The Penitent Magdalen
oil on canvas
1617-20 by Artemisia Gentileschi
Palazzo Pitti Firenze
The Repentent Magdalen
122 x 96 cm; oil on canvas
1621-22 by Artemisia Gentileschi
Were these commissions
of a popular theme
or was the artist
trying to communicate
something more personal?
If the latter,
about what would she have
257 x 179 cm; oil on canvas
1630 by Artemisia Gentileschi
During our visit, Teresa (President of ArtemisiA organization against domestic violence) told me that the female artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c. 1652), who is now getting some deserved recognition in the art world, was raped. According to Teresa, Artemisia was the first woman in Italy's history to ever denounce (accuse and take to trial) her attacker. And then she created her own composition in paint of the then popular subject of Judith beheading Holofernes. Teresa said that Artemisia painted in the face of her attacker on the head of the man being decapitated. Sadly, for all of her strength, not much has changed in the last several hundred years. Still, it starts somewhere and we have made SOME progress.
The story goes that Artemisia was born in July 1593 in Rome to the well-known painter Orazio Gentilesche. She was the eldest of all of the children, but the only girl. Her mother died in childbirth when Artemisia was 12 years old. And apparently she was the only child of the painter who showed any interest or skill in following in her father's career choice. However, Artemisia was rejected by the art academies. Stories imply that this is because she was female, but I am unclear on this since other stories mention that women artists were relegated to portraits and "charming subjects." Were they all rejected by the schools? Possibly.
In any event, Orazio asked his friend and colleague, the landscape painter Agostino Tassi to teach his daughter perspective drawing. In May 1611, Tassi raped his 17-year-old pupil. The trial occurred in 1612 with her father's help. Tassi was convicted and served a short time in prison, and some reports say that he was exiled from Rome. However, records show that he was free in 1613 and even returned to Rome (or maybe never even left). Such were his connections and perhaps he was also a product of his times.
I am not here to discuss the actual facts of this case since I do not know them and what I find on the Web is contradictory and also not first-hand information. Also, I know very little about the life and culture of those times. However, I am concerned about what is happening in our world today. This story brings out some disturbing information that seems frighteningly contemporary, such as these points:
Artemisia Gentileschi, a strong female artist
No one knows how Artemisia died in Naples. However, she was ridiculed upon her death by references to her sexuality on two epitaphs. Even if she acted as a stereotypical man of her time, she deserved better than that! One site suggests that her death may have been by suicide after the constant struggle she had in making a career in a man's world. The reasoning is that suicides are apparently kept off of death records or hushed up. I wonder if we will ever know. She had the Medici in Florence and even at least one king and queen as patrons. She was friends with Galileo and many others. None of this is proof that inside she was not suffering, but she did seem to forge ahead to do a lot. I am curious to know, though, if she felt she was far from her mark.
Naturally, there must be proof that a crime was actually committed. In the case of rape, gathering that evidence is personal, embarrassing, and I suspect might even be painful for the victim. There is no kind way around this in the case of a sexual assault. However, it is stated that Artemisia had to undergo a public examination, or at the very least, the [presumably male] judge was present while midwives gathered evidence from Artemisia's body. This strikes me as twice violated.
Apparently it was not just important to find evidence of a violent (and thus, presumably a not mutually agreed upon) sexual intercourse. They also tried to determine whether or not the victim had EVER had sex before. This seems to imply that if she had already been "deflowered" [a rude and sexist term if ever there was one, but perhaps telling more about men's attitudes towards women or their own sexual preferences than anything else], there could be no case. Does this also go so far as to imply that once a woman has had sex, anything any man would do to her would be acceptable? Or are they trying to only determine her credibility? (Still, this puts the accuser on trial, not the accused.)
Some of the stories state that Artemisia was tortured to see if she would stay to her story! She did, in fact. Not unlike the famous witch trials, the woman is damned if she does, damned if she doesn't. But, if they are going to use legal violence, why did they not torture the accused to see which version of his defense stories would come out? [Apparently, his retelling changed during the course of the trial. It also came out that he had raped his wife, and her sister, and tried to have his wife murdered. Apparently women were seen so much as property that even his having a history of violence did not make a punishment stick!]
Several sites stated that Tassi promised to marry Artemisia to "save her honor" after the rape [lo stupor in Italian]. Some say that she kept having sex with him in the hopes that he would follow-through with this promise. Again, I do not know what is true, but the idea of that one's attacker should then be legally joined with his victim [and therefore easy access to violate her again and again] is disgusting! And the idea that a woman or even a girl loses her honor, her value, her reputation, her worth as a human being just because she had sex (on her own accord or as a victim) is also disturbing and unjust. [A side note, after the trial, she left Roma and appears to have had no contact again with Tassi, despite his living another 32 years. Actions speak louder than words, leading me to believe that she probably was not in love with him, as some accounts theorize.]
She was married shortly after the trial, perhaps to the relative of one of her testifying witnesses, a friend of her father's. The marriage did not last. I am presuming this is related to the idea that a non-virgin must be paired legally with a man… any man… so that the family has no dishonor. I think it is more dishonorable to be pawned off as property! This business of marriage is unacceptable and it makes me admire even more all of the woman who did something worthwhile with their lives instead of acting like cattle or playthings despite their legal unions. On the other hand, if both parties willingly enter into this knowing the score, I have no complaints. But how much is brainwashed into a young girl about her own value as a life? And how can young men be taught to be so selfish? Ok, my naďve questions end here.
Exile as a punishment for a violent crime? Does that actually deter a person or does it just mean that he is free to violate someone else, as long as you are unaware or unaffected by it?