ravenna, the Louvre in Paris, the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, the Museo Biblioteca del Grappa, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Santa Maria Maggiore in Ravenna. Longhi died in 1638.
Mannerism reacted to High Renaissance styles that emphasized balance, drama, symmetry, and proportion (i.e. the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). Mannerism exaggerated proportion and played with asymmetry. It emphasized elegance over emotions and grand gestures. Longhi’s father was a Mannerist and some of these stylistic components can be seen in her works. Longhi’s works are serene and elegant. She did small works with simple compositions and a warmer color palette. The subjects of her paintings convey a sense of peace and introspection. Longhi’s paintings are great and her ability to be a successful, respected, talented artist in the time of Renaissance men shows her badassness.