Artemisia Gentileschi: Portrait of a Lady, and an Artist, in the Years of Baroque
Fortune of a Woman Artist
In 1916 the Italian art historian Roberto Longhi wrote an essay titled Gentileschi Father and Daughter, where he defines Artemisia Gentileschi (Rome, 1593 – Naples, a. 1656), the daughter of the caravaggesco painter Orazio, as: “The unique woman in Italy who had ever known what it is painting and colour and mixture….”. This opinion is too severe towards the other women, such as Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana, who had been able to impose their talent in a field strictly reserved to men. However, some tragic vicissitudes of Artemisia’s life (she remained orphan of the mother when she was a child and underwent a rape at the age of 17) combined to the determined character she had shown, made her a sort of heroin of the female reasons versus the male power. After the essay by Longhi, a successful novel written by the Longhi’s wife (Anna Banti) in 1947 spreads the knowledge of the painter to the general public. Twenty years later, in the seventies, Artemisia becomes the subject of a kind of worship, which makes her the icon of the feminist movements, as the personification of the fight against the male abuses. Artemisia had been celebrated in her days, but she had been completely forgotten after her death (fate as many other artists, including her major inspirer: Caravaggio) so that we have lost the trace of most of her works. A careful study and the recovery of her lost works, attempting to reconstruct the whole of her artistic experience, would be the greatest service to her memory, beyond any ideology.
The Rome address where Artemisia has ived with her father.
Growing in the Baroque Rome
The father of Artemisia, Orazio (Pise, 1563 – London, 1639) had adopted the mother’s surname to distinguish himself from his brother Aurelio Lomi, who was also a painter. He had moved to Rome at the age of 13. There, after the mannerist decorations of the Sistine rooms in the Vatican Library, he had been influenced by the naturalistic style of Caravaggio and had become a friend of him, so that in 1603, he was condemned with Caravaggio and Onorio Longhi, because of some offensive poetries against the painter Giovanni Baglione. In those years Rome was the cradle of the Baroque movement, and the most important centre of the European art, frequented by the most innovative exponents of the Italian painting, such as Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci, who was frescoing the Farnese palace, or Guido Reni, charged by the pope Paul V to decorate two halls of the Vatican Palaces, and by the “stars” of the European painting, such as Pieter Paul Rubens, sent to Rome by the Duke of Mantua. Artemisia looses the mother when she is a child and she grows at the workshop of his father, showcasing the talent that was lacking to her brothers. To give her a female company, Orazio had taken as a tenant their neighbour Tuzia with her family. Tuzia’s son was a favourite subject of Artemisia’s practice in painting.
The Male Eyes on Susanna
Susanna and the Elders (1610)
The first known painting signed by Artemisia is an original version of the Bible’s episode of Susanna and the Elders. Orazio used this painting to demonstrate the ability reached by his daughter. The painting is signed by Artemisia and it is dated before the event of the rape. Some direct interventions by Orazio are considered probable, but the painting should be a genuine creation of Artemisia, as it shows an original vision of the fact. The environment is extremely sober, the nuisance to the young Susanna and the pressure of the “elders” on her are the unique elements of the scene. It is a psychological interpretation, centred on the discomfort of Susanna, while in the traditional representations, the curiosity of the male who discovers an unaware girl making her toilet is predominant. It has also been observed that the old men are not so old: they are by someone associated with the figures of the father and his colleague Agostino Tassi, the author of the rape against Artemisia. During the process, a witness affirmed to have heard that Orazio used the daughter as a model for nude scenes and that he was pleased when other people came to watch. So, this painting might somewhat be related to this fact.
The Rape and the Process
The rape that Artemisia suffered in 1611, when she was 17, is probably the best known fact of her life, also because the acts of the successive trial are still conserved in the Vatican archives and have been carefully studied. The author of the rape is Agostino Tassi, a landscape painter who had arrived to Rome in 1610. Tassi was collaborating with Orazio in the decoration of the ceiling of a palace, he frequented Gentileschi’s home and probably Orazio had charged him to teach the perspective technique to his daughter. The process versus Tassi was instituted by Orazio in 1612, when it was clear that Tassi could not marry Artemisia because he already had a wife in Livorno. The process lasted nine months, with several testimonies and sparked a lot of interest in the city. Artemisia showed her strong character accepting to depose under torture (the pressure of the thumbs). This practice had to ensure, in the mind of the judges of those days, the accuser to tell the truth, when he did not appear fully believable. At last, Tassi was condemned to five years of forced labour, or as alternative to the exile from Rome, but in practice he did not serve the sentence. Artemisia got out evil from the process. Her honour was compromised and most people considered her a woman of easy virtue, rather than a victim. The father organized a shotgun wedding with the Florentine artist Pierantonio Stiattesi. The marriage was celebrated shortly after the sentence, then Artemisa settled in Florence with her husband.
Source of inspiration
Judith Beheading Holofernes
This is the most known painting by Artemisia. It is dated between 1612 and 1613, so it was executed shortly after the process. It is quite natural to see in this gory scene a revenge on the suffered violence. The general construction of the scene is taken from the Caravaggio’s version (1599), but the representation is still more bloody and realistic. Judith keeps strongly Holofernes’ head by the hair and comes close to him while cutting his neck, helped by the maidservant who holds his hands still. In the Caravaggio painting this strict contact is missing. The blood flows and forms dark red streams on the white sheets. Longhi, almost amazed, had praised the realism of the blood rivulets, the accuracy in the details of the sword hilt, the fine silk clothing of Judith and her servant. However, the most shocking particular seems to be the indifferent expression of the two women, who slay Holofernes as they might do with a chicken, Judith folding back the bust to not have the dress stained. The Judith of Caravaggio has a worried and concentrated expression that we do not find in this one. There is a second version, dated 1620, displayed at the Uffizi in Florence, which repeats the themes of the first one, with a small loss of drama.
Career in Florence
In Florence, Artemisia enters into the good graces of the Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici and his mother Christina. Her talent makes her to be prized by the community of the artists, so that in 1616 she is accepted, first woman ever, in the Academy of the Arts and Design, founded by the Medici on the advice of Giorgio Vasari sixty years before, to promote and protect the artistic activity on the territory of the Grand Duchy. She is appreciated not only for her talent, but also for the great beauty and becomes a protagonist of the worldly life. In these years she forges important friendships, with characters such as Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, nephew of Michelangelo. She has four children, but only one, Prudenzia, will survive, together with an illegitimate daughter born around 1627. However, Artemisia and her husband love luxury and they lead an expensive life. Burdened by debt, they have to leave Florence in a hurry in 1620 and come back to Rome.
Career in Rome
Artemisia enters newly to Rome, accompanied by the fame she had gained in Florence. Now she is welcomed by a well different climate with respect when she had left the city after the process. She knows and frequents the other painters of the caravaggesque circle, such as Simon Vouet, and other intellectuals, such as the humanist Cassiano del Pozzo. She is proud to be a woman able to take care of herself and her daughter, as she writes in a letter to her father. But the commissions she obtains are not up her expectations. Maybe, she is known for the portraits (although we know only one nowadays, the Portrait of a Gonfaloniere) and for the female heroines from the Bible and the myth, but she is not considered for the rich commissions of the altarpieces in the churches. So, Artemisia moves to Venice, between 1627 and 1630, and then to Naples, a big city where the memory of Caravaggio was still alive, where she hopes to find more opportunities.
Career in Naples
In Naples, Artemisia obtains the first commissions for a church (the Cathedral of Pozzuoli). Here she establishes a florid workshop and forges a partnership of work with the coetaneous painter Massimo Stanzione, who had moved to Naples in the same year. She complains in a letter that the city is violent, so that she has asked the permission to bring a gun with her. But she remains there until her death, datable in 1656 probably because of the plague. There, she marries her two daughters, to whom she has conferred the dowry. She leaves the city only for three or four years, in 1638, when her father calls her to London, where he was court painter to King Charles I. Charles I was a lover of the art (he had bought the great collection of the Gonzaga) and it is probable that he wished to know Artemisia by himself. In fact, the original Self Portrait as an Allegory of Painting, which gives us an idea of the beauty of the young Artemisia, belongs to his collection. Artemisia works with the father to the decoration of a ceiling (the Allegory of the Triumph of the Peace and the Arts) in the House of Earthly Delights in Greenwich. After the death of Orazio, in 1639, Artemisia stays in London for two or three more years.
In 1615-1616 Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, nephew of the great artist, commissioned Artemisia an allegory of the natural talent (inclination), as a decoration for a ceiling of the palace that the nephew Leonardo had built on the terrains bought by Michelangelo in Florence. Artemisia, who was appoximately 22, had portrayed herself completely naked.However, a subsequent Buonarroti of good principles had charged a painter (Baldassare Volterrini) to cover the nudity with an appropriate drapery.
Lovers and Letters of Love
Artemisia was celebrated for her beauty, in her days, and she was attributed many lovers, up to the absolutely “politically un-correct” epitaph that a couple of Venetian “friends” wrote at her death. The relation with Francesco Maria Maringhi, a wealthy representative of the Marquis Frescobaldi, is well known and it is also documented by 21 letters recently found in the Frescobaldi Archive. Artemisia and Francesco Maria had met in Florence, but the man had followed her also in Rome and then in Naples. The 21 letters she writes to her lover, during the Florentine period and after the return to Rome, are revelatory of the passionate character of the painter. They are written with an uncertain grammar, but are rich in quotations from ancient and modern poets (Ariosto, Tasso), demonstrating a wide range of readings, and combine passionate sentences of love with the enunciations of her practical needs and the exhortation to send money. The Frescobaldi archive contains other 14 letters written by Artemisia’s husband, maybe aware or maybe not of the relation between Maringhi and his wife. He tells the Florentine gentleman the vicissitudes and the successes of his wife and somewhat enforce Artemisia’s requests for monetary aid. These are the last news we have about Stiattesi. His tracks are lost after the return to Rome.
The other lover sometimes attributed to Artemisia is Nicholas Lanier, the English musician at the court of Charles I of England, whom the King, lover of arts, had sent in Italy to contract the purchase of the rich Gonzaga collection. Artemisia and Marcel might have met in Venice in 1627-1630 and Marcel may also have played a role in bringing Artemisia to the King’s court in 1637.
Ready for a Full Lesson?
Not Only Heroines
Artemisia owes her fame especially to the female figures of the Bible or the Roman history she has portrayed while performing their heroic actions. These paintings are the best known of her production and have contributed to make her an icon of the feminist movement. However, we know from the documents of the time that she was also an appreciated author of portraits and still lifes. Her heroines, fashionably dressed of sumptuous yellow and blue silks, give life to a small world, which reflects, as a crystal, the several different shades of the female soul. The firmness of Judith and Jael, who tenderly keeps the head of the sleeping Sisera among her legs, while hammering a nail into his temple. Lucretia, lonely, keeping a breast, determined to pierce it with the sword. A confused, naked and disordered Cleopatra, alone in her room, waiting for the snake bite. And again: the seduction of a sleeping Venus, abandoned in her own bed, while Cupid is watching and protecting her. An immodest Danae receiving Jupiter as gold rain, while her servant is only intent to collect the coins. All these heroines repeat the appearance of their author, so they may be viewed as a unique perduring self portrait. In the last period of her activity, in Naples, Artemisia is more engaged with religious themes. In the Birth of St. John the Baptist, the solitary heroines of the first period give way to a quiet, intimate scene, where the group of women takes care of the newborn.