Feature: Portrait – Iaia of Cyzius

Iaia of Cyzius – also known as Marcia Varronis – was a Roman painter and ivory carver active sometime in the around 100 BC.

Not much is known about her. Pliny the Elder mentioned her in his writings and she was one of 106 women featured in De mulieribus claris (aka On Famous Women – the first collection in Western literature devoted solely to biographies of women) written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 14th century.

Iaia was born in Cyzius and remained unmarried her entire life (Pliny states she remained a virgin, but let’s be realistic here – he couldn’t have known that and neither can we). She was known for her portraits of women, including a self portrait created with the aid of a mirror and a large panel painting of an old woman.

Aside from ivory engraving and regular painting, Iaia specialized in encaustic painting – a technique where color pigment is mixed with hot wax, which allows the artwork to be both painted and sculpted at the same time – applying the hot wax with a cestum (a sort of spatula) and brushes. The technique was used at the time to color marble sculptures and produce paintings on wooden panels.

Reportedly, Iaia’s hand was faster than that of any other painter and this, as well as the high quality of her works, ensured that she was paid more than most other celebrated painters of the time.

Sadly, no works attributed to her survives to this day.

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