Today is the birthday (1593) of Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter, today considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation following that of Caravaggio. In an era when women painters were not easily accepted by the artistic community or patrons, she was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.
She painted many images of strong and suffering women from myth and the Bible—victims, suicides, warriors—and made it her specialty to paint the Judith story. Her best-known work is Judith Slaying Holofermes (a common medieval and baroque subject in art). That she was a woman painting in the 17th century and that she was raped and participated in prosecuting the rapist, long overshadowed her achievements as an artist. For many years she was seen as a curiosity. Today she is regarded as one of the most progressive and skilled painters of her generation.
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome, the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi. Gentileschi was introduced to painting in her father’s workshop, showing much more talent than her brothers, who worked alongside her. She learned drawing, how to mix color, and how to paint. Since her father’s style took inspiration from Caravaggio during that period, her style was just as heavily influenced in turn. Her approach to subject matter was different from her father’s, however, as her paintings are highly naturalistic, whereas Orazio’s are idealized. Orazio was a great encouragement to his daughter since, during the 17th century, women were commonly considered lacking the intelligence for professional work. Gentileschi had to resist the traditional norms and psychological pressures of her time, brought on, in part, by the jealousy of contemporaries over her obvious abilities. By doing so, she gained great respect and recognition for her work.
The first work of the seventeen-year-old Gentileschi was the Susanna e i Vecchioni (Susanna and the Elders) (1610). At the time some, influenced by the prevailing misconceptions, suspected that she was helped by her father. The painting shows how Gentileschi assimilated the realism of Caravaggio without being indifferent to the style of the Bologna school, which had Annibale Carracci among its major artists. It is one of the few paintings on the theme of Susanna showing the sexual accosting by the two Elders as a traumatic event.
In 1611, her father was working with Agostino Tassi to decorate the vaults of Casino della Rose inside the Pallavicini Rospigliosi Palace in Rome, so Orazio hired the painter to tutor his daughter privately. During this tutelage, Tassi raped Gentileschi. Another man, Cosimo Quorlis had helped Tassi with the rape. After the initial rape, Gentileschi continued to have sexual relations with Tassi, with the expectation that they were going to be married and with the hope to restore her dignity and her future. Tassi reneged on his promise to marry Gentileschi. Nine months after the rape, after he learned that Gentileschi and Tassi were not going to be married, Orazio pressed charges against Tassi. Orazio also claimed that Tassi stole a painting of Judith from the Gentileschi household. The major issue of this trial was the fact that Tassi had taken Gentileschi’s virginity. If Gentileschi had not been a virgin before Tassi raped her, the Gentileschis would not have been able to press charges. During the ensuing seven-month trial, it was discovered that Tassi had planned to murder his wife, had enjoined in adultery with his sister-in-law, and planned to steal some of Orazio’s paintings. During the trial, Gentileschi was subjected to a gynecological examination and being tortured using thumbscrews to verify her testimony. At the end of the trial Tassi was sentenced to imprisonment for one year, although he never served the time. The trial influenced the feminist view of Gentileschi in general during the late twentieth century.
Gentileschi was surrounded mainly by the presence of males since the loss of her mother at age 12. When Gentileschi was 17, Orazio rented the upstairs apartment of their home to a female tenant, Tuzia. Gentileschi befriended Tuzia; however, Tuzia allowed Agostino Tassi and Cosimo Quorlis to accompany Gentileschi in Artemsia’s home on multiple occasions. The day the rape occurred, Gentileschi cried for the help of Tuzia, but Tuzia simply ignored Gentileschi and pretended she knew nothing of what happened. Gentileschi felt betrayed by Tuzia, and because Tuzia was the only female figure in her life, Gentileschi’s works contained a strong sense of solidarity and unity between women.
The painting, Giuditta che decapita Oloferne (Judith beheading Holofernes) (1612–1613), is striking for the violence portrayed. Compare this with Caravaggio’s depiction of the same scene (below). Gentileschi’s Judith is really going at it, whereas Caravaggio’s looks as if she could barely break the skin from the way she is holding her arms at such a distance, and the blood just gently trickling on the pillow.
A month later, Orazio arranged for his daughter to marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, a modest artist from Florence. Shortly afterward the couple moved to Florence, where Gentileschi received a commission for a painting at Casa Buonarroti. She became a successful court painter, enjoying the patronage of the Medici family and Charles I. It has been proposed that during this period Gentileschi also painted the Madonna col Bambino (The Virgin and Child).
While in Florence, Gentileschi and Pierantonio had a daughter, Prudentia, around 1618; they also had a second daughter some years after Prudentia. It is noteworthy that both daughters were painters, trained by their mother, although nothing is known of their work.
In Florence, Gentileschi enjoyed huge success. She was the first woman accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). She maintained good relations with the most respected artists of her time, such as Cristofano Allori, and was able to garner the favors and the protection of influential people, starting with Granduke Cosimo II de’ Medici and especially, of the Granduchess Cristina. She had a good relationship with Galileo Galilei, with whom she corresponded by letter for a long time.
She was esteemed by Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger (nephew of the great Michelangelo): busy with construction of Casa Buonarroti to celebrate his notable relative, he asked Gentileschi to produce a painting to decorate the ceiling of the gallery of paintings. The painting is allegorical, Allegoria dell’Inclinazione, “Allegory of the Inclination (natural talent)”, presented in the form of a nude young woman holding a compass. It is believed that the subject bears a resemblance to Gentileschi. Indeed, in several of her paintings, Gentileschi’s energetic heroines resemble her self-portraits.
Her success and gender fueled many rumors about her private life. For example, some speculate that the case of her rape released her from societal pressures, having created an understanding of why some of her works were filled with defiant and violent women, rather than examining the style of those influencing hers. Notable works from this period include La Conversione della Maddalena (The Conversion of the Magdalene), Self-Portrait as a Lute Player, and Giuditta con la sua ancella (Judith and her Maidservant). Gentileschi painted a second version of Giuditta che decapita Oloferne (Judith beheading Holofernes), this one larger than the Naples version. Despite her success, financial excesses borne by her for her husband led to problems with creditors, and she fell out with her husband. She returned without him to Rome in 1621.
Gentileschi arrived in Rome the same year her father Orazio departed for Genoa. While there is not enough evidence for this, some believe that Gentileschi followed her father to Genoa, asserting that this time together would have accentuated the similarity of their styles, making it often difficult to determine which of the two painted certain works. Most of the evidence, however, supports the notion that Gentileschi remained in Rome, trying to find a home and raise her children.
Although the master had been dead over a decade, Caravaggio’s style was still highly influential and converted many painters to following his style (the so-called Caravaggisti), such as Gentileschi’s father Orazio, Carlo Saraceni (who returned to Venice 1620), Bartolomeo Manfredi, and Simon Vouet. Painting styles in Rome during the early seventeenth century were diverse, however, demonstrating a more classic manner of the Bolognese disciples of the Carracci and the baroque style of Pietro da Cortona.
It appears that Gentileschi also was associated the Academy of the Desiosi. She was celebrated with a portrait carrying the inscription “Pincturare miraculum invidendum facilius quam imitandum”. During the same period she became friends with Cassiano dal Pozzo, a humanist and a collector and lover of arts.
Despite her artistic reputation, her strong personality, and her numerous good relationships, however, Rome was not so lucrative as she hoped. Her style, tone of defiance, and strength relaxed. She painted less intense works. For instance, her second version of Susanna and the Elders (1622) The appreciation of her art was narrowed down to portraits and to her ability with biblical heroines. She did not receive any of the lucrative commissions for altarpieces. The absence of sufficient documentation makes it difficult to follow Gentileschi’s movements in this period. It is certain that between 1627 and as late as 1630, she moved to Venice, perhaps in search of richer commissions. Evidence for this is that verses and letters were composed in appreciation of her and her works in Venice.
Although it is sometimes difficult to date her paintings, it is possible to assign certain works by her to these years, the Ritratto di gonfaloniere (Portrait of Gonfaloniere), today in Bologna (a rare example of her capacity as portrait painter) and the Giuditta con la sua ancella, (Judith and her Maidservervant). The latter painting is notable for her mastery of chiaroscuro and tenebrism (the effects of extreme lights and darks), techniques for which Gerrit van Honthorst, Trophime Bigot, and many others in Rome were famous. Her Venere Dormiente (The Sleeping Venus), and her Ester ed Assuero (Esther and Ahasuerus) are testimony to her assimilation of the lessons of Venetian luminism.
In 1630 Gentileschi moved to Naples, a city rich with workshops and art lovers, in search of new and more lucrative job opportunities. Many other artists, including Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, and Simon Vouet had stayed in Naples for some time in their lives. At that time, Jusepe de Ribera, Massimo Stanzione, and Domenichino were working there and later, Giovanni Lanfranco and many others would flock to the city. The Neapolitan debut of Gentileschi is represented by the Annunciation in the Capodimonte Museum. She remained in Naples for the remainder of her career with the exceptions of a brief trip to London and some other journeys.
Naples was for Gentileschi a kind of second homeland where she took care of her family (both of her daughters were married in Naples). On Saturday 18 March 1634 the traveler Bullen Reymes records in his diary visiting Gentileschi and one of her daughters (‘who also paints’) with a group of fellow-Englishmen. She received letters of appreciation, being in good relations with the viceroy, the Duke of Alcalá, and started relations with many renowned artists, among them Massimo Stanzione, with whom, the eighteenth-century writer Bernardo de’ Dominici reports, she started an artistic collaboration based on a real friendship and artistic similarities.
In Naples for the first time Gentileschi started working on paintings in a cathedral, dedicated to San Gennaro nell’anfiteatro di Pozzuoli (Saint Januarius in the amphitheater of Pozzuoli) in Pozzuoli. During her first Neapolitan period she painted Nascita di San Giovanni Battista (Birth of Saint John the Baptist), and Corisca e il satiro (Corisca and the satyr). In these paintings Gentileschi again demonstrates her ability to adapt to the novelties of the period and handle different subjects, instead of the usual Judith, Susanna, Bathsheba, and Penitent Magdalenes, for which she already was known.
In 1638 Gentileschi joined her father in London at the court of Charles I of England, where Orazio became court painter and received the important job of decorating a ceiling (allegory of Trionfo della pace e delle Arti (Triumph of the peace and the Arts) in the Casa delle Delizie of Queen Henrietta Maria of France in Greenwich). Father and daughter were working together once again, although helping her father probably was not her only reason for travelling to London: Charles I had convoked her in his court, and it was not possible to refuse. Charles I was a fanatical collector, willing to ruin public finances to follow his artistic wishes. The fame of Gentileschi probably intrigued him, and it is not a coincidence that his collection included a painting of great suggestion, the Autoritratto in veste di Pittura (“Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting”), which is the lead image of this article.
Orazio died suddenly in 1639. Gentileschi had her own commissions to fulfill after her father’s death, although there are no known works assignable with certainty to this period. It is known that Gentileschi had already left England by 1642, when the civil war was just starting. Nothing much is known about her subsequent movements. Historians know that in 1649 she was in Naples again, corresponding with Don Antonio Ruffo of Sicily, who became her mentor during this second Neapolitan period. The last known letter to her mentor is dated 1650 and makes clear that she still was fully active.
As Gentileschi grew older, her work is sometimes described as more graceful and “feminine.” I’m not really comfortable with such stereotypic labels, but it is true that the brutality and forcefulness of her earlier work was muted now. Works in this period include, Susanna e i vecchioni (Susanna and the elders), Madonna e Bambino con rosario (Virgin and Child with a Rosary), David and Bathsheba.
Gentileschi was once thought to have died in 1652/1653, however, recent evidence has shown that she was still accepting commissions in 1654—although increasingly dependent upon her assistant, Onofrio Palumbo. It might be speculated that she died in the devastating plague that swept Naples in 1656 and virtually wiped out an entire generation of Neapolitan artists.
For today’s recipe I have chosen a 17th century Florentine recipe for cappelletti, cappelleti alla cortigiana (courtesan’s cappelleti). “Cappelletti” means “little caps” referring to the shape of the pasta. Traditionally they are served as cappelletti in brodo, that is, in rich broth, one of my favorites. You will find my standard recipe for pasta under the HINTS tab. When I make filled pasta I like to make a big batch and freeze most. To do this, place the pasta on metal trays in the freezer making sure they do not touch. When they are frozen place them in zip top bags. This way they stay separate while frozen.
Cappelletti alla Cortigiana
1 batch of fresh pasta
3 ½ oz/100g pork belly
½ capon breast
7 oz/200g soft Italian cheese (e.g. ricotta)
1 ¾ oz/50g matured hard Italian cheese (e.g. Pecorino)
fresh ground black pepper
Simmer the pork belly and capon breast in separate pots in light broth until tender. Remove both meats and chop then very fine. Mix all together thoroughly with the cheeses, eggs, nutmeg, ginger, pepper and salt to taste. Start off with very little of the spices and add until their flavor comes through but is not overwhelming.
Roll the pasta using a pasta machine into long strips as thin as possible (usually the second to finest setting). Cut the strips into 1 ½” by 1 ½” (4cm by 4cm) squares. Dab about 2 teaspoons of filling in the center of each square. Lightly dampen the inner edges with water and fold over the square diagonally to form a triangle. Press the edges to seal. Take the base corners of the triangle and pull them together. Overlap them slightly and press them together to form the “cap.”
Bring the capon broth to a gentle boil. Add a few threads of saffron, and then the cappelletti. Because this is fresh pasta they will cook in just a few minutes. Be very vigilant to be sure the pasta remains al dente.
Serve in the broth with grated hard cheese and a sprinkling of nutmeg or ginger.