Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the great artists of the Baroque Age, an artist more than capable of holding her own next to some of the more famous giants of this period, like Caravaggio. Her canvases were bold and dynamic, portraying dramatic religious and historical scenes with realism and energy. In her art, she revealed the lives of her female protagonists as so much more than passive objects of the male gaze. Artemisa’s heroines took centre stage, both literally and figuratively, and her art was in high demand during her own lifetime, even if she did fall into relative obscurity until recently.
Artemisia’s art is captivating in its own right, but for that art to be produced by a woman in the seventeenth century (a rare thing at the time) and by a woman whose own personal life story was marked by tragedy and violence, makes her an even more intriguing character.
'Self portrait as the allegory of painting' c. 1639
Artemisia was born in Rome in 1593, the eldest of five children, and the only daughter of Prudentia Montori and the painter, Orazio Gentileschi. Her father was a talented artist in his own right and was a contemporary and friend of Michelangelo da Merisi, better known as Caravaggio. Indeed, the two were so well acquainted that they ended up in court together in 1603, after they scrawled libels about a rival artist around the streets of the city. During his testimony, Orazio mentions Caravaggio visiting his studio in order to borrow some props for a painting project. Artemisia was about ten years old at the time of this trail, so we can only suppose that she met the great artist herself during her childhood. It was in this circle of artists that Artemisia was raised, and despite the handicap of her gender, she was the only one of her siblings to show any true aptitude for art - and so her father began to train her in the craft.
Artemisia showed true talent from an early age, and despite her father’s initial reluctance to train his daughter (this was a male dominated profession after all), he eventually realised her potential and fostered her fast-developing skills. When Artemisia was still a teenager, her father wrote that she “become so skilled that I can venture to say that today she has no peer.” It’s from around this time that we have her earliest known signed work “Susanna and the Elders”, and it’s impossible not to see how accomplished she was even at an early age.
'Susanna and the Elders' c.1610
It is also around this time that Orazio decided to introduce Artemisia to one of his colleagues, Agostino Tassi, for further tuition in the art of perspective (professional art academies were a male-only arena at the time). The decision to have Tassi tutor Artemisia was to prove to be a tragic one: Tassi, who it seems was a volatile individual with a dark past, brutally raped Artemisia. She was just seventeen years old and a virgin at the time.
For women in the seventeenth-century rape was not just a violent physical assault, but it was something that brought great shame on the family and particularly the woman, whose prospects of marriage could be destroyed as she was seen as tarnished, damaged goods. As a result, women were often forced to marry their rapists to conceal the shame. And so, when Orazio discovered what had happened to his daughter, instead of going to the authorities, it was agreed that Tassi would marry the young Artemisia. He agreed, and continued his sexual activity with the teenager, only to later to go back on his promise. It is only at this point, about nine months after the initial attack that her father decided to have Tassi arrested.
Orazio was already a well-known artist at the time, and due probably to his connection with Caravaggio, (who only a few years before had gone on the run as a fugitive for murder), there was huge public interest in the trial. What followed was a very public, sordid and humiliating seven-month trial, during which, the young Artemisia was forced to give evidence to restore her dignity.
'Judith and her maidservent' c.1620's
Transcripts of the trial still exist, and they make for some seriously disturbing reading. Firstly, because the family allowed Tassi to continue sexual relations with Artemisia, he could not be tried for rape, only for taking her virginity. The onus was very much on Artemisia to prove what Tassi had done; she was questioned in excruciating detail about the event, her reputation was brought into question, with some witnesses claiming she was a whore who had slept with many men and that the home operated as a brothel. She was poked and prodded and even tortured during questioning to prove whether or not she was telling the truth. The judge in an of apparentnt “compassion” suggested that the “sibille” (the ropes tied around her fingers and progressively tightened as a form of torture), should be only loosely tied as Artemisia was only eighteen years old.
It also emerged during the trial that Tassi was an individual with a dark past: he could never have married Artemisia, as he was already married, although his wife had gone missing and was presumed dead at the hands of bandits hired by Tassi. It seems he forced himself on his sister-in-law and had also planned to steal several of Orazio’s paintings. In the end, the court found in favour of Artemisia, and they handed down a mild sentence to Tassi which some scholars believe was never enforced.
The most important thing for Artemisia was that her reputation had been restored. However, the public attention that she had received during the trial, made staying in Rome impossible for her, so her family had her hastily married to a Florentine painter and the young Artemisia went to Florence start a new life.
It is when she left Rome that Artemisia truly began to develop her own voice as an artist and fostered friendships with some the most influential people of the time; she was known to correspond with Galileo and the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Artemisia’s brilliance was finally officially recognised when she became the first woman to be accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts of Florence. Her works of art became incredibly sought-after, and dukes, princes and even kings requested commissions from her. This allowed Artemisia tremendous freedom, allowing her to travel around Europe, from Florence to Venice, Naples and even London. She did return to Rome for a period, but eventually travelled further south, to Naples, which is where she lived the rest of days, dying sometime around 1656.
'Judith beheading Holofernes' c. 1620
Her art fell out of favour in the 18th and 19th centuries but was rediscovered during the 20th century and recent exhibitions in Rome and London have thrust Artemisia into the spotlight again. Like Caravaggio, the dramatic events of Artemisia’s early life sometimes overshadow her artistic achievements and undoubtedly her experience of rape influenced and informed her work to some degree - but it would be a mistake to see all of her art through the lens of a victim. Artemisia was a talented artist before the rape and trial and she continued to be after. Away from the place that held such painful memories, she blossomed, creating striking and original compositions that placed women firmly in the foreground - of the roughly sixty paintings that we have attributed to Artemisia, about 40 feature women prominently. Artemisia overcame personal tragedy and excelled in a field that was traditionally a man’s world, and she did it on her own terms.
You find out more about Artemisia, and the women who have shaped Rome's history on our 'Womens History of Rome Tour'.