She was follower of the school of Caravaggio, his life was adventurous as that of his master. She had no fear of taking in court the man who had raped her, and having a guilty verdict for him. He broke social conventions becoming an independent artist. The mystery of the found painting of Caravaggio.
Artemisia Lomi Gentileschi was born in Rome on July 8, 1593; she was the daughter of Prudenza Montone and Orazio Gentileschi, an follower of the Caravaggio painting, of Tuscan origin but with the art workshop in Rome. Orazio changed his surname from Lomi to Gentileschi to be distinguished by his brother Aurelio, who was also a painter.
Artemisia already showed her passion for painting from child. Regularly she is attending her father’s studio where she learned all the secrets of painting. At 18, she was entrusted by her father to the painter Agostino Tassi of 31 years, because he taught to Artemisia the art of perspective.
One day he used violence to her in the home of Gentileschi family in S. Spirito in Sassia (Borgo S. Spirito), after various amorous proposals that Tassi made to the young painter, all rejected, taking advantage of being alone with her. The matter seemed be resolved as Artemisia began a relationship with Agostino, but soon she discovered that the painter was regularly married and could not legalize their union. Artemisia confessed to his father what had happened. Agostino Tassi was took into court, accused by Artemisia and her father of rape.
There were many difficulties to ascertain the truth in the trial, because Tassi denied responsibility and accused Artemisia to have had many lovers, so she can be considered a prostitute. Many witnesses were heard, mostly in favor of Tassi, but he was suspected of bribing the witnesses, the painter had already been convicted several times for sexual offenses. Artemisia was questioned and, to give more strength to her testimony, she asked to be interrogated under torture, she confirmed the charges and the promise of Tassi to marry her, what she had believed, in the interrogation. Only later she learned that he was already married and had been abandoned by his wife.
The process lasted a long time to test the sincerity of the many testimonies in favor of Agostino Tassi. A lot of the testimonies resulted false to subsequent checks, also the exaggerated and obviously false accusations moved against the Artemisia honesty was unfavorable to the painter. At the end of the trial, he was sentenced to five years hard labor or, at his option, to perpetual exile from Rome; Agostino Tassi chose exile.
Artemisia continued her passion for painting despite the ostracism that the closed Roman circles showed to her during and after the trial. At this time the “Susanna e i vecchioni” (Schönborn collection) where the art critics see the discomfort of the painter towards his father and Agostino Tassi, represented by the two old men that undermine Susanna (Artemisia), who is denying herself. The influence of Caravaggio is already present in this picture with the power of light and the strong contrasts in the use of color. The father Orazio was in great friendship with Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio) of whom he attended the studio often accompanied by his daughter Artemisia, where he had access to all the secrets of Caravaggio’s painting.
Another picture was painted by Gentileschi in 1612, “Giuditta che decapita Oloferne“, impressive for the crudeness of the representation and the powerful appeal of the painter to her vicissitudes, which incorporates the same scene painted by Caravaggio. Giuditta is the self-portrait of Artemisia. We see the satisfaction of revenge of beautiful Giuditta against Oloferne that is Tassi in the symbolism of the scene. There is the school of Caravaggio in this picture, the same scenery, the same drama, Giuditta is careful and concentrated in using the knife to decapitate Oloferne.
On 29 November 1612 Artemisia married Pierantonio Stiattesi, a modest Florentine artist, but represented for Artemisia a good husband. The two, after the wedding, moved to Florence to escape the Roman chatter. Artemisia used the original paternal surname Lomi in Florence, freeing herself from the heavy burden of the past. The painter could fully express his talent in the new milieu; in 1616 she was accepted to the Academy of Arts and Design by attending the most famous artists. she met Cosimo II de ‘Medici, and Cosimo’s mother, Cristina. she had relationships with Galileo Galilei and was praised by Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger, nephew of the famous Michelangelo Buonarroti. She was entrusted to painting a canvas destined to the “Magione”.
Florentine life was particularly expensive for the beautiful Artemisia and her husband enough to consume even her remarkable gains made with the many commissions that she had to that time: “La Conversione di Maddalena“, “Giuditta con la sua ancella“, a second “Giuditta che decapita Oloferne“, which had the characteristic of representing the female figure with the features of Artemisia, to believe that they were the same costumers asked this peculiarity, in homage to her beauty and reputation of her Roman adventure.
In 1621 Artemisia separated from her husband and she moved back to Rome, except for a brief period in which she went to Genoa with her father where she met the Flemish painter Antoon Van Dyck and where she painted “Lucrezia” and “Cleopatra“. In Rome she haused an apartment in Via del Corso, near Piazza del Popolo, with her daughter Prudenzia, had with her husband Pierantonio Stiattesi. During her stay in Rome she was able to lessen the dependence of her painting from Caravaggio style to accentuate classicism and baroque were the rising trend in the art in Rome at that time. At the time one of the most surprising paintings was “L’autoritratto dell’allegoria della pittura”, where the artist drew back while she painted a canvas, with all its equipment in plain sight. It is also interesting to note that the female figures, which are always the self-painters of Artemisia, are showing how her beauty matures with age. The painter, now fully established also in Rome where the memory of the trial was always alive, she became part of the Academy of Desiosi. In 1627 she had a second illegitimate daughter by her lover Knight of Malta.
The important jobs in which she hoped late in coming despite her fame, so between 1627 and 1630 Artemisia moved to Venice, where she produced some of the most significant paintings: “Giuditta e la sua ancella“, “Ritratto di gonfaloniere” “Venere e la sua ancella“.
In 1630 the artist was in Naples. In this city she met the Spanish painter Diego Velasquez, 32 year-old at the time, during his first trip to Italy. She also confronted with major painters who at that time worked in Naples: Massimo Stanzione and José de Ribera. Artemisia and Diego Velasquez worked together for Maria Anna of Austria, Queen of Hungary, for whom Artemisia painted a few canvases. The artist produced one of his most beautiful paintings: “Annunciazione” which is exhibited in the Museum of Capodimonte, also some pictures were commissioned to Artemisia for the cathedral of Pozzuoli (Rione Terra): “L’adorazione dei Magi“, “San Gennaro nell’anfiteatro di Pozzuoli “and” Santi Proculo e Nicea “.
In 1638 Artemisia left for a few years Naples and moved to London where her father who was already working for the English court to finish painting the ceiling of the Queen’s House located in Greenwich Village. King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria of France, art lovers, bought by Gentileschi his “Autoritratto della allegoria della pittura” and other paintings commissioned the painter.
After her father’s death happened in London in September 1639, Artemisia returned to Naples, where she received the patronage of Don Antonio Ruffo, belonging to the Sicilian branch of the noble family. In this time her most famous work is “Lucrezia“. Her two daughters married two young Neapolitan in this second and final stay in the city. We don’t have many traces of the second Neapolitan period of the painter; a letter of the year 1649, sent by the artist to his friend and patron Don Antonio Ruffo, certifies that on that year Artemisia still working actively. Artemisia Gentileschi died in Naples in 1653, at age 60.
Artemisia can be considered a protofeminist for her courage to face with independence her adventurous life full of difficulties. She was the first woman painter who practiced her art outside of a family context as it was customary at the time in the few cases of women artists.
The mystery of the found painting of Caravaggio
A few years ago, a painting was found representing Judith slaying Holofernes, identified by some experts for a painting by Michelangelo Merisi which was gone missing, in an attic of an old house of Toulouse in France of owership of descendants of a Napoleonic officer. A copy of this picture was painted by Luis Finson, Flemish painter of the early years of the 600, which had been the owner of the original painting; now this copy is in the Banco di Napoli collection, exposed in Palazzo Zevallos, via Toledo in Naples.
The painting would be a second version of the same subject painted by Caravaggio in Naples in 1607, according to researchers who have identified the author. Other experts believe the picture was painted in large part by disciples of Caravaggio’s workshop, or be another copy of Finson, or the work of some Neapolitan painters.
Michelangelo Merisi, after the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni, was sentenced to be beheaded by the court of Rome. He fled to Naples, protected by the Colonna family, welcomed by the Neapolitan branch of the same family. The Marquise Costanza Sforza Colonna, always the protector and lover of the painter, housed in a mansion of hers. During the Neapolitan stay Michelangelo Merisi was chasing money since, being wanted murderess, he had to travel to Malta to be named Knight of the Order of Malta, acquiring that nobility which he always sought, that would put him safe from long arms of the papal justice.
Probably he gave orders to the disciples of his studio to complete and sell the paintings that had already set and partially painted for money. Among these would be the canvas found in Toulouse, set by the painter to represent Judith Slaying Holofernes and that perhaps he had even started to paint the leading figure, the face of Holofernes. The completion of the work was probably tempted by some of his disciples, but Holofernes emerged as a vivid face on a pale body. The second figure, that old maid, was represented with a huge goiter which recalled the dramatic realism of Caravaggio, but the exaggeration of the deformity was not customary in Caravaggio. Each figure is painted in a different light, in contrast to the paintings by Caravaggio that just the prospect of light gave unity to his paintings.
It is likely that Artemisia Gentileschi, a habitué of the Lombard painter’s studio, was entrusted for completing the canvas, to recover credibility of the attribution of the painting to Caravaggio. The fact that Judith presents the appearance of the same Artemisia gives strength to this hypotesis, as it was the custom of the painter who portrayed herself in the figures of heroines who painted. This reconstruction naturally regards the first assumption by the experts are not convinced of the originality of the canvas.
Vincenzo Accame e Francesco Saba Sardi, Artemisia Gentileschi, Milano. Spirali/Vel, 2007
Eva Menzio (a cura di), Artemisia Gentileschi, Lettere precedute da Atti di un processo di stupro, Abscondita, Milano 2004
Roberto Contini e Gianni Papi (a cura di) Artemisia, Leonardo De Luca Editori, Roma, 1991
Tiziana Agnati, Artemisia, Dossier Art nº 172, Giunti, 2001