Tag Archives: Medici

A Woman to be Reckoned With – Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia-Gentileschi-self-portrait-as-the-Allegory-of-Painting,-1630, -Royal-Collection-

Artemisia Gentileschi, self-portrait, The Allegory of Painting, 1630,Royal Collection

As a lover of art, I find myself willing to travel extensively in appreciation of exhibitions that are touring other institutions in order to expand my experiences.  That being said, I travelled to Chicago and Detroit this winter, during some of the coldest days of the Midwest in memory, in order to see works by two of my favorites, Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi.  The latter being the subject of this blog post.

I first learned about Artemisia Gentileschi through an article in the International Herald Tribune.  A review of an exhibition featuring her work and the story of her life drawing comparisons with the violence depicted in her art against the struggle of woman in the 16th century often ostracized by circumstances beyond her control.  Her mother died when she was 12, the family was of lower class origin and she grew up in a rough and violent household.  Her father, the talented artist Orazaio Gentileschi, a contemporary of Caravaggio, trained his talented daughter in the techniques of the day.  On the cusp of adulthood, she was raped at the age of 18; this scandal was followed by a sensational trial making it impossible to win aristocratic and ecclesiastical commissions that were essential to her career as an artist in Rome[1].  However, these obstacles did not impede her abilities; leaving Rome after the trial to live in Florence, she overcame her humble origins.

She met Galileo with whom she corresponded numerous times during her lifetime, and gained patrons through the house of Buonarotti, eventually becoming the first woman admitted to Florence’s Academia del Disegno in 1616.  The academy being founded in 1563 under Grand Duke Cosimo I de’Medici (1519-1574) and the famous artist and chronicler of artist’s lives, Vasari (1511-1574).  This cultural sphere of exclusive artisans, all male, include court painter Cristofano Allori (1577-1621), Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger (1568-1646) great nephew of Michelangelo, and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), all members of the elite Florentine patronage network.  These connections to the Medici court played a part in her acceptance into the academy.  The next time a woman was placed on its rolls was not until fifty years later.  Immersed in the Florentine cultural circles of composers, writer and intellectuals of all type, she transformed herself from the inexperienced young girl, to a woman competing at the level of greatness.

Despite these connections, Artemisia was not patronized by the Medici grand duchess Christina, or her successor, Maria Maddalena (1589-1631).  The artist was an outsider with a dubious reputation, and the Medici family was conscious of status, particularly the women.  Artemisia engaged with the male members of the court circle, but remained a peripheral figure.  Without clear female role models in her chosen profession, she accepted and flaunted convention, her dynamism working for and against her.  She ultimately was forced to flee Florence due to mounting debt and unfinished obligations.  The birth of four children in five years and the pressure of being the sole income for this family; these are the factors considered in today’s society as the impediments to a woman’s success during the Renaissance[2].

The paintings I share with you on this page by Artemisia concern her depictions of Judith slaying Holofernes.  This was a story she returned to more than once in her career, the patronage of the time enamored with the tale of a woman slaying the leader of the enemy army.  The first painting Judith with her Maidservant dates to 1613 and hangs at the Palazzo Pitti, and only hints at the violence of the story.  Judith and her maid Abra pause to look and listen after the beheading, a possible response to Artemisia’s father’s painting, dated to 1608.  The sword plays a major role in the accessories of Artemisia’s canvas, still held close upright in readiness, as opposed to the afterthought in her father’s portrayal.

Judith and her Maidservant, 1613–14, Oil on canvas, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Judith and her Maidservant, 1613–14, Oil on canvas, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Orazio Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant, 1608, Najonlmuseet for Kunst Oslo

Orazio Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant, 1608, Najonlmuseet for Kunst Oslo

Artemisia’s second version of this story takes a definite influence from Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599, which hangs in the Nazionale d’Arte Antica di Palazzo Barberini, Rome.  Caravaggio’s Abra displays the disdain for the enemy leader, while Judith appears to be holding the task of beheading Holofernes at arm’s length, not confident in her actions.

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598- 1599, Galleria Nazaionale dArte Antica at Palazzo Barberini, Rome

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1598- 1599, Galleria Nazaionale dArte Antica at Palazzo Barberini, Rome

The version of this story purchased by the Medici, and on loan from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to the Chicago Art Institute, takes away that uncertainty.  This Judith is fully engaged in the act, not deterred by the spray of blood across her arms, clothes and breast.  Abra is also entirely a part of the action, holding down the leader while her mistress grasps the hair of his beard to steady herself during the decapitation.  The detail of the epic masterpiece is exquisite, down to the bracelet on her arm showing different figures in each locket.  The determination in the faces of Judith and Abra manifest the shared responsibility of the violent act, the furrowed brow of Judith, Abra fully engaged restraining their prey.  I consider this, alongside Caravaggio’s Head of Medusa, an indicator of the unique patron treasures to be found at the Uffizi Gallery.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620,Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620,Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

A surprise in my travels this winter is the third version of this painting, found at the Detroit Institute of Art, dating from 1623.  The full length portrait evokes amplitude of shadow in this final vision of the story, the secretive nature of the act, the sword still held at the ready in case someone has overheard the event.  The hand of Judith held to the candle, ready to douse the light, dimming the features of her face.  The act is complete, the head readied to be mounted on a pike, sending a message to the invading army.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, 1623, The Detroit Institute of Arts

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, 1623, The Detroit Institute of Arts

Seeing these treasures for the first time evokes my continued passion for art and history.  Each painting by Artemisia tells the story, indulges the senses bringing the thirst for more to replenish the mind.   I hope you have enjoyed my abbreviated commentary on her life, and that more treasures from this elusive painter will be found in my travels.  If you have any comments, please feel free to share them in space below, I look forward to discussing this forgotten artist with other like minded readers.



Additional resources

If you want to read about Artemisia’s rape trial, the complete transcript is here.

1. Straussman-Pflanzer , Eva, Violence and Virtue, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, Yale University Press, 2013, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Further discussion on women artists in the Renaissance

2. Nochlin, Linda, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, Extract from Women, Art and Power and Other Essays, Westview Press, 1988, pp.147-158.

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Tears Rendered in Silver and Gold

November 27, 2012

By Mary Jo Gibson

The Uffizi Gallery, that cradle of Florentine art in Italy, is home to the art collection of the Medici.  As titans of Renaissance patronage they have given commissions to such storied names as Titian, Botticelli, Tintoretto and Il Parmigianino.  The Medici dynasty originally built the Uffizi to house government offices and designed the top loggia as a picture gallery – a novel innovation at the time.  It is from that space, the galleria, that art galleries around the world take their name.  A chance to see this priceless art without visiting Italy is almost unimaginable; but on a cold autumn day with blustery winds blowing across the prairie, I made my way to Madison, Wisconsin, and the Chazen Museum to see “Offering of the Angels”, an exhibition from the Uffizi Gallery.

Chazen Museum of Art, tourism, art history, history, museum experience

Chazen Museum of Art November 2012

Chazen Museum, museum experience, tourism, art, history

Offering of the Angels

The Chazen offers the first visit to the United States for these works, rarely seen in public and selected for a special exhibition as a gift from the citizens of Florence.  The forty-three paintings and two tapestries span three centuries, from the late 14th to the early 18th.  The paintings were made for a wide range of purposes, from small works meant for private devotion in a home or palace, to large altar pieces made for a chapel.  “Offering of the Angels” includes two 16th century tapestries designed from cartoons by Francesco De’Rossi, known as Il Salviati (Florence 1510 – Rome, 1563).   Close to seven feet wide, the tapestries depict Christ’s descent from the cross and the Resurrection.

Chazen Museum, museum expereince, art, history

Deposition From the Cross

The tapestries on view are something of a rarity.  They don’t travel well because of their weight and fragility, making them a challenge to transport.  The ‘Deposition from the Cross’, produced in Florence around 1546, is surprisingly detailed.  Christ’s mother, Mary, Mary Magadalene and Joseph of Arimathea are shown with Christ’s body.  Tears are rendered in the tapestry with silver and gold thread.

In the early 16th century, Flanders was the center of tapestry production.  The Medici wanted Florence to be equally well known for this art and commissioned cartoons from celebrated Florentine artists.  Two Flemish tapestry experts were hired and the results are nothing less than spectacular.

Chazen Museum, museum experience, art, history

The Resurrection 1546-1549

The first painting in the exhibition, “The Miracle of the Manna”, by Fabrizio Boschi, commands immediate attention due to its epic size.  Depicting manna falling from the sky, with biblical and secular figures; the participants show the continual overlap of time, centuries apart, showcasing this enduring story.

Chazen Museum, museum experience, art, history

Miracle of the Manna, Fabrizio Boschi, 1594-1597

“Pieta with Saints John the Baptist and Catherine of Alexandria”, by Il Cappuccino Veronese, imagines St. Catherine at the crucifixion.  The painting was commissioned by Caterina de Medici, her namesake being Catherine of Alexandria, the Saint.  The community surrounding these paintings becomes an integral part of the art, in depiction as well as creation.

Chazen Museum, museum experience, art, history

Pieta with Saints John the Baptist and Catherine of Alexandria, Il Cappuccino Veronese, 1621

These works may long be established as treasures, but the truth of the matter is that they are continually evolving.  Titian’s Madonna and Child with Saint Catherine contrasts with photographic stages of the restoration process.  The removal of varnish allows the colors to appear with the richness and depth the artist intended.

Chazen Museum, museum experience, art, history

Workshop of Tiziano Vecellio,Titian, 1490-1576 Madonna and Child with St Catherine of Alexandria, 1550-1560

The most recognized painting in the Offering of the Angels is Botticelli’s Madonna and Child, or Madonna of the Loggia.  Having undergone multiple restorations, the only parts of the painting that are considered original are the red gown of the Virgin and the distant landscape.  One restoration was so disastrous that the faces were repainted entirely.  A prize of the Uffizi gallery, the painting has never been permanently finished, and looks entirely different now than in the 16th century.

Chazen Museum, art, history, museum experience

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna with Child, 1466

The Chazen Museum is one of the best kept secrets of the Midwest’s art institutions.  Their permanent collection of Renaissance art boasts a huge altar painting by Vasari, “Adoration of the Shepherds”, among other religious art and sculpture.  Well worth the trip on a cold autumn day, I expect many more visits in the future as the Chazen continues to showcase new exhibitions, the “Golden Age of English Watercolors” being the latest arrival.  Visual arts enrich the human experience and the knowledge of art is essential to understanding diverse cultures past and present.  This glimpse into the riches of the Medici certainly underscores that enrichment.

Chazen Museum, art, history, museum experience

The Original Sin, Florentine Painter from the 16th century

Chazen Museum, museum experience, art, history

The Last Supper, Luca Signorelli, 1523

Chazen Museum, museum experience, art, history

Francesco Mazzola, Il Parmigianino, Madonna with Child, 1525

Chazen Museum, art, history, museum experience

Alessandro Tiarini, Nativity of Jesus, 17th century oil on copper

Chazen Museum, art, history, museum experience
Alessandro Allori, Madonna with the Symbols of the Passion of the Christ, 1581

Want more from the Uffizi Gallery?  They are part of the Google Art Project, and have an app for the iPad.

A great post by Hyperallergic on the Secret Life of Paintings reviews this exhibition while at the James A. Michener Art Museum, comparing some great writings of Machiavelli with the art, and the times.

Thank you joining me for “Offering of the Angels”, I look forward to chatting with you about this and future museum events.


Mary Jo

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