I live in Rome, which is paved with sampietrini, but it is the cobblestones of Mantua that bring me back to my roots. Mantua me genuit. Walking on the cobblestones -even with clogs- one is likely to fall, I think, as I reach the medieval church of San Martino in the footsteps of Sister Lucrina Fetti, the seventeenth-century Roman painter. The church is closed, so off I go to Piazza Sordello, the large square in Mantua dedicated to the XIII-century Mantuan poet Sordello da Goito. There I enter the Ducal Palace, the palace of the Gonzaga, lords for centuries of Virgil's city, protagonists of Italian and European history: some of his portraits are also preserved here.
As a woman, she was excluded from academies as well as denied self-determination. However, by coming to Mantua (in 1614), and becoming a nun here in the prestigious convent of Sant'Orsola, that Lucrina (born in Rome around 1590) under the name of Giustina, was she reborn to new life with which she established herself. Thanks to her paintings, she became one of the most significant personalities in the convent and one of the most illustrious in the history of seventeenth-century Italian art. In a world that hindered the education of women, Lucrina is an exception. Cynthia A. Gladen in the volume “I monasteri femminili come centri di cultura fra Rinascimento e Barocco” [Women’s Monasteries as Centers of Culture Between the Renaissance and the Baroque], edited by Gianna Pomata and Gabriella Zarri, Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura tells us. Lucrina was a woman of exceptional talent whose life “testifies both as a painter and through her family resources and property rights to the possibility for a nun in seventeenth-century Italy to conduct influential social and artistic activities even from within the cloister”.
There are several portraits by Fetti in the Ducal Palace, almost all of them honoring the women of the Gonzaga house whom the artist had seen growing up inside the convent. One of these paintings is of Princess Eleonora Gonzaga, portrayed on the occasion of her marriage to Emperor Ferdinand of Habsburg in 1622, as a result of which she became Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, Archduchess of Austria, and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia. It is the only portrait that Lucrina signed and dated. I immediately fell in love with the antique pink curtains, which fall profusely from the table and the burgundy cloud that Lucrina frames at the corner with the ceiling. In the middle, Eleanor wrapped in her majestic robe of brocade woven with gold threads adorned with lace rises as if from a stage. On the corset, discreet and mighty as an ancient jewel rests the pendant with the Habsburg monogram. The imperial crown that sits on the table but defiladed in the frame, slowly emerges from the darkness and is radiated like the wedding letter addressed to the Empress Gonzaga's sacred majesty, from the gold and burnish of her dress. However, the posture, the hand resting on her chest, the little finger raised to give a sense of movement, and especially the very realistic expression on Eleonora’s face direct me to all that lies beyond the canvas, to the world of Sant’Orsola, the convent founded in the seventeenth century by Margherita Gonzaga and which was a parallel court to the ducal one. Everything that passes there did so through the noblewomen of the time, and it seems to me that those portrayed here form a gallery, and are the expression, the apex and perhaps the celebration of the Sant'Orsola method, and reflect the political ambitions of the Gonzagas. On their faces there is very little make-up, but what we see are splinters of grace, wisdom and ‘bien vivre’.
As I am from Mantua, I have entered the Ducal Palace many times. However, today I recognize Lucrina and think of Margherita Gonzaga, who was the wife of the Duke of Ferrara Alfonso d'Este and who as a widow returned to Mantua and founded the convent. It can be stated unequivocally that there is not one without the other.
At this moment, we enter the beating heart of the Sant’Orsola system that was founded from an encounter that was decisive for both of these two women of steadfast temperament. We enter this through another portrait completed by Lucrina that depicts the Duchess Margaret. In color and significance, the robe is very similar to that of Eleanor, her paternal aunt, but here there is practically no background, in fact, the figure of Margaret in the foreground is so imposing that her body seems akin to that of a sovereign. In fact, the robe, for the nineteenth-century historian Giovanni Battista Intra has “a strange fashion, of the cloistered and princely”, seems an oxymoron, and so it is. There is both as aspect of royalty and the monastic in Margherita because she is both a noble Gonzaga and an abbess.
Lucrina Fetti vindicates this by celebrating the two worlds that the Sant'Orsola order represents and fuses together with this portrait: the prestigious court on the one hand, and the monastic refuge on the other. The robe is regal to recall the magnificence of the very special monastery that is like a rib, an extension declined in a spiritual sense of the Gonzaga court, but it is at the same time cloistered because the woman portrayed is also a nun.
The portrait has historical value too, as Cynthia A. Gladen emphasizes, “It encapsulates three central themes in the history of St. Ursula as seen by the founder Margaret Gonzaga: religious devotion, court splendor, and the celebration of both through artistic patronage”. This is a “Manifesto”.
However, how do the lives of Lucrina the nun and Margherita the noblewoman, who lived in a convent but never took formal vows, converge? The answer is through the brothers, Domenico Fetti and Ferdinando Gonzaga, who met in Rome. Ferdinando, who was a cardinal and gave up the purple cloth to return to Mantua as duke, appointed Domenico as court painter. Having already witnessed Giustina's talent in Rome, however, and knowing that his sister was looking for a painter, he called her to Mantua with the aim of proposing her to Margherita.
Margaret wanted to transform the convent she retired to after her husband’s death: not only a spiritual place of retreat and devotion but also a place of education and culture. That is why, in addition to the sumptuous building she built, she needs an excellent artist. And so it was that Domenico Fetti became the artistic point of reference for Ferdinand's court, and Giustina-Lucrina for the court at the convent of Sant'Orsola. An alliance of siblings enlivens the Mantuan nobility, which, as is well known, knows how to have fun. Parties and art. Salons and charity. Domenico then leaves, but the alliance between Margherita and Lucrina remains and creates a “school of life” among the most renowned in Europe. Of those glorious times only the church of Saint Orsola lives on today, built like everything else in 1608 by the Gonzaga architect Antonio Maria Viani, of which the official painting of the handover of the project to Margherita Gonzaga by Lucrina Fetti remains.
I return again to the church of San Martino to get a closer look at Sister Lucrina’s religious paintings that are scattered all over the city, all the way to the Carlo Poma Hospital, since the convent of Sant'Orsola no longer exists. An Orthodox rite is in progress and moving around the church feels uncomfortable, but then halfway down the aisle I find the copy of her Penitent Magdalene that Domenico Fetti collaborated to bring it to completion. In addition to the Magdalene there is a copy of St Barbara (Private Collection) and it is her face full of the optimism of youth that strikes me, I find a bit of her signature in it, and all her work as a female portraitist. Experts say that the folds of drapery, the rich detail of fabrics emphasize the curvaceous body in a style reminiscent of her brother Dominic. What if it is the other way around, I say to myself.
The truth is that the greatness and modernity of this artist lies in her own path: at the height of the Counter-Reformation, under her direction St Ursula became an important center of artistic life. Moreover, as a successful nun-artist she devoted her earnings to enrich and then ferry the convent out of the crisis into which it had fallen following the death of Duchess Margherita Gonzaga.
On my way home, I think that all the time I, a Mantuan living in Rome, have only been moving around my city led by a Roman who has experienced Mantua, but I feel that I have shared the same point of space only in the neighborhood of Pradella, where the convent of Sant'Orsola was located. In Pradella today there is nothing left, only a small cloister and the little church remained. There where Lucrina prayed, painted, studied, taught, just a few steps away from the house where I grew up I find the synthesis of what will forever refer me back to her, and to her world: female affirmation through culture and determination.
by Elena Martelli
A Journalist and a writer