ART, INTRIGUE & ARTEMISIA: Aretemisia Gentileshi, the Florentine years
Gentileschi’s Florentine years: 1613-1620 Jane Fortune, author of InvisibleWomen,ForgottenArtistsofFlorence, tells the story of one such artist, the remarkable Artemisia Gentileschi
The words, “passion”, “drama”, “torture” and “art”, describe the life of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652/3), one of the world's greatest Baroque artists; a life that has all the chiaroscuro trappings of a romance novel. Even her exotic name, “Artemisia”, captures one’s attention. She was named after a Greek queen from the IV Century, Queen of Caria, Artemis, who was responsible for the building of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, in honour of her husband.
Queen Artemis, a strong woman full of intrigue, was ahead of her time, in a man’s world, as was Artemisia Gentileschi. The latter was among the first women artists to achieve success in the seventeenth century, and brought to her work an electric sense of narrative drama and a unique perspective that both celebrated, and humanized, strong women characters.
Today, she is regarded as one of the most progressive painters of her generation, particularly since her interpretations of powerful and brave women in history (such as Cleopatra, Diana, Bathsheba and Mary Magdalene) was unprecedented.
Her father, Orazio Lomi Gentileschi (1563-1639) was an Italian Baroque painter who came under the influence of Caravaggio, famous for interpreting his revolutionary painting style. From when she was a young child, her father trained Artemisia, the oldest of his four children, in his workshop/studio in Rome. Her school book training, though, was limited and she did not learn to read or write until she was an adult. Even with these obstacles, she became famous for grand scale works depicting biblical or mythical heroines, as in her first work, Susanna and the Elders (1610, Schonborn Collection, Pommersfelden, Germany) painted when she was seventeen.
Many attributed this work to her father, whose works are more idealized and hers more naturalistic, because the critics felt no one that young could paint such a dramatic and sensitive painting. Much later her signature was found in the painting in the shadow cast by Susanna’s legs, leaving no question that the work was hers. The painting, which depicts a young woman being sexually harassed by the elders of her community who falsely accused her of adultery, was painted before her traumatic rape experience, two years later.
Trial and torture
Because she was a girl, she could not attend an art academy, so her father hired Agostino Tasso, a co-worker, as her private tutor. At the age of nineteen, he raped her and promised to marry her, although he was married.
Her father later brought suit against Tassi and a sevenmonth criminal trial ensued, during which Artemisia was forced to publicly recount the rape and undergo torture – metal rings, thumbscrews, which were tightened around her fingers to assure she was telling the truth.
Tassi was found guilty and was sentenced to one year in prison, which he did not serve. Shortly after the trial, Artemisia Gentileschi‘s father arranged for her to marry a minor Florentine painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi, and they moved to Florence in 1613.
The trauma of the rape and the trial had a definite impact on her paintings – her graphic depictions were symbolic attempts to deal with her pain. The heroines in her paintings, especially Judith, the Jewish heroine who beheaded Holofernes, an invading Assyrian general, are powerful women exacting revenge on a male.
Life in Florence
Upon her arrival in Florence, Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger, a great nephew of Michelangelo Buonarroti the Great, commissioned Artemisia, then in an advanced state of pregnancy, to paint Allegory of the Inclination in the Casa Buonarotti, Michelangelo’s home in which he never lived.
Completed in 1615, this painting is located on the ceiling in the second floor gallery. This was part of a series of fifteen personifications dedicated to the life of his great uncle, Michelangelo, and she was paid three times more than any other artist who participated in painting this series. The subject of the allegory said to resemble Artemisia, is of a young woman holding a compass. Artemisia’s energetic and dramatic heroines often bear a resemblance to their creator. The figure was originally nude, but later her lap was partly painted with a drapery by another artist.
While in Florence, Artemisia became good friends with the astronomer, Galileo Galilei, presumably because of his connection to the Medici
court. Their friendship lasted until his death through written correspondence after she left Florence.
In 1616, she became the first woman to be inducted as a member of Florence’s Accademia dell’arte dei Disegno, Europe’s first academy for drawing, where Galileo was also a member. Although drawings by her are rare, a charcoal drawing of St. John the Baptist's Decapitation can be found in the archives of the Uffizi's Gabinetto di Disegni e Stampe in Florence.
She achieved widespread creative success under the patronage of Grand Duke Cosimo II de' Medici and the Grand Duchess, Cristina di Lorena, wife of Ferdinando I de' Medici.
While women artists at that time were generally limited to portraiture and still-life painting, Artemisia became famous for grand-scale works, depicting biblical and mythological heroines (no frail female ever graced her canvases). Judith and her Maidservant (1614), housed in Palazzo Pitti's Palatine Gallery, in the Sala dell’Iliade, is a stunning example of Artemisia's realism. It is one of six variations she painted on that subject (one version is in Michigan’s Detroit Museum of Art). Her style was strongly influenced by Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro, which shows a painterly contrast between light and dark.
Work in Florence
Other works by Artemisia Gentileschi in the Sala della Allegorie in the Palazzo Pitti’s Palatine Gallery, include Madonna and Child (1615) and The Conversion of the Magdalene (1620), also known as The Penitent Magdalene, which showcases the richness of the deep gold (called ‘Artemisia gold’) and the dark green of Magdalene's dress, newly developed colours she had not used in her earlier works. The work is thought to be the portrait of Maria Maddalena, the wife of Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici, and Gentileschi’s patron in Florence. Her signature “Artemisia Lomi”, her uncle Aurelio’s last name, is on the chair. In Florence, she signed her works, ‘Lomi’, rather than Gentileschi, because of her strained relationship with her father caused by the rape trial.
The Uffizi Gallery’s Sala del Carravaggio holds Gentileschi’s most well known work, Judith Beheading Holfernes (1620), a terrifying scene of female retribution, filled with power and intense violence. Artemisia is said to have painted it as revenge for her rape (it is worth noting that the blood spurting in a wild arc from Holofernes’ neck illustrates her friend Galileo’s discovery of ‘the parabolic path of projectiles’). The Uffizi version is larger than the earlier one (1612-1613) she painted, hanging in the Museum of Capodimonte in Naples. In the eighteenth century, the Florence version became the property of the Grand Duchess Maria Luisa de’Medici, but she found it so horrible to look at that she hid the work, which was not seen again until an exhibition in 2000 at the Uffizi Gallery.
Also, in the same room at the Uffizi Gallery, is her Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1619), commissioned by the Medici family. This work was damaged in the 1993 Mafia bombing, which exploded in one of the streets behind the Uffizi Gallery. The debris from the bomb cut a vertical slit along the saint’s right hand and damaged Saint Catherine’s face and eye and was restored in 1994. This work, once displayed in the Academia, was not originally recognized as a work by Artemisia Gentileschi until the 1960s.
Gentileschi’s Minerva/Sapienza (1615) was probably commissioned by Maria de' Medici and is said to represent her daughter-in-law, Anne of Austria. The painting, which is the property of the Polo Museale Fiorentino, hangs in Florence's Procura Generale della Repubblica (not open to the public) located on the via Cavour.
Though Artemisia and her work were quite popular in Florence, financial and marital problems forced her family in 1621 to return to Rome. In 1622, her husband was not listed as a household member and he is lost to the annals of history. In Rome, for eight years, her painting style matured and the sophistication in her imagery of the female figure brought her considerable artistic success which lasted her lifetime.
She moved to Naples from 16301638, and from 1638 to 1640 she joined her ailing father in London, where they painted together for the first time in fifteen years. After her father’s death in 1639, she moved back to Naples, where she lived until her death. She is reputed to be buried in Naples in the church of St. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, which was destroyed in WWII.
She left thirty four paintings and 28 letters, and though she enjoyed a successful career, after her death she was forgotten. This was until two decades ago when a renewed interest in her by feminist art historians, saw Artemisia recognized as one of the greatest female artists.
Mary Garrard’s, Artemisia Gentileschi - the Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art,
published in 1989, was the first book devoted to her, and in 1991 her first exhibition was held in Florence at the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, more than 300 years after her death.
Gentileschi fought for the right to be a successful woman artist centuries before the women’s equal rights movement, and it is her life struggles that makes her recognized as one of the world’s greatest artists. In her words: “my illustrious lordship, I will show you what a woman can do”, and that she did!
What makes us particularly happy about this project is that a painting relegated to the deposits of the Pitti Palace is now, after our restoration, deemed fit for public exhibition
Suzanna and the Elders, 1610