(b. 1512, Bologna, d. 1597, Bologna)
Italian painter, part of a family of painters and draughtsmen, active mostly in Bologna and Rome. The majority of his work belongs to the Mannerist tradition which originated in Rome and Florence in the 1520s, but disseminated more widely within Italy following the sack of Rome in 1527. Prospero Fontana was the leading Bolognese exponent of Mannerism.
He trained with Innocenzo da Imola, a follower of Raphael, and early in his career assisted the Mannerist painter Perino del Vaga on the decoration of the Palazzo Doria in Genoa. His contact with Mannerist artists continued during his years as an assistant to Giorgio Vasari on projects in Rome and Florence. Despite this exposure to progressive influences, he continued to paint in an essentially conservative style in this period, as in the Transfiguration with Saints (1545; Bologna, S Domenico).
From 1548 he moved between Rome and Bologna: in 1550 he executed frescoes of scenes from the Life of Constantine in the Palazzina della Viola, Bologna (in situ); in 1550-51 he supervised the decorations of the Vatican Belvedere, Rome, for Pope Julius III; and in 1551 he executed frescoes of Virtues and Gods in the Palazzo Bocchi, Bologna. Early in 1553 he was again in Rome, where he worked with Taddeo Zuccaro on the decorations (destroyed) of the Villa Giulia. During this final period in Rome he also executed decorations for the loggia of the Palazzo di Firenze (in situ) for Balduino del Monte, brother of Julius III. Around 1560 he worked briefly with Primaticcio at Fontainebleau in France. His first convincing use of a Mannerist style occurs in such works of this period as the Disputation of St Catherine (c. 1560; Bologna, Madonna del Baraccano). He assisted Vasari again in 1563-65 on the decorations of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and in 1565 he was admitted to the Florentine Accademia del Disegno.
He followed the Mannerist style of Vasari until he settled in Bologna in the 1570s. There he responded to the appeals of Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti for artists to provide clear and persuasive religious works in keeping with the suggestions of the Council of Trent. The use of descriptive naturalism and convincing expression characterizes his late style, as in St Alessio Distributing Alms (1576; Bologna, S Giacomo Maggiore). His last important public commission dates from the late 1570s, when he contributed decorations for the rebuilt apse of S Pietro, Bologna (in situ). Although he continued to paint in the 1590s, Prospero failed to respond to the reform of Bolognese painting instigated by the Carracci family.
His daughter, Lavinia Fontana was also a successful painter.