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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The Twin Globe

glo7
glo8In the heart of the Villa Borghese park, hidden among the trees and surrounded by a lavish vegetation, you may find one of the most unexpected sights, for sure: the Globe theatre. Yes, that Globe: a full-scale reproduction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, copied from the original designs, and almost identical to the one that now stands on London’s South Bank. Rome’s version of the Globe was built over the course of three months and inaugurated in 2003 to celebrate the centenary of Villa Borghese. The theatre is designed in a circular shape with a stage that juts out into the middle of the audience, and an open roof (that’s why the theatre is open in the summer and early autumn seasons). It’s built of oak and has a capacity of 1250, including the standing space in front of the stage, which are, of course the cheapest places.The entire project was financed by the Silvano Toti foundation – the late Silvano Toti was a builder and patron of the arts.

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20150924_104215Gigi Proietti, one of the most outstanding Italian actors, has been the artistic director of the Silvano Toti Globe Theatre since 2003, but he has never acted in any of the plays. Of course, Elizabethan comedies and tragedies are mostly represented, in fact the special architectural features and the essentiality of the scenes allow a cathartic relationship with the works of the English Renaissance drama. I can say that for sure, as,  only few days ago I went to the Globe with some of my students and colleagues to see the morning representation of Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” directed by Chris Pickels.

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When the old Bard wrote “All world is a stage“, he had not considered one little detail: in the world many languages are spoken. This edition of “The Comedy of Errors”, in fact, was the first English-speaking production at the beautiful Globe theatre in Rome, only, the public was not exactly made of native English speakers and the plot of this play not so easy to follow. The story of two pairs of twins  – masters and servants –  who not only had the same features but also the same names, Antophilus and Dromio, led to many misunderstandings not only on stage but also among the public. Tell me, who is he? Antipholus of Syracuse or Ephesus?Mah?? However, the language of art won eventually, so that everybody was able to enjoy the many very funny moments of the show. The Bard is always right, after all. 20150924_11225620150924_131812

I did love the company of actors, all of them. The Bedouin Shakespeare Company, is a touring company founded in 2012 by two enthusiastic young actors, Edward Andrews and Mark Brewer, with the patronage of the Royal Family of Abu Dhabi. Their main aim is to bring the universal themes and language of Shakespeare in the countries around the world, that’s why they were not at all uncomfortable with a non native English-speaking public. Their “Comedy of Errors”  premiered at the Silvano Toti Globe in Rome to fly out to the UAE and then finishing in London at the Arcola Theatre, November 1st. Therefore, you are still in time to enjoy a great show and don’t forget to visit the Globe, next time you come to Rome!!! 🙂

Was Shakespeare Italian and born in Italy?

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William Shakespeare is the emblem of English literature for sure, but, you know, every time I read his works he seems so familiar to me, so Italian. This is not only because 15 out 37 of his works are set in Italy, he knows the nature of the Italians so well, that some of his immortal lines mirror perfectly some unchangeable traits of our society. An example? In his famous soliloquy “to be or not to be” , he actually seems to be pondering about committing suicide speculating on life and death, but he truly complains about some aspects of society that have the stamp of the Italian character. First of all ” the law’s delay” (it may take more than ten years to see the conclusion of a trial here and in the end you have spent so much money to pay the lawyers to end up destitute), “the proud man’s contumely“, the”insolence of office“, the”oppressor’s wrong” have been the causes of more than a suicide here especially in these times of economic crisis.

stock-vector-william-shakespeare-139142954However, there has been a lot of speculating about the authorship of Shakespeare. How could it be that a simpleton from Stratford-upon-Avon might display such learning ( likely grammar schools worked really well at those times) and intimate knowledge of Elizabethan and Jacobean courts? So the names of the candidates that for some reason must have hidden behind the pseudonym of Shakespeare are very celebrated indeed: Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlowe, the 17th Earl of Oxford and many others. My candidate is Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza.

florioIn his book Shakespeare era italiano (2002),  Martino Juvara, a Sicilian Professor, claims that Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza was born in Messina (Sicily) on  23rd April 1564 (William Shakespeare ‘s same date), the  son of  Giovanni Florio, a doctor,  and a noblewoman, Guglielmina Crollalanza. He was educated by Franciscan monks, who taught him Latin, Greek and history . At the age of 15 he and his family had to flee in order to escape the Holy Inquisition, as they were Calvinist. If we focus on the surname Crollalanza, we see that crolla/scrolla in English becomes “shake” and lanza/lanciaspear”;  Shakespeare, in fact.  A coincidence? Maybe.

verona-balcone-giulietta_f824441ee8156884010f7c85ed95932aMichelangelo and his family went to Treviso and lived in the palace of Otello, a Venetian nobleman, who had murdered his wife Desdemona few years before, as he was blinded by jealously. Once in Milan Michelangelo fell in love with a 16-year-old named Giulietta, a young countess who had been kidnapped by the Spanish Governor and had accused the same Michelangelo of the act, as he was against Calvinism. Her family members opposed the union, and Giulietta committed suicide. It’s only after Giulietta’s suicide that Michelangelo decides to leave for England. Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician and poet, helped him as he had strong friendships with the Earls of Pembroke and Southampton under whose patronage, Michelangelo reached England in 1588. Once in Stratford he took the name of a cousin that had died prematurely: William.

At this point you may ask: what about the language? Prof. Juvara asserts that his first plays were actually translated and when he married his English wife, she  translated his works. Furthemore, for the biographers of the time Shakespeare seemed to a have a strong foreign accent. One more curiosity. Among the plays Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza wrote in Sicilian there in one entitled “troppu trafficu pì nnenti“. Do you want it translated in English? “Much Ado about nothing” 😀

 

 

 

 

 

Love Game

Romeo-and-Juliet

Each age has always had its own set of rules for courting, for sure. Certainly nowadays, the equality of the sexes, the crush of old taboos, Sex and the City, why not, have utterly affected our behaviour in playing modern love games, as the roles are no longer fixed and immutable.  In the past, the man led the “minuet” of courting and the lady followed him in the dance.

Hawei's_Dorigen_During the Middle ages and Renaissance,for example, the body of conventions which governed the relation of aristocratic lovers was called “courtly love “: a sort of idealized and sometimes even illicit kind of love in which the knight consecrated himself to a woman often superior in rank or even married – the prototypes are Lancelot and Queen Genevieve – who deliberately displayed a certain indifference in order to preserve her reputation. The ” mistress”  was certainly beautiful, pure like an angel, distant ; therefore the essence of pleasure in this love game stood in the craving and pain of the lover who, despite his many attempts, believed the object of his desire unattainable. In short: a woman should play hard to get.

romeo-juliet-baz-luhrmann-1_largeHence, when Juliet  innocently reveals her feelings for Romeo, who “bescreened in night” ungentlemanly lets her profess her love for him, suddenly she finds herself in an unknown, dangerous land where distance has become closeness. Furthemore, she had ended her speech with an ambiguous and dangerous:” take all myself” (soul, body or both?). All the rules of courtly love have been crushed and she is unprepared to play the new game. ” What will Romeo think of me now?” she thinks and blushes. Well, Romeo is a smart guy and he likes playing the role of the bold lover. He wishes somehow to reassure Juliet for his temerity and apparently doesn’t seem to give consequence to what he has just heard, but his words reveal that he is well aware of the change of scenario, especially when he addresses her.

Romeo-Juliet-romeo-and-juliet-5125592-992-424Before hearing Juliet’s words, Romeo had called her “angel“, that is perfectly in line with the given canons. The first time he speaks to her, she becomes “saint“, therefore preserving the requested idea of unattainability, but after a while Romeo names her “maid“, which is still good, because he surely means: virgin, untouched, but undoubtedly a “maid” is more accessible than a “saint”. It ‘s only when Romeo,  in one of his wordy metaphors, refers to her as “merchandise”  that a very alarmed Juliet understands that this love match is unfair and decides not to “dwell on form” . She urges Romeo to speak clearly and swear love to her, only in this way the match will be more even. Juliet is only looking for a sincere, direct  “I love you too” but at this point Romeo doesn’t seem so confident without the courtly lover repertoire, he babbles some nonsense like “Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops….”  and it is only when a disappointed Juliet pretends to go away that Romeo somehow gives the answer she is awaiting for. Game over.

Hamlet’s depression

34-hamletDepression: a state of low mood and aversion to activity that can affect a person’s thoughts, behavior, feelings and sense of well-being(….)They may lose interest in activities that once were pleasurable (…..) and may contemplate, attempt, or commit suicide. Insomnia, excessive sleeping, fatigue, loss of energy, or aches, pains, or digestive problems may also be present.Depressed mood is not always a psychiatric disorder. It may also be a normal reaction to certain life events, (…). Well, according to this definition, we wouldn’t be too far from the truth, if we diagnosed that Hamlet suffered from depressive mood as “normal reaction to” precise” life events“: his father’s death, first of all; his mother Gertrude‘s “over hasty marriage” with his uncle Claudius – freshly crowned king of Denmark -, a man he despises even before knowing that he is the villanous murderer of his father; a country that seems to have too soon lost the memory of his father, to celebrate and feast the coronation and the wedding on the new king. Hamlet feels like a stranger in that merry atmosphere and stubbornly wears the clothes of woe . He has become apathetic and seems unable to react.

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Claudius is a man of action. He had set his goal and done whatever necessary to reach it, without caring much about ethics. He is actually the most proficient disciple of Machiavelli, as he has successfully put into practice his well-known motto : “the end justifies the means.The crown, his sister-in-law, power, he has obtained everything he wanted and would fully enjoy his life, but for that strange nephew, whose public exhibition of grief annoys him. He is like a cloud in a summer day. The villanous Claudius cannot believe that the loss of a father may be the cause of such a sudden alteration in temper, and instinctively doesn’t trust Hamlet. He needs to know more about the cause of that affliction. At first he tries to sympathize with him, evoking the laws of nature ( even if he is well aware that he had given nature a little help), and reminds him that the death of a father is a natural event. Then he thinks that maybe that grief is due to Hamlet’s expectation to be king after his father, hence he assures him that he will be the next in the line of succession to the throne, but Hamlet keeps on showing his indifference and passivity. Eventually, in the vain attempt to provoke any reaction, Claudius derides him, calling his grief “unmanly“, unworthy of a prince. Hamlet is not virile enough to be the king of Denmark.The gap between the two is clearly ethical rather than generational.

Olivier-Hamlet-006When his father’s ghost reveals him the circumstances of his death, Hamlet is forced to awake from his state of torpor and take action against his uncle: “if thouhast nature in thee, bear it not“, warns the ghost (even Hamlet’s father seems to doubt upon his son’s constancy). It is an admonition that it cannot be ignored for sure, in fact Hamlet at first seems to be willing to revenge himself soon, but after a while his rage and resoluteness fade away, giving way to a sense of impotence : “Oh cursed spite! That I was ever born to set  it right“, he laments. Once the adrenaline is off, he realises that he just can’t do it.
Therefore even if the bloody details about his father’s murder should have brought Hamlet to a  prompt reaction, he takes time. He wants evidence. He spends the whole act II plotting against Claudius, pretending to have become insane at first and then organizing his Mousetrap : the public representation of the murder of his father. However, we understand that whatever he is doing, he is not psychologically ready and seems relapse into his initial state of inactivity. Whoever suffers of depression knows well, that the effort that even trivial actions require, is perceived so ponderous to have the impression of being overwhelmed by its burden, so every intent is crystallized by the paralysis of the will. Hamlet ‘s state of mind is fragile. Living for him is like being hurt by  “slings” and “arrows” and in this condition he perceives his revengeful undertaking as a “sea of troubles” . For a while he prefers to take into consideration another solution to put an end to his sufferance, another kind of action, towards himself this time: suicide; but the fear of death holds him back,  “thus conscience does make cowards of us all” he ponders, it’s conscience that makes “enterprises of great pitch and moment (…..) lose the name of action“.

act3scene3-hamletOnce again it’s conscience that prevents Hamlet from killing Claudius, who, after having seen on stage the representation of his treacherous deed, his uncle reaches the chapel in shock to pray. Killing the king while he is purging his soul( even if he is not, but he doesn’t know), would mean to send him straight to heaven, while his father is doomed to “fast(s) in fire“. It’s not the right moment and delays again. So, when soon after he meets his mother, he gives vent to all the frustration he has stored so far and mistreats her, till the ghost appears again, but this time only Hamlet can see him, as if it were a hallucination produced by his rage and guilt for his inadequacy. So we may say that Hamlet truly never acts except when he realizes that he had been entrapped by Claudius in the deadly duel with Laertes. More than a revenge tragedy, Hamlet is the tragedy of the impossibility of revenge.