Artemisia Gentileschi, a woman beyond art

Disegno di Zoa Studio con citazione di Artemisia Gentileschi
Disegno di Zoa Studio con citazione di Artemisia Gentileschi

It is not the first time that we speak of extraordinary women, do you remember for example the recent article on Joan of Arc?

Today, July 8, on the occasion of the anniversary of the birth of Artemisia Gentileschi, artist and “proto-feminist”, we tell you the story of a woman who fought. Much. Just like Joan of Arc, Gentileschi fought against prejudices, against public opinion, against violence and against the malice of some men. Let’s start from the beginning.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s childhood and youth

Artemisia Gentileschi was born on 8 July 1593 in Rome to Prudentia Montone and Orazio Gentileschi, a well-known painter of the time. Orphaned at the age of 12, Artemisia, in addition to taking care of her younger brothers, quickly shows an aptitude for art. In fact, we begin to follow the father’s habits, first arranging some of his work and then making it his own.

Orazio was a friend of Caravaggio, the painter who had amazed the public in Rome by creating the scandalous paintings in the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, inaugurated in 1600, when Artemisia was only seven years old. Horace and Caravaggio were accused of writing defamatory graffiti on the streets of Rome on another painter. During the trial, Horace told an anecdote of Caravaggio who often visited his home to borrow things. This made it clear that Caravaggio was intimate with the Gentilichi family and suggested that his eldest daughter Artemisia had met him several times.

Regardless of this, when Artemisia was 13 years old, Caravaggio was involved in a murder and forced to flee from Rome to Naples. Despite this, Caravaggio’s influence can be easily recognized both in the work of Horace and in Artemisia.

The rape

In 1611, Horace was hired to decorate the Pallavicini-Rospigliosi Palace in Rome, together with another painter, Agostino Tassi. Hoping to help seventeen year old Artemisia to perfect her painting technique, Horace hired Tassi as a teacher. This gave Tassi direct access to Artemisia and during one of the sessions, in the absence of her father, he raped her. The description is Artemisia herself making it, and it is terrible.

“He locked the room and after being locked he threw me on the edge of the bed giving me a hand on his chest, he put a knee between my thighs that I could not tighten and get up cloths, which made us great effort to get up, I he put his hand with a handkerchief to his throat and to his mouth so that I would not cry out and his hands as before he held me with the other hand he left them, having first put all his knees between my legs and pinned me the member to nature began to push and put it inside. And I grabbed their faces and tore them out of their hair and before he put it in I also gave him a squeeze on the member who also took a piece of meat from him »

After the rape, to remedy what had happened, Artemisia began a more uxorio relationship with Tassi, believing that they would get married, as they did at the time. But Tassi later refused to marry her and it turned out that, in fact, he was already married.

The trial

As we said at the beginning, Artemisia Gentileschi resembles Giovanna D’Arco in some features. How she underwent a trial and various examinations and torture, only to not be fully believed.

However, Horace made the unusual decision to file a complaint against Tassi for rape and the subsequent trial continued for seven months. The length of the trial depended on the fact that Artemisia was a virgin before Tassi raped her and, as part of the judicial procedure, Artemisia underwent a gynecological examination (to prove her claim to be a virgin). And even to a far worse test to prove that he was telling the truth. The proof was that of the “sibilli”, and it consisted in tying the thumbs with cords that tightened more and more until the phalanges were crushed.

With this dramatic torture Artemisia would have risked losing her fingers forever, incalculable damage for a painter as capable as she is. However, despite the pain, she did not withdraw the deposition, because she wanted to see her rights recognized. The passionate testimony, in which he states that he wanted to kill Tassi after the rape, provides an indication of his character and his determination.

It appears evident that rape and the trial influenced many of Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings of that period, which present scenes of women attacked by men or in positions of power in search of revenge. The most significant: Giuditta beheading Holofernes, the first one on the left painted shortly after the rape.

Giuditta decapita Oloferne -Artemisia Gentileschi
Giuditta beheads Oloferne -Artemisia Gentileschi

Eventually, Tassi was found guilty and was punished with exile from Rome. But Tassi never actually left because he received protection from the Pope thanks to his artistic ability and because many witnesses hired at the trial spread the rumor that Artemisia Gentileschi was a little good.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s new life

A month after the end of the trial, Orazio made agreements with Artemisia who married the artist Pierantonio Stiattesi. The couple moved to the hometown of Stiattesi, in Florence.

Here Artemisia received one of her first important commissions, for a fresco in the Casa Buonarroti, Michelangelo’s house, which the painter’s great-grandson was transforming into a museum.

In addition, Artemisia became the first woman to be accepted into the prestigious Academy of Drawing Arts. This allowed her to purchase her artistic supplies without her husband’s permission and to sign her contracts. He also obtained the support of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II de’Medici, from whom he received numerous rather profitable commissions. Artemisia’s husband loved spending family money by leading a life above their (however good) possibilities.

In 1618, Artemisia and her husband had a daughter, Prudentia, which took its name from the deceased mother of Artemisia. Around this period, Artemisia began a passionate relationship with a Florentine nobleman named Francesco Maria di Niccolò Maringhi. Artemisia’s husband was aware of the relationship and used his wife’s love letters to correspond to Maringhi himself. It even appears that Maringhi was partially responsible for maintaining the couple financially, given Stiattesi’s mismanagement of money.

The financial problems, together with the widespread rumors about Artemisia’s infidelity, led to a breakup of the couple and, in 1621, Artemisia returned to Rome without her husband. It was not as successful in Rome as it had hoped for and spent some time in Venice towards the end of the decade, presumably looking for new commissions.

The last years

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