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

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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.

Medici pa­tron­age

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.

Af­ter Florence

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

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