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.

 


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41 thoughts on “Being Artemisia Gentileschi

  1. Can’t really “like” the post as it does what all these (too many) stories do; makes me mad. Not just for her, but because four hundred years later, what’s in the news? The same thing. And how are we punishing these guys? We’re not. A slap on the wrist instead of a chop of the . . . well, you know.

    Now, my calm is damaged . . . thanks a lot!

    But, of course, it needs to be brought to light if anything is ever going to change. Then again, four hundred years brought us very little change. Frustratingly slow progress.

    • That is a consequence of seeing perpetrators getting off with little or no punishment while, at the same time, still watching metaphorical thumbscrews being applied to the accusers. As a society, we seem to accept sexual assaults as not being as serious and consequential as other types of assaults.

      We also seem to readily accept the idea that some people “can’t help themselves,” essentially letting them claim a type of victimhood they don’t deserve and should not be allowed.

      That doesn’t work in any other aspect of criminal jurisprudence.

      “Of course I punched him, your honor, I could help myself. Besides, he has a punchable face. He should be the one facing charges for enticing me to punch him!”

  2. I was vaguely familiar with Artemisia’s awful treatment but only as background to her astonishing work on biblical stories with female subjects (like that of Susannah). As ‘disperser’ says it’s both distressing and depressing that woman’s lot is scarcely changed in the intervening years, as all the revelations we’re hearing daily in the news are brought to light.

  3. A slightly older contemporary who had better luck was Sophonisba Anguissiola. She was highly educated by her father, acclaimed as an artist, feted at court and made a very happy marriage late in life to a ship’s captain.

  4. Old as dirt. Hard as diamonds. Rough as stone. Man’s jealousy of woman and his desire to both possess and destroy her is ancient. The goddess is rising again. The unfortunate part of this is that so many women have done much to encourage this since the beginning. It is all a part of the dream/nightmare.

  5. I think how much women suffered in the past and how it’s absurd that they were considered inferior. Fortunately there were brave women like Artemisia and thanks to them today the women have a different position in society so they don’t suffer like the women in the past. Unfortunately today in some countries there is still discrimination and abuse, we have to fight that.

  6. I think this article is very interesting because it talks about an event that happened many years ago but still happens in some countries for the same reasons. This makes us understand that we still need to learn a lot from the past because many women like Artemisia want us to understand that it is always better to denounce these events than to repress them.

  7. This story makes me really sad, because hundreds years later, this kind of thing still happens. But we must say that women now have many rights that couldn’t be imagined in Artemisia’s time. But we can always do better. So women please just be patient.

  8. Unfortunately it is a very sad story. It scared me a lot to hear that this was really happening, but at the same time it made me think. I hope that a lot of people seeing this story reflect on what happened. A woman who is raped and not heard is very sad to see,
    but it must be handed down over time to make it clear that these things should not be repeated. Hopefully this will change over the years.

  9. It is really absurd and in my opinion incomprehensible the mentality that men are superior to women, and what women have suffered over the centuries is horrible.
    Fortunately, many steps forward have been made in the last century, although many others still need to be made, but I am confident that by the end of this century, total gender equality will be achieved in the Western world, although it will still take some time to ensure that this equality is applied everywhere around the world.

  10. I really appreciated this article as it talks about a topic of extreme importance, through a terrbile event which happened many years ago. I can’t imagine the hard life women led at that time and honestly I was surprised when I read about the Artemisia’s story. She must be a point of reference for everyone (not just for women) and we must thank people like her if today the situation isn’t longer as it used to be.

  11. I believe that what happened to Artemisia was the beginning of a great step for the history and for the advancement of women in society. It makes us strange to think today, where many successes by women have now been obtained, and now the two genders are the same, it is difficult to think of these injustices. It seems strange that women should be abused and mistreated just because women, the body does not make the person.
    Artemisia was in a very complicated situation, and it took a lot of courage to confess, if i were her i had to think a lot if it was better to continue to be abused or being exiled and tortured. Honestly I don’t know what I would choose, that was a difficult choice , but in the end she was happy with her new family, and that was the important thing.
    A very small tribute must also be paid to her father, not for the abuse that he handled very badly, but for making her start drawing, this let her to become a very good painter, and she took a small step to make women do the same jobs of men.
    Artemisia has certainly left a mark, which she will never fade.

  12. I really can’t get over the fact that Artemisia and many other women now a days too, risked their career and had their life ruined because of men power over women. Even though women in the past made a lot of changes we still need to make progress and learning from past events and stories like this is very important

  13. Women in the past were considered inferior. Some of them have made themselves heard and to date things have changed, but unfortunately the sexual assaults continue and in my opinion nothing is being done to stop them.

    • Despite the numerous advances made over the centuries regarding equality between men and women, in my opinion there is still a lot to do. Public offices and top positions are still mainly covered by men, limiting power in the hands of men. Similarly, wage disparity with equal roles and skills at work is still a well-known phenomenon today, on which it would be appropriate to turn the spotlight further.

      Another aspect to consider is that concerning domestic violence: still too many women, not only in developing countries, but also in the most advanced ones, are subjected to mistreatment, abuse and killings. Personally, in my vision of women in the coming years there is an increase in power and real opportunities in all fields: economic, political, social. I hope that women can also find more ways in fields that until now, mainly due to prejudice, have been defined as purely masculine, such as scientific studies.

  14. I liked this article because it makes us reflect on things that unfortunately still append now. I think also that Artemisia was very strong to be able to recover after everything that had happened to her and to start a new life again.

    • Personally, in my vision of women in the coming years there is an increase in power and real opportunities in all fields: economic, political, social. I hope that women can also find more ways in fields that until now, mainly due to prejudice, have been defined as purely masculine, such as scientific studies.

  15. I liked this article because it makes us reflect on things that unfortunately still happen now. I think also that Artemisia was very strong to be able to recover after everything that had happened to her and to start a new life again.

  16. At that time, violence weren’t reported because women preferred to suffer without dishonour their families.
    In addition to physical violence they also had to endure psychological violence. Artemisia had great courage to denounce the violence she had suffered, her strength personality enabled her to become one of the first famous women painters, in a time when only men were allowed to work in this profession.
    It is also thanks to people like her that laws are now in place to protect all women, even if despicable acts daily happen from who claim to love them.

  17. This story really impressed me. I had the chills to read, that if Artemisia had not been a virgin, nothing would have happened to the rapist, but she would have been judged and accused herself. I think that times ago, people had a very rude and selfish idea of women. it is so unfair and stupid to think that a person can have limitations in life because she was born with a woman’s body. it would be enough to think, even attributing to women only the role of mother in life, that without her the same men who consider her inferior would not be alive. In my opinion at that times so much ignorance reigned, so people are more influenceable. But what would happen If there were somebody who changed the vision of the “perfect woman” ? .  Probably people minds could open and all the feminists’ lives for the woman’s right were save. I like to think that one day , all the difference between woman and man  would disappear, because even if the women of the 21st century are more protected, still, unfortunately in some contexts they do not take on the value that is due to them. And the worst thing , some women , are still afraid to say “no”.

  18. I can’t say that I “liked” this post, but it made me think a lot. The thing that amazes me most is that women have suffered all this discrimination, born from an idea of ​​many years ago and that the situation changed only a few years ago. It is amazing to think that there have been so many female talents that have been suppressed or never discovered. There are no words for all of this

  19. I think women must have the same rights as men. In my opinion women must have the same directives because otherwise society would not go on, because the world has evolved and I think it is fundamental that there is the figure of the woman as that of the man in whatever is done.

  20. The worst thing in this story is not that Artemisia was raped but that after centuries the situation has not completely changed, I’m not talking about work but the abuses that some women suffer without consequences.

  21. I am very passionate about feminism and I am very fascinated by the stories of women who have fought to partially win respect from men, like Artemisia. I love these women and their courage and it is thanks to them that today we have the opportunity to study and do the job of our dreams without being subjugated by men.
    Unfortunately, this is not the case in all countries. We think of the Arab countries where women have been submitted since they were born; they already get married at sixteen with old men who rape them every day. Then we must continue to fight for independence of these women.

  22. I think this article is very interesting because it makes us think about how this woman fights for her rights. I was sorry to hear that to verify that she was telling the truth put her career as an artist at risk, but this also makes us understand how strong this woman was.
    I’m glad to know that in history there are people like Artemisia who instead of being silent and suffer react with everything they have.

  23. Many women from until today have not been believed despite finding the courage to witness what happened to them. Artemisia risked her career to stand up for her rights.
    This means that over the years, despite long struggles, the condition of women has improved but not completely .

  24. I really enjoyed reading this article. These stories made me think a lot. Fortunately, the laws have changed but sadly many of the terrible things that have happened to women still repeat today.

  25. it is really terrible to think about what women have suffered for centuries, I think we will gradually arrive at gender equality but for now I do not think there is yet. I believe however that we are on the right way to obtain it and that with a little courage we will succeed

  26. Reading this text, the story struck me a lot, this painter has certainly suffered unacceptable violence, which in the past was considered normal.
    Even today there are many women who still suffer abuse, despite the fact that years have passed this problem has not yet been solved.
    I believe that every woman must be respected, the intimacy of every woman must be respected and above all their dignity must not be violated in such a violent way.

  27. I think this issue is very important and we need to talk about it, because the story of Artemisia tells facts that unfortunately still happen to women today. Women must, deserve, to have the same rights as men, and have the right to be respected, because they are people. For these reasons I think it is useful to deal with these topics, everyone must be aware of them.

  28. This theme is very important because it reports a story of violence firtstival silenced and then told, an example of great courage on the part of the woman who not only suffered violence from her attacker but also from the society that blamed her and made her confess. he tortured her but she didn’t give in and fought for her rights.

  29. The worst thing in this story is not that Artemisia was raped but that after centuries the situation has not completely changed, I’m not talking about work but the abuses that some women suffer without consequences

  30. In my opinion, Artemisia had to tell her father everything first, instead of being silent and only making things worse.

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