An exhibition in Modena on Elisabetta Sirani, founder of the first art academy for women

The BPER Banca Gallery in Modena is dedicating an exhibition to the Bolognese painter Elisabetta Sirani. The artist asserted her freedom to found the first art academy for young women.

From September 17 to November 14, 2021, “The Gallery. Collection and Historical Archive” of BPER Banca presents, at the exhibition spaces in via Scudari 9 in Modena, the exhibition Elisabetta Sirani. Virtuous woman, heroine painter, curated by Lucia Peruzzi.

The exhibition, which will be inaugurated on the occasion of the XXI edition of festivalfilosofia, addresses the theme of “freedom” through the works of Elisabetta Sirani (Bologna, 1638-1665), an artist who was celebrated by her contemporaries and sought after by the greatest great collectors of the seventeenth century, able to assert her own freedom and professional autonomy by founding the first art academy for young women in a society where artistic activity was open almost exclusively to males.

“Her story as a woman artist,” comments curator Lucia Peruzzi, “is quite special and starts from the long pages of praise by her biographer and mentor Carlo Cesare Malvasia and then unfolds between reality and legend in the myth of the ’virgin painter’ in the very short time she was allowed to live. Praise for her virtuoso brush, for her mastery and for her speed (in just ten years she fired about two hundred paintings); praise for her culture and for the comings and goings of clients lost in her adoration as they watched her at work; and praise also for her gifts as a devout woman of honest manners performing ’feminine’ services in her house on Via Urbana in Bologna. Early death, mysterious and sudden, took her away at only twenty-seven years of age. According to popular rumor, a servant of the house who was jealous of one of Elisabetta’s lovers was responsible, in a suggestive ambiguity that would take the story down a different path from that of art history to make it into legend.” “But Elisabetta,” the curator continues, “who was trained under the close aegis of her father Giovanni Andrea and was celebrated in her lifetime as the female artistic reincarnation of Guido Reni, manages to break free from the stereotypes and patterns that threaten to keep her imprisoned and to overcome the limit within which her father would have liked to keep her. She lets her imagination soar and invents her own way of using brushes, learning to move between the formal exquisiteness of the delightful ’bed pictures’ and the more robust painting reserved for her strong women, from Judith to Delilah, from Timoclean to Portia, in whom she seems to project her own revenge as an emancipated painter.”

“With this extraordinary exhibition,” adds Flavia Mazzarella, president of BPER Banca, “we present the artistic journey of a woman with an exceptional personality, a true innovator in the artistic panorama of seventeenth-century Emilia who was an example of freedom, capable of breaking the mold of gender stereotypes and the social and cultural conventions of the time.”

The exhibition features four works from BPER Banca’s collection and five paintings from private Emilian collections.

It starts from the beginning with theSleeping Love by Guido Reni, whose pupil was Giovanni Andrea Sirani, father of Elisabetta, represented by the painting The Earth Gives Neptune the Tulip Bulbs, both belonging to the collection of BPER Banca. His technique and teachings are picked up by the young Elisabetta and are found in the paintings Madonna Suckling the Child, St. John in the Desert, Amor vincit omnia, Holy Family with St. Theresa, Venus and Cupid and Circe. The exhibition concludes with the Sybil by Ginevra Cantofoli, a student of Sirani.

The exhibition is part of a larger project to enhance BPER Banca’s cultural heritage. As Sabrina Bianchi, head of “The Gallery. Collection and Historical Archives,” “Art is a very powerful form of expression and has always been a carrier of innovative messages and thoughts, capable of activating cultural and social changes. The exhibition we are presenting today was conceived from the key word of the festivalfilosophy, ’freedom,’ and offers us the opportunity to exhibit, for the first time in our exhibition space, the works of Elisabetta Sirani. This is the tenth exhibition organized since 2017 in BPER Bank’s picture gallery and, in this way, we pursue the goal of making our precious artistic heritage usable and available to the public, thanks to a dynamic and scientifically high-level exhibition program. The Gallery also allows us to give voice to the Bank’s mission by connecting to the culture of the territories.”

For info:

Hours: Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 to 6 p.m. Special openings Friday, Sept. 17 and Saturday, Sept. 18 from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 19 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 2 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Free admission.

Image: Elisabetta Sirani, San Giovannino nel deserto, detail (1660; oil on canvas, 56 x 66 cm; Modena, BPER Banca Collection)

An exhibition in Modena on Elisabetta Sirani, founder of the first art academy for women
An exhibition in Modena on Elisabetta Sirani, founder of the first art academy for women

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