The work of an art historian or curator can sometimes be like that of a master investigator or CIA agent. For example, a trail of clues led to the probable identification of the woman in this painting by Sofonisba Anguissola. Anguissola is one of the earliest identified female artists, working in Italy in the late 1500s. Rare for the Renaissance, Anguissola was famous in her own time and worked as the court painter for the King of Spain, a job she secured thanks to the portraits of her family that she’d painted as she grew up and honed her skills. The girl in this image is the spitting image of many of Anguissola’s family members, with her round face, large hooded eyes, and long nose. But Anguissola had five sisters and two brothers, so who is this?
It was thought to be a self-portrait for some time, before an intrepid curator noticed the medallion at her neck, which shows a woman holding a spear and wearing a helmet, dressed in long, Grecian robes—attributes of none other than Athena, the Greek Goddess of war and wisdom. But the Anguissola clan, being Italian, would have known this deity better by her Roman name, Minerva—which also happens to be the name of Sofonisba’s younger sister. Mystery solved!
Visit Minerva in Gallery 6 on the Main Level and take a closer look at the medallion yourself.