A saint, an "elegant and learned" woman: Barbara Longhi and her Catherine of Alexandria

The Saint Catherine of Alexandria in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna is one of the best-known paintings by Barbara Longhi (Ravenna, 1552 - 1638): it is likely that the artist portrayed herself in the likeness of the saint in order to offer a precise image of her.

In a beautiful mural that occupies one wall of the refectory of what was once the convent of the Camaldolese monks of Ravenna, now home to the Classense Library, is painted the Gospel episode of the Marriage at Cana, the work of the Ravenna-born Luca Longhi: at the table, on the side opposite the one where Christ is seated, appears a woman, a young woman, beautiful, graceful, with a face with delicate, adolescent features, her blond hair gathered under her veil, her surprised and innocent gaze turned toward the observer. Tradition identifies in this girl the portrait of Barbara Longhi, Luca’s daughter, also a painter. Vasari already spoke of her in the Giuntina edition of the Lives, in the biography of Francesco Primaticcio, tracing a rapid panorama of Romagnola painting of the time: the great historiographer, coming to speak of Luca Longhi, did not want to keep silent about the fact that “one of his daughters still a little girl called Barbara draws very well, et ha cominciato a colorire alcuna cosa con assai buona grazia e maniera.”

Vasari had met Barbara (in person, having stayed a couple of months in Ravenna) when she was only fifteen years old, yet he had already sensed her talent. A talent, however, that would never explode. Meanwhile, because of the limitations of his father’s workshop, already recognized by Vasari: Luca Longhi never left Ravenna, never updated himself, never looked around. As much as he was “a good-natured, quiet and studious man,” Vasari wrote, “if he had left Ravenna, where he has always been and is with his family, being assiduous and very diligent and of fine judgment, he would have succeeded most rarely, because he did and does his things with pacienza and study.” Next, because Barbara’s career was extremely local: she too, just like Luke, never left her native Ravenna. And finally, because her activity was also closely linked to that of her family. Her father having passed away when she was twenty-eight, the workshop was inherited by her brother, and Barbara struggled to be recognized as an independent artist, remaining for almost all of her life in the orbit of her male relatives and limiting herself to a production intended mostly for private devotion. Only on late career would he show that he was also capable of painting challenging altarpieces, even three meters high. However, his public paintings are rare: his image is mainly linked to small and delightful chamber paintings, most of which are kept in the museums of Emilia Romagna. This is the case of a Saint Catherine of Alexandria, one of the most interesting outcomes of this type of production, which is preserved at the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna, and was first referred to Barbara Longhi in the 1920s, in the Pinacoteca catalog compiled by Francesco Malaguzzi Valeri.

Barbara Longhi, Santa Caterina dAlessandria (1580 circa; olio su tela, 70 x 53,5 cm; Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, inv. 1097)
Barbara Longhi, Saint Catherine of Alexandria (c. 1580; oil on canvas, 70 x 53.5 cm; Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, inv. 1097)

The virgin and martyr has the same features, fine, slender, and sweet, as the young woman who appears in the Marriage at Cana in the Classense Library, a circumstance that has led to the suggestion that this Saint Catherine may conceal a self-portrait of Barbara: this would not be an isolated or strange case, partly because female painters of the time were used to portray themselves (compared to their male colleagues they felt much more strongly the need to assert themselves, and self-portraiture was one of the most suitable for seeking some form of recognition), and then because, Irene Graziani has well explained, “Catherine of Alexandria, patroness of the young, is the aristocratic saint, a refined model of that education for the cultured woman that had been increasingly defined from Baldassarre Castiglione’s treatise onward.” A Barbara Longhi thus portraying herself as Catherine of Alexandria: an entirely plausible eventuality, aimed at offering an image of a “virtuous, elegant and learned woman.” This Barbara-Caterina with a noble and graceful face is turned in profile, but with her oval, elongated face turned three-quarters to meet the gaze of us who observe her. Her blond hair, as in the Wedding at Cana, is adorned with strands of pearls and gathered in the same veil, fastened on the shoulder with a gold clasp, decorated with gems. The iridescent colors of the robe, soft shades of green and pink, stand out against the somber background. One hand, the right, is facing upward and holding the veil, with the index finger bent. The other, however, outstretched, rests on the cogwheel of martyrdom, and somehow holds the palm of martyrdom: a sickly twig barely visible in the background.

Giordano Viroli, in the 2005 general catalog of the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, remarked that this work had no devotional characters: it was simply a room painting. But this young woman, Viroli wrote, “presents all the characters of an Italian noblewoman of the time. The dress, simple and elegant, the refined and aristocratic attitude, the direct and vaguely questioning gaze”-all characters that reveal the inspiration of a portrait from life. The painting is part of an almost serial production, typical of Luca Longhi’s workshop and fully adhering to his father’s models. Four other versions of this St. Catherine are known: two are at the City Art Museum in Ravenna, one is in a private collection after going to auction at Christie’s in 1997, and the fourth is at the National Museum in Bucharest. Five paintings, wrote the young scholar Giulia Daniele, that for their minimal variations and attempt at characterization reveal themselves as “evidence of a qualitative effort aimed at making each version unique.” The Bologna canvas, which Daniele related (though “without wishing to draw hasty conclusions”) to a painting of identical subject and size once in the vast collection of the Jesuit Giovanni Rayn, appears to be the highest quality exemplar. The one in which the self-portrait appears most convincing. And thus the one from which the need for self-assertion perhaps emerges most clearly.

We do not, of course, have mathematical certainty that this is a self-portrait of Barbara Longhi. We don’t know what her face looked like. We know very little about her, we do not even know what her temperament was: we can get an idea of it from her works, which more often than not assume moderate and almost affected, humble, intimate intonations. Irene Graziani, recalling how Barbara Longhi was “celebrated as a source of wonder for contemporary historiographers” (the example of Vasari suffices: he is not the only one), could not help but point out how her talent remained confined to the sphere of genres considered minor. Portraiture, above all: however, it is not possible to embark on formulations that go beyond his only known portrait today, that of a Camaldolese monk also preserved at the MAR in Ravenna. Certainly: that of the “excellent woman” was a topos in the literature of the time. Talented women painters were looked upon as prodigies before whom, for a seventeenth-century man, it appeared spontaneous to be surprised: it is therefore to be expected that Barbara’s virtues were often painted in the manner of the literary schemes of the time. But her story, for the little we know and can guess, appears similar to that of so many other women who, because of the strong limitations imposed by their age, could not aspire to go beyond the little they were able to achieve. Perhaps then it is precisely in the sweet and dreamy face of this Catherine of Alexandria that we need to look for the most genuine soul of Barbara Longhi’s painting.