Artemisia Gentileschi was a brave woman, strengthen by the many harsh tasks she had to endure during her life.
Self portrait as a martir
The choice of picking up painting back in 1600 was undoubtedly unusual.
the arts were a field almost entirely populated by men
When she was 12, Artemisia suffered from a great loss as she became orphan of mother. This tragic circumstance allowed her to get closer to her father, Orazio Gentileschi, of Tuscan origin, who was a painter and was well appreciated in Rome, at that time centre of artistic turmoil. The young girl, who still had to deal with the housekeeping and her younger siblings, was fascinated by her father’s work and the man very soon noticed the potential of the daughter. He supported her penchant and granted her an apprenticeship as any other aspiring artist would do. There were some limitation though:
Artemisia’s father would restrict the girl in many ways
All that she learnt was the result of her father’s lessons, at home. As a girl she could not undertake a training journey outside home, in that artistic world were only men, often unreliable, were allowed to do so. The contemporary painter Caravaggio who had previously affected Orazio’s way of painting, eventually left a sign on the daughter’s art too.
Self-portrait as an Painting Allegory
Being secluded at home though, did not spare the woman from tragedy. Orazio Gentileschi made the mistake of putting trust into a painter whom he would collaborate with, Agostino Tassi. Although he was a character with a troubled past (even with the law), the man was granted the trust of Orazio. He started providing lessons about perspective to the young Artemisia.
Tassi tried several time to seduce the girl but with no success
Until May 1611, when Agostino decided to take Artemisia by force using the temporarily absence of her father. The complaisance of the resident of the house, who was supposed to monitor the girl, gave the time and chance to Mr. Tassi to rape the girl, back then in her 18’s.
The event, as well as its following trial, left a scar in Artemisia’s life and art for good.
The paintress depicted many female biblical scenes (Giuditta, Betsabea, Ester) in which women were successfully fighting against strong male enemies
Jael and Sisera
Before becoming the appreciated artist by the courts of Florence, Naples and London, Artemisia had to go through a tremendous path. Initially, father and daughter believed the words of Mr. Tassi who suggested to fix the lost honour by setting up a restoring marriage. For nearly a year Artemisia awaited the wedding, succumbing to her promised man’s sexual requests. Very soon though, the Gentileschi family realised that the man was already married therefore no new marriage could be celebrated.
At that point Orazio Gentileschi decided to report Tassi for having forcefully deflowered his daughter
A 7 months trial started and that period tested the young Artemisia thoroughly, but the girl demonstrated a strength and courage ever imagined by the others. Tassi tried to reverse the situation in his favour thanks to some crooked witnesses; he accused Artemisia to be a promiscuous woman not virgin anymore. The fact that father and daughter pressed change several months after the episode made people doubt Artemisia, considered now by her folks almost as a prostitute.
Below: Artemisia Gentileschi, Saint Januarius in the Amphitheatre at Pozzuoli (1636 -1637)
With a strong interest of not giving up, Artemisia accepted to testify under torture (that was considered a way to speed up the process), during a confrontation with Tassi. The paintress underwent the “Torture by the Sibille”: this method would see the thumbs to be tied by some ropes that, due to a log, was increasingly tighten up around the phalanxes.
The consequence could be the loss of her fingers, which might have jeopardised Artemisia’s artistic career
While the guards were tying the girls thumbs, Artemisia screamed to the man:
This is the ring that you give me and those are the promises
Judith with her sister
The girl endure anything they did to her and eventually she obtained a sort of formal victory. Tassi was condemned for the raping and they let him choose between 5 years of reclusion or the exile from Rome for all his life. He chose the latter but he never really left Rome, thanks to the protection of some of his important clients whilst Artemisia was considered by her countrymen as “a whore and a liar who would go to bed with everyone”.
Judith who beheads Holofernes
It was Artemisia who eventually left Rome. The day after the end of the trial she married Pierantonio Stiattesi, minor painter, and together they moved to Florence. Although the union was not a romantic one, the marriage allowed the family to gain back some honour.
After a few years Artemisia relocated again in Rome, then Naples, London and maybe Venice and Genoa too, trying to follow the commissions that allowed the family to provide for the 4 children as well as the costly husband.
For a long time Artemisia Gentileschi was ignored by the Art world followed afterword by a consideration only for her trial event. Her talent has been very often put on the back burner from her bio, but later she eventually reached a wider attention managing to became a feminist ante-litteram.
However Artemisia was a woman of her time who had to respect the rules of those days, so considering her as a feminist is a rather rhetorical exercise. She was a paintress and, as Roberto Longhi said “…the only woman in Italy who has ever known what painting, colour, impasto and other essentials were”.
The trial of Artemisia Gentileschi is deeply documented on Wikipedia Italy (click here), otherwise it is possible to watch the film inspired by her named “Artemisia”, 1997
Below: Independent Italian production by CDRC Firenze