In the vestibule of the superb exhibition of Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (until May 12), the organizers have installed a large colored photograph of the ceiling decoration, done in 1611 for the Casino of the Muses in the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome. It shows a number of musicians–the Muses themselves–performing on a balcony around the room, and it is painted in the confectionary colors of some improbable Italian dessert–candied fruit in sculpted whipped cream. A handsome girl, elegantly dressed and holding a large fan, gazes out over the balustrade. It is said to be Artemisia Gentileschi herself, posing for Orazio, her father, who painted all the other figures as well, making music or standing about enjoying it. Artemisia would have been 18 at the time, and was already an accomplished painter. The illusional architecture was then painted by Orazio’s associate, Agostino Tassi, a master of perspective, who had been engaged to teach that art to Artemisia. The whole scene, of an almost edible beauty, is an image of life at its sweetest–music, indolence and the pleasures of an attractive company.
The following year, Orazio, Artemisia and Agostino Tassi were to be caught up in scandal. Orazio brought suit against Tassi for having violently deflowered his gifted daughter, and Tassi denounced Artemisia as having had no virginity to lose at the time the two of them became lovers. The sensational record of the trial, which became the buzz of Rome, has inspired novels, a film and a recent play; and Artemisia–characterized by the art historians Rudolf and Margot Wittkower as “a lascivious and precocious girl, [who] later had a distinguished and highly honorable career as an artist”–has become a feminist heroine. The degree to which her sexual trauma inflected her subsequent art remains a topic of debate. It has, for example, become something of an interpretive commonplace to read her gory depictions of Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes as an act of revenge for having been raped.
The ceiling decoration, which serves as a kind of prelude to the exhibition, could not contrast more vividly with the dark violence typical of the Gentileschis’ paintings. Father and daughter were both much under the influence of Caravaggio, and indeed it is as prominent caravaggisti that they were largely remembered in histories of the Italian Baroque before Artemisia was rescued by feminist art historians with a natural interest in forgotten and neglected woman painters. In Caravaggio, an uncanny light picks out scenes of violent conduct that would otherwise have transpired in a world of utter darkness. It is as though we see as with the all-seeing eyes of God the terrifying deeds that those who perform them might believe are hidden–murder and robbery, violation and revenge, torture and defilement. The consolation of Caravaggio’s paintings is the assurance that every sin is known and registered. The soft bright world of the Casino of the Muses belongs to the taste of a gentler age than the Baroque, in which the Gentileschis, father and daughter alike, earned their fame for paintings of extreme drama in which, if anything, they went beyond Caravaggio in the ferocity of their protagonists. And they selected their subjects precisely as occasions for demonstrating their unflinchingness.
The Baroque in Italy saw a coarsening of culture, in which painters were enlisted to depict the spilt blood and broken bodies of the great heroes and heroines of the Christian faith undergoing their martyrdom. Blood was the emblem of redemptive suffering. Almost the first work one sees by Orazio is an immense altarpiece showing the Circumcision of Christ, in which God sheds the first blood of his human incarnation. Painting was the arm of Catholic revival against the threat of Protestantism, and the wounds and visible agonies of holy beings were designed to awaken sympathy in viewers. A splash or spurt of blood was as commonplace in Baroque painting as automobiles exploding in flames are in action movies. Artemisia was a painter of her time.