Our Lady of Itria, the only certain Sicilian work by Sofonisba Anguissola

Through August 21, 2022, Cremona is hosting an exhibition dedicated to a singular work by Sofonisba Anguissola, the Madonna dell'Itria, on loan from Paternò. The work has just been restored: it is the only certain Sicilian painting by the painter. Art historian Mario Marubbi tells us about it.

At the “Ala Ponzone” Civic Museum in Cremona, the exhibition Sofonisba Anguissola and the Madonna dell’Itria ison until August 21, 2022 (thanks to an extension) , which, starting from the Madonna dell’Itria altarpiece kept in Paternò, Sicily, aims to recount the years spent by the Cremonese artist Sofonisba Anguissola (Cremona, 1532 - Palermo, 1625) precisely in the Sicilian town. The altarpiece is Sofonisba’s only certain work from that period. We talked about it with Mario Marubbi, a member of the exhibition’s Scientific Committee, who told us about the origins of the exhibition, the particular iconography of the Madonna dell’Itria and Sofonisba Anguissola’s years in Paternese.

Sofonisba Anguissola, Madonna dell?Itria (1578-1579; olio su tavola, 239,5 x 170 cm; Paternò, parrocchia Santa Maria dell?Alto, chiesa dell?ex monastero della Santissima Annunziata)
Sofonisba Anguissola, Madonna dellItria (1578-1579; oil on panel, 239.5 x 170 cm; Paternò, parish Santa Maria dellAlto, church dellex monastero della Santissima Annunziata)

IB. How did the idea for this exhibition come about?

MM. The idea for this exhibition came from the desire that the Cremona City Council and the museum had to return to Sofonisba Anguissola. The city organized a large and unrepeatable monographic exhibition on the artist in 1994, but such a major exhibition was practically unsustainable in current times. Therefore, the only possibility was to deal with a newly discovered work, which thus would not entail an unsustainable expense, as a monographic exhibition may require today. It was decided, therefore, to focus on a discovery made a few years ago, subsequent to the 1994 exhibition: an altarpiece located in the parish church of Paternò that had already been attributed to Sofonisba Anguissola by Alfio Nicotra in 1995, after the scholar had visited the Cremona exhibition; the attribution had then been confirmed by some documents. Since this painting was in not a good state of preservation, the idea was to find a formula that would allow moving the painting to our laboratories, restoring the work and consequently offering the restoration to the parish of Paternò, then having the opportunity to show the painting to the public. In order not to exhibit the painting alone, we thought we would present a reflection on this rather unusual iconography, that of the Madonna of the Itria, starting with the restoration and then ranging over the origin of the iconography from the late Middle Ages to the 18th century.

What is the particularity of this iconography, which then underwent transformations over time?

The iconography is a rather curious question, because first of all the name Madonna dell’Itria is a truncation of Madonna Odigitria: one of the most famous Constantinopolitan icons that depicted the Madonna and Child. About the origin of this icon, that is, the authentic one that is lost to us, many legends have arisen. The authentic image was believed to have been painted even by St. Luke, who allegedly portrayed the Virgin and Child; the image then passed from Jerusalem to Constantinople, and since the icon disappeared after the arrival of the Turks in 1453, a legend arose that this icon was entrusted to the sea by two monks so that this was saved, finally reaching the shores of southern Italy, perhaps Sicily, landing on the beach of a town named Itria (which in fact never existed). In Sicily, the cult of Our Lady of Itria was already widespread by the end of the 14th century and would remain a constant until the 19th century, to which the last records date.

Sofonisba Anguissola spent nearly six years in Sicily, in Paternò, following her marriage to the Sicilian nobleman Fabrizio Moncada in May 1573. And here she remained until 1579. How did the Cremonese painter spend these Sicilian years? It was during this period that she made the Madonna dell’Itria altarpiece, which is now in the Church of the Annunciata in Paternò.

Of this period we do not know much to tell the truth. Despite the fact that about seventy documents concerning her personally have now emerged, of her private life we have no trace. Evidently in the Paternò years she no longer did what she had done in Madrid (she was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabella and had also been responsible for the education of the two Infantas). In Paternò she no longer had these functions, so we can imagine that she lived a quieter life, as a wife probably, and also as a governor because together with her husband she was in charge of the political and financial affairs of the fief. In fact the only documents refer to financial transactions of depositing money or handing over goods to obtain loans, or see her obliged to pawn her jewels that had been given to her by the king of Spain, the precious textiles she had from the queen of Spain to try to manage the fief together with her husband as best she could. The documents of these years therefore tell us of financial difficulties and, after her husband’s death, also of her direct involvement as governor, because before leaving for Spain (we know, however, that her husband would die on Capri) Fabricius had entrusted his wife with the government of the fief. Even after her husband’s death, Sofonisba would continue to receive from her sister-in-law, the most important figure in the family clan, a stipend precisely for her work as governor, an office she held for just over a year and a half before leaving Paternò and returning to Cremona, although we later know that things turned out differently.

In the exhibition catalog you say that “any attempt to reconstruct her painting activity during her stay in Paternò necessarily passes by comparison with this altarpiece.” Can you explain why?

Because there are no other safe works by Sophonisba from these Paternese years. Her biographer De Ribera says that when she arrived in Paternò she continued to paint portraits: being at court in Madrid she had specialized in this type of painting; it is obvious that she must have painted portraits of her husband and family members, but the only certain work from this stay to date remains the Madonna dell’Itria altarpiece. Among other things, this painting is not entirely autograph; in fact, elements attributable to a workshop of a local painter who probably worked in Messina can be recognized in it. Nor of the second Sicilian period (she would spend the last years of her life, from 1615 until her death in Palermo) do we have anything certain.

You also wrote that looking at the work you recognize parts of lower quality than Sofonisba’s painting, perhaps done by her husband Fabrizio. What makes us think so? What parts can be ascribed to a second hand?

It is likely that her husband also worked on the altarpiece because in the document in which Sofonisba binds the painting to the church of the Franciscans in Paternò she explicitly refers to the fact that the painting was also made with the help of her husband. She herself says this, so on this we should have no difficulty. However, her husband was not a painter, he must have been self-taught; it is possible that during the making of the painting Sofonisba asked her husband Fabrizio to intervene to please her or to involve him in her work. In the painting one can recognize parts of less than excellent quality, for example the two little angels at the top crowning the Virgin, or even the landscape, which, although apparently interesting, when one looks at it closely one realizes that it is not of superfine quality. It is in these parts that it is possible to imagine the presence of an unprofessional painter, who therefore could actually have been Fabrizio who had lent himself to indulge his wife’s desire to help her in the undertaking.

The work was placed in dialogue in the exhibition with other works, including frescoes, paintings on panel and canvas, and sculptures. Which are the most significant ones?

There are several significant paintings that illustrate the iconographic path of Our Lady of Itria. For example, a panel painting that comes from the Diocesan Museum in Palermo that is one of the oldest depictions in Sicily of the Madonna dell’Itria-a painting that dates back to around 1250. Also on display is a spectacular four-meter-high wooden group depicting precisely the two monks and the chest on which the Madonna and Child sits, the canonical depiction of the Madonna dell’Itria, which comes from the parish of Corleone; and a large panel painting by Giuseppe Alvino, a Palermo Mannerist painter, which comes from the Diocesan Museum of Monreale. In addition, the exhibition also allows us to appreciate how the iconography of the Madonna dell’Itria has changed over the centuries. What we see in Sophonisba’s altarpiece marks the culmination of an evolution that had already begun many centuries earlier. At first it is the Madonna of the Itria according to the Byzantine icon with the Madonna holding the Child seated on her left arm, and then we come to a contamination with other cult images popular in Constantinople that lead instead to the final iconography with the two monks holding a chest on which the Madonna and Child sits. We have given an account of these transformations through a judicious choice of works, which in chronological sequence serve precisely to mark the various constructional stages of the iconography.

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