The Blazing World

Emily LaBarge on the art of Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c. 1615–17, oil on canvas, 28 × 27".


the tombstone of Artemisia Gentileschi is said to have read. Clear and simple, forgoing the usual embellishments, such as names of father, husband, and children, dates of birth and death. HEIC ARTEMISIA, or HERE LIES ARTEMISIA.

Artemisia: now commonly referred to by her first name only (Madonna! Cher! Beyoncé!), in order to avoid confusion with that other famous Baroque Gentileschi pittore, her father, Orazio. In life, she also went by the surname Lomi, a nod to the traditional artisans of her Tuscan heritage, which she thought might endear her to the powers and patrons of Florence, where she moved from Rome in 1613, at the age of nineteen.

The dates and details pile up. In 1812, Alessandro da Morrona wrote that in 1792 Averardo de’ Medici wrote that when the Naples church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini was restored in the 1780s, Artemisia’s marble funerary slab, with its plain inscription, was unearthed and subsequently broken or buried once more beneath the floor. The church was ultimately destroyed by urban renewal after World War II and rebuilt in a neighboring district. Averardo owned Artemisia’s 1652 Susanna and the Elders, her final rendition of the famous Old Testament scene that was also the subject of her first painting, in 1610. Considered something of an expert on the artist, Averardo was commissioned by Angelo Fabroni, a leading eighteenth-century Tuscan intellectual (friend of the influential Vatican counsellor Giovanni Gaetano Bottari, acquaintance of Diderot and Rousseau), to contribute an essay on Artemisia to Memorie istoriche di più uomini illustri pisani, which translates—incongruously, as she was neither—to “Historical Memories of Several Illustrious Pisan Men.”

Decades before her death, from around 1626 to 1630, Artemisia lived and worked in Venice, where she was surrounded by a vibrant circle of writers, including Gian Francesco Loredan, founder of the Accademia degli Incogniti, a radical academy to which Artemisia was linked. She was likely permitted to attend solely as an onlooker, or to offer some form of entertainment alongside other notable women poets, scholars, singers, and musicians, among them Barbara Strozzi, the most widely published composer of the Baroque period. Incogniti members were known for their “militant sexual libertinism” and their heated debates about current topics like la questione delle donne—“the woman question.” More specifically, the question concerned women’s sexual power and dangerous beauty stripping men of their reason and intellect and leading them to ruin and despair, and so on. It doesn’t seem like it was posed as a question, though, so much as a statement. In Scherzi geniali (Brilliant Jokes, 1626), Loredan satirically parrots heroines of old (some of whom—Lucretia, Helen of Troy—appear in the striking history paintings of Artemisia’s more-than-fifty-year career), filling their speech with internalized misogyny. Here’s Helen: “Paris wouldn’t have abducted me if I hadn’t wanted it . . . woman can only be raped by their own caprices.” In Bizzarrie accademiche (Academic Oddities, 1654), Loredan argued, in a similar vein, that if a woman is unresponsive, taking sexual pleasure by force is a man’s inherent right.

Loredan, a wealthy aristocrat, was nonetheless a benefactor of women writers, many of whom were prominent in the Venetian publishing world of the early-seventeenth century, offering witty, informed, and popular ripostes to the views of their male counterparts. One of the best known was Arcangela Tarabotti, a nun who wrote against the enforced cloistering of women and for sexual freedom, financial independence, access to education, and the right to hold public office. Her most powerful and subversive text, originally called Paternal Tyranny, however, was only published, in 1654, two years after her death. It is thought that Loredan intervened to keep it from being printed until it was given a different name: Innocence Betrayed.

Orazio Gentileschi, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, c. 1630–32, oil on canvas, 81 × 103".

Decades after the mid-twentieth-century revival of interest in Artemisia, Loredan still held sway over the details of her demise—specifically, its date, thought to be 1653, when he and the poet Pietro Michiele published two satirical elegies for the painter in their Cimiterio, Epitafi Giocosi (Cemetery, Playful Epitaphs), one of which reads:

By painting one likeness after another,
I earned no end of merit in the world;
While, to carve two horns upon my husband’s head,
I put down the brush and took a chisel instead.
Heartseize Gentlewoo-men was I ever to anyone,
Who was able to see me in this unseeing world;
But now that hid beneath these marble slabs I lie,
Allure turns to bait and Gentlywormeaten am I.

Loredan and Michiele’s book was translated into Latin, Spanish, and French, reprinted many times, and widely circulated. It’s possible even Artemisia read it, since it turns out she was not, in fact, dead in 1653. Recent scholarship has uncovered that the artist, who often struggled with her finances, paid an overdue tax bill in Naples in 1654; she is thought to have lived one or two years longer, into her early sixties, likely dying during the plague that killed more than half of the city’s population between 1656 and 1658.

Why did Loredan write of Artemisia’s death before it occurred—or rather, write of her, dead, before she was? A mistake? Another of his brilliant jokes? In her last letter on record, dated January 1, 1651, the artist writes to one of her patrons, Don Antonio Ruffo, of “the many illnesses and troubles I have had this past year,” imploring him to purchase two paintings she is working on and send her an advance of one hundred ducats. One of the works is “a most beautiful painting” of Andromeda, “when she was freed by a certain knight on the flying horse Pegasus, who killed the monster that wanted to devour that woman.” The “certain knight” is, of course, the notorious Perseus, decapitator of Medusa, from whose Gorgon neck sprang Chrysaor and said famous flying horse, sons from her rape by Poseidon, but Artemisia declines to name him. There is no record of whether or not this painting was finished or where it might be now.

“Artemisia” has become a site of interpretation and exchange, for better and for worse.

I like to think of Artemisia’s final moments as they were imagined by Anna Banti, the pen name of the art historian, critic, and translator Lucia Lopresti, in her novel Artemisia (1947). The work is a historical fiction Susan Sontag described as having a “dialogical voice” that sets “a story in the past in order to dwell on its relation to the present—very much a modern project.” Of Artemisia’s last night on Earth, Banti writes, “It seemed to her that she had never had such copious strong blood in her veins. Sleep would eliminate this discomfort, she felt in command of sleep, and of waking.” And finally,

dying in bed, the only end that Artemisia had not imagined when urging, almost spurring on her own destiny. To die in bed, not as the result of a sudden accident, or tragic plague, but from a slow, vague, insidious illness that could last for years: thus do most men die. She closed the curtains round the bed, extinguished the lamp. It was a while before she fell asleep: she had a bad night.

Yes, HEIC ARTEMISIA. And why begin with her end? Because it’s the closest thing to us. Because these details seem so familiar, and they matter. Because time and history move and exert force on their subjects in both directions.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, c. 1620–25, oil on canvas, 31 1/2 × 41 1/2".

BEATRICE CENCI, or, Regarding the pain of others

was something Artemisia learned about early in life. On September 11, 1599, when she was six years old, Rome hosted one of the most high-profile and controversial public executions for centuries to follow: The Cenci family—elder son Giacomo, second wife Lucrezia, daughter Beatrice, and younger son Bernardo—were all to be put to death for the murder of their patriarch, Count Francesco Cenci. A notoriously violent, cruel, and lawless man, the count had previously been jailed for a variety of crimes but been freed early because of his noble status. One of the crimes was incest: He had imprisoned Beatrice and raped her numerous times. (Yes, the charge was incest, not rape.) Terrified upon his return, the four family members plotted his demise. An attempt at poisoning failed, so they bludgeoned him to death with a hammer and threw his body over the balcony, hoping it might look like an accident, which it did not.

That day in September, a huge crowd—much of it sympathetic to the Cencis, in particular to the eighteen-year-old Beatrice, who was perceived as innocent—gathered on the ornate Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge, which stretches from the Mausoleum of Hadrian on the right bank of the Tiber, near Vatican City, to the Ponte district on the left bank. The Cencis’ patrician status entitled them to a private execution, but Pope Clement VIII decreed theirs should be public—a warning to the feuding aristocrats who threatened the stability of his rule. (Conveniently, the pope and his nephew, Cardinal Aldobrandini, would assume the estate of the executed family.) Their punishment, as the throngs of people watched, as the angels of the Ponte, where the scaffold was erected, looked down impassively, as the marble figure of Michael the Archangel drawing his sword glinted from the mausoleum’s highest parapet? Giacomo was tortured, then his head was bashed in with a mallet and his body quartered and exposed to the elements. Lucrezia was executed with an ax, as was, afterward, Beatrice, who allegedly prayed to God and cursed the pope all the way to the block. The ax was small, so it took at least a few strokes each. Only Bernardo, twelve years old, was spared: Initially sentenced to be a galley slave for life, he was let free a year later.

In the front row, with the best vantage point, were the artists of Rome, given special authorization to attend executions on professional grounds, following the advice of treatises on painting to the letter: “For depictions of martyrs, be witness to capital executions.” Sketching hastily, the artists noted the gestures of the condemned, the terror on their faces, their darting eyes, pleading, frowning, weeping, sometimes fainting. What better opportunity than this special kind of life drawing to enhance their history paintings, which depicted not entirely dissimilar scenes? Caravaggio was there, rumored also to have been given private access to the Corte Savella dungeons, where Beatrice had been imprisoned, so he could paint her likeness as inspiration for the heroines of his Judith and Holofernes and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, both 1598–99. Gold-ringleted and of fair countenance. A contemporary frisson for the patrons. A political avenger, a bloodthirsty seductress, a martyr, a saint, a woman whose will is tested, who sacrifices—so many things, but not really a person, having left her body to become an image, an allegory. Orazio, friend of Caravaggio, was there too, and in her novel Artemisia (1998), the writer and historian Alexandra Lapierre imagines him holding his tiny daughter aloft on his shoulders, from which she watches the spectacle in rapt attention. Her tutelage begins early. It is said that Orazio also painted a saint with the dead girl’s face in a fresco for Cardinal Aldobrandini’s new gallery at San Nicola, which her family’s misery funded. A subtle, self-serving memorialization on Aldobrandini’s part, perhaps. He was, after all, Beatrice’s godfather.

In any case, Artemisia would have been well aware of the trial and execution. It was, indeed, infamous in its time and after, reproduced in paintings, drawings, and writings by Stendhal, Alfred Nobel, Alberto Moravia, Stefan Zweig, Antonin Artaud, and others. One of its first dramatizations was by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts in 1819 while staying at the Villa Valsovano near Livorno. The last line of the play, Beatrice’s last words: “We are quite ready. Well, ’tis very well.”


of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929), alongside Professor Z—and so for our purposes why not also Y and A, B, C, too, for there are many incarnations—is the dominant male voice that speaks, and has historically spoken, what I suppose we might call untruths to power. Why is he so angry? Woolf wonders of Professor von X, whom she imagines writing “his monumental work entitled THE MENTAL, MORAL, AND PHYSICAL INFERIORITY OF THE FEMALE SEX”? Professor von X is emotional, agitated. He insists “a little too emphatically on the inferiority of women,” she surmises, because “he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis, because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price.”

In Kate Zambreno’s Heroines (2012), her experimental memoir–critical study of the overlooked wives of famous modernist writers, she refers to her partner—a fellow writer and scholar, whose work has taken them to a rural academic outpost—half-joking, half-dead-serious, as “My Professor X, as Woolf calls the patriarchs of higher learning.” She admires his work, likes to see him lost in thought, but grates at being perpetually introduced as his addendum: She is always the wife, the counterpart, the passive supporter, sometimes nameless, hers replaced by his, as in Professor X’s wife or girlfriend or partner, with no other identifying characteristics. Unequivocally not how her partner considers her, it is how, regardless, she is circulated among others.

“Suppose truth is a woman, what then?” asks Nietzsche in his preface to Beyond Good and Evil. The question is posed to rhetorically illustrate how dogmatism cripples philosophy in its quest for truth. But the question still stands.

Professor von X, yes, well everyone has one, and Artemisia had two: her father, Orazio, and her erstwhile tutor-cum-rapist, Agostino Tassi, both of whom have frequently dominated historical conversations around her life and art. In 1916, the Italian art historian Roberto Longhi (Banti’s husband and own Professor X) wrote “Gentileschi, padre e figlia,” or “Gentileschi, father and daughter,” the first piece of scholarship to take Artemisia seriously as an artist. The essay begins to distinguish her work and style from that of Orazio—to whom, among other artists including Caravaggio, many of her paintings had formerly been attributed—and to trace Artemisia’s decades-long career as an independent and successful painter. She was, he writes admiringly, “the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting, coloring, drawing, and other fundamentals,” noting also the dominance of female protagonists within her work: She painted scenes in which women are “equal to men,” which I think he means both narratively and visually—the precise moment chosen, what is conveyed in this critical instant, and how.

Longhi’s essay was groundbreaking and effectively initiated the twentieth-century recuperation of Artemisia that would eventually take off in the late 1960s, but Artemisia was not the “only woman in Italy” who “ever knew” about painting—see Sofonisba Anguissola, Elisabetta Sirani, Giovanna Garzoni, Lavinia Fontana, et al. He also describes Artemisia as “a first-rate painter technically, but intellectually inferior, even to her father,” a strange (even to her father?) and unprovable assertion that echoes basic Renaissance (and medieval and unfortunately sometimes contemporary) views of the innate incapacity of women, including their constitutional lack of the so-called divine genius that produces Great Artists. But more on that later.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Danaë, c. 1612, oil on copper, 16 1/4 × 20 1/2".

Orazio was Artemisia’s teacher and—as most women did not have access to any kind of education, nor young unmarried women access to public life—it is unlikely she would have had the choice of requesting another. In this, she was lucky. He recognized her aptitude early on, boasting when she was just barely a teenager that her skill far surpassed that of his grown male contemporaries. (Alongside the trope of Heroic Genius, see also Prodigy.) In Orazio’s workshop she learned his trademark technique of alla prima, or wet-on-wet, a quicker and more immediate method in which color-mixing must be precise and intuitive, along with his secret amber varnish, which gave the paintings a special depth and clarity. As a child, Artemisia learned to prepare colors—how to pound and then mix them with oil, how to arrange them on the palette starting at the thumb from light to dark, how to store the leftover paint in water so it wouldn’t go to waste. Lead white, gypsum, lead-tin yellow, yellow ocher, orpiment, verdigris, vermillion, red ocher, red oxide, carmine, sienna, ultramarine (the rare pigment that would later in life send Artemisia into debt and fleeing Florence on horseback), carbon black—made by burning bones or ivory—and vine black, made from charred grapevines.

Early works by Artemisia, such as Susanna and the Elders, 1610, Cleopatra, 1611–12, and Danaë, ca. 1612, show evidence of Orazio’s teaching in the naturalistic style of the time: dark, sumptuous backgrounds; transparent shadows; dense and solid modeling of flesh tones; play of light and shadow on radiant, spotlit skin; deep colors obtained by the layering of contrasting shades; rich, billowing fabrics and folds of drapery, sheets, clothing. What emerges immediately as characteristic Artemisia is a strikingly corporeal female body—breasts that understand gravity, droop ever so slightly, hang with real weight, and have softly shadowed undersides. Bodies, as in Cleopatra and Danaë—nearly identical images of a nude reclining on a bed of white sheets and red velvet—that are heavy with the knowledge of their own reality. Head thrown back, eyes just closed, one arm angled gently overhead—with an ambiguous and solitary pleasure. In her right hand, Cleopatra holds her fatal asp tightly as it coils around her wrist, her pink-flushed skin suggesting it perhaps has yet to strike. Danae’s right hand, with its dimpled knuckles characteristic of Artemisia’s women, is in the same position but grasps between its fingers the golden coins of Zeus’s shower, which also gather between her crossed legs, in the creases at her hips, and hover in the dark air like flaxen rain.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Cleopatra, c. 1633–35, oil on canvas, 46 × 70".

Susanna and the Elders, 1610, painted when Artemisia was seventeen, shows a body reacting viscerally to voyeurism and perceived threat. As told in the Apocrypha, the beautiful Susanna, wife of Joachim, is spied on by two village elders while bathing in the garden. The men tell Susanna she must sleep with them or they will publicly accuse her of adultery, a crime punishable by death. She refuses, nonetheless, and is ultimately saved by Daniel (of Leonine fame), who interrogates the two men and exposes their stories as contradictory. Artemisia’s Susanna does not simply present her innocent and virtuous body, the moral of the tale, to the viewer, as might be expected (Old Testament stories were often treated as convenient opportunities for comely nudes in landscapes). Instead, she twists and turns awkwardly as she pulls away in horror and shock, contorting her body in tense and angular revulsion. Up close, the figures in the painting appear larger-than-life, and Susanna is tightly foregrounded, hemmed in by a stone wall the elders lean over, directly into her physical space—there is no means of escape for the young woman, unless she were able to run right out of the image to meet us. Below Susanna’s right knee, in a shadow cast by her leg, is chiseled ARTIMITIA/GENTILESCHI/F/1610.

Orazio Gentileschi, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, c. 1630–32, oil on canvas, 81 × 103".

One of the elders is, in fact, young, a man with dark locks; his right hand reaches toward Susanna’s fair curls as she angles her head away sharply and refuses to look at the figures looming over her. It has been hypothesized that this black-haired man is based on Tassi, a disreputable and licentious painter who was friends with her father. I read with revulsion a contemporary account that described him as someone whose approach to women was to “take them by force.” Orazio, who worked with Tassi, may have known of the artist’s reputation (notably, Tassi had attempted to assassinate his wife and also impregnated her younger, married sister, with whom he still shared a household), but he nonetheless hired him to tutor Artemisia in the skills Orazio did not himself possess, which—without access to an academy or even the right to occupy public space unaccompanied—she could not have learned on her own: trompe l’oeil, architecture, landscape. Artemisia could not leave the house by herself, could not idle or observe and record her surroundings. She was not permitted to draw the male form from life. She was not allowed on a scaffold, and so could not learn to paint frescoes. In the months prior to his appointment as her tutor, Tassi and Cosimo Quorli, a minor official in the pope’s court, had spread rumors about Artemisia. That she stood at the window of her room showing herself to everyone. That numerous men had “had” her. That she was a whore. Quorli bizarrely claimed both that he was her father and that he had slept with her. The two men followed her around Rome, lurking in the churches they were told she would visit, catching up to her on walks she took with her neighbor, Tuzia, who, it turned out, would sometimes tip them off as to Artemisia’s whereabouts.

In early March 1612, when Tassi was on trial for raping Artemisia in her home almost a year earlier, she testified that the ongoing atmosphere in her household was “noxious.” The formal charge against Tassi was for “rape,” but in seventeenth-century Italy, this was defined as “damage to economic and social assets.” The case had been brought by Orazio, as Artemisia had no right to the law, and her rape mattered legally only insofar as her father’s property—i.e., her, the possibility of her marriage, and, with it, her future social status—had been destroyed. Tassi was also charged with “procurement,” as he had continued to sleep with Artemisia for the next nine months, promising she need not fear, as he intended to marry her. The Roman court was amused by Orazio’s charge that Tassi stuprata più e più voile, “deflowered her over and over again,” as if this were not possible without some kind of consent. Contemporary writings sometimes refer to Artemisia’s “storytelling” or enclose “rape” in scare quotes—qualifying it as “virtual rape,” “fictional rape,” or “imaginary rape”—even though her testimony details her fear and physical pain, how she attempted to fight Tassi off so far as to rip a piece of skin from his penis and afterward throw a knife at his bare chest. Some scholars argue that because rape was not socially or legally the same in seventeenth-century Italy, we cannot consider the situation in contemporary terms. But it’s not the law or the naming of a thing that determines its existence, only the meager claims we are permitted to make publicly on its behalf. As Christine de Pizan had written two centuries earlier, in The Book of the City of Ladies (1405):

I am certain that there are plenty of beautiful women who are virtuous and chaste and who know how to protect themselves well from the entrapments of deceitful men. I am therefore troubled and grieved when men argue that many women want to be raped and that it does not bother them at all to be raped by men even when they verbally protest. It would be hard to believe that such great villainy is actually pleasant for them.

And, anyway, a lot of the trial sounds pretty contemporary to me.

People have often wondered at the 1610 date of Artemisia’s Susanna, as if it prefigured what was to befall her, but the world in which Artemisia was living would already have given her a particular if not extraordinary kind of knowledge, invisible, unlegislated, wordless. There exists, Jacqueline Rose suggests in Women in Dark Times (2014),

another kind of understanding, less obvious but no less vital, that makes its way into the darker spaces of the world, ripping the cover from the illusions through which the most deadly forms of power sustain and congratulate themselves. This we might call the knowledge of women. In its best forms, it is what allows women to struggle for freedom without being co-opted by false pretentions or by the brute exertion of power for its own sake.

The past decades have continued to reveal further works by Artemisia, previously hidden beneath the names of others—her father, Caravaggio, this male Baroque painter or that, sometimes just “anonymous seventeenth century artist.” Often, when works that have been argued over are cleaned, a signature emerges­, chiseled in stone, carved into a tree, written into a history book, fluttering on a piece of paper at the feet of a saint—all of these things painted, of course—ARTEMISIA GENTILESCHI, or ARTEMISIA LOMI, and sometimes just ARTEMISIA, alone.

As for Tassi, he was convicted of the crime for which he stood accused and was banished from Rome—a sentence never enforced since he was favored by the pope for his skill as a painter, though no one today speaks much of his work at all.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1613–14, oil on canvas, 78 x 64".


that Agostino was a rogue

that he deflowered Artemisia

that he had his first wife killed

and bandits from Tuscany came to Rome to get the money for killing her

and there are letters about it

that he impeded a marriage being planned for Artemisia

that he has had a thousand quarrels with his friends out of jealousy

and it is well known all over Rome

that he tried many times to take Artemisia out of Rome

and he did not want to keep his promise to marry her

that Cosimo stole a painting of a Judith

that Cosimo said Artemisia looked like him, was his daughter, was his lover

that it was Tuzia’s fault

that it was not Tuzia’s fault

that Artemisia was a virgin

that Artemisia was a whore

and more

and that is just the court case

it is also true

that Judith beheaded Holofernes

that Jael slew Sisera

that Lucretia buried a dagger in her breast

that she would rather take her own life than die of shame

that Cleopatra felt the same way but for different reasons

that Delilah seduced Samson

and broke his throne

and cut his hair

and drew from his lips a hallelujah

that the Magdalene was penitent

although Artemisia doesn’t show her that way

instead she is in rapture

she swoons

her bright skin shining

her half-closed eyes beautifully shadowed above her pink apple cheeks

that the Magdalene was melancholy

and would you believe two elders, one slightly younger, once told me women cannot experience melancholy

it doesn’t exist for us (you, they said, me)

you just can’t


you are incapable

and I asked how they knew, but they couldn’t say, they just knew they knew

not seeing that melancholy is really the special province of the subaltern

and Judith slew Holofernes

and Judith beheaded Holofernes

and Judith and her maidservant wrapped his head in cloth

and Susanna was watched

and Bathsheba was watched

and Judith slew Holofernes

with the help of Abra

not her maid but her equal

young Abra who holds Holofernes down

they work together

as Judith cuts his head off

and blood sprays in a perfect arc when his carotid is severed

which is the exact moment Artemisia chooses to depict

and charivari was a common practice in Italy, as elsewhere, a popular shaming ritual that involved a mocking procession including song, gesture, dance, noisemaking, also called rough music

and maybe the musicians that Artemisia’s husband, Pierantonio Stiattesi, chased away from their family doorstep one night in Rome, sometime in 1622, were really singing such music to Artemisia

Stiattesi, the minor painter, brother of the clerk Giovanni, who helped Orazio with his lawsuit, to whom Artemisia was married shortly after the infamous trial

and who later abandoned her, disappeared entirely to parts unknown

or maybe the musicians were alluding to her fame as a lover, which was real, she loved to love and was known to have passionate affairs, including with the composer and painter Nicholas Lanier

and the wealthy Florentine nobleman Francesco Maria Maringhi, to whom she wrote rather salty letters, if you must know

and Artemisia also wrote to him of her heartbreak at the death of her son Cristofano, the fourth deceased of five children, all born within a five-year span, from 1613 to 1618

I now see that fortune has turned her back on me, she wrote

and it is now five days since he died, and I have been dying of grief

and Prudenzia, named for Artemisia’s mother, who died when her daughter was only twelve, was the only child to survive into adulthood

and she would also become a painter, taught by her mother

and when Artemisia moved back to Rome, in 1620, she fell in with a group of foreign painters, outsiders like her, who painted her portrait, drew her hand, wrote poems about her magnificence

but she didn’t like Rome, where she could never quite make it inside the papal circles that controlled the most lucrative patronages

so she moved to Venice, Naples, London, Naples again

and painters in the artists’ quarter often sent scurrilous poems to each other

that would say things like

you paint like a girl

and a pair of drawers filled with your own shit is better than your greatest masterpiece  

and heaven’s cunt I’ll throw a bucket of shit in your face

and stick my paintbrush up your ass

and cuckold, thief, traitor, coward, spy, liar, pimp

and the most terrible insult for a woman was to be called puttana scrofolosa, or “scrofulous whore”

and there were codes of practice that governed cursing, verbal attacks, and bodily gestures, which determined how men communicated with each other in seventeenth-century Italy

and the worst thing that could happen would be for someone to stick a piece of paper to your front door in the middle of the night, a cartelli infamanti, which could forever destroy your family’s reputation

but my favourite detail is the one Orazio gave while on trial in 1603, accused of sending a libelous missive to an artist adversary, when he says that Caravaggio came by his studio one day to borrow a pair of angel wings

because I imagine Artemisia would have been there

and might have handed them to him herself.

View of “Artemisia” at the National Gallery, London, 2020–21. Left: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1612–13, oil on canvas, 62 1/2 × 49 1/2“. Right: Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1613–14, oil on canvas, 78 x 64”.


Artemisia said, It’s true, it’s true, it’s true, she was required to avow while being tortured with sibille, ropes laced through the fingers and tightened, as Tassi stood directly before her, also permitted to pose his own questions. To give testimony under torture was to verify its accuracy, although this was only obligatory for the accuser, not the accused. She also had to be examined by midwives to confirm that she had actually been “deflowered” by Tassi, something that is physically impossible to deduce. Yet even under duress, Artemisia managed to throw admirable barbs in Tassi’s face—These are the rings you gave me, and these are your promises, she yelled of the sibille as they were pulled and her hands, her livelihood, painfully crushed.

I won’t write more on the trial because Artemisia’s testimony is an important and real historical document—I saw it at London’s National Gallery, whose stunning and sensitive show forthrightly includes it as just one of many pieces of information about a woman’s life—but it’s also hers. You can find it, if you look, and read it for yourself.

“Suppose truth is a woman, what then?” asks Nietzsche in his preface to Beyond Good and Evil. The question is posed to rhetorically illustrate how dogmatism cripples philosophy in its quest for truth, which will always remain unattainable when based on ideas that are crude, childish, superstitious, and prejudiced. But the question still stands.


In July 2018, the National Gallery acquired Artemisia’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, 1615–17, the twenty-first work by a female artist to enter the institution’s collection of more than 2,300 pieces. The Gallery’s monographic exhibition “Artemisia,” which opened in early October and runs through January 24, 2021, is its first major show dedicated to a female artist. The second room of the exhibition brings together four self-portraits­ from roughly 1613 to 1617—two depict Artemisia (or slight variations of her) as Saint Catherine, one as a more generic Female Martyr (holding a saintly palm frond, a detail added late to the painting), and one as a lutenist (possibly in reference to a performance Artemisia was part of at the Florentine court of the Medici). Hung in a row, the portraits give the effect of a strange and subtle morphing of a woman as she inhabits various guises, skillfully adapting to the requirements of each commission. At least two of the works show additions that changed the subject’s identity—from self to saint, sibyl to martyr, performer to pious—presumably at the behest of a patron. Stand-alone self-portraiture was an uncommon genre at the time, usually reserved for the preservation of painterly posterity. Some patrons had halls of self-portraits by painters whose work they owned—a canon to support the canon.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant, c. 1623–25, oil on canvas, 72 1/2 × 55 1/2".

The reasons for Artemisia’s inclusion of her own likeness in these paintings are many: practical and pecuniary convenience; her well-known beauty; the common practice of painting saints with the features of real individuals. It has also been speculated that Artemisia used the so-called notoriety of her biography to contribute to her fame as a painter, giving these hybrid saint/self-portraits salacious undertones to make them more attractive to patrons. In which case, good for her. Of the four portraits, all of which are closely cropped three-quarter views, Self Portrait as a Lute Player, ca. 1615–17, and Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria are the most similar; overlaying the two reveals Artemisia’s use of a shared tracing or drawing source. The small differences, however, show her facility with detail both iconographic and vernacular. The lute player wears a gold-embroidered blue silk dress cinched tightly with a fabric belt, her soft white cleavage pressed upward as she holds her instrument tenderly, left hand fingering a note, right hand about to gently strum. Her skin is ruddier, her features less smoothed and idealized, than in Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, though both use rich colors and densely modeled flesh paint, as well as underlayers that build up the texture and opulence of the draperies. In both, the woman fixes us with a knowing and impassive, confident gaze. Catherine of Alexandria, a prominent theological scholar, debater, and princess of the third century, was scourged and imprisoned by the Roman emperor Maxentius for her Christian beliefs. She was condemned to death on a spiked wheel, but it shattered at her touch. When she was beheaded, legend has it a milklike substance poured from her neck rather than blood.

Mainstream media coverage of “Artemisia” has produced some troubling, if predictable responses. “The life of Artemisia Gentileschi is made for Netflix, but it’s the art that really excites,” one newspaper writes. “The teenage artist was a young woman operating in a man’s world,” writes another. The Daily Mail takes the cake with “Savage genius of woman who painted her revenge: As a new show of Artemisia Gentileschi opens, how her rape and torture was even more grisly than her masterpieces.” As if dishing on a celebrity sex scandal, the article reproduces the most graphic and intimate details of Artemisia’s testimony and describes Agostino Tassi as a “serial liar, pervert and social climber” who had “groomed her for months.” Other articles aim for shock with full stops and line breaks: “She rebuffed him. He attacked her, she fought back. But he was too strong.” Most disheartening, however, are the claims that Artemisia’s art is somehow confused, or made too confusing, by her biography; that it has the power to confound and blind us to her otherwise objective legacy. One critic refers to “the feminist end of the art historical spectrum,” which reads too much into her rape and pitches her as a #MeToo heroine bent on revenge to make her seem more “au courant.” “The trouble with projecting so much of the present into the past,” he writes, “is that it colors the past too strongly and makes it unreliable.” It “diminishes” and “limits” Artemisia as an artist, these (male) critics say, to speak about her biography or consider her work as feminist. Others say that “feminists” simply didn’t exist in the seventeenth century. Yes, neither did “scientists,” and yet: Galileo.

Another art historian–critic suggests that the goal of overturning the “male-ification of the canon” is to one day be able to simply refer to artists just as great artists because gender will no longer matter. But to de-male-ify (!) the canon, we would have to entirely abolish “the canon” as a concept. Abolish heroes and geniuses and masters and prodigies. Abolish the veneration of the exceptional individual, which is also a capitalist fantasy. In this sense, we do not yet even know what a heroine might look like.

These are not the dominant responses to Artemisia, who now frequently gets—thanks to scholars like Mary D. Garrard, R. Ward Bissell, Mieke Bal, Griselda Pollock, Linda Nochlin, Jesse Locker, Alexandra Lapierre, and Letizia Treves, who curated the National Gallery’s exhibition—the varied and thoughtful readings she deserves. But they should be recognized as a thorn in our collective side. As Pollock has written, “Artemisia” has become a site of interpretation and exchange, for better and for worse. It should be possible to imagine a more complex understanding of a person—she, they, he, whomever—than this.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant, c. 1623–25, oil on canvas, 72 1/2 × 55 1/2".

GARMENTS AGAINST WOMEN, or, the Gentileschi wardrobe

in which Abra wears yellow, a very particular, radiant golden-mustard hue, and Judith wears yellow, the same shade, and Abra wears yellow, and Judith wears yellow, and Susanna has a yellow cloak, and Mary Magdalen has a yellow dress, and Jael also wears yellow, as she prepares to drive a tent peg through sleeping Sisera’s temple, “until it reaches the ground below,” as the Old Testament says. One of Lot’s daughters wears yellow, as does one of Bathsheba’s handmaidens, and Corsica is in yellow when a satyr attempts to seize her only to come away with a handful of her hairpiece. The maid who discovers Cleopatra on her deathbed wears yellow, and Esther who faints before Ahasuerus wears yellow, with the most beautiful silver-embroidered edges and patterned gold-and-white sleeves, and she also has a blue sash, or maybe it’s a cloak that has fallen from her shoulders, an accent many of the other women in yellow have too. I think this yellow is giallorino, or perhaps Naples yellow, the city in which Artemisia spent more than twenty years of her life, although she didn’t like it (too poor, too criminal, too cramped) and was always trying to leave.

“Even heroic refusals aren’t that heroic though some are more heroic than others,” writes Anne Boyer in “Garments Against Women,” and

Sometimes when you look at smoothly joining at least two different-sized pieces of flat but pliable material so that these pieces might correctly encase an eternally irregular, perspiring and breathing three-dimensional object that cannot cease its motion you think that there is no way this could happen, yet sometimes it does.

Which is what it might have felt like to paint these women in motion, these would-be assassins, these heroes and villains, with their opulent fabrics and delicate details of lace that lick at their creamy skin as they raise hammers high, and lean forcefully into the sword-wielding arm, and blood sprays into the air and onto the golden dress and a single candle flickers and a hand is raised to shade a face, creating a shadow some say resemble the phases of the moon newly observed by Artemisia’s friend Galileo Galilei. It is definitely what it feels like to write about Artemisia. Yes, like Hélène Cixous of her Rembrandt and his Bathsheba, I have taken at least twenty-four steps in the direction of Artemisia, the eternally irregular subject-object, whom Simon Vouet painted wearing a dress of Naples yellow, with a medal hanging round her neck that shows the ancient Queen Artemisia and her mausoleum at Halicarnassus.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Susanna and the Elders, 1652, oil on canvas, 79 × 89".

In Artemisia’s second Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1613–14, the one with the arc and spray of blood and the yellow dress, Judith wears a bracelet in which tiny rondels show Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. In Judith and Her Maidservant, 1614–15, Judith rests a sword on her shoulder, its pommel facing us, on which a head shrieks toward the basket below, which holds the pallid, decapitated head of Holofernes, the Assyrian general, said to resemble Tassi, whom Judith has just killed in order to save the Jewish city of Bethulia. In Judith’s hair is a broach of Michael the Archangel brandishing his sword.

Judith: adaptable symbol, capacious host. The widow, the “mere” woman, at once seductive and chaste, the temptress and the political triumph of Virtue and Good. Judith, the useful Counter-Reformation metaphor both religious and civic, in whom (Catholic) truth defeats (Protestant) heresy, and the Church Militant vanquishes the nonbeliever, the Judeo-Christian order its Turkish, Islamic other, evidence of God protecting his covenant people. Judith’s divine strength and ruthlessness is but momentary, for the polis only. She spends the rest of her days in exemplary celibate solitude.

In at least five of Artemisia’s paintings, and some of her father’s as well, a gold-edged red velvet blanket is alternately a sheet, a bedcover, a shawl, and a curtain that hangs in the dark shadows of night, rippling crimson as Judith and Abra think they hear something in the distance.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Jael and Sisera, 1620, oil on canvas, 34 × 49".


In “The Gender of Sound,” Anne Carson writes of the disorderly sound of women, beginning with the ololyga, a particular ceremonial shout: “a highpitched piercing cry uttered at certain climactic moments in ritual practice (e.g., at the moment when a victim’s throat is slashed during sacrifice) or at climactic moments in real life (e.g., the birth of a child).” These sounds are unregulated and exist outside of civic spaces, like the “savage” noises Odysseus hears on the island of Scheria, which turn out to be the princess Nausikaa and her friends playing soccer. Homer compares her to Artemis, sometimes called keladeine, which means “a loud roaring noise as of wind or rushing water or the tumult of battle.” “Every sound we make is a bit of autobiography,” Carson writes, but the sound of women together, in pain or pleasure, sport or rage, is a “bad memory of unspeakable things,” which needs to be channeled into “politically appropriate containers.”

This awful collective sound might also be called la questione delle donne or querrelle de femmes or femmes fortes or women worthies, as writers both male and female of the seventeenth century and earlier called them: influential women, both legendary and real, invoked as proof of a transhistorical community of the so-called second sex, united by anger, by power, by ideas.

In 1589, Jane Anger wrote Jane Anger, Her Protection for Women in response to John Knox’s The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558), arguing for, among other things, the inherent value, specificity, and intelligence of female consciousness and criticizing the mythology of male heroism. “It was ANGER that did write it,” she said of her polemic.

In 1581, Moderata Fonte, the pen name of Modesta Pozzo, wrote I tredici canti del Floridoro (Thirteen Cantos by Floridoro), a response to Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso from a feminist perspective (and a precursor to Woolf’s 1928 Orlando?), transforming his bewitching sorceresses into natural philosophers. In The Worth of Women (1592), Fonte wrote (echoed again by Woolf on her Professor von X?) that the belief in women’s inferiority

is an abuse that men have introduced into the world and that men have then, over time, gradually translated into law and custom; and it has become so entrenched that they claim (and even actually believe) that the status they have gained through their bullying is theirs by right.

In 1488, Laura Cereta, whose collection of eighty-two letters was later published as Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist, wrote,

I am angry and my disgust overflows. Why should the condition of our sex be shamed by your little attacks? Because of this, a mind thirsting for revenge is set afire; because of this, a sleeping pen is wakened for insomniac writing. Because of this, red-hot anger lays bare a heart and mind long muzzled by silence.

Cereta’s angry exhortation anticipates Audre Lorde’s “Uses of Anger,” written five centuries later, in which she writes, “I have suckled the wolf’s lip of anger and I have used it for illumination, laughter, protection, fire in places where there was no light, no food, no sister, no quarter,” and “Everything can be used / except what is wasteful / (you will need / to remember this when you are accused of destruction).

In 1638, Artemisia travelled to the court of Charles I in England, where her father had been commissioned by Queen Henrietta Maria to paint a large mural on the ceiling of the Queen’s House in Greenwich. Orazio needed his daughter’s help. Henrietta Maria had established a primarily female court in the Royal Borough, southeast of London, that included her mother, Marie de’ Medici. The mural was to be an image of “Peace reigning over the Arts,” accompanied by personifications of Victory, Strength, Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Astronomy, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, Meditation, Agriculture, and Fortune. These virtues and disciplines are embodied as female, which just goes to show how women have historically been stuck between allegory and a hard place—personifications of that to which they had no recourse. While in London, Artemisia also painted Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), ca. 1638–39, which deftly combines allegory with self-portraiture with the everywoman of painting, who is no woman, but who can only ever be, grammatically, a woman—la pittura, feminine. In dark green, with sleeves rolled up—purple and russet shadows in their folds—and hair dark and disheveled, she leans energetically over a rough unpainted canvas, hand poised just above it as she looks somewhere beyond the frame to her subject matter. Around her neck, la pittura wears a pendant mask hanging from a chain of gold, as described in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593), an influential book that outlines the specifications of emblems. Artemisia opted, however, to ignore its recommendation that la pittura should wear a gag over her mouth because painting is supposed to be mute.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant, c. 1615–17, oil on canvas, 45 × 37".

When Henrietta Maria fled to the continent just before the Civil War of 1642, she was accompanied by her loyal lady-in-waiting Margaret Cavendish, a prolific writer of poetry, letters, natural philosophy, and utopian science fiction. Back in post-Restoration England, Cavendish authored—in 1666, the year that London burned—The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World. In this strange and wild story, she writes of a lady who is abducted by a foreign merchant and travels on a ship that passes from “the very end or point of the pole of that World, but even to another pole of another world,” through what one critic has called an “interstitial passageway.” On the other side, she is welcomed into an entirely different realm, filled with hybrid and hermaphroditic creatures and women who rule through platonic love with other women, their powerful husbands largely invisible.

I love the interstitial passageway, I want to travel the interstitial passageway, because it says, to me at least, that the question of woman involves how we define her in the first place, just as the question of History involves what the official archive wants to remember, which may be nothing at all. “If women set themselves up to transform History, it can safely be said that every aspect of history would be completely altered,” Cixous writes in “Castration or Decapitation?” (1981). “Instead of being made by men, History’s task would be to make woman, to produce her. And it’s at this point that work by women themselves on women might be brought into play, which would benefit not only women, but all humanity.”

And so: What of the chronically and chronologically dispossessed? Anna Banti and Alexandra Lapierre wrote creative works about Artemisia, filling in the gaps with empathetic, dialogic fictions. Zambreno’s splintered and interdisciplinary Heroines is another answer to how the “women discarded or lost or mythologized (a form of being lost, for the real truth about their embodied life is never told, the telling was made nearly impossible)” might be excavated and preserved. Tillie Olsen’s collagelike Silences (1978) catalogues lacunae within the history of women’s writing: “censorship silences,” “silences of the marginal,” “virulent destroyers: premature silencers,” “silences where the lives never come to writing.” Saidiya Hartman writes of “critical fabulation” as a method to reconstitute the absences of Black histories through “recombinant narratives.” In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (2019), Hartman describes the power of the chorus as a way not only to claim collective history but to take collective action, “in which all modalities play a part, where the headless group incites change . . . where the untranslatable songs and seeming nonsense make good the promise of revolution.”

What of we who are defined in the negative? “Everyone is female,” Andrea Long Chu writes in Females (2019). “Femaleness is a universal sex defined by self-negation, against which all politics, even feminist politics, rebels. Put more simply: Everyone is female, and everyone hates it.” Or as Sarah Nicole Prickett notes so incisively in her 2018 essay “Serious Sex Battle,” “Luce Irigiray when she writes about Spinoza says that women’s suffering comes from a double-negative—that men cannot conceive that women do not exist. She exists not for herself, but as the condition of masculinity.” And as Boyer writes in “When the Lambs Rise Up Against the Bird of Prey,” which I read as a parable about structural violence, “It is true that the bird of prey, like many predators, has as a hobby the refinement of its own good taste. And it is indeed good taste to taste the tender lamb. ‘I love this lamb!’ the bird of prey exclaims and means it. This is because the bird of prey’s education is in desiring, and its form of desire is as narrow as wanting to taste.”

Not beginning or ending with the magnificent Artemisia, let us ax canonicity and see what woman History produces. Strange to write so much only to end in a kind of annihilation, but it happens, and as Beatrice Cenci might have said: We are quite ready. Well, ’tis very well.

Emily LaBarge is a writer living in London.