Rediscovering Artemisia

Work by an intriguing baroque artist restored

Jane Fortune
November 27, 2008


Passion, intrigue, drama, torture and art. The life of Artemisia Gentileschi-one of the world's greatest Baroque artists-has all the chiaroscuro trappings of a romance novel.


Her father, Orazio Lomi Gentileschi, famous for interpreting Caravaggio's revolutionary painting style, trained Artemisia as a young girl in Rome. At the age of 15, she was raped by her father's co-worker, Agostino Tassi. Her father later brought suit against Tassi and a seven-month criminal trial ensued, during which Artemisia was forced to publicly recount the rape and undergo torture; metal rings were tightened around her fingers to assure she was telling the truth. Tassi was sentenced to one year in prison. Artemisia Gentileschi married Pierantonio Stiattesi in 1613 and they moved to Florence.


She remained in Florence until 1620, achieving widespread creative success under the patronage of Grand Duke Cosimo II de' Medici and the Grand Duchess, Cristina di Lorena, wife of Ferdinando I de' Medici. While women artists at that time were generally limited to portraiture and still-life painting, Artemisia became famous for her grand-scale works depicting biblical and mythological heroines-no frail female ever graced her canvases. Judith and her Maidservant (1614), housed in Palazzo Pitti's Palatine Gallery, is a stunning example of Artemisia's famed realism. It is one of six variations she painted on that subject. Her style was strongly influenced by Caravaggio and the use of chiaroscuro, which represented a strong contrast between light and dark.


Though Artemisia and her work were quite popular in Florence, financial and martial problems forced her to return to Rome in 1621. The remarkable sophistication in her imagery of the female figure brought Artemisia considerable artistic success during her lifetime. Nonetheless, after her death, she was relegated to obscurity for nearly 300 years before finally claiming her place as one of the most influential Italian painters in history.


The recent revival and re-evaluation of Artemisia's courageous life and works piqued the interest of The Florence Committee of National Museum of Women in the Arts. Our commitment is to recognize, and support, the contributions of women to society and to the arts-past and the present-particularly those who have been influential in the development of the arts in Florence. With our mission in mind, in 2008 The Florence Committee decided to fund the restoration of one of Artemisia's works: David and Bathsheba.


Completed in Naples in 1635, the painting had been languishing in Pitti's storage deposits for centuries. It is not known how this work became part of the collection, but documents show that it hung in the grand duke's apartment in 1662. The work depicts the scene from the Old Testament when King David first glimpses the married Bathsheba while she is bathing. His subsequent seduction of her and the events that followed were thought to be the beginning of a divine curse on the House of David.


Artemisia's painting, particularly Bathsheba's face and body, was in a state of considerable deterioration and showed signs of decay; the painting's color was flaking off because of improper storage conditions and humidity damage. Nicola Ann MacGregor, Sandra Freschi and Elisabetta Codognato thus undertook a daunting task in restoring David and Bathsheba. Palatina Gallery director Serena Padovani, who directed the work, explains the delicate process: ?Our task was to consolidate the painting's remaining color and improve the composition's legibility, lowering the numerous lacunae with neutral tones, so to obtain an image that is recomposed, rather than repainted.'


But it is perhaps the words of one of the restorers, Nicola Ann MacGregor, that best embody the unique nature of this project: ?In all the 38 years of my career as a conservator in Florence, this is the first time I have ever restored a painting by a female artist. Being a woman myself, of course, this enhanced the sense of "bonding" nearly always established between the restorer and the author of the painting he or she is working on. What makes us particularly happy about this project is that a painting relegated to the deposits of the Pitti Palace is now, after our restoration, deemed fit for public exhibition.'


It is The Florence Committee's greatest hope that this precious work be truly enjoyed by Florence's citizens, and visitors, and that its restoration may safeguard Artemisia Gentileschi's mastery for future generations.



Artemisia Gentileschi in Florence

Upon her arrival in Florence, Michelangelo the younger commissioned Artemisia to paint Allegory of the Inclination in the Casa Buonarotti. Completed in 1615, this painting is located on the ceiling of the gallery. It represents ?natural talent' and was created as part of a series of 15 personifications dedicated to the life of his great uncle, Michelangelo. The subject of the allegory is said to resemble Artemisia. The figure was originally nude; later it was partly covered with a drapery by another artist.


On July 19, 1616, Artemisia Gentileschi was accepted as the first female member of Florence's Accademia dell'Arte del Disegno, Europe's first academy for drawing. Although drawings by her are very rare, a charcoal drawing of St. John the Baptist's Decapitation can be found in the Uffizi's Gabinetto di Disegni e Stampe.


Her Judith and her Maidservant (1614) is housed in Palazzo Pitti's Palatine Gallery. Other works by Artemisia Gentileschi in the Palatine Gallery include Madonna and Child (1615) and The Conversion of the Magdalene (1620; also known as The Penitent Magdalene), which showcases the richness of the deep gold and the dark green of Magdalene's dress, colors not used in her earlier works


The Uffizi's collection boasts Judith Beheading Holfernes (1620), a gripping rendition of female retribution, full of energy and violence. Also in the Uffizi is her Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1619). Artemisia's Minerva/Sapienza (1615), was probably commissioned by Maria de' Medici and is said to represent her daughter-in-law, Anne of Austria. The painting, which also belongs to the Polo Museale Fiorentino, hangs in Florence's Procura Generale della Repubblica in via Cavour.



The Florence Committee of the National Museum of the Arts, founded by Jane Fortune in 2003, is a legally recognized Italian nonprofit association. Its primary mission is to preserve, conserve and restore works of art by women in Florence's museums. It also recognizes modern-day women artists as well as those who sustain and support art by women in Florence. The committee's Nelli Award annually honors the outstanding efforts of one of the 30 female museum directors working in the city. The Florence Committee also annually recognizes an Italian patroness of the arts with its Anna Maria Luisa de'Medici Award and a contemporary female Italian artist with its Simonetta Vespucci Award.


Its executive committee, led by Jane Fortune, includes Hermione Grassi, Dr. Robert R. Hesse, Madeleine Leone and Kate Rakich; it receives its support from associates and friends. The Florence Committee's mission is complementary to and consistent with the National Museum of Women in the Arts, located in Washington D.C. In 2006, The Florence Committee and Jane Fortune restored Lamentation with Saints, a work by the first known woman painter of Florence, Suor Plautilla Nelli. The painting is housed in Florence's Museo di San Marco. David and Bathsheba is the second restoration project. For more information, please write to



David and Bathsheba: the restoration of a masterpiece by Artemesia Gentileschi

A Christmas gift to the city of Florence

November 28, 2008-January 6, 2009

Sala Bianca, Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti

Tuesday to Sunday: 8.15am-6.50pm

Closed Mondays, Christmas Day & New Year's Day


During the exhibition, visitors can also view Piero Fevere's tapestry copy of Artemisia Gentileschi's painting and enjoy a continuously running video documentary explaining the restoration process (in both English and Italian).

Full Price: ? 8,50

Reduced: ? 4,25


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