Excerpts from Giorgio Vasari’s “Life of Madonna Properzia de’ Rossi,” sculptor of Bologna
As unusual as female painters were, a female sculptor was even rarer. Few of Properzia de’ Rossi’s works are known today. In addition to a relief in Bologna depicting Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, other attributions include a number of carved fruit stones.
It is an extraordinary thing that in all those arts and all those exercises wherein at any time women have thought fit to play a part in real earnest, they have always become most excellent and famous in no common way, as one might easily demonstrate by an endless number of examples… [Vasari names a number of notable female warriors, poets, and artists from antiquity]
But in no other age, for certain, has it been possible to see this better than in our own, wherein women have won the highest fame not only in the study of letters—as has been done by Signora Vittoria del Vasto, Signora Veronica Gambara… [a list of more names] and a hundred others, all most learned as well in the vulgar tongue as in the Latin and the Greek—but also in every other faculty. Nor have they been too proud to set themselves with their little hands, so tender and so white, as if to wrest from us the palm of supremacy, to manual labours, braving the roughness of marble and the unkindly chisels, in order to attain to their desire and thereby win fame; as did, in our own day, Properzia de’ Rossi of Bologna, a young woman excellent not only in household matters, like the rest of them, but also in sciences without number, so that all the men, to say nothing of the women, were envious of her.
This Properzia was very beautiful in person, and played and sang in her day better than any other woman of her city. And because she had an intellect both capricious and very ready, she set herself to carve peach-stones, which she executed so well and with such patience, that they were singular and marvelous to behold, not only for the subtlety of the work, but also for the grace of the little figures that she made in them and the delicacy with which they were distributed. And it was certainly a miracle to see on so small a thing as a peach-stone the whole Passion of Christ, wrought in the most beautiful carving, with a vast number of figures in addition to the Apostles and the ministers of the Crucifixion. This encouraged her, since there were decorations to be made for the three doors of the first façade of S. Petronio all in figures of marble to ask the Wardens of Work, by means of her husband, for part of that work…and the Wardens of Works…did not fail to allot a part of the work to her. In this, to the vast delight of all Bologna, she made an exquisite scene, wherein—because at that time the poor woman was madly enamored of a handsome young man, who seemed to care but little for her—she represented the wife of Pharaoh’s chamberlain, who burning with love for Joseph, and almost in despair after so much persuasion, finally strips his garment from him with a womanly grace that defies description. This work was esteemed by all to be most beautiful,and it was a great satisfaction to herself, thinking that with this illustration from the Old Testament she had partly quenched the raging fire of her own passion. Nor would she ever do any more work in connection with that building, although there was no person who did not beseech her that she should go on with it, save only Maestro Amico [Asperrini], who out of envy always dissuaded her and went so far with his malignity, ever speaking ill of her to the Wardens, that she was paid a most beggarly price for her work.
She also made two angels in a very strong relief and beautiful proportions, which may now be seen, although against her wish, in the same building. In the end she devoted herself to copper-plate engraving, which she did without reproach, gaining the highest praise. And so, the poor love-stricken young woman came to succeed most perfectly in everything, save in her unhappy passion….
Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere (London: Philip Lee Warner, 1912–4), V: 123–5.