Fontana was the most successful woman of the Bolognese painters in her time. She was the daughter of Prospero Fontana (1512 – 1597), an accomplished and well traveled artist of the Bolognese School. Even within the responsibilities of being a mother of eleven children, she achieved much in style and work.
Here style of painting was of course rooted in her father’s training, but she also showed a style close to Italians such as Correggio (1490 – 1534) and Parmigianino (1503 – 1540). While this was still close in style to that of her father, she progressed into the influence of the Carracci family of painters, important to the School of Bologna and their Venetian coloring. The influence of Correggio and Parmigianino were most prevalent in her religious subjects, but her portrait work took on a Mannerist style of the Florentines, (Kren and Marx, Web Gallery of Art).
Fontana’s earliest work, though lost, is said to be a piece titled, Child of the Monkey, from around 1575, but another work, Holy family, also takes that claim. Shortly after these early works she wed Gian Paolo Zappi, who was studying under her father, and he eventually assisted her in future works. She enjoyed much success and was eventually invited to Rome by Pope Clement VIII (1536 – 1605), where she also painted portraits of Camillo Borghese (1550 – 1621), when he was Pope Paul V starting in 1605. Fontana and her family lived in Rome up until her death in 1614.
Her work now in the Uffizi Gallery, is a beautifully detailed and calmly expressive piece, titled, Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalen. This piece makes her the first, or earliest female painter recognized in the Uffizi Gallery. Overall she has nearly 100 works thought to be hers, with about half of that being signed and dated.