When I was in high school, I remember hearing about a talented young artist who was raped by her teacher and how the consequences of bringing him to trial and justice overflowed into her painting. I had forgotten her name, but somehow had linked it to Frida Kahlo, she of the eyebrow and glorious use of colour, which is not correct. I found several paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi, in the Galleria degli Uffizi, instantly recognising her as the tortured woman I had heard about.
Her paintings are in the style of Caravaggio, himself a tortured artist (are not they all?). The Uffizi had a special exhibition, displaying many paintings that use Caravaggio’s naturalism, the masterful use of light and dark, colour and normal, everyday people from the street. Caravaggio never made it to Firenze, dying before he could complete the journey. The Uffizi has only 3 of his paintings, and the best of all was displayed at the start of the exhibit. A rounded piece of wood, with the head of Medusa glaring out, between life and death, her eyes filled with horror, her mouth frozen open in shock. It was confronting and incredibly magnetic, such a change from the stylised images of other artworks of the time.
The violence and passion and choice of subject matter is what I found compelling about Artemisia’s paintings. She used colour & light to great effect, but it’s the grim determination in the face of Judith as she saws off Holofernes head that marks the artwork as a masterpiece, her expression different from other portrayals of the time – the serenity & detachment is not evident as is usual in paintings of biblical heroines. Even Caravaggio’s Judith is ambivalent to her gruesome task. Much can be made of the sexualisation & exploitation of Gentileschi throughout her life and afterwards. But her paintings of women show the strength of persons willing to go beyond their condition, in a male dominated world they are able to show their strength, just like Artemisia did in becoming a renowned artist in a world that was dominated by men.
I love Florence for the beauty of the buildings, the spirit of the Renaissance that inhabits the city and the glorious golden summer days we had here. Finding some paintings by a woman I had always wondered about was a special surprise, to find that I could still be transfixed by art after seeing the glories & wonders of Italy.