Monday, October 17, 2011

He said, she said: The rape and trial-by-torture of Artemesia Gentileschi (1593-1656)

Given the history of her youth, the curiosity about her sexuality, and the public speculation about the status of her maidenhood, the root of Artemesia’s Gentileschi’s name – Artemis, Greek goddess of chastity – is weighted with irony. 

                                          Artemesia's Allegory of Inclination, with self-portrait

Artemisia was born to be an artist.  When her brothers displayed little aptitude in painting, Orazio, Artemisia’s father, taught his daughter how to paint.  A renowned artist in what is known as the school of Caravaggio, Orazio tutored his young daughter, initially instructing her to replicate his own studies.

In yet another instance of irony, one of Artemesia’s first surviving pieces is Susanna and the Elders (1610).   The subject is biblical, one of two popular bathing nudes of the period (the older being Bathsheba).  In the book of Daniel, Susanna is bathing unattended when two lecherous elders spy on her.  Overcome with lust, the men accost Susanna and threaten to accuse her of promiscuity unless she agrees to have intercourse with them.  When Susanna refuses, the elders take her to trial where she faces a potential death sentence. 

                                                           Susanna and the Elders, 1610

In the middle of the trial, Daniel interrupts the proceedings and insists that Susanna’s accusers face questioning.  When the men’s conflicting testimonies about the trees in the garden reveal their deception, they are convicted and executed. 

When Artemesia painted this complex subject, she was seventeen, unaware that her own life would nearly mirror the events of her own canvas within two years.  

In 1612, Orazio Gentileschi was commissioned to paint palace murals with painter Agostino Tassi.  Based on their work together, Orazio asked Tassi to tutor his daughter. Though it was unusual for Renaissance Italian families to leave young women unattended, Tassi benefitted from his position as tutor and by bribing or harassing Artemesia’s older female friend, Tuzia, who helped the lecherous older man gain access to nineteen-year-old Artemesia.  

Complicating the issue and furthering Tassi’s desires was Cosimo Quorlis.  According to witness Giovanni Stiattesi, a former friend and confidante of Cosimo, Quorlis himself had pursued Artemesia and failed.  After the young woman spurned his advances, Quorlis took the unusual revenge of helping plot her rape at Tassi’s hand.

                                                           The Rape of Danae

Had Orazio known of Tassi’s recent and sordid past, there is no chance he would have entrusted his daughter to such a monster.  Agostino Tassi was a convicted rapist.  Additionally he had raped both his wife and his sister-in-law.  When his trial for Artemesia’s rape began in 1612, Tassi was suspected in the disappearance and probable murder of his wife.  

Unfortunately, neither Orazio nor Artemesia knew about Tassi’s past.  Aided by her friend and her former suitor, Tassi trapped the young woman in a room and proceeded to rape her.  Although Artemesia later testified that she scratched Tassi’s face and threw a knife at him, he overpowered her.  

Living a period when a woman’s virginity was one of the measures of her value as a wife, Artemesia must have been devastated by the rape.  Tassi continued to manipulate her afterwards, promising to marry her and encouraging her to continue their sexual relationship in private.  When he tired of her, he cast her away and accused her of being a “whore.”  Some time after the dissolution of their unhealthy relationship, Artemesia went to her father.

Renaissance  CSI in the instance of rape was, by modern standards, appalling.  In fact, the entire issue of the 1612 rape charge against Tassi hinged not on whether or not he committed rape – he was, after all, a convicted rapist – but upon whether or not Artemesia was a virgin prior to the attack.  If the defense could prove she was not a virgin when Tassi attacked her, the case would be dismissed.

                                             Scottish thumbscrews, meant to main victim

The burden of proof in the rape case against Agostino Tassi, then, rested upon the victim. The sensational, public trial lasted for seven months.  During the course of the trial, Artemesia had to undergo a lengthy examination by a group of midwives who ultimately determined that she was not a virgin at the time of the trial. Intimate details of her genitals surface in the existing court documents from the case.

More disturbing, Artemesia underwent trial-by-torture in the form of the sibille, a rope version of thumbscrews.  Under this persecution, the young woman’s hand and thumbs were tied and increasingly tightened as she gave testimony.  The sibille is meant to maim; for an artist whose livelihood was dependent upon her ability to use her hands and fingers, the torture was especially cruel.  Despite the pain, Artemesia repeatedly insisted, “It is true, it is true!” when she was questioned about the rape.  

The judge publicly admonished Tassi several times during the proceedings.  The defendant attempted what today we would consider character assassination by insisting that Artemesia was a “whore” and that her home was a “bordello.”  And although he bragged to friends and acquaintances that he had deflowered the young woman, under testimony, Tassi accused Artemesia and her father of incest.  He also said that Artemesia had been with a string of other men.

Artemesia and her witnesses countered that she had never been alone with males, other than with family members, prior to her rape.  And despite the public humiliation and torture, the young artist never wavered from her accusation.  Ultimately, Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison – time he does not appear to have served.

After the trial, Artemesia continued to paint and moved across the continent in search of work.  She was the first female artist inducted into the renowned Florentine Accademia di Arte del Disegno.  Charles I of England convoked her to his court so that he could meet the young woman and commission a work from her.  

                                            Carlo Coppola's The Marketplace in Naples
                                            During the Plague of 1656

The final days of Artemesia’s life are a mystery, with some scholars speculating that she may have perished in the La Peste, or the pestilence, of 1656, that destroyed many lived in Naples.

                                                      Judith Slaying Holfernes c. 1612-13

Artemesia focused many of her paintings on strong female figures.  Perhaps her most recognizable painting is the gory Judith Slaying Holfernes, a work feminist critics have embraced as the young artist’s expression of revenge for her abuse at the hands of men.  A conflicting theory questions whether the infamy she gained from the rape trial may have lead her to exploit her choice of women subjects.  

Recently, the legacy of Artemesia Gentileschi saw what is an unforgivable blow in the 1997 film Artemesia, where the director  depicts the relationship between victim and rapist as a love story.

For further reading, including transcripts of the trial, see Mary D. Garrard's excellent biography Artemesia Gentileschi (Princeton UP, 1989)

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Next time: Renaissance vampires!

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