By: Amy Fredrickson
Mannerist painter Suor Orsola Maddalena Caccia (1596–1676) was born Theodora in Moncalvo, Italy, to an artistic family. Her father, painter Guglielmo Caccia, also known as Il Moncalvo, trained her and her sister, Francesca, in his studio. Orsola produced religious paintings, altarpieces, and exquisitely detailed still-life paintings of fruits, flowers, and birds. Her works reached an audience beyond the convent, as she sold them to help financially support the convent.
Guglielmo had six daughters and two sons, yet he only trained Orsola and Francesca. Sadly, Francesca died at the age of 57, and none of her works survive today. As an assistant in her father’s studio, Orsola provided the coloring and illustrations of secondary figures in some of his large-scale paintings.
In 1620, Orsola took her vows at the Convento delle Orsoline in Bianzè, Italy, in the northern region of Piedmont. At the time of her arrival, four of her sisters were already in residence. Bianzé was a fortified outpost between lands governed by the Gonzagas, the dukes of Mantua and Monferrato, and the Duchy of Savoy. Subsequently, its location was between these warring areas.
To find a safe place for his daughters, he sought permission from the Bishop of Casale Monferrato to establish the Ursuline convent at Moncalvo. For this project, he used his own resources—money and the houses he owned. In 1625, Orsola and her sisters transferred to the newly established convent.
A few months later, on April 15, 1625, Guglielmo died. He bequeathed his drawings, set squares, and tools to his daughters for their use at the convent. However, he stipulated that after all six of his daughters died, his belongings should be returned to his male heirs. He also stipulated in his will that Orsola complete an unfinished altarpiece for the Franciscan church of Montalvo. She did finish the work, in addition to taking commissions for other panel paintings for local churches.
Orsola took matters into her own hands when the convent experienced financial problems. She addressed the Duchess of Savoy, Madama Reale Christine of France, in two letters in 1643. Orsola requested an opportunity for paid work. Christine commissioned a Nativity and a Saint John the Baptist. Since commissions earned money for the convent, being able to paint well was a valuable skill. Painting was a vocation for the Ursulines of Moncalvo, and Orsola set up a painting studio within the convent, where she trained other nun artists.
Many of Orsola’s paintings are still in situ since she produced some altarpieces for local churches. She also created small-scale works, such as still-life paintings depicting birds, flowers, and fruits. Although only a small portion of her oeuvre, her still-life paintings are exquisite and extremely detailed, thus illustrating how carefully she studied details. Orsola became Abbess of the convent and lived longer than all her sisters. She devoted herself to painting until her death in 1676.
Orsola gained posthumous attention during the eighteenth century, when Luigi Lanzi praised both Orsola and Francesca, comparing them to Artemisia Gentileschi and Lavinia Fontana. Orsola’s paintings have gained interest in the modern era as well. In May 2020, Sotheby’s expected Orsola’s Still Life with Birds to yield between $12,000 and $18,000. Surprisingly, the painting surpassed expectations and was sold for $260,000.
Birth of the Virgin, c. 1635, oil on canvas, 164 x 111 cm, Pinacoteca Malaspina, Pavia.
Still-Life, c. 1650, oil on canvas, 37 x 99 cm, Private collection.
Vases of Flowers on a Table, ca. 1625, oil on canvas, 95.5 × 163.4 cm, Yale University Art Gallery.
Still Life of Birds, (Including a Marsh Tit, Chiffchaff, Chaffinch, Blue Tits, Goldcrest, Lapwing And A Great Tit), c. 1650, oil on canvas, 28 x 40.2 cm, Private Collection.
St. Luke the Evangelist in the Studio, c. 1625, oil on canvas, Parrocchia Sant’Antonio di Padova, Moncalvo, Asti.