Three Dames of Bologna
There is nothing like discovering the existence of amazing dames that you’ve never heard of before.
In exploring Bologna last year, I came across three remarkable women who between them made significant contributions to painting, medicine and physics – and all before 1778.
Lavinia Fontana 1552–1614
The earliest of these dames was Lavinia Fontana. Her father was a painter and trained her himself; he evidently didn’t have a problem with her carrying on the family business. She has come to be considered as the first professional woman artist to work in the same context as her male counterparts.
She married wisely: fellow painter Paolo Zappi seems to have been quite happy to play a supporting role in his wife’s career, working as her agent, acting as her assistant (he was allowed to paint in draperies, etc.) and fathering 11 children – sadly only 3 of them outlived Lavinia.
She was an accomplished portraitist, but also undertook large-scale works such as The Martyrdom of St Stephen. She enjoyed the patronage of the Pope and won numerous awards, including election to the Roman Academy, an honour rarely granted to women. Despite this, several of her portraits have been wrongly attributed to Guido Reni.
Anna Morandi Mazzolini 1714–1774
Anna Morandi was born exactly one hundred years after Lavinia Fontana died. The Renaissance had given way to theEnlightenment, and Anna Morandi’s career was clear evidence of this.
She married a professor of anatomy at the University of Bologna (the oldest university in the world, having been founded in 1088) and when he fell ill with TB, she lectured in his place, and was appointed professor of anatomy on his death in 1755. But it was her talent at moulding anatomical models in wax for medical training that made her reputation. Though she had begun as an assistant to her husband, her skill soon surpassed his. Her meticulous dissections provided the basis for her models, and enabled her to discover several previously unknown body parts.
Although she preferred to remain in Bologna, during the course of her career she was elected to the Royal Society and Catherine the Great made her a member of the Russian Scientific Society. Oh, and she had six children by the time she was 25.
Laura Bassi 1711–1778
A close contemporary of Anna Morandi, and indeed a colleague of hers at the University of Bologna, Laura Bassi was tutored privately and encouraged in her scientific interests. She was the first woman to be offered an official teaching post at a university in Europe: she occupied the Chair of Anatomy for a year at the University of Bologna, before being offered the Chair of Philosophy.
Her main interest was Newtonian physics, and, eight children notwithstanding, she lectured on this subject for 28 years. Though she published only a few scientific papers, the extent of her scientific contribution is evident in her correspondence with a range of thinkers and scientists of the day, including Volta and Voltaire. With her husband, she conducted experimental research into electricity, and he became her teaching assistant when she was appointed to the chair of experimental physics at the Bologna Institute of Sciences.
Laura Bassi has a 31km crater on Venus named after her, among other things, and poet and polymath Algarotti described her as a ‘rich, inexhaustible mine of the new, beyond the seas, high knowledge’.
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I think the message that emerges from these stories is that you should find a partner who shares your interests and has a refreshing lack of personal ambition. But all respect to Bologna, hotbed of dames!