Teaching Lady in Ermine

We know so much more now about learning styles and it is clear that not all students will absorb and retain information from reading textbooks. That knowledge is often quickly forgotten. Dramatizations offer a different approach, one where students can absorb the material in a creative way and actively interpret the material for a more personal understanding that they can then remember. And when the dramatization is enjoyable, students will read it for pleasure, not just because they must.

Teaching from a novel takes pressure off the professor to write or reuse a lesson plan; students read the novel and they discuss it together as a class.

Lady in Ermine was written with this teaching objective in mind. And, of course, the price of a novel is student-friendly. ISBN 978-0-86698-821-6.

Below are some of the teaching points that can be drawn from Lady in Ermine: The Story of a Woman Who Painted the Renaissance. Many more issues can be extracted:


  1. Colonialism, Old World and New World: Sofonisba grew up in Lombardy northern Italy at a time when it was controlled by the Spanish Habsburgs. The Duke of Alba was titled Captain General of Italy. A Spanish Governor sat in Milan which had previously been governed by the Duke of Milan, the powerful Sforza dynasty. Chapter 3 “Occupation” We see how the periphery is made dependent on central decision making; Chapter 23 “Dynasty” Whereas Philip II’s father Charles I of Spain/Charles V Holy Roman Emperor sent the Conquistadors to the New World, Philip governed when Bartolome de las Casas (Philip’s childhood tutor) was pressing for more Christian treatment of the Indians. Sofonisba is pressed to compare Spain’s obligation to the Indians relative to its treatment of the Lombards. (Chapter 18 “Francesco de Medici and Bartolome de las Casas: 1562-1565; And the Ordinance on Pacification (Chapter 22 “Succession”) shows Spain’s attempt to implement just treatment of the Indians. But was it condescension or kindness? Do our egalitarian ideals lead to anachronistic thinking?
  1. Women in History: The Natural Order Chapter 4 “The Chess Game” [newly relevant today as some assert the “natural order” to subjugate women]; as legal entities Chapters 24-25, dowry, guardianship, patrimony, right to contract & own. Female achievement throughout. Decorum v. participation throughout especially Sofonisba’s identity struggle at court, tested throughout; the duchess’s words of wisdom; convent self sufficiency v. constraints of convents and artistic production Chapters 14 “Lady Painters” and 25 “Tuscan Honeymoon”; obligation v. freedom in marriage Book III. Gender identity and politics throughout.
  2. Art History: The Anguissola circle touched on: Leonardo, Michelangelo, Vasari & Lives of the Artists, Tiziano, Campi school of Lombard portraiture (Sofonisba was history’s primary vehicle of importing Lombard portraiture to heart of Spanish empire), Moroni, Lotto, Coello, Couet, Mor, Suor Nelli, Rubens, van Dyck, the creation of the Escorial, the Academia in Florence, the Vatican collection, Velazquez, the court of Mantua, patronage in Mantua/Madrid/Rome/Paris, especially female patronage; the artistic struggle; the quest for the next piece; the angst. Women painters. Mixing colors. Sofonisba’s stolen legacy and today’s continued refusal to acknowledge her range and body of work.
  3. Religious conformity and toleration: Christian sentiments run throughout the novel as Sofonisba was traditionally Catholic. Priests come to her spiritual aid Chapters 7 & 24; Her prayers are central to Chapters 20 “Catherine de Medici…Bayonne” and 23 “Dynasty”; the Cardinal’s laments on his deathbed Chapter 20; the closeted priest throughout Book II; the Auto de Fe in Toledo 1560; the Inquisition’s reach Chapter 13 “Toledo Santo” (and throughout); The Council of Trent (throughout); Spain’s conformity v. France’s toleration prior to Bartholomew’s Day Massacre Chapter 20 “Catherine de Medici”; fighting “the Turks” for religious conformity Chapter 22-23, and the Battle of Lepanto 1571 Holy League; the defeat of the Spanish Armada Chapter 27 “Call to Turin”; installing a Spanish Archduchess in Spanish Netherlands Chapter 28 “Road to the Spanish Netherlands”. Sofonisba’s deathbed Chapter 31 “Sicily 1615-1625”.
  4. Economic & legal History: The 16th century was a patronage and debt economy seen throughout; Chapter 29 “The Bargagli Debt”; the many pensions Sofonisba received from the crown and how to claim them Book III; the cost of a dowry. A practice view of adjudication of financial disputes.
  5. Intellectual history: Hierarchical thinking throughout, while Sofonisba is a humanist and verges on egalitarian thinking, as a whole, superiors are obeyed, inferiors are disdained.
  6. Political history of the 16th century throughout and Chapter 8 “Peace of Cateau-Cambresis”; Prince’s Parade Chapter 1; Occupation Chapter 3; Bayonne Chapter 20.
  7. Creative writing: how factual history can be translated by narrative. Chapter 12 “Nuptials” is an interpretation, a prequel, on The Return of Martin Guerre, the life of a 16th century peasant farmer.
  8. Italian Renaissance, Spanish Habsburgs, French succession, Sicily vice-roys.