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A guided tour of Gentileschi’s paintings with Alexandra Lapierre

Artemisia’s noise

 Il rumore  di Artemisia  DCM-001
05 January 2024

The Spada Gallery in Rome is a treasure trove of many masterpieces; in particular, there is Artemisia Gentileschi's resplendent Madonna and Child. The little Jesus, which appears almost golden with his blond hair, caresses with his left hand his Mother who has just stopped nursing him. The soft pink color of the Madonna's robe makes everything monumental but at the same time very sweet. Alexandra Lapierre, a writer and historian, knows this masterpiece in every detail after spending a good five years of her life midst studies and archival research to write Artemisia, published in 1998 by Robert Laffont (in Italy published by Mondadori). Her biography is considered not only a great classic but also the point of reference for anyone who wants to know virtually everything about the great and tormented painter born in Rome in 1593 (died in Naples in 1653), who was the first woman artist to be admitted to the prestigious Accademia del Disegno in Florence in 1616.

This is a perfect canvas to begin to reason about the relationship the painter had with the sacred. “This splendid Madonna has a double identity. She is a mother holding her child in her arms, so full of love. Nevertheless, at the same time, she already knows that it is the son of God; she is fully aware of it. The gesture of the Child Jesus explains everything, for it is not only the son's affection for his mother but also a consolation for the future sorrow that awaits Our Lady destined to see him die for the salvation of humanity”.

However, according to Lapierre, in order to clearly explain the relationship between Artemisia and the sacred, one cannot help but start from the trial of Agostino Tassi for the rape she suffered 1612. “Artemisia, after that violent act, continued to associate with her rapist because that man had promised to marry her, even though he actually already had a wife. In her eyes, that assurance was in all respects a sacramental act. She was convinced that she was already married to him, just as is the case with the sacrament, a contract that involves the two spouses and to which the priest is in fact only a witness. Then the discovery of the lie, the trial that caused a scandal throughout Rome. In addition, there is the physical suffering. During the trial Artemisia was brutally tortured, even though she was an injured party, so that she would tell the truth with certainty. In her production this relationship with suffering that brings one closer to God, to the sacred, is very evident”.

Also on display at the Spada Gallery is the magnificent Saint Cecilia, engaged in playing the lute, dressed in a precious golden yellow dress over a snow-white robe while gazing heavenward. Lapierre explains, “In this painting there is a relationship with the sacred that cannot be separated from her being a female painter. Here Artemisia tells us about the inner connection of the saint with music and with God, thus the very embodiment of female creativity represented by the world of melody but extending to all the arts. It is the idea of creativity that runs through, at that time, all Baroque art directed to glorify the Most High. Artemisia offers us a magnificent female image, a tangible beauty, which, however, immediately refers us to another beauty, the spiritual one, in dialogue with Heaven”.

The double register that Lapierre sees in Artemisia's poetics (a chapter of human truth but looking upward) also appears clear in the two versions of Judith Beheading Holofernes (Museo di Capodimonte in Naples and Uffizi in Florence): “The artist with all evidence has identified herself with the gesture she “must” perform, according to the biblical account. Here again we are in front of a very new representation of women. Back in the days gone by, men had a daily relationship with violence and blood: military life, duels, and the roughness of life. For women none of this was there. In contrast, here Judith is strong, she faces the drudgery of beheading with confidence, and the sight of blood does not frighten her”.  Moreover, there is an inevitable quotation to be made here, Lapierre explains, “It is impossible not to think of the work of Caravaggio, which Artemisia certainly saw. The Caravaggesque Judith, however, kills Holofernes almost keeping him at a distance. Instead, Artemisia opts for a full physical involvement of the protagonist: she stands over the victim, even the role of the handmaiden Abram here is active, holding the man down, whereas in other depictions she stands aloof. The sacred is here declined in what Judith “must” do to save her people from foreign domination”. In addition, here it would be interesting to open a debate on the connection between such a bloody scene (the first version of the work was made immediately following the trial) and the rape suffered by Artemisia, but that is a conversation for another day.

Let us now set aside Holofernes’ blood and look at another scene that brings us back to the theme of the sacred, namely the Conversion of Magdalene, exhibited at the Pitti Palace in Florence. “Here we return once again to Artemisia’s double register, that is, a human narrative that is, however, also a narrative that leads us to God. Magdalene is beautiful, elegant and refined; we can quickly tell that she is both an admired and desired woman. However, something extraordinary happens in her. With her left hand she sets aside the mirror, the symbol of earthly vanity, and looks away, with her right hand resting on her heart.  Here the sacred dominates everything, it is a conversion, it is the story of a woman who has changed her life through an encounter with God”. Here a question arises for Lapierre: Were these messages clear to the church hierarchies? Was the description of so much female physical beauty not a problem? “I would say definitely not. If there had been misunderstandings from this point of view, Artemisia would not have been able to work for so many patrons who were nevertheless linked to the Church. Nor would she have been able to place her works, as was the case in Naples, in the Cathedral of Pozzuoli where we find St. Gennaro in the amphitheater of Pozzuoli, the beautiful and The Saints Proculus and Nicea”.

With regard to her status as a female artist, it is very striking how Artemisia proposes the scene of Christ with the Samaritan woman at the well. The woman has just quenched her thirst and the two are sitting on the same level, almost in an equal conversation. “There is always the real encounter between two characters, as it is in the Gospel story.  She talks to Christ without knowing that he is the son of God, which she finds out only later. This is precisely why it is a picture that exudes spirituality, especially from the figure of Jesus”.

Therefore, Lapierre, can we say that Artemisia, with her production and with her beautiful and attractive female figures, always speaks to us about God, about the relationship with the sacred? “Definitely yes. Artemisia always places a woman at the center of her works. For example, the grandeur of the Annunciation preserved in Capodimonte.  Apart from the San Gennaro in Pozzuoli, I cannot think of any of her works in which a female element does not appear. However, they are always human figures embodied in a very strong spiritual dimension. The same was true with Caravaggio, who painted the humble but spoke of God. And so Artemisia’s is a deep faith hat animates each of her paintings, thanks to the women she tells us about”.

by Paolo Conti
A Journalist with the Italian national newspaper, “Corriere della Sera”

Writer who investigates in situ

Born in France, Alexandra Lapierre is the author of biographies and novels that focus on great forgotten figures in history, especially women. An Italophile and Baroque art admirer, Lapierre is the daughter of writer and philanthropist Dominique Lapierre. She devoted five years to work on her biography ofArtemisia.

 She is a writer who follows her characters “in situ”, absorbing the noises, colors and smells that punctuate their adventures. All of her books are the result of extensive detective work, bibliographic research and excavation in archives around the world. 

Her other works include Extraordinary Life of William Petty, Adventurer, Scholar, and Conqueror; Fanny Stevenson; The Angelic Women; The Queen of the Seas, The Dissolute, All for Honor, The Woman of Five Lives, and Belle Greene.