Describing the Female Sculptor in Early Modern Italy: An Analysis of the vita of Properzia de' Rossi in Giorgio Vasari's Lives



Bolognese sculptor Properzia de’ Rossi (c. 1490–1530) is distinguished as the only female artist to be afforded extended analysis in Giorgio Vasari's first edition of the Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). Scholars have focused largely on the way in which Properzia's description aligns with derogatory assumptions about female nature in early modern Italy. While this is a defining characteristic of Properzia's vita, my paper explores alternative and potentially positive aspects of the text, by considering Vasari's attempts to integrate Properzia into the broader enterprise of the Lives and, more generally, art historical discourse of the time. I will argue that Vasari's approach invites a polemical response connected to these wider issues by setting up a paradoxical relationship between Properzia's archetypal female body and the manual movement required of it to sculpt. In contrasting notions of the feminine and the masculine, the noble body and the ignoble body, the intellectual and the manual, Properzia's vita can be connected specifically to the paragone (comparison) between painting and sculpture and also to questions relating to the status of the artist. In such a way the female artist is seen to take on an emblematic and instructive role within the text.