Artemisia Gentileschi

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Artemisia Gentileschi was the greatest female artists of the Baroque age. In Artemisia Gentileschi, critic and historian Jonathan Jones discovers how Artemisia overcame a turbulent past to become one of the foremost painters of her day.

As a young woman Artemisia was raped by her tutor, and then had to endure a seven-month-long trial during which she was brutally examined by the authorities. Gentileschi was shamed in a culture where honour was everything. Yet she went on to become one of the most sought-after artists of the seventeenth century. Yet she went on to become one of the most sought-after artists of the seventeenth century. Gentileschi’s art communicated a powerful personal vision. Like Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois or Tracey Emin, she put her life into her art.

‘Lives of the Artists’is a new series of brief artists biographies from Laurence King Publishing. The series takes as its inspiration Giorgio Vasari’s five-hundred-year-old masterwork, updating it with modern takes on the lives of key artists past and present. Focusing on the life of the artist rather than examining their work, each book also includes key images illustrating the artist’s life.



Artemisia Gentileschi was a contemporary of Shakespeare and Rembrandt, and a friend of Galileo – a great woman in an age we usually associate with great men. The emotional directness of her paintings helped to make European art more human and approachable in the great seventeenth-century democratization of culture known as the Baroque.

Behind that achievement, though, lies a brutal story. Artemisia grew up in Rome, a child prodigy trained by her artist father. She could paint like an expert by the time she was 17, but her reward for daring to be an artist was to be raped by a friend of her father’s, another painter. Before the assault, he tore the brush and palette from her hands and told her not to ‘paint so much’. When her father brought charges against him, Artemisia was tortured to test her reliability as a witness, but she remained insistent throughout, defiantly repeating, ‘It is true, it is true’. The notoriety of the trial led to her departure from Rome. Artemisia survived this ordeal to become a successful artist with an international career. But her greatest achievement was to release her pain and anger in paintings that reveal her inmost feelings, an obvious example being Judith and Holofernes, in which two women are depicted slaughtering a man.

What kind of person could rock the male dominance of art and society so many centuries before modern feminism? Needless to say, an extraordinary one. Artemisia escaped a hopeless marriage to live independently as the head of a household. She also brought up her daughter by herself, had at least one passionate love affair, and became celebrated for her articulacy, talent and beauty.

Artemisia was employed at two of Europe’s great courts – working for the Medici in Florence, and for Charles I in London. She could certainly dress the part and perform music like a born courtier, but she had, in reality, been born on the wrong side of a dung-spattered alley. She grew up illiterate, in a tough part of Rome, among artists who acted like thugs and who were in and out of prison, and she never really lost her rough edge. She was as real as her paintings.

Toughest of the tough in the Roman art scene at the start of the 1600s was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, painter, murderer and friend of Artemisia’s father. Caravaggio’s sensational fusion of art and life enthralled her. She must have met this unforgettable character when she was a child, as he came in and out of her father’s home workshop. She also studied his works in Rome’s churches intently and became the most radical of his followers – the ‘Caravaggisti’ – building brilliantly on his revelation that art and life are doubles of each other. To say that this book is about her art as well as her life would be tautological. They are the same thing.


In the summer of 1612, a proud father boasted about his child’s achievements. The painter Orazio Gentileschi, writing from Rome, really lays it on in a letter to Christina of Lorraine, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany. He is, he claims, the parent of an artistic prodigy. Brilliant boys had achieved fame before in the Italian Renaissance – the fourteenth-century painter Giotto, for example, was discovered as a young shepherd sketching in the earth with a stick. But Gentileschi is not bragging about a son. The marvel is his daughter, Artemisia:

And this girl, as it pleases God, having been educated in the art of painting, in three years has become so accomplished that I would dare to say that she has no equal for she now executes such works as perhaps the leading Mastri of this profession have not reached for their level of skill...

The Italian Renaissance had produced women artists before Orazio’s daughter. Giorgio Vasari in the enlarged edition of the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects had found room for four, all squeezed in the same chapter, of whom the most highly regarded today is the witty portraitist Sofonisba Anguissola. Another fine female painter of the late Renaissance was Lavinia Fontana, who also specialized in portraits. Artemisia would make a much more original and ambitious contribution, consciously competing with the greatest masters in complex and perturbing retellings of history and myth. Painting was in her blood. She grew up surrounded by such pigments as lead white, red and yellow ochre, umber and vermilion, in a home that was also her father’s studio, frequented by a lawless gang who were revolutionizing the art of painting. Another pigment she’d have encountered was carbon black. Plenty of carbon black.

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The libellous verses appeared without warning, posted up in the dead of night. It was a recognized form of expression in a city that sometimes felt like a chaotic nest built by parasites on the ancient, decaying body of an older, grander metropolis. The astonishing remains of the Forum and Colosseum reminded modern Romans how far they still had to go, at the start of the 1600s, to match the antique splendour of the Roman Empire. A less imposing Roman relic was a time-eroded statue nicknamed Pasquino, on whose mouldering marble remains it was permitted to post satirical verses. The particular ‘pasquinades’ that elicited sniggers in the unlit, sewerless and still largely fountainless streets of Rome in 1603, however, went beyond what their target in this case – Giovanni Baglione – could endure. Baglione was a painter with a reputation to protect – and the poems that had appeared accused him of being incompetent. ‘Giovan Bagaglia’, one of them started:

you are ignorant,

your pictures are not painterly,

and I can tell you won’t earn anything for them

Not even the cloth to make breeches

To cover your arse...

Pardon me for not joining in the adulation

For you are unworthy of the chain you wear

And you disgrace the art of painting.

Baglione had a pretty good idea who was behind these words and he denounced them before the magistrates. When his libel case came to trial on 28 August 1603, the three accused were rival artists whom Baglione claimed were motivated by invidia of his fame and success. They were Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and his ‘friends and followers’ Onorio Longhi and Orazio Gentileschi.

It had all started, Orazio Gentileschi told his interrogators in prison, when he painted a canvas of the archangel Saint Michael for San Giovanni, the Florentine church in Rome. Baglione had then placed opposite this picture, ‘a Divine Love that he painted to rival a Profane Love by Caravaggio’.

In the ‘Profane Love’ – all too profane – that Caravaggio had recently executed for his aristocratic admirer, Vincenzo Giustiniani, a naked adolescent boy posing as Cupid straddles a heap of discarded artefacts of civilization, including musical instruments and an architect’s set square. Amor vincit omnia – Love conquers all things – as the Roman poet Virgil put it. Yet there’s nothing classical about this Cupid. He’s a cynical street urchin with jet black wings who’s broken into your palazzo to wreck your life. Baglione’s reply was as pointed as it was artistically leaden: a stern figure of Divine Love intervening to save Caravaggio’s Cupid from mortal sin.

Divine Love Overcoming the World, the Flesh and the Devil caricatures the dark-haired, dark-eyed Caravaggio as a devil being separated from his catamite by the angel of the Lord. This painting accuses Caravaggio of sodomy: a sin and a capital crime. Baglione, far from being the victim of envy, had cause to be jealous of Caravaggio. It was Caravaggio who was taking Rome by storm. Whereas Caravaggio painted his Cupid for the art collector Giustiniani, Baglione dedicated his holy antidote to Giustiniani’s brother, a cardinal.

Gentileschi continued that:

although it didn’t go down as well as Michelangelo’s, it was still said the Cardinal gave him a chain. I told him there was a lot wrong with this picture because he’d painted a man in armour instead of a naked child. Later he repainted it as a nude. I’ve not spoken to Baglione since...

Baglione had indeed prissily given his angel an awkward-looking suit of armour. Gentileschi’s words must have bitten, for in the second version of the picture the angel’s leg is exposed. But Baglione also turns the head of an originally faceless satyr so that we can see it is Caravaggio. And that provoked Gentileschi, Longhi and Caravaggio to pen their insults.

Baglione’s resentment still smoulders in a biography of his old enemy that he wrote years later. At the start of the 1600s, it relates, Caravaggio stunned Rome with two big paintings of the Calling and Martyrdom of Saint Matthew for the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, the French church in Rome. No one had seen anything like them before. Crowds came to see Caravaggio’s depictions of louts gathered round a table counting money like thieves after a job, and a near-nude executioner raising his sword over the sprawled Matthew: these dramatically lit tableaux of biting reality ‘gave the fame of Caravaggio a boost and were lauded to the skies by wicked people (maligni).’

Those maligni included connoisseur cardinals, avant-garde aristocrats and other artists. The street theatre, severe lighting and electrifying rawness of Caravaggio’s paintings would inspire dozens of disciples and reignite European painting as his cult spread as far afield as Utrecht, Seville and Toulouse. What the libel case shows is that already in 1603, just three years after the Matthew paintings made him a star, Caravaggio had followers. It also gives us a glimpse of them acting like a street gang.

Onorio Longhi, named in the trial as the other of Caravaggio’s amici et adherenti, would be in court again that November after confronting Baglione in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and trying to start a sword fight. His tough ways mirrored the behaviour of Caravaggio himself, who was not just a cutting edge artist but an expert swordsman.

Gentileschi followed Caravaggio more for his artistic genius than his swordfighting skills. He was older than the mercurial man whose art entranced him. Born in Pisa in 1563, he was 40 in the year of the libel case. Caravaggio was 32. But the older man was more than happy to recognize his younger friend’s startling originality, and learn from it. He saw the tenderness behind Caravaggio’s art of shock. In about 1596, Caravaggio portrayed himself as Saint Francis of Assisi, robed in a friar’s habit, swooning in ecstasy in the arms of an angel who is all too visibly a young male model wearing strap-on wings. Gentileschi painted his own interpretation of this dreamy scene, repeating the subject several times over. He also painted a Madonna and Child, from about 1605 to 1610, that pays subtle homage to another early introspective masterpiece by Caravaggio, a painting of a prostitute as the Penitent Magdalene. Both are closely observed and intimate, blurring the boundary between religious art and secular portraiture – pictures of real women rather than holy personages.

Gentileschi, who was born with the surname Lomi, was the son of a goldsmith whose proudest moment was making a crown for Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany. It was not unusual for a jeweller’s son to become an artist. The Florentine sculptor-goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini made both salt cellars and statues. Orazio’s half-brother Aurelio Lomi also became a painter and spent his life creating complicated colourful altarpieces for Tuscan churches. Orazio himself was a slow starter. He settled in Rome in the late 1570s after his father died and took the name Gentileschi from an uncle. He worked on frescoes for the Vatican Library in the late 1580s and painted The Presentation of Christ for Santa Maria Maggiore in 1593, but his work before 1600 has left little mark. When he encountered Caravaggio it changed his life. Caravaggio transformed him as a painter.

Gentileschi’s fierce loyalty to his friend blazes in his testimony in the 1603 trial. Caravaggio knew the ropes and handled himself like a taciturn habitual criminal. He didn’t name Gentileschi among the painters he admired. Indeed he claimed they hadn’t spoken for years. Gentileschi tried the same trick, complaining that Caravaggio never greeted him with a doff of the cap – a plausible description of the surly streetfighter’s behaviour.

But Gentileschi was not a good liar. In his testimony he harped on Baglione being given a chain to honour his work: ‘For you are unworthy of the chain you wear...’ Clearly, Gentileschi was fully involved in this verbal war on the streets. His testimony gives one incongruously sweet glimpse of his friendship with Caravaggio. While dutifully denying they’ve had contact lately, he can’t help mentioning that Caravaggio recently borrowed from his house a Capuchin monk’s costume and ‘a pair of wings, which he sent back to me about ten days ago’. It’s a lovely image of the way they were both painting at this revolutionary moment in Italian art. Gentileschi had been brought up in the Florentine Renaissance tradition that a painting should be planned and constructed in a series of preparatory drawings, but here he was, sharing props and costumes with Caravaggio as they tried to catch real life on canvas.

Artemisia Gentileschi was ten years old when Caravaggio returned the wings. The fact that her father had a home with space not just to paint but to store costumes and props reveals how different his aspirations were compared to Caravaggio’s. In 1603, Caravaggio was living in the same unstable way that he had since coming to Rome in the early 1590s, with periods as a guest in great men’s palaces alternating with brief rentals. He never married. Orazio, by contrast, lived in the way men were expected to in early modern Europe, as the head of a family, just like his craftsman father. His wife was Prudentia Montoni, a native Roman. On 8 July 1593 she gave birth to their first child, and two days later the girl was baptized in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina. Her exhausted mother was unlikely to have attended. The daughter was named Artemisia after her godmother, Artemisia Capizucchi. It was an absolutely typical, respectable start in life.

Artemisia would have been born at home. It was a moment when her mother’s female friends and relatives – including her godmother – must have gathered to offer support and help, sharing their own experiences of the most dramatic and dangerous moment in Renaissance women’s lives. An entire genre of painting depicted this rite of passage and its female social setting. It takes over depictions of the births of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. In Artemisia’s own mature work The Birth of Saint John the Baptist it becomes a realistic contemporary scene of what, in an age without anything we’d recognize as decent medicine, could easily end tragically for mother and child. In Artemisia’s depiction, two women sit in their best clothes, recognizing the specialness of the moment, while two are busy working as midwives with their sleeves rolled up, one with a bowl of water, the other presenting the newborn to – perhaps – his godmother.

Surviving birth was an achievement in itself. The reason Artemisia was baptized so soon after being born was that the high infant mortality of this period made it a sensible precaution. Babies who died unbaptized were doomed to get stuck in Limbo, instead of ascending to Paradise like baptized innocents.

Having survived life’s first hurdle, Artemisia spent her early years in the family home on Via di Ripetta, not far from the Hospital of San Giacomo of the Incurables, which treated Romans with syphilis. Via Ripetta was one of three long, straight streets, together with the Via del Corso and the Via Paolina, that radiated southeast from one of Rome’s biggest public spaces, Piazza del Popolo. The area defined by these streets became known as Il Tridente, ‘the Trident’, because it looks from above like Neptune’s three-pronged trident spearing the city. This impressive piece of town planning was the first serious effort by the Renaissance popes to impose clarity on the chaos of ruins, opportunistic building, pasture and orchards that was medieval Rome. It gave direct access through the tangle to Rome’s most sacred churches. Pilgrims entering the city through the Porta del Popolo would be awed by the piazza with its obelisk before heading down Via Paolina towards Santa Maria Maggiore; or along Via del Corso to St John Lateran, the archbasilica frescoed by Orazio in 1599 and where the 11-year-old Artemisia underwent her confirmation into the adult congregation. Or you could go down Via di Ripetta towards St Peter’s, which at the time of Artemisia’s birth was entering the final phase of its completion.

Until the age of 18 this was where Artemisia lived, albeit at different addresses. After Via Ripetta the family moved to nearby Piazza Santa Trinità, then Via Paolina, which everyone referred to by what has now become its official name, Via del Babuino (Street of the Baboon), after an ugly statue of Silenus on a fountain. Annual censuses undertaken by churches at Easter reveal that the area was inhabited by painters, their apprentices, paint grinders, models and paint sellers, living alongside cabinet-makers, cooks, washerwomen, vineyard workers, barbers, builders and cortegane (sex-workers). And while the Corso was an artery that served to unify Rome, it was also the site of the popular and unruly annual carnival that marked the beginning of Lent. Artemisia would have witnessed the rowdy festivities that involved races on the Corso, including the notorious Jews’ Race.

Artemisia also grew up close to some of Rome’s greatest art. Piazza del Popolo was home to the Gentileschis’ parochial church, Santa Maria del Popolo, whose Augustinian friars had pastoral care over their neighbourhood. It had been rebuilt in the early 1500s by the pioneering classical architect Bramante and was home to the ornate Chigi Chapel, begun by Raphael. But the most gripping works of art in the church were the most modern, by her father’s friend Caravaggio, who in 1601 painted two canvases for the side walls of its Cerasi Chapel.

On Sale
Mar 31, 2020
Page Count
144 pages