Artemisia Gentileschi

The untamed art of a rebel

A painter with a strong expressive force, Artemisia Gentileschi stands out not only for having made her way in a world fit only for men, but above all for her undeniable talent, the strength of her works and her character.

Childhood and education

A child of art, she was born in Rome in 1593 to the famous painter Orazio Lomi Gentileschi, a close friend of Caravaggio, and Prudenzia di Ottaviano Montoni. Her father descended from a family of artists: Artemisia’s grandfather was a Florentine goldsmith active mainly in Pisa, while two of her three uncles were painters. The mother, on the other hand, is a young Roman lady from a very well connected family in the papal curia, the daughter of a cardinal’s secretary. Thanks to her, her husband has access to a whole cosmos of wealthy patrons linked to the environment of the Church and intellectual Rome and who contribute to his work as an artist. Little Artemisia is the first of six children, the only girl, and shows a strong inclination for drawing and painting from a very young age. Orazio, in spite of the narrow-mindedness and male chauvinism of the artistic milieu of the time, committed himself to teaching his daughter the craft and trained her at home, surrounded by her affections and guided by her family, contrary to what was the norm.

However, the relationship between father and daughter is far from simple. Despite the care and dedication with which Horatio teaches the young girl, the two often quarrel. As he soon discovers, he does not have a simple painter on his hands but a true artist. And just like any self-respecting artist, Artemisia soon developed her own vision of the world and art: she did not simply emulate her father’s style, but made it her own by filtering and integrating it according to her own vision. At around the age of twelve, in 1605, she officially began working in the family workshop, probably following the death of her mother. Together with his father, who was highly appreciated by Roman patrons, he made the acquaintance of many of the most fashionable artists of the period, including the most relevant for the development of his style, Caravaggio.

In his letters, despite numerous disagreements, Horace often praises his daughter and speaks of her with pride. Thanks to these testimonies we know, for example, that Artemisia was already highly regarded in Roman intellectual circles at the age of 15. All the while, the young girl collaborated with her father, helping him to complete commissions while also working on works entirely by her own hand, such as Susanna and the Old Men, painted in 1610 and now in the Graf von Schönborn Collection in Pommersfelden, Germany. So evident is her talent that her father in 1612, when she was only 19 years old, mentions her in a letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Christine of Lorraine, stating that ‘perhaps the principal masters of this profession do not arrive at her knowledge’.

The Rape

Around 1611, when Artemisia was about 18 years old, the most dramatic and well-known episode in the artist’s life took place. Agostino Tassi, a painter to whom her father had recently entrusted his daughter as an apprentice, raped her in the Gentileschi family home in Via Croce in Rome, while Orazio was away on business, and continued to psychologically and physically abuse her for months. The repeated violence is made possible thanks to the complicity of the neighbour and family friend Tuzia and a papal official, Cosimo Quorli, later also accused of molesting her and stealing works from the family workshop. The girl was held hostage by the Tassi with the false promise of a reparatory marriage, a not unusual occurrence at the time, at least until her father’s return.

When Orazio decides to file a complaint against his colleague the following year, the affair takes on the appearance of a real scandal that echoes throughout Rome. Artemisia, despite her profound trauma and ruined reputation, manages to find the strength to fight back and voluntarily decides to be subjected to humiliating public gynaecological examinations and terrible testimony under torture in order to get her assailant convicted. During one of these interrogations she is subjected to the hissing torture: the fingers of her hands are tied with strings, which are slowly tightened by twisting a stick. Besides the tremendous pain, the crushing of the phalanges can result in permanent damage, which could cost her her career as a painter. Despite everything, Artemisia resisted and, in 1612, Agostino Tassi was finally condemned and exiled from the papal city. The same year Artemisia married the Florentine Pierantonio Stiattesi and moved to Florence in 1614. They had four children, Giovanni Battista, Cristofano, Prudenzia and Lisabella, but theirs was not a particularly happy marriage.

The Florentine Years

It was in the Tuscan capital that Artemisia’s career took off. Once the terrible parenthesis of rape was over, she began to dedicate herself intensively to painting again. In Florence, she was warmly welcomed by the court of the young Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici and began to frequent the city’s most cultured circles. During these years she came into contact and forged strong ties with intellectuals such as the writer Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, great-grandson of the much better-known artist of the same name, who commissioned her in 1615 to paint the Allegory of Inclination for Casa Buonarroti, and Galileo Galilei, a revolutionary scientist with whom she developed a particularly close friendship. Unlike Rome, Florence was a city dominated by women: Cosimo II was young and weakened by tuberculosis, and the court was governed, and agitated, by the relationship between the two very religious Grand Duchesses: his mother Christine of Lorraine and his young wife Maria Magdalena of Habsburg. The two do not seem to get along very well and in fact fight over the young ruler’s attentions, the power they wield through him, and both desire to be at the centre of the courtiers’ lusts.

Artemisia’s close relationship with the Grand Duke, as well as with the latter’s mother and consort, is well documented but, unfortunately, most of the works we now consider from this period are difficult to date. He certainly made the canvases currently exhibited in Florence for them, but on those that have found new locations in Italy and Europe over the centuries, we unfortunately have no certainty. She was commissioned around 1615 to paint the Penitent Magdalene, or the Conversion of Magdalene, now in the Galleria Palatina in Palazzo Pitti. This work was possibly made for the young Grand Duchess, who was named after the saint. Here the figure of Magdalene is strangely wrapped in a very rich yellow silk dress, unlike the typical representations of the time that immortalise her dressed in rags, with her face streaked with tears and one bare foot in view as evidence of her new life of renunciation.

In 1616, Artemisia was the first woman to be admitted as a member of the Accademia del Disegno in Florence, the very prestigious institution desired by Michelangelo and officially founded by Vasari the century before.

But it was towards the end of her stay in Florence that Artemisia produced her most famous works, those that most of all show the strength of her character, and perhaps the shadow of her past. These are the paintings that have as their subject the Judith of the Old Testament, a heroine who rebels against the will of man. Judith with her handmaiden, now in the Palatine Gallery, but above all Judith beheading Holofernes, which can be admired in the Uffizi, depict two different moments of the same biblical episode: the killing of the Assyrian general Holofernes at the hands of Judith, a widow from the besieged city who, by deception, seduces and defeats the enemy. Like many of his mature works, the style closely resembles that of Caravaggio, with bright colours against dark backgrounds that enhance the figures and the scene. What is striking is the strength of his women: indomitable, proud and confident against evil and unjust men.

Giuditta con la sua ancella
Judith and her maid, 1612-1613
Giuditta decapita Oloferne
judith with the head of Holofernes, 1620 c.

The Journeys

In 1621, the slow loss of favour at the Medici court and the mountain of debts her husband had accumulated forced her to leave the city and never return. For years her work as a painter had enabled her to support her husband’s desire for luxury, but perhaps Pierantonio’s vices had become too much even for a successful artist. She therefore left Florence and left for Genoa where her father was working and where she met Van Dyck and Rubens, two other important figures in the development of her style.

In 1622, he returned to his native city of Rome, where he remained for a few years, continuing his work as an artist. From this period is a splendid new version of Judith with her handmaiden, now in Detroit. This canvas shows how Artemisia’s technique developed further, creating a wonderfully intriguing scene lit only by a candle. The change is perhaps due to her contact with Gherardo delle Notti, a Flemish artist who was famous in Rome at the time for his nocturnal scenes.

In search of new commissions, however, she was forced to move to Venice for three years in 1627, before settling in Naples. The Neapolitan capital was at the height of its splendour, the second largest metropolis in Europe by population and boasting a fervent cultural activity. Here, he mainly engaged in sacred-themed works with a less rebellious and more institutional character, such as the San Gennaro in the amphitheatre of Pozzuoli or the Adoration of the Magi for Pozzuoli Cathedral. His commissions reached international levels in Naples, as evidenced by some works he produced for the Spanish King Philip IV, and his fame spread.

In order to join her father and obtain the funds to give his daughter Prudenzia a substantial dowry, she travelled to London in 1638, to the court of Charles I. The trip was not particularly fruitful and by the dawn of the English Civil War Artemisia was back in Naples, where she remained until her death.

There is no certain information about the date of her death, but many place it around 1656 during the terrible plague epidemic that decimated the city and deprived it of its greatest artists and intellectuals.

Cover photo: Judith with her maid, 1612-1613, Artemisia Gentileschi, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Dove e quando

Rome, 1593 – Naples, 1656

Arte

Painting

Museums

Galleria degli Uffizi

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Palazzo Pitti

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