Properzia de Rossi: 16th Century Female Sculptor
Not much is known of the 16th century Italian sculptor Properzia de Rossi. She had an unusual background for an artist -- she was born into an unartistic family (her father was a notary), arrested twice during her short life (once for vandalizing a garden and once for assaulting a fellow artist) and, perhaps, strangest of all, according to her contemporaries, she was a woman who sculpted.
Scholars have written about the few women artists working in the 16th century. Giorgio Vasari, the esteemed biographer of Renaissance artists, wrote about four, and de Rossi stands out as the only sculptor. Sculpture at the time was seen as a masculine pursuit because of its physicality. In order to create a sculpture one had to work with a large piece of marble and chisel portions of it away to reveal the composition beneath. Marble has heavy and bulky, and it took a great deal of physical exertion to turn a block into a recognizable figure let alone a work of art. It was not seen as being as feminine a pursuit as drawing or even painting.
Nevertheless, Properzia persisted in her pursuit of the trade. She studied with Marcantonio Raimondi, the famed engraver who worked with Raphael, and started by carving intricate designs into peach pits. There are also records of at least five important commissions for her sculpture, including a canopy of the altar in a church outside Santo Stefano.
Since very little is known of her life, her biographers have woven a narrative focused on her alleged volatile personality and unrequited love. In 1521, when she was arrested for vandalising the garden of a velvet merchant, she was with the young aristocrat Anton Galeazzo di Napoleone Malvasia. Charges were dropped, but her reputation as a lovesick woman was not.
When Vasari wrote of her masterpiece, the west door of San Petronio depicting the biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, he cemented her status by stating:
“She made an exquisite scene, wherein—because at that time the poor woman was madly enamored of a handsome young man, who seemed to care but little for her—she represented the wife of Pharaoh’s chamberlain, who burning with love for Joseph, and almost in despair after so much persuasion, finally strips his garment from him with a womanly grace that defies description. This work was esteemed by all to be most beautiful,and it was a great satisfaction to herself, thinking that with this illustration from the Old Testament she had partly quenched the raging fire of her own passion.”
While the sculpture was made years after the incident in the garden to Vasari she was still a woman with a broken heart. In the 18th century, a poem was written about her by Felicia Dorothea Hemans further cementing this reputation. She may have very well been a lovestruck woman, but as information is scarce it is likely we will never know her true intentions.
Unfortunately, her career was cut short as she died in 1530 at the age of forty. Her death coincided with an important historical event in Bologna. The pope was visiting that week for Charles V’s coronation by Clement VII; he had reportedly heard of Properzia and wanted to meet her, but by the time he arrived in the city she had already died. Of course, of what, is not known.