These two enchanting canvases, depicting the embodiment of Fame and Virtue, were mentioned by Malvasia as part of a set ten such octagonal paintings by the Bolognese artist, Elisabetta Sirani, each featuring mythical and allegorical figures, including, Samson, Delilah, Circe, Ulysses, Diogenes, Tolomeus, Honour and Freedom.1 Aside from the present paintings, only Freedom and Honour (Private Collection) are known today.2 Fame, is shown here as a man, blowing a double fluted trumpet. The slight vagueness of the anatomy may perhaps be explained by Sirani's unfamiliarity with the male form, since, as a young woman, she was denied access to the academies and thus had no opportunity to study male models from life. The treatment of Virtue, however, is typical of the artist's ethereal females, perhaps best exemplified by her Penitent Magdalene, now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna.3 The hair, drawn in pale, parallel strokes is reminiscent of the latter, as are the facial features: the slight protrusion of the rounded chin, dimpled above and below; the small mouth with love-heart lips; the wide eyes; and the long, elegant nose with its delicately raised bridge; all of which traits are reprised in many of Sirani's women. The artist uses blunt strokes, most notable in the treatment of feathered wings, with daubs of white interspersed with flashes of sky blue along the curve of their ridge. Despite Sirani's broad handling, the flesh of both figures has a smooth, porcelain quality and the faces are beautifully molded. Virtue is recognizable by her spear and the sun pendant on her breast which, as Cesare Ripa writes, is representative of virtuous acts; "as the sun lights the earth, so virtue lights the heart and leads to good deeds."4
Malvasia dated these paintings to 1657 when the artist was just nineteen years old. The daughter of Giovanni Andrea Sirani, Guido Reni's principal assistant, Elisabetta most likely trained under her father until she herself began teaching female students the art of drawing and painting. Famed in her lifetime for her beauty, talent and modesty, Elisabetta Sirani began painting professionally at the age of seventeen and her boldness in the treatment of heroines gained her much notoriety. Until her untimely death at the age of twenty-seven, she enjoyed considerable success, accepting commissions from such eminent figures as the Grand Duke Cosimo III de' Medici.
1. C.C. Malvasia, Felsina Pittrice del Conte Carlo Cesare Malvasia, vol II, p. 394, for Freedom and Honour see J. Bentini and V. Fortunati, Elisabetta Sirani, Pittrice Eroina, Bologna 2004, p. 228, cat. no. 81-82, reproduced.
2. C.C. Malvasia, op. cit.
3. A. Modesti, Elisabetta Sirani, una virtuosa nel Seicento bolognese, Bologna 2004, reproduced p. 200.
4. C. Ripa, Baroque and Rococo Pictorial Imagery, New York 1971, no.145.
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