was led to write this after being dragged
around the Capodimonte art gallery by an expert.
My legs cried out for relief —maybe being kneecapped by the mob— when Expert asked me to identify a
painting and artist. This had happened to me
before and I had guessed Caravaggio
(alias Michelangelo Merisi) and been right
—realist, starkly colorful and violent to the
extent that there was a detached head in the
painting. This one was very similar: spectacular
colors, realist and a human head in the process of
being amputated. I guessed Caravaggio again, but
this time Mike let me down (although it did turn
out to be a "Caravaggist").
"Haaa!" said my inquisitor. "This is by
a woman named Artemisia Gentileschi," she
crowed triumphantly, for, indeed, my inquisitor
was a woman. That did get my attention, so I wound
up learning a little bit about great women
painters in Italy and also something about a kind
of Jewish literature I wasn't sure what to call
and also a few very big words, which I now flout
with abandon (before they abandon my memory, which
is bound to happen).
Gentileschi (1593-1653) got my attention because (1) she spent
much of her life in Naples; (2) her paintings were
not at all what her contemporaries expected of a
woman; (3) of her personal courage in the face of
outrageous treatment by the society she lived in;
(4) of the fact that she has become legendary, the
subject of books, films and essay after essay of
feminist theory. She is legendary. As it turns
out, I may be the only one I know who had not
heard of her. (I took a survey. I stopped when the
first 6 persons I asked knew all about her.)
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in
Rome and became a painter like her father, Orazio
Gentileschi, the prominent Tuscan painter of the
Baroque. Her work displays the "male strength" of
many artists of the generation after Caravaggio
exploded on the European artistic scene. Italian
art critic Roberto Longhi wrote in 1916 that
Artemisia was "the only woman in Italy who ever
knew about painting, coloring, doughing and other
fundamentals". (Longhi no doubt thought he was
paying a compliment, but he was wrong about "the
only woman" part; Sofonisba Anguissola
(1535-1625), Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), Giovanna
Garzoni (1600-1670) and Elizabetta Sirani
(1638-1665, who died at 27 and who, they said,
"painted like a man," paying her the ultimate
compliment!) are at least a few other great women
artists from the 1500s and 1600s in Italy.
[added Jan. 2021.
See item #2 on this page on the
Advancing Women Artists Foundation ]
any event, Gentileschi painted rebellious and
powerful figures, often strong women. She moved to
Naples in 1630 and then she moved with her father
to England, where he died; she left during the
English civil war in the 1640s to return to
Naples. She apparently died in Naples in the great
plague of 1656. The "outrageous treatment" I spoke
of was the episode in which she was raped by one
of her art tutors, Agostino Tassi, in Rome when
she was 18. She pressed charges against her
rapist, but a charge of rape could stand only if
the woman could prove that she had been a virgin
before the episode, so they tortured her
(!) with thumbscrews until they were
satisfied that she wasn't lying. Her rapist was
convicted but, to my knowledge, did not go to
Artemisia was the first woman
accepted into the Accademia delle Arti del
Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing) in
Florence. She painted almost 60 works, a few of
which are in Naples. One of them is the one I
mis-guessed to be by Caravaggio. It is a smaller
and slightly different version of her painting in
Florence of Judith Beheading Holofernes.
(The photo, above, is of the painting in Naples.)
This painting by A. Gentileschi is
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting.
It is from the the years 1638-9.
It is assumed to be an accurate self-portrait
of her. It is held in the Royal Collection, the
private art collection of the British royal family.
Judith is the second heroine of this
brief entry. The Book of Judith is one of
the great examples of early Jewish story-telling.
Like the Book of Tobit and some others,
they are not part of the canonical Jewish
scriptures collectively termed the Tanakh,
an acronym from the initial Hebrew letters of the
three traditional subdivisions: the Torah
("Teaching", also known as the Five Books of
Moses), Nevi'im ("Prophets") and Ketuvim
("Writings") —hence TaNaKh. (This Hebrew
Bible is what Christians term the Old Testament.)
Such stories, however, are used to teach about
patriotism, honor, piety, etc. The Book of
Judith is likely to have been written
(probably in Hebrew) around 100 BC and is a good
tale of a woman taking up arms and slaying
Holofernes, the leader of the forces that had
invaded her nation of Israel:
Book of Judith CH 16
 But the Lord Almighty has foiled them
by the hand of a woman.
 For their mighty one did not fall by the hands
of the young men,
nor did the sons of the Titans smite him, nor did
tall giants set upon him; but Judith the daughter of
Merari undid him with the beauty of her countenance.
 For she took off her widow's mourning to exalt
the oppressed in Israel. She anointed her face with
ointment and fastened her hair with a tiara and put on a
linen gown to deceive him.
 Her sandal ravished his eyes, her beauty
captivated his mind, and the sword severed his neck.
 The Persians trembled at her boldness, the
Medes were daunted at her daring.
That scene has been painted
since the Middle Ages by many others besides
Gentileschi, including Caravaggio, Giordano,
Botticelli, Rembrandt and Gustav Klimt. The
episode has been the subject of such widely
disparate treatments as Judith of Bethulia,
a feature-length silent film by D.W. Griffith in
1914, and Betulia liberata ("The
Liberation of Bethulia") an oratorio in 1771 with music by
15-year-old W.A. Mozart and text by —who else?— Metastasio. (Bethulia is the
fictional name of the city in the Book of Judith
where the episode takes place.) Literary
treatments are countless. Judith's appearance in
European Christian literature occurs prominently
in the next-to-last chapter of Dante's Divine
Comedy (i.e. Paradise; Canto XXXII)
where Judith sits in the presence of the Blessed
Who sits so beautiful at Mary’s feet.
The third in order, underneath her, lo!
Rachel with Beatrice: Sarah next;
Judith; Rebecca; and the gleaner-maid,
Meek ancestress [Ruth] of him,
who sang the songs
Of sore repentance in his sorrowful mood
by Henry F. Cary for The Harvard Classics.
Such Jewish story-literature is
generally termed "apocryphal" by both Jewish and
Christian sources. The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia (sources, below)
includes Judith in the group of "Historical Apocrypha."
The big words I learned? Such literature may also be
called "deuterocanonical" by Christian Biblical scholars to describe
certain parts of the Christian Old Testament that
are not part of the Hebrew Bible. The term means
"second canon" and has been used since the 1500s.
Also, in Eastern Christian scholarship they may
use the Greek term Anagignoskomena ("things
that are read"), and if you want to say "Gesundheit!"
after that, I won't stop you. And if you want to
believe that Artemisia is hacking off her rapist's
head in that painting, I won't stop you there,
the Book of Judith, she does the deed unaided
and then goes outside and hands the severed head
to her maid, who puts it in a sack. I don't know
why many versions of the episode, including
Gentileschi's, show her being assisted by her
maid in the decapitation.
The cited text from the Book of Judith is the
translation from the Revised Standard Version of
the Bible, published by the National Council of
Churches in sections, beginning in 1946. The
apocryphal books (including Judith) were added
The Jewish Encyclopedia distinguishes Apocrypha
from Pseudepigrapha, but I don't know why. (See?
It's starting to fade, already.)
Buscaroli, Beatrice. "Artemisia, il coraggio
della bellezza," one of several essays
collectively entitled "Arte al femminile" in Luoghi
dell'Infinito, monthly cultural
supplement to the daily paper,
Avvenire. n. 156, year XV, November 2011.
"Apocrypha," "The Book of Judith" and other
entries at Jewish
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
- added in Jan. 2021
self-description and mission statement of the AWA:
The Advancing Women
Artists Foundation (AWA) is an American
not-for-profit organization with headquarters in
Indianapolis, Indiana, and Florence, Italy. AWA is
committed to identifying and restoring artwork by
Florence's female artists in the city’s museums,
churches, and storage facilities. The foundation
achieves its mission through sponsoring
restoration of artwork, and promoting research on
female artists. As of 2018, AWA has restored 61
paintings and sculptures from the 15th century to
the 20th century. Myriad paintings and sculptures
by ground-breaking women artists have been
overlooked for centuries and many works are
currently in need of restoration. Compelling
artistic treasures continue to be a silent,
undiscovered part of the city’s creative heritage.Through education
(lectures, books, seminars, and conferences) and
by exhibiting these works in Florence and abroad,
we can show this vital cultural legacy and its
importance in Florence, in Italy and in the world.
The website is
extensive and well-done and has detailed biographies
of 22 women (with samples of their work) from the
period of the Florentine Renaissance into the 20th
is their website available in
both English and Italian with a single click.
photo snip, above, is by Francesco
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