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Artemisia Gentileschi

the language of painting

Jesse M. Locker

Yale University Press New Haven and London


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Frontispiece: Artemisia Gentileschi,
of outstanding works of scholarship
Corisca and the Satyr, detail of fig.
that cover European civilization
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before 1700 in the areas of music,
theater, French or Italian literature, Jacket illustrations: (front) Simon
or cultural studies. It is made to Vouvet, Portrait of Artemisia Gentiles-
commemorate the career of Howard chi, detail of fig. 5.3; (back) Artemisia
Mayer Brown. Gentileschi, Lot and His Daughters,
detail of fig. 4.5.

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Introduction

Artemisia Gentileschi is the grand exception in the history of art—a successful woman
painter in an era in which art was dominated by men of the caliber of Caravaggio,
Rembrandt, and Rubens. Women had of course been painters previously, but they typically
limited themselves to portraits, still lifes, and domestic-themed devotional pictures, which
were considered characteristically feminine subjects. In contrast, Artemisia chose the most
ambitious category of picture, the istoria—multifigure narratives of subjects taken from
the Bible and mythology—and within this category selected deliberately shocking sub-
jects—female nudes, grisly beheadings—for realistic portrayal.1 Under the tutelage of her
father, Orazio Gentileschi, she learned to apply the methods that had been pioneered by
Caravaggio, such as painting directly from the model and introducing dramatic contrasts
of light and dark. Throughout her long career she moved with some frequency between
Rome, Florence, Venice, London, and finally Naples, where she spent most of the last
twenty years of her life. Over the decades, her style also changed, becoming more polished
and idealized and further from her Caravaggesque beginnings. Although in her later years
she continued to paint her hallmark representations of powerful women, she also turned
to small-scale devotional works, altarpieces, and erotic female nudes. Despite financial and
personal turmoil in her last decades, she nevertheless achieved a level of recognition and
independence unprecedented for a woman artist.
It is unfortunate that perhaps the single best-known fact about her today is that,
in the process of her training, she was raped by her teacher, and friend of her father,
Agostino Tassi. In some ways, this emphasis is not surprising, given that many of her early
paintings express such immediacy and vigor that we cannot help but speculate about
the nearness of what she experienced as a young woman to the compelling violence and
victimization she often depicts. Indeed, Artemisia’s story is a gripping one. It is a story of
nearly insurmountable odds: overcoming illiteracy, sexual violence, and being a woman in
what was considered a man’s profession, to become a successful artist.
In recent years, Artemisia has been transformed from a footnote in the history of
Caravaggism into one of the most beloved artists of our time. This drastic and unforesee-
able transformation is due largely to the efforts of Mary Garrard, who sought to redress
the neglect of the artist in mainstream art historical scholarship in Artemisia Gentileschi:
The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art.2 Since the publication of that book in
1989, Artemisia has been the subject of two major exhibitions, a feature film, two docu-
mentaries, and a stream of art historical studies, in addition to innumerable articles in
psychoanalytic and medical journals and popular magazines.3 It is a surprising but unde-
niable fact that, along with Caravaggio and Rembrandt, Artemisia is now one of the few
seventeenth-century artists widely known to the general public. Despite this overwhelm-
ing interest in the artist, the study of Artemisia is still a relatively new phenomenon in the
field of art history. She is thus in a unique position of being a new “Old Master,” possibly
more beloved by the general public than Ingres or Raphael, even though many key aspects
of her biography, artistic output, and critical reception are only beginning to emerge.
In the wake of the major exhibitions in New York and St. Louis in 2001–2, Milan
and Paris in 2011–12, and Pisa in 2013, the emergence of new paintings, documentary
sources, and methodological tools has come at a rapid pace, leaving little time for absorp-
tion of new material or reflection on how it changes our conception of the artist. As
Riccardo Lattuada observes, “The state of Artemisia scholarship is such that a single docu-
ment or an individual painting can alter substantially our understanding of her work and
her career.”4 Many such findings have not in themselves been especially dramatic or mon-
umental—a painting, an inventory reference, a stanza of poetry, technical analysis of her
working methods, and so on—but when considered cumulatively they suggest a picture of
the artist that is increasingly difficult to reconcile with earlier conceptions of her. Indeed,
Francesco Solinas acknowledges: “The art, like the biography of the woman, still largely
remains to be discovered.”5

Artemisia’s Life and Art


Although this book focuses on the period of Artemisia’s artistic maturity, from the 1620s
on, when she finds herself in Rome, Venice, and Naples, a basic understanding of the arc of
her career is essential.
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593 to the Tuscan painter Orazio
Gentileschi (1563–1639) and a Roman woman named Prudenzia Montoni. Artemisia came
from a family of painters who were well known in Pisa, notably her grandfather, Baccio
Lomi (c. 1550–1595), and her uncle Aurelio Lomi (1556–1622). Orazio’s wife died when
Artemisia was twelve years old, leaving him responsible for her as well as her brothers,
Francesco and Giulio. Orazio had been moderately successful painting in the late man-
nerist style that dominated Rome in the late sixteenth century, with emphasis on complex,
stylized forms and artificial coloring. Around 1605, inspired by the example of Caravaggio,
Orazio rejected this style entirely and began to paint directly from nature, hiring models,
placing them in strong light, and faithfully depicting what he saw before him. Unlike other
followers of Caravaggio (the Caravaggisti), who merely copied Caravaggio’s characteristic
contrasts of light and dark and his subject matter (bravos, gypsies, cardsharps, and the like)

2 introduction
Orazio was primarily interested in Caravaggio’s working method. The emphasis on paint-
ing from nature gave his art a new freshness and immediacy, particularly in the sumptuous
treatment of fabrics.6 This transformation naturally influenced the art of his daughter and
most important pupil, Artemisia. Indeed, Artemisia’s earliest works, such as the Judith and
Holofernes (Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte) of 1612, can be difficult to distin-
guish from those of her father. Through this training, Artemisia became not only the sole
female follower of Caravaggio but in fact one of the most direct heirs of the artist.
Orazio’s friendship with the notoriously violent and volatile Caravaggio never-
theless raises serious questions about his own character. Caravaggio and Orazio almost
certainly coauthored a number of obscene verses about a rival painter, Giovanni Baglione,
who sued them for libel. Far more troubling was his friendship with Agostino Tassi, a
master painter of illusionistic architecture and an unrepentant criminal with a long and
alarming rap sheet.7 In the years 1611–12, Gentileschi and Tassi collaborated on frescoes
for the Casino delle Muse, a retreat commissioned by the papal nephew Cardinal Scipione
Borghese. In 1611 Orazio hired Tassi to teach perspective to Artemisia, and Tassi, taking
advantage of her chaperone’s absence, raped Artemisia. This episode and its aftermath are
well documented due to the fact that a year later Orazio sued Tassi for “defloration” of his
daughter, a crime against the honor of the family. The trial is a remarkable document that
richly illustrates social and legal history, reveals the disarray of Orazio’s household, and
allows us to hear the young artist, and those around her, speak through their own voices.
The value of these events for understanding Artemisia’s art is a matter of scholarly con-
troversy. The trial itself mentions only a handful of paintings and says very little directly
about art, and the testimony adheres closely to the legal arguments that were conventional
in such cases.8 Can the rape and its aftermath provide psychological insight for under-
standing the artist’s paintings? Did knowledge of the rape follow Artemisia to Florence,
Naples, and beyond, marring her reputation and reception?
After the trial, Artemisia was quickly married off to Pierantonio Stiattesi, the
brother of a family friend, and in late 1612 or 1613 left Rome for Florence, where the family
had roots. She seems to have quickly succeeded in the Florentine court, creating some of
her most famous works, such as the riveting Judith and Holofernes now in the Uffizi and the
Conversion of the Magdalene in the Palazzo Pitti (see figs. 6.3, 5.21), and becoming the first
woman to be admitted to Florence’s illustrious Accademia del Disegno. These works show
an artist moving gradually away from the Caravaggism of her father and introducing into
her paintings more highly polished surfaces, colorism, and increasingly sophisticated con-
ceits. This greater artistic refinement is likely linked to the erudite circles of poets, paint-
ers, and intellectuals with which she connected in Florence.9
But Artemisia also seems to have faced personal and financial turmoil in Florence.
She gave birth to as many as five children during these years, yet only one of them—a
daughter named Prudentia or Palmira—appears to have survived past infancy.10 Francesco
Solinas’s recent discovery of a trove of thirty-six letters dating from 1616/17 to 1620

3 introduction
changes our perceptions of her personal and financial life in these years. Most surpris-
ingly they reveal that she had a passionate love affair with a wealthy Florentine nobleman
named Francesco Maria Maringhi, a figure whose connection to the artist was previously
known only from a passing mention in one of her Neapolitan letters.11 Maringhi was a
powerful ally and supporter of Artemisia, and although her husband was well aware of
this amorous relationship, he turned a blind eye to it. While the full implications of these
letters are not clear yet, they do provide us a vivid sense of Artemisia’s personality and her
tumultuous private life, as well as a broader, deeper insight into her social circle.
In 1620, debt-ridden Artemisia and Stiattesi fled Florence for Rome, where they
were to remain for some six years. The extant paintings from this period are of remark-
able quality, including what is perhaps her greatest masterpiece, the Judith and Maidservant
in Detroit (see fig. 3.7). Recent findings, including Simon Vouet’s stunning portrait of her
(see fig. 1.7) from the collection of papal secretary Cassiano dal Pozzo, hint at a prominent
circle of patrons, artists, and collectors in Rome, yet despite a spate of fascinating letters
to Maringhi penned in Rome in 1620, precious little is known about her artistic circles in
this period.12
For reasons that are not entirely clear, Artemisia left Rome around 1626 for Venice,
possibly with Stiattesi. This period is among the least studied moments of her career, and
no extant pictures or letters can be traced to this time with certainty, but references to her
in Venetian poetry of these years suggest that she was well known in the Serenissima. By
1629 she was in Naples, where she had apparently come at the invitation of the Spanish
viceroy, the Duke of Alcalá. Although her Neapolitan works are less known to the gen-
eral public, recent exhibitions have revealed the early 1630s as an underappreciated high
point in the artist’s career. Relatively recent discoveries such as Corisca and the Satyr and
Christ and the Samaritan Woman show a lyricism, fluidity, and command of color far from
Artemisia’s youthful Caravaggism and demonstrate an understanding of the Bolognese
artists who were so admired in Naples (see figs. 3.23, 3.24).
In 1639 Artemisia traveled to London, yet why and for how long she was there
remain unknown. Beyond a single painting, the celebrated Allegory of Painting (see fig. 5.8),
and a few scattered literary references, Artemisia’s English period remains enigmatic and
thus will not be addressed in this book.13
By 1640 Artemisia was back in Naples, where she spent most of the remainder
of her life. Despite the many new paintings presumably from this period that have
recently surfaced, our picture of these years remains murky. Even the works from these
years with firm attributions fluctuate dramatically in style and quality. This unevenness
may be associated with the economic and political turmoil in Naples in the 1640s and
1650s, the artist’s declining health, and increasing dependence on workshop assistants.
Nevertheless, Artemisia continued to attract international patrons, including the Duke of
Guise and the noted Sicilian collector Don Antonio Ruffo. The date of Artemisia’s death
is unknown, though the latest date of her documented activity is on a contract from 1654.

4 introduction
Eighteenth-century sources report that she was buried in San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, the
Tuscan church in Naples.

The Scope of This Book


This project began with a rather modest chance discovery. I found, buried in the brittle
pages of the nineteenth-century journal of Neapolitan studies Napoli nobilissima, numer-
ous references to poems about Artemisia by Neapolitan poets who seem to have known
her personally. The poems praised her in terms that were far more glowing and exuberant
than I had come to expect, given the conventional view that Artemisia had been illiterate
and ignored or dismissed by her contemporaries. Moreover, it became clear that these
writers were not peripheral figures but instead were closely associated with the centers of
political and cultural power in Naples—the viceregal court and the illustrious Accademia
degli Oziosi. These facts seemed particularly at odds with the conception of Artemisia’s
Neapolitan period that was presented in earlier literature, in which relocation to Naples
was seen as the last resort of a depleted artist.
These apparent discrepancies led me to undertake a systematic investigation of the
earliest textual and visual evidence of Artemisia’s reception in Venice, Rome, Naples, and
Florence. While some of the texts were already familiar to Artemisia specialists, they seem to
have been little studied; others, including numerous elaborate tributes to her by Neapolitan
poets, had been overlooked entirely. One of the more unexpected facts to emerge upon col-
lating this evidence is that Artemisia cultivated close relationships to leading writers, poets,
playwrights, and other intellectuals throughout her career. Although her associations with
some of these figures are well known, such as with Galileo and Michelangelo Buonarroti the
Younger, scholars have understandably been hesitant to entertain fully the possibility that
Artemisia might have been immersed in the literary culture of her day.14
It has been known for some time that in Florence, between about 1613 and 1620,
she was part of a close-knit network of the city’s leading poets, painters, and drama-
tists, including the painter Cristofano Allori and the poet Jacopo Cicognini, as well as
Buonarroti. 15 The impact of these erudite associations on her art has only begun to be
explored in the literature, but scholars have detected the appearance of unusually sophisti-
cated literary-based conceits in her work that coincide with her arrival in Florence.16
While she was in Rome, several artists paid homage to her, employing refined and
playful poetic visual language. The French draftsman Pierre Dumonstier made an elegant
drawing of her hand that included a flattering inscription comparing it to the Homeric
“hands of Aurora” (see fig. 1.6). Likewise, Simon Vouet painted a dazzling portrait of
Artemisia (only recently discovered) that links her to the ancient queen Artemisia of
Hallicarnassus (see fig. 1.7).17 This evidence contributes to the overall picture of Artemisia’s
emergence in these years as a painter worthy of praise and admiration, in art as well as
in verse.

5 introduction
That Artemisia enjoyed fame and praise from a wide range of intellectuals and
artists is also evidenced in her Venetian period. It has only recently come to light that
Artemisia spent nearly four years in Venice (c. 1626–30),18 where the city’s poets dedicated
close to two dozen poems and letters to her, a number that in fact exceeds those in honor
of any other contemporary artist.19 An engraving tells us that she was also associated with
the Accademia de’ Desiosi, an academy that included prominent playwrights, librettists,
and poets, including Giovan Francesco Loredan, who wrote two admiring letters to her.
She also designed the frontispiece for a lesser-known academy called the Accademia degli
Informi. Literary evidence suggests that during her stay in Venice the artist was admired
not only for her painting but also for her sharp wit, as well as, apparently—and rather
unexpectedly—for her abilities as a singer.
In Naples, where Artemisia spent the greater part of the last twenty years of her life
she was, as noted, associated with the upper echelons of the viceregal court.20 She was on
personal terms with the poets of Naples’s most illustrious literary academy, the Accademia
degli Oziosi, painting works for them that were repaid with numerous and extravagant
poetic tributes.
Moreover, her fame among literati continued well after her death in the mid-1650s,
and she is the subject of literary and biographical tributes far later than has previously
been recognized; members of the Oziosi academy devoted poetry to her in the 1660s,
1670s, and beyond. Eighteenth-century biographers in Naples and in Tuscany—including
her first biographer, the Florentine patrician Averardo de’ Medici—extolled her wit and
learning, which they detected in both her letters and her painting.
While it may be expected that an artist like Domenichino or Rubens would foster
such literary associations, in the case of Artemisia it is remarkable. Not only did Artemisia,
as far as can be determined, receive no formal education, but also she stated during the
rape trial of 1612 that she did not how to write and could read only a little. Evidence sug-
gests, however, that we must seriously consider the possibility that Artemisia was a far
more active participant in contemporary literary, courtly, and academic culture than has
previously been suspected.

Artemisia, Literacy, and Oral Tradition


How is it that a painter who was, by her own account, effectively illiterate, was able to
participate in such literary and intellectual exchange? This issue lies at the heart of com-
prehending Artemisia’s relationship to artistic and literary tradition, and, more broadly,
it is central to understanding the relationship between word and image in the early mod-
ern period.
At the rape trial against Agostino Tassi in 1612, Artemisia stated unequivocally, “Io
non so scrivere e poco leggere” (I don’t know how to write, and can only read a little).21

6 introduction
Although emphasizing this fact was in her legal interest—the Tassi defense had accused
her of writing lascivious letters—a defense witness inadvertently confirmed the truth of
her claim.22 It is now clear that she did in fact learn how to write at some point: the letters
recently uncovered by Solinas—unlike Artemisia’s previously known ones that were dic-
tated so she could correspond while painting—appear to be in her own hand.23
Gaining literacy later in life is known from other examples in early modern Italy:
after the Cavaliere d’Arpino was teased for his inability to sign his own name, he taught
himself to read,24 and it is possible that, given the extremely low literacy rates among
women, expectations would have been lower.25 Artemisia’s letters show signs of her having
been a late learner; Solinas describes them as “incorrect but profound, ungrammatical but
cultured.”26 Thus, her level of literacy seems to have been on par with that of her father,
Orazio, who confessed he could write but not spell properly (“Io so scrivere, ma non
troppo corretto”).27 Misspellings and grammatical errors notwithstanding, the letters are
remarkable for their references to or paraphrases of the poetry of Petrarch, Ariosto, and
Ovid.28 What do these literary allusions tell us about the young artist’s education?
Well before the discovery of Artemisia’s letters to Maringhi, some scholars had sur-
mised that Artemisia must have gained a fairly advanced level of learning, based both on
the elevated literary and intellectual circles with which she associated and on the concep-
tual sophistication of her pictures. Nearly fifty years ago, in his analysis of Loredan’s let-
ters to Artemisia, Nicola Ivanoff observed that the painter must have been able to read.29
More recently, Keith Christiansen has argued that Artemisia’s close bonds with Florentine
literati and the growing poetic complexity of her Florentine and post-Florentine works
suggest a newfound literacy.30 He writes, “Not even in the work Caravaggio carried out for
the cultivated Cardinal del Monte do we find such a sophisticated manipulation of realist
style in the interest of literary-based conceits.”31 Judith Mann has also shown an increasing
receptivity to the idea of Artemisia as learned,32 and Elizabeth Cropper has suggested that
the Maringhi letters finally resolve the debate over Artemisia’s culture and education.33
Yet despite references to Ariosto or Petrarch, we should not treat Artemisia as
a peintre-philosophe, with a variety of arcane texts at her disposal. Simply being able to
write or paraphrase a line of poetry does not signify a humanist education, and despite
Artemisia’s ability to read and write, she had virtually no formal schooling. Recent
research by literary and social historians has revealed that in the early modern world
knowledge was overwhelmingly oral (or aural) in nature, whether in the form of poetry
composed extemporaneously, canonical works being recited or set to music, histories and
mythologies being read aloud, the latest political or scientific developments debated over
meals and on the street corners, or lively conversations taking place in courts, academies,
and picture galleries. Such communications were not limited to the elite spheres of the
courts and academies but formed part of the fabric of quotidian existence in taverns,
piazzas, and brothels.34 Indeed the works that she references—Petrarch and Ariosto—were

7 introduction
among the most widely known to the general public. On the other hand, Artemisia’s work
does betray a complex grasp of poetic conceits and contrapositions held in common with
the writers and artists with whom she cultivated close bonds.
The apparent paradox is resolved when we understand that the spoken word was
a critical means by which Artemisia was exposed not only to the stories and subjects that
populate her pictures but, more significantly, to the poetic and literary conceits and artis-
tic and religious ideals that shaped her art. Through constant exposure to the recitation
and improvisation of verse, seventeenth-century artists, including Artemisia, were con-
ditioned to interpret their subjects in light of the oft-repeated tropes, conceits, and juxta-
positions characteristic of baroque poetry. In this light, we may see how, despite having
little formal education, Artemisia could display a highly polished and sophisticated poetic
sensibility in her works.
That illiteracy and learning were not mutually exclusive is illustrated by Michel de
Montaigne’s report regarding a woman named Divizia in a small village in the Aretine
countryside in 1581: “She is a poor peasant woman of the neighborhood. . . . She can nei-
ther write nor read. But in her tender youth there was an uncle in her father’s house who
was always reading Ariosto and other poets in her presence, and her mind was found to
be so born to poetry that she not only composes verses with the most wonderful readi-
ness possible, but also brings into them ancient fables, names of gods, countries, sciences,
famous men, as if she had been properly schooled.”35
The recitation and performance of poetry had a venerable history among the lower
classes before Montaigne’s day. Setting poetry to song, for example, was one way that it
entered the popular consciousness. Dante himself had grumbled about hearing his Divine
Comedy sung by a blacksmith and an ass driver, complaining, “You sing the book and
do not say it as I made it; this is my only craft [arte] and you ruin it.”36 Early biographers
Carlo Cesare Malvasia and Giovan Pietro Bellori both report that the typically earthy
and plain-spoken Annibale Carracci, upon standing before Giulio Romano’s epic Battle of
Constantine, recited the opening lines of Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata.37 Artemisia’s father,
Orazio, seems to have had more than a passing familiarity with lyric poetry, for he and
Caravaggio lampooned the genre in their libelous send-up of Baglione.38 Artemisia’s own
references to lyric poetry in her letters are somewhat jumbled paraphrases, mixing up
passages of Petrarch and Poliziano, or echoing passages of Ariosto, in the way that might
be expected of someone who had been exposed to them aurally.39 Evidence suggests that,
whether sung or spoken, poetry and classical learning circulated widely among a largely
illiterate populace.40 The boundary between written and oral discourse was a fluid one in
an age that cherished conversation, oratory, improvisation, recitation, performance, rheto-
ric, and wit and in which literacy levels, especially among women, were low.

8 introduction
Spheres of Oral Culture
There are a number of spheres in which Artemisia might have been exposed to poetry,
literary ideas, and discussions about art—from the court to the picture gallery to the
academy. We can speculate that the earliest she might have heard poetry or literature read
or discussed would have been when she was at home and in her father’s studio, or while
out viewing altarpieces in churches. Tassi himself even composed poetry; at his trial he
confessed to penning an obscene sonnet or ottava rima (he couldn’t remember which) that
he had sent to Giovanni Battista Stiattesi for allegedly reneging on a promise to procure
a prostitute for him.41 In a far more elevated sphere, the courts that Artemisia frequented
in Florence and Naples were the most obvious places for ostentatious display of verbal
wit. People she knew in Florence were often involved in literary events, recitations, and
musical and theatrical performances in the court. Likewise in Naples, the same poets who
dedicated works to her were closely involved in court masques and entertainments. She
also seems to have mingled with visiting dignitaries or musicians, ladies-in-waiting, and
diplomats’ wives. Finally, early writers such as Stefano Guazzo and Giambattista Marino
emphasize a relatively new social space, the picture gallery, as a realm in which witty ban-
ter and improvised poetic ingenuity were often on display.

Artemisia and the Academies


Of the seventeenth-century spheres of oral culture, it was the academies that seem to have
been the most formative for the development of Artemisia’s art. The word “academy” is
today generally taken to refer to an elite formal institution dedicated to the pursuit of
higher knowledge and reinforcement of an official culture. In the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries, the term accademia usually referred to a small, informal gathering dedicated to
collective pursuit of knowledge, often with the support of a patron, whether Lorenzo de’
Medici’s “garden school” where young sculptors honed their craft, or Marsilio Ficino’s
Platonic “academy.”42 This usage was widely eclipsed with the foundation of formal,
state-sponsored institutions such as the Accademia del Disegno (1563), Accademia della
Crusca (1582), and the many others that proliferated in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries. Thus the Crusca’s own Vocabolario (1612) offers the definition: “an assembly of
learned men, called academics [accademici].” Based on this definition, it would indeed seem
unlikely that a female painter who had received virtually no schooling could have been
a participant.
However, the earlier, informal meaning of the term lingered well beyond the
founding of these influential institutions. In the Seicento the term “accademia” could
refer to virtually any regular, somewhat formalized gathering, whether taking place in a
private home, church, or other locale. In an artistic context, this often meant an informal
life-drawing studio, sometimes specified as an accademia del nudo or del naturale, which
allowed study of the human form outside of a workshop setting (as many artists were

9 introduction
not formally affiliated with a workshop). Outside the realm of art, an accademia was a
gathering that centered around music, convivial conversation, recitation, improvisation,
musical performance, or debate, often based on an assigned theme. In this sense, the
early Seicento accademia was much closer to the salon or salotto of the eighteenth cen-
tury than to the state-sponsored institutions such as the Accademia della Crusca or the
Académie Française.43
Even the smallest of these academies had their own lists of rules and members,
adopted Latin mottoes and imprese, and published little volumes of their proceedings,
often containing the discourses or poems that had been recited at their meetings. Despite
their portentous trappings, these academies were often whimsical, informal, and—to judge
from the sheer number of them mentioned—short-lived.
While there is no concrete evidence to indicate Artemisia’s participation in these
small academies in Florence or Rome, people with whom she associated in those cities
were involved with them: Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger and Jacopo Soldani
belonged to an informal academy called the Pastori Antellesi in Florence, where they
recited pastoral poetry, discussed literature, and sang canzonette, as well as belonging to
academies associated with the Barberini court in Rome.44 The academies with which
Artemisia was associated in Venice—the Desiosi and the Informi—seem to have functioned
similarly, with discourses on a set theme recited in order, and musical and poetic improvi-
sations performed.
Artemisia was famously the first female member of Florence’s state-sponsored
Accademia del Disegno; however, the available evidence regarding her connections to
the institution are only in its capacity as a guild, and there is little to suggest that she was
involved in its intellectual or artistic activities.45 In Naples, on the other hand, Artemisia
seems to have been closely connected to the illustrious Accademia degli Oziosi, an acad-
emy that conformed more to the more traditional elite model of a literary academy. Yet
even in this more rarified institution (like the Umoristi in Rome or the Gelati in Bologna),
oral practice was central. The Oziosi held lively debates on philosophical or aesthetic
principles, recited or improvised poetry, made speeches, held musical performances, and
fêted visiting luminaries. While it appears unlikely that Artemisia, or any artist, would
have been an official member of the Oziosi, nonmembers were frequent guests at their
meetings, whether they were prominent citizens, foreign diarists, musicians, or artists in
whose honor the academicians recited poetry or speeches.
To propose that Artemisia associated with academies and academic poets is not to
suggest the improbable role of Artemisia as a doctus artifex in the stamp of Carlo Maratta
or Charles Le Brun, but rather to suggest that her art was formed in an environment in
which recitation, performance, and exchange of witty banter took place. Recent evidence
suggests that many of Guercino’s drawings and paintings, particularly those painted in
his hometown of Cento, rise out of such an academic environment, in which painter,
dramatist, musician, and poet shared in exchange of ideas and themes.46 In each of these

10 introduction
spheres—whether the court, the picture gallery, or the academy—we find Artemisia in such
an environment that even if she were illiterate, she would not have been excluded from
understanding or participating in the activities of those around her. More broadly speak-
ing, this means we do not need to consider her paintings, even of literary subjects, as nec-
essarily dependent on texts. On the contrary, if we are to judge what the poets themselves
proclaim virtually in unison, artists—including Artemisia—were seen as poets in their own
right, able to improvise on poetic themes, often in competition with, rather than as mere
illustrators to, writers. Annibale Carracci, when asked whether Tasso or Ariosto was a
greater poet famously replied, “As far as I’m concerned, the greatest poet is Raphael.”47

Realism, Idealism, and Biography


Because I use contemporary literary and artistic sources on Artemisia as a point of depar-
ture, the book begins when the evidence of Artemisia’s artistic reception first appears, in
Rome in the 1620s. I do not address the devastating episode that has defined the artist’s
career for modern audiences—her rape in 1611 or its role in the interpretation of her art.
The reason for this omission is simple: none of the early sources mentions it. While two
early authors, Giulio Mancini and Giovanni Passeri, mention the rape, they do so in pass-
ing in their biographies of Agostino Tassi and, more importantly, without reference to
Artemisia’s art; moreover neither of these texts was published until over a century after
the events occurred.48
The disparity between modern and seventeenth-century responses to Artemisia’s
art requires further elaboration. As noted, the artist’s biography and its relation to her
early, Caravaggesque portrayals of violent or victimized heroines has been the primary
lens through which the artist’s works have been interpreted. Yet, even if we did not know
about the rape trial or have any documents or letters related to it, these early works would
still reveal a powerful and magnetic personality of the woman behind them. The visceral
appeal of her early Caravaggesque paintings, such as the Milan Lucretia, do not depend
exclusively on knowledge of the biographical parallels between painter and ancient hero-
ine, but rather on the works’ ability to convey a tangible and convincing immediacy that
(like those of Caravaggio) demand cognizance of the artist’s bodily presence before, and in,
the canvases (see fig. 2.1).49 Perhaps it is because we have virtually no written evidence from
these years that we feel most at ease with these works, free to approach them through the
raw, universal, and emotional language of the body, and to imagine the artist’s role in their
production. It is undoubtedly because of the works’ immediacy that this gripping period
of the artist’s career has been the subject of so much interest in films, novels, children’s
books, and stage productions.
Scholars and museumgoers often express bewilderment and disappointment in
Artemisia’s post-Caravaggesque works, particularly the Neapolitan ones, complaining that
they become too self-consciously “feminine” or that they exhibit “false airs.” Works such

11 introduction
as the St. Januarius, the Birth of St. John, and the Annunciation seem to stubbornly cling to
their historical moment and speak in a language that is remote from our own (see figs. 6.5,
1.1, 1.20).
Early interpreters of Artemisia’s art saw matters differently. They were largely
unresponsive regarding her early Caravaggesque paintings—unless we count the Veronese
painter Marcantonio Bassetti, who copied Artemisia’s early Judith and Holofernes in Naples
and attributed it to Orazio.50 If they knew about her early biography, they remained silent.
But it is precisely at the moment when Artemisia sheds her early Caravaggism and the
apparent biographical content of her painting becomes inaccessible that there is the first
evidence of her critical reception. Between 1627 and 1630, for example, Venetian writers
composed more than twenty poems and letters in praise of Artemisia—more than were
dedicated to any other living artist (although no paintings by her can be placed in this
period with certainty). In Naples in the 1630s and 1640s, Neapolitan poets, many of whom
she knew personally, dedicated many more, a trend that continued well after her death.
Eighteenth-century writers also knew Artemisia’s work, but saw her not as a follower of
Caravaggio, which at the time would have been faint praise, but as the heir of the Carracci
tradition. Although these Neapolitan canvases have inspired little excitement among mod-
ern scholars, they seem to have been her most celebrated and influential works in the early
modern period.
The first, most straightforward explanation of this discrepancy concerns taste. Like
other Italian artists in the 1620s, Artemisia shed the Caravaggism that had been the hall-
mark of her formative years, and assumed instead a softer, more graceful and idealized
manner indebted to the Bolognese tradition. While in her own time this was seen as a sign
of her artistic maturity, the Bolognese masters have not captured the popular imagination
of the twenty-first century as have Caravaggio and Caravaggism. As the New York Times
opined in 2010, Caravaggio has now eclipsed Michelangelo’s five-hundred-year reign.51
Thus it is not surprising that Artemisia’s work should garner the most modern attention
when it falls closest to Caravaggio’s.
But taste alone is not enough to account for the overwhelming modern appeal of
Artemisia’s early work and the milquetoast response to her later work. As Christiansen
observes, in turning from realism to idealism, Artemisia’s paintings seem increasingly
remote from the artistic voice so identifiable in her earliest works.52 In her later paintings
one searches in vain for the artist who had previously seemed almost corporeally present
but is now hidden behind an idealized mask. But was she ever truly there? Other artists,
such as Guercino or Simon Vouet, made comparable stylistic changes, yet with Artemisia
such traces of the artist’s presence in (and before) the work have been understood as
more central to interpretation. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that it was upon reaching
Artemisia’s Neapolitan period that Anna Banti felt a sense of loss, lamenting that she could
no longer hear the voice of the young Artemisia whom she felt she had known so inti-
mately in Rome.53

12 introduction
Because the metaphorical voice of these late works seems so removed, her real
voice, in the form of her letters, and the occasional voices of her contemporaries are rarely
brought to bear on them. There is a temporal gap between the textual and the visual evi-
dence in Artemisia’s oeuvre. The evocative and empowered (and oft-quoted) assertions
that she makes in her late career, such as the proclamation that, with her, “you will find
the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman”54 were made not when she was painting such
bold Caravaggesque works as the Pommersfelden Susanna or the Uffizi Judith (see figs.
2.2, 6.3). Rather, they were made in the late 1640s when she was creating works such as the
Bathsheba (see fig. 4.3)—pictures that to modern eyes appear anodyne, excessively finished,
and at odds with the self-assured assertions of the letters. By using the artist’s literary and
visual reception as a point of departure, one of my goals is to situate such works in their
original contexts and to reconstruct what qualities might have been appreciated in them in
her immediate orbit and, as far as can be determined, what she was attempting to achieve.

13 introduction