The Passion of Artemisia
Recently rediscovered by art historians, and one of the few female post-Renaissance painters to achieve fame during her own era, Artemisia Gentileschi led a remarkably "modern" life. Susan Vreeland tells Artemisia's captivating story, beginning with her public humiliation in a rape trial at the age of eighteen, and continuing through her father's betrayal, her marriage of convenience, motherhood, and growing fame as an artist. Set against the glorious backdrops of Rome, Florence, Genoa, and Naples, inhabited by historical characters such as Galileo and Cosimo de' Medici II, and filled with rich details about life as a seventeenth-century painter, Vreeland creates an inspiring story about one woman's lifelong struggle to reconcile career and family, passion and genius.
My father walked beside me to give me courage, his palm touching gently the back laces of my bodice. In the low-angled glare already baking the paving stones of the piazza and the top of my head, the still shadow of the Inquisitor's noose hanging above the Tor di Nona, the papal court, stretched grotesquely down the wall, its shape the outline of a tear.
"A brief unpleasantness, Artemisia," my father said, looking straight ahead. "Just a little squeezing."
He meant the sibille.
If, while my hands were bound, I gave again the same testimony as I had the previous weeks, they would know it was the truth and the trial would be over. Not my trial. I kept telling myself that: I was not on trial. Agostino Tassi was on trial.
The words of the indictment my father had sent to Pope Paul V rang in my ears: "Agostino Tassi deflowered my daughter Artemisia and did carnal actions by force many times, acts that brought grave and enormous damage to me, Orazio Gentileschi, painter and citizen of Rome, the poor plaintiff, so that I could not sell her painting talent for so high a price."
I hadn't wanted anyone to know. I wasn't even going to tell him, but he heard me crying once and forced it out of me. There was that missing painting, too, one Agostino had admired, and so he charged him.
"How much squeezing?" I asked.
"It will be over quickly."
I didn't look at any faces in the crowd gathering at the entrance to the Tor. I already knew what they'd show-lewd curiosity, accusation, contempt. Instead, I looked at the yellow honeysuckle blooming against stucco walls the color of Roman ochre. Each color made the other more vibrant. Papa had taught me that.
"Fragrant blossoms," beggars cried, offering them to women coming to hear the proceedings in the musty courtroom. Anything for a giulio. A cripple thrust into my hand a wilted bloom, rank with urine. He knew I was Artemisia Gentileschi. I dropped it on his misshapen knee.
My dry throat tightened as we entered the dark, humid Sala del Tribunale. Leaving Papa at the front row of benches, I stepped up two steps and took my usual seat opposite Agostino Tassi, my father's friend and collaborator. My rapist. Leaning on his elbow, he didn't move when I sat down. His black hair and beard were overgrown and wild. His face, more handsome than he deserved, had the color and hardness of a bronze sculpture.
Behind a table, the papal notary, a small man swathed in deep purple, was sharpening his quills with a knife, letting the shavings fall to the floor. A dusty beam of light from a high window fell on his hands and lightened the folds of his sleeve to lavender. "Fourteen, May, 1612," the notary muttered as he wrote. Two months, and this was the first day he didn't have a bored look on his face. The day I would be vindicated. I pressed my hands tight against my ribs.
The Illustrious Lord Hieronimo Felicio, Locumtenente of Rome appointed as judge and interrogator by His Holiness, swept in and sat on a raised chair, arranging his scarlet robes to be more voluminous. Papal functionaries were always posturing in public. Under his silk skull cap, his jowls sagged like overripe fruit. He was followed by a huge man with a shaved head whose shoulders bulged out of his sleeveless leather tunic-the Assistente di Tortura. A hot wave of fear rushed through me. With a flick of a finger the Lord High Locumtenente ordered him to draw a sheer curtain across the room separating us from Papa and the rabble crowded on benches on the other side. The curtain hadn't been there before.
The Locumtenente scowled and his fierce black eyebrows joined, making a shadow. "You understand, Signorina Gentileschi, our purpose." His voice was slick as linseed oil. "The Delphic sybils always told the truth."
I remembered the Delphic sibyl on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo portrayed her as a powerful woman alarmed by what she sees. Papa and I had stood under it in silent awe, squeezing each other's hands to contain our excitement. Maybe the sibille would only squeeze as hard as that.
"Likewise, the sibille is merely an instrument designed to bring truth to women's lips. We will see whether you persist in what you have testified." He squinted his goat's eyes. "I wonder what tightening the cords might do to a painter's ability to hold a brush-properly." My stomach cramped. The Locumtenente turned to Agostino. "You are a painter too, Signor Tassi. Do you know what the sibille can do to a young girl's fingers?"
Agostino didn't even blink.
My fingers curled into fists. "What can it do? Tell me."
The Assistente forced my hands flat and wound a long cord around the base of each finger, then tied my hands palm to palm at my wrists and ran the cord around each pair of fingers like a vine. He attached a monstrous wooden screw and turned it just enough for the cords to squeeze a little.
"What can it do?" I cried. I looked for Papa through the curtain. He was leaning forward pulling at his beard.
"Nothing," the Locumtenente said. "It can do nothing, if you tell the truth."
"It can't cut off my fingers, can it?"
"That, signorina, is up to you."
My fingers began to throb slightly. I looked at Papa. He gave me a reassuring nod.
"Tell us now, for I'm sure you see reason, have you had sexual relations with Geronimo the Modenese?"
"I don't know anyone by that name."
"With Pasquino Fiorentino?"
"I don't know him either."
"With Francesco Scarpellino?"
"The name means nothing to me."
"With the cleric Artigenio?"
"I tell you, no. I don't know these men."
"That's a lie. She lies. She wants to discredit me to take my commissions," Agostino said.
"She's an insatiable whore."
I couldn't believe my ears.
"No," Papa bellowed. "He's trying to pass her off as a whore to avoid the nozze di riparazione. He wants to ruin the Gentileschi name. He's jealous."
The Locumtenente ignored Papa and curled back his lip. "Have you had sexual relations with your father, Orazio Gentileschi?"
"I would spit if you had said that outside this courtroom," I whispered.
"Tighten it!" the Locumtenente ordered.
The hideous screw creaked. I sucked in my breath. Rough cords scraped across the base of my fingers, burning. Murmurs beyond the curtain roared in my ears.
"Signorina Gentileschi, how old are you?"
"Eighteen. Not so young that you don't know you should not offend your interrogator. Let us resume. Have you had sexual relations with an orderly to Our Holy Father, the late Cosimo Quorli?"
"He . . . he tried, Your Excellency. Agostino Tassi brought him into the house. I fought him away. They had both been hounding me. Giving me lewd looks. Whispering suggestions."
"For how long?"
"Many months. A year. I was barely seventeen when it started."
"What kind of suggestions?"
"I don't like to say." The Locumtenente flashed a look at the Assistente, who moved toward me. "Suggestions of my hidden beauty. Cosimo Quorli threatened to boast about having me if I didn't submit."
"And did you submit?"
"This same Cosimo Quorli reported to other orderlies of the Palazzo Apostolico that he was, in truth, your father, that your mother, Prudenzia Montone, had frequently encouraged him to visit her privately, whereupon she conceived." He paused and scrutinized my face.
"You must admit you do have a resemblance. Has he, on any occasion, ever revealed this to you?"
"The claim is ludicrous. I must now defend my mother's honor as well as mine against this mockery?"
It seemed enough to him that he had planted the idea. He cleared his throat and pretended to read some document.
"Did you not, on repeated occasions, engage in sexual relations willingly with Agostino Tassi?"
The room closed in. I held my breath.
The Assistente turned the screw.
I tightened all my muscles against it. The cords bit into my flesh. Rings of fire. Blood oozed between them in two places, three, all over. How could Papa let them? He didn't tell me there would be blood. I sucked in air through my teeth. This was Agostino's trial, not mine. How to make it stop? The truth.
"Not willingly. Agostino Tassi dishonored me. He raped me and violated my virginity."
"When did this occur?"
"Last year. Just after Easter."
"If a woman is raped, she must have done something to invite it. What were you doing?"
"Painting! In my bedchamber." I squeezed shut my eyes to get out the words. "I was painting our housekeeper, Tuzia, and her baby as the Madonna and Child. She let him in. My father was away. She knew Agostino. He was my father's friend. My father hired him to teach me perspective."
"Why did you not cry out?"
"I couldn't. He held a handkerchief over my mouth."
"Did you not try to stop him?"
"I pulled his hair and scratched his face and . . . his member. I even threw a dagger at him."
"A virtuous woman keeps a dagger in her bedchamber?"
My head was about to split. "A threatened woman does."
"And after that occasion?"
"He came again, let in by Tuzia. He pushed himself on me . . . and in me." Sweat trickled between my breasts.
"Did you resist?"
"I scratched and pushed him."
"Did you always resist?"
I searched Agostino's face. Immovable as a painting. "Say something." Only two months ago he had said he loved me. "Agostino," I pleaded. "Don't let them do this."
He looked down and dug dirt from his fingernails.
The Locumtenente turned to Agostino. "Do you wish to amend your claim of innocence?"
Agostino's strong-featured face turned cold and ugly. I didn't want to beg. Not him. Santa Maria, I prayed, don't let me beg him.
"No," he said. "She's a whore just like her mother."
"She thought she was betrothed!" Papa bellowed from beyond the curtain. "It was understood. He would marry her. A proper nozze di riparazione."
The Locumtenente leaned toward me. "You haven't answered the question, signora. The sibille can be made to cut off a finger."
"It's Agostino who's on trial, not I. Let him be subjected to the sibille."
Madre di Dio, let me faint before I scream. Blood streamed. My new white sleeve was soaked in red. Papa, make them stop. What was I to do? Tell them what they want? Lie? Say I'm a whore? That would only set Agostino free. Another turn. "Oh oh oh oh stop!" Was I screaming?
"For the love of God, stop!" Papa shouted and stood up.
The Locumtenente snapped his fingers to have him gagged. "God loves those, Signor Gentileschi, who tell the truth." He leered at me. "Now tell me, and tell me truthfully, signorina, after the first time did you always resist?"
The room blurred. The world swirled out of control. The screw, my hands-there was nothing else. Pain so wicked I-I-Che Dio mi salvi-would the cords touch bone?-Che Santa Maria mi salvi-Gesu-Madre di Dio-make it stop. I had to tell.
"I tried to, but in the end, no. He promised he would marry me, and I . . . I believed him." Dio mi salvi, stop it stop it stop it. "So I allowed him . . . against my desires . . . so he would keep his promise. What else could I do?"
My breath. I couldn't get my breath.
"Enough. Adjourned until tomorrow." He waved his hand in disgust and triumph. "All parties to be present."
The sibille was loosened and removed.
Rage hissed through me. My hands trembled, and shook blood onto my skirt. Agostino lurched toward me, but the guards grabbed him to take him away. I wanted to wait until the crowd left, but a guard pushed me out with everyone else and I had to walk through hoots and jeers with bleeding hands. In the glare of the street, I felt something thrown at my back. I didn't turn around to see what it was. Beside me, Papa offered me his handkerchief.
"I'd rather bleed."
"Artemisia, take this."
"You didn't tell me what the sibille could do." I passed him, and walked faster than he could. At home I shoved my clothing cassapanca behind my chamber door with my knees, and flung myself onto my bed and cried.
How could he have let this happen? How could he be so selfish? My dearest papa. All those happy times on the Via Appia-picnics with Mama listening for doves and Papa gathering sage to scrub into the floor. Papa wrapping his feet and mine in scrubbing cloths soaked in sage water, sliding to the rhythm of his love songs, his voice warbling on the high notes, waving his arms like a cypress in the wind until I laughed. That was my papa.
And all his stories about great paintings-sitting on my bed, letting me snuggle in his arms, slipping me some candied orange rind. Wonderful stories. Rebekah at the well at Nahor, her skin so clear that when she raised her chin to drink, you could see the water flowing down her throat. Cleopatra floating the Nile on a barge piled with fruit and flowers. Dana‘ and the golden shower, Bathsheba, Judith, sibyls, muses, saints-he made them all real. He had made me want to be a painter, let me trace the drawings in his great leather-bound Iconologia, taught me how to hold a brush when I was five, how to grind pigments and mix colors when I was ten. He gave me my very own grinding muller and marble slab. He gave me my life.
What if I could never paint again with these hands? What was the use in living then? The dagger was still under the bed. I didn't have to live if the world became too cruel.
But there was my Judith to paint-if I could. More than ever I wanted to do that now.
Papa rattled the door. "Artemisia, let me in."
"I don't want to talk to you. You knew what the sibille could do."
"I didn't think-"
"S“, eh. You didn't think."
He wedged the door open and pushed the trunk out of the way. He brought in a bowl of water and cloths to clean my hands. I rolled away from him.
"Artemisia, permit me."
"If Mama were still here she wouldn't have let you allow it."
"I didn't realize. I-"
"She wouldn't have wanted it public, like I didn't."
"In time, Artemisia, it won't matter."
"When a woman's name is all she has, it matters."Vreeland's unsentimental prose turns the factual Artemisia into a fictional heroine you won't soon forget. (People)
Vreeland has burrowed deeply into the mind of the artist and produced a vivid cast of female characters. (Vogue)
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