The English Way (1)

Sordi-in-I-Due-Nemici-Posters

from “The Best Enemies”, with David Niven and Alberto Sordi.

Elections are not very far and I may say that analyzing the Italian political situation, the name of the party that is very likely to win will be: “precariousness and confusion”.  But what are reasons that have brought our nation to the pathological political instability that has characterized us for decades? What’s wrong with us? We are a charming country with a glorious past, the cradle of civilization along with Greece and much more could be added, for sure. However, even if we started so well, we must have missed a few steps in the path towards a mature democracy.

One justification might be that we are a young nation: only 157 years old. We shouldn’t forget that before the unification, we had suffered dominations of any kind, whose heritage can be clearly seen in any of our regions in term of culture, food, music, language. By the way, in those centuries of oppression we had also gradually developed a higher degree of scepticism and distrust against any form of administration. Cunning, unreliability, deceitfulness, “virtues” that still distinguish the Italian stereotype abroad, were the weapons we had developed in time to defend ourselves from the foreign rules.

The problem is that once free and politically united, we haven’t been able to work together for the making of a common identity, because our chronic distrust runs in our veins and has always made us choose for the “individual” way, rather than the “social” one.  That’s why the process towards a responsible, efficient democracy here is slower than in other countries. It’s this lack of a common political and social exercise that still makes us always look for that charismatic one, who might solve all our problems. He has never showed up and never will. But as I told you before, we are young.

In other countries, on the contrary, the path towards democracy has seemed somehow more natural. The last invasion in England, for example, dates back to 1066,  when the Normans conquered and unified the country – fortunate event that might have happened in Italy as well, thus sparing us a lot of troubles, but for the Pope’s fierce opposition against the Normans’ advance from the South of Italy,  therefore; England, if compared to Italy, had an advantage of 800 years. It means they had plenty of time to make a lot of nice political experiments. From that moment on, and before any other country, England will undergo a gradual but constant weakening of the great powers of the Middle Age, Church and monarchy and the growing of a modern one: Parliament.

With the English Common Law, for instance, the king was not considered any longer above the law; therefore if the English ruler could be tried just like anybody else,  it meant that he had started to lose those divine traits that his fellow kings all over Europe would have kept for a longer time. Furthermore; with The Magna Carta the king could no longer impose taxes without that “general consent” of those who one day will become part of a fully elected Parliament. The nobles took advantage from this situation increasing their power, but they greed will bring England to the disaster of the War of the Roses.

The Tudors were necessarily firmer monarchs whose recipe for a stronger country was the balancing of powers. They weakened the nobles depriving them of their private armies, avoided summoning Parliament, increased trade, developed alliances with the other countries, but above all, smashed the power of the Roman Catholic Church taking advantage of the Protestant wave from the north of Europe. At the dawning of the seventeenth century England was an Anglican country with a well-defined Parliament and a growing middle class.

The Stuarts failed to understand the now rooted distinctive features of their country, and tried to make it more “European” if possible, but in this way they only succeeded in reinforcing its prior structure. After the Glorious Revolution, England was a modern nation with a monarchy controlled by an independent Parliament and a flourishing bourgeoisie. It was, therefore, ready to face the great changes the industrial revolution would have brought about before any other European country and destined to be a long-lasting power worldwide. But this is another story. As I told you before, we are young.

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Being Artemisia Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders

What if you had been gifted of a unique talent but not allowed to express it freely because you were born woman. If Shakespeare had had a sister, endowed with the same degree of genius, or even more, what would have become of her, was Virginia Woolf’s question in “A Room of One’s Own”? Marriage, children, a woman ‘s  “career” was quite defined whatever her social status was at those times. Hence, Virginia Woolf ‘s conclusions were that had such a playwright existed, she would have died in obscurity, her poetry unexpressed, her voice made dumb.

Sleeping Venus

Well, exactly at those times, when Shakespeare was at the peak of his popularity, a woman was struggling to gain hers as an artist. Born in Rome on 8 July 1593, Artemisia Gentileschi was the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi.  Artemisia was soon introduced to painting in her father’s workshop  just like her brothers but soon Orazio saw where real talent harbored among his children and it was in those little, delicate fingers of her daughter. He encouraged her and taught her how to draw, mix color and  paint, but at the same time, she had to take her mother’s place, who had lately died, and bear the burden of the various responsibilities of family business, home management and the custody of her three little brothers. Whatever Artemisia had learnt, therefore, it was within the domestic walls. Even Caravaggio’s technique, the most popular and innovative painter of those times that had influenced her style so much, was not apprehended directly but through his father’s paintings. As woman, she was unable to enjoy the same learning paths undertaken by her male colleagues. As you can easily guess, painting was considered almost exclusively male and not feminine at that time. However; Artemisia’s talent was blossoming to such an extent that Orazio allowed her to work on his canvases. It was in 1610, at the age of 17, when she produced what, according to some critics, is the work that officially seals Artemisia’s debut into the world of art: “Susanna and the Elders“(Susanna e i Vecchioni).

The episode to which the work relates is narrated in Daniel’s book from the Old Testament. Susanna is a young and chaste girl, who is surprised naked in the bathroom by two elderly gentlemen attending her husband’s home. She is subjected to a sexual blackmail: either she will agree to submit to their appetites or the two will tell her husband that they had surprised her with a young lover. Susanna accepts the humiliation of an unjust accusation and only later Daniel will bring to light the lie of the two elders. Maybe it was a presage, but incredibly Artemisia will experience a similar event with devastating consequences in her life. In 1611, when Artemisia’s father was working with Agostino Tassi, a talented painter, to decorate the vaults of Casino delle Muse inside the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome. Orazio decided to hire him to mentor his daughter privately, despite the rumors about his obscure past.  During this tutelage,Tassi raped Artemisia. 

Death of Cleopatra

Which were Artemisia’s options? Telling everything to her father? What if he had not believed her? Denounce the rapist? Bearing the consequence of public exposure and comments? She decided to be silent. She even continued to have sexual relations with Tassi, hoping he would marry her, thus restoring her dignity and future, but Tassi continually postponed the marriage, using his promise as a means of convincing her to continue sexual relations with him. Nine months had passed and rumors about the liaison reached the ear of Orazio. The two were confronted and eventually both Tassi and another “gentleman” Cosimo Quorli (who had tried but failed to rape Artemisia and had helped Agostino plan visits to her house when her father was absent) were charged. The trial lasted seven months in 1612, and received, as you can well imagine, considerable publicity.

The major issue of this trial was the fact that Tassi had taken Artemisia’s virginity. If Artemisia had not been a virgin before Tassi raped her, Orazio would not have been able to press charges. “What I was doing with him, I did only so that, as he had dishonored me, he would marry me….I have never had any sexual relations with any other person besides  Agostino..” she declared, but these were only the words of a woman, therefore; during the trial she was subjected to a gynecological examination, first to verify her testimony and then tortured with the “sibille”, thumbscrews, involving cords of rope tied around her hands and pulled tightly, in order to “prove” that she was telling the truth. During the torture, which, of course, seriously injured her hands, thus risking her career, she was repeatedly asked whether or not Tassi had raped her, and she continually responded: “it is true, it is true.”

Orazio Gentileschi’s self portrait

During the trial Artemisia discovered that Tassi could have never married her, because he already had a wife, a wife that he had planned to murder, but still alive. Furthemore; he had been engaged in adultery with his sister-in-law and had in mind to steal some of Orazio’s painting. Not exactly a Prince Charming. After the trial he was condemned to five years of imprisonment or, alternatively, perpetual exile from Rome. Of course, he opted for the second possibility, but he managed never to move from Rome. Hence; even if Artemisia won, her  in Rome was completely undermined and  an impressive  amount of licentious sonnets that saw her as protagonist started to spread. One month after the trial, in order to save her reputation Artemisia married a painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi and moved to Florence. She and her husband separated a few years later.

What followed were years of hard work, but also fame. He travelled and made herself known all over Europe and her genius reached even the court of Charles I. Of course, the consequences of the rape and subsequent trial had left inevitably a profound impression on Artemisia’s life and art, thus  transposing the psychological consequences of the violence suffered on her canvas. Very often, “la pittora”(the woman painter) as she was called, turned to the uplifting theme of biblical heroines such as Judith, Jade, Betsabeah, or Esther, who – fearless of danger and animated by an upset and vindictive desire – triumph over the cruel enemy, and somehow, claim their right within society. In this way, Artemisia soon became a kind of protofeminist, permanently in war with the other sex and able to incarnate the desire of women to affirm themselves in society.