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A Woman with the Soul of Caesar: Artemisia Gentileschi

Updated on March 8, 2016

Artemisia Gentileschi Self Portrait

Artemisia Gentileschi self portrait
Artemisia Gentileschi self portrait

Incredible Bravery

A Woman with the Soul of Caesar: Artemisia Gentileschi

**Note: There is some discussion of rape in this article.

Rape is one of the worst crimes a human being can commit against another. Women’s rights workers have worked long and hard to get laws changed so that now more rapists can be brought to court, tried and punished for their sick crimes, and programs are available to help those who have been assaulted.

Back in 16th century Italy, things were very different. A rapist almost never was punished for their crimes, but the victims who tried to have them prosecuted often were.

Born on July 8, 1593, Artemisia Gentileschi was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a popular painter in Florence, Italy. Artemisia showed amazing talent for painting, and once Orazio felt that he had taught her everything that he could, he hired a man named Agostino Tassi to continue her education. At first their lessons were chaperoned by an older woman, but Tassi figured out a way to send the woman off so he could try to seduce Artemisia. Artemisia had zero interest in Tassi as anything other than an instructor, and when he found that he couldn’t change the young lady’s mind, he brutally raped her. Tassi promised Artemisia he’d marry her, thus saving her reputation, so she unhappily continued to have a sexual relationship with him until she realized that after nine months they weren’t going to marry.

It took so much courage for Artemisia to tell her father what happened. Orazio was horrified and he insisted that Tassi marry Artemisia (don’t look so shocked—this was common practice then and still occurs in the world today.) Tassi refused the demand, laughing in Orazio’s face. Orazio became so angry that he went to the authorities to have Tassi charged with rape—and theft, because Orazio suspected the bastard had stolen at least one painting.

Tassi was brought before the Roman court, and the judges demanded that Artemisia be brought in to be questioned. You may think that forcing a young woman who had been savagely violated to answer painful questions while her attacker stared at her is horrible enough, but believe it or not, it gets worse; it was widely believed that people could not lie when they were subjected to a great deal of pain. So, to make absolutely sure that Artemisia was telling the truth—or if not, to get her to admit that she was lying—the court officers strapped her fingers into a winch and proceeded to crush them, while the judges, the gallery, the lawyers, her father and Tassi watched on.

This continued for five months. Every time they tortured her, Artemisia continued to claim that Tassi had raped her—she refused to lie, even to save herself from the pain. At length, a distraught Orazio pleaded with the court to release her from the torture—not because it killed him to see her in that much agony, but because he was worried that if her hands were damaged, then she would never be able to paint again, and if she couldn’t paint, then she couldn’t sell any paintings to bring in money. The judges snorted, but they stopped the torture, finally believing that Artemisia was telling the truth. They found Tassi guilty … but eight months later he was able to get the verdict overturned and he walked the streets of Rome a free man.

Judith and Her Maid by Artemisia Gentileschi

One of many paintings of Judith slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi
One of many paintings of Judith slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi

Moving On

In time Artemisia’s hands healed, and she painted the first of many versions of Judith Beheading Holofernes, a scene from a Biblical story where the Jewish heroine Judith slays the enemy general Holofernes in her tent, saving her people. Scholars had remarked that the Judith in these paintings bears a striking resemblance to Artemisia in her self-portraits—perhaps this was Artemisia’s way of taking revenge on the monster who had hurt her. A month after completing the painting, she married a painter named Pierantonio Stiattesi, and together they had a daughter named Palmira (her real name was Prudentia, named after Artemisia’s mother who had died when she was 12), who would eventually become a painter too.

St. Catherine of Alexandria by Artemisia Gentileschi

St. Catherine of Alexandria by Artemisia Gentileschi
St. Catherine of Alexandria by Artemisia Gentileschi

Her reputation in Rome destroyed, Artemisia and her family moved to Florence, where she joined a painter’s guild, the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing —the first woman to do so. It was here that Artemisia gained the patronage of the powerful Medici family who commissioned several paintings from her. There she became friends with Galileo Galilei and with the great artist Michaelangelo’s nephew Michelangelo Buonarroti, who was working on Casa Buonarroti and commissioned a painting from her. Artemisia enjoyed great success painting scenes of strong women, but in 1621 she and her husband Pierantonio died, and Artemisia and her daughter returned to Rome.

In Rome, Artemisia was not able to find much lucrative work, and she eventually moved to Naples, where she found more success and, save for a brief stint in London, lived for the rest of her life. She continued to paint portraits and scenes from the Bible and Greek mythology, and while she painted men, she never painted them nude. Interestingly, she never painted landscapes either—she would hire other artists to paint the landscapes for her,

By 1638 she had become so famous that the English king Charles I, who had already hired her father for his portraits, asked for Artemisia to come to England. Charles was likely intrigued by Artemisia’s talent, but there might have been another reason for the request; Orazio Gentileschi was in poor health, and he needed help finishing his projects. Orazio died in 1639, and Artemisia stayed in England until 1642, painting for the king before finally returning to Naples.

Artemisia Gentileschi passed away sometime around 1654, apparently still accepting commissions until her death. A few years before she died, she wrote in a letter to one of her patrons, “You will find the soul of Caesar in this woman.” An apt statement from a woman who fought against brutality and injustice, stood her ground and produced incredible works of art, making her one of the greatest artists of the era.

Artemisia Gentileschi works cited:

The Usborne Book of Famous Women,

by Richard Dungworth & Philippa Wingate

Uppity Women of Medieval Times,Uppity Women of Medieval Times,

by Vicki Leon

Uppity Women Speak Their Minds,

by Vicki Leon

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Women’s History,

by Sonia Weiss and Lorna Biddle Rinear

"Artemisia Gentileschi,"

Lucretia by Artemisia Gentileschi

Lucretia by Artemisia Gentileschi
Lucretia by Artemisia Gentileschi


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    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 2 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks for this very interesting article. With all of the art history classes I have taken, I have never heard of this talented and strong woman. Off hand, right now I cannot even think of another female artist from this era of history. She certainly had the drapery and fabric thing down to a science. And that self portrait--- I would certainly wear that outfit while painting with oils, so much classier than jeans and a t-shirt.