‘“Who? Signor Galilei? No, he knows nothing of painting. He’s the court mathematician. His head buzzes with only stars and numbers.’”
Signor Galilei? You mean, Galileo Galilei? This was one of the most striking lines in Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia, a work of historical fiction about the life of one of the greatest painters of the Baroque era, Artemisia Gentileschi.
Vreeland chronicles Gentileschi’s life story, one born from her independent character and teenage tragedies. The novel opens with her rape trial, from which she never emotionally recovered, continues on to her forced marriage, her experience with motherhood, and a lifetime of fighting for respect as a woman. Vreeland seamlessly intertwines Gentileschi’s artwork and her strength to carry on even after facing numerous rejections and obstacles. Her paintings come alive as the novel shines a spotlight on how her life and art were interwoven. It is impossible not to see how her own personal experience with the turmoil of rape influences her treatment of traditional stories. Departing from the example of previous Old Masters, like Caravaggio, Gentileschi portrays Judith beheading Holofernes as a powerful actor taking control of the situation. Caravaggio’s Judith, by comparison, is far more passive, and the sword seems to commit the crime with little help from the Biblical heroine.
Throughout the book, many intriguing facts about Gentileschi’s life are mentioned, which inspired me to research the artist’s life and separate the fact from the fiction.
There was one plot point that I was unfortunately was not able to verify: Gentileschi did not, from what I found, actually own one of Michelangelo’s paintbrushes.
However, here are 10 facts pertaining to her life that you might not know:
- Artemisa’s father, Orazio Gentileschi, was in prison with the most famous Baroque artist of them all, Caravaggio. In 1603, Giovanni Baglione brought a libel lawsuit against the pair for writing derogatory verses about his altarpiece. (source)
- In 1612, her father brought a lawsuit against his painting companion, Agostino Tassi, for raping his daughter, Artemisia. It it worth noting that Tassi had been imprisoned twice before (once for incest and the second time arranging to have his wife murdered). In addition to these charges, Agostino was also believed to have raped his first wife in Tuscany. Then, when he was living with his wife’s sister, he had children with her. Soon after, Agostino’s sister, Olympia Tassi Bagellis, took him to court for incest with his sister-in-law. (source)
- During Artemisia’s rape trial, midwives physically examined her in front of a judge to see if she was still a virgin. (source)
- After the trial, she was quickly married off to another painter, Pietro Stiattesi, and the couple then moved to Florence. (source)
- She was the first woman ever admitted into the Accademia dell’Arte del Disegno in Florence. (source)
- Since she was a woman, she could paint live nude female models. This gave her an advantage over male painters, who were prevented from using live female nude models. (source)
- Galileo and Artemisia Gentileschi knew each other: they both had connections to the Grand Ducal Court in Florence, and they were both members of the Accademia del Disegno. (source)
- Gentileschi must have learned a thing or two from Galileo, since the depiction of blood squirting in “Judith Slaying Holofernes” (c. 1620) is in accordance with his discovery of the parabolic path of projectiles. (source)
- “Judith Slaying Holofernes” (c. 1620) was most likely made for Cosimo II de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who hid the painting from view as he believed it was too horrifying to behold. (source)
- Artemisia Gentileschi painted a panel entitled “Inclinazione,” commissioned by Michelangelo Buonarotti the Younger, inside of Florence’s Casa Buonarotti. Her first art exhibition was held, incredibly, in 1991 at the same Casa. It is worth noting that up until her rediscovery in the late 20th century, many of her works had been attributed to her father or largely ignored by critics and art historians. (source)
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.