Artemisia Gentileschi and Pietro Testa were very gifted artists who worked in Italy during the first half of the seventeenth century. Both suffered great misfortune: Artemisia Gentileschi was almost certainly raped (a residue of doubt remains) by a fellow painter, Agostino Tassi, who then failed to marry her, and she was in any case publicly humiliated in the subsequent trial and forced to give her evidence under torture. Pietro Testa was prone to melancholy, failed to win recognition as a painter, and committed suicide at the age of thirty-eight. Though their works were very different in every way, both of them were for a time employed by Cassiano dal Pozzo, the most cultivated art patron in Rome, and now, after some three hundred and thirty years, their destinies have come together once again—this time on the east coast of the United States: Gentileschi is the subject of an extremely long and lavishly produced monograph published by the Princeton University Press and an important exhibition of Testa’s work took place at Philadelphia and Harvard, accompanied by an exemplary catalog.
Although the names of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Van Dyck, or Claude, Poussin, and Velázquez—to name only a few celebrated painters—are today far more highly esteemed than those of any of their Italian contemporaries, it was in fact Italian art that still dominated Europe during much of the seventeenth century. Interest in that art has been developing again over the last sixty or seventy years after a long period of neglect, but with rare exceptions it was not until after the Second World War that even the major painters began to be exhibited and their achievements recorded in well-illustrated and well-cataloged volumes. The increasing (though not very great) numbers of those who admire Italian Baroque painting have had to expand their bookshelves at quite frequent intervals, but extraordinary gaps in the literature still remain: thus there are (to the best of my knowledge) no serious books—though there have been articles—on such important figures as Francesco Albani, Giovanni Lanfranco, Massimo Stanzione, or Carlo Dolci. So that when Mary D. Garrard claims, in her introduction, that the absence, until now, of any monograph on Artemisia Gentileschi can only be explained by the fact that “she was female,” many readers will surely feel tempted to dismiss out of hand a study that in fact turns out to be much more interesting than this facile comment might lead them to expect. It is, at any rate, a relief that she does not follow up this charge with the further one that Agostino Tassi, the man accused of Gentileschi’s rape, was the subject of one monograph as long ago as 1935—to be followed by a second one (written by a woman) in 1977.
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome in 1593. Her first known work—a picture of Susanna and the Elders—is dated 1610 and is so accomplished that it was long attributed to her father and teacher, the very well-known painter Orazio Gentileschi, despite the fact that it is signed by her as well as dated. The reason why her authorship had been doubted is that at the rape trial, which took place in 1612, it was claimed by Orazio that she was only fifteen: a lie which was designed to exaggerate the seriousness of Tassi’s crime and which has had the additional effect of confusing art historians until the discovery, twenty years ago, of her birth certificate by Ward Bissell. Even so, Orazio is still credited with the design of Susanna and the Elders. Artemisia worked principally in Florence, Rome, and Naples, and she also spent a year or so in London. Until now about thirty pictures have been attributed to her on grounds of style or for documentary reasons, and there must presumably be many in existence that have not yet been identified. She was well paid and highly thought of as a painter by some of the leading patrons in Europe. What appears to be her last painting was, like her first, a Susanna and the Elders, and it was dated 1652. The only record of her death comes in the form of two satirical epitaphs published in the following year.
The first serious article on Artemisia Gentileschi (and her father) dates back to 1916, and since then a number of important studies have established the main outlines of her career. Dr. Garrard adds some pictures to those that have generally been accepted as being by the artist, and she also proposes some alterations to the chronology of the principal works—alterations that have the effect of increasing their originality. But she has not provided a catalogue raisonné, and this must be considered regrettable, for such a catalog would have enabled us to test much more clearly than is at present possible Dr. Garrard’s defiant claim that “the sow’s ear of sexism has given us at least one silk purse: an art historical tool for distinguishing between male and female artists.”
In fact some of the attributions suggested in this book seem to depend on conventional methods of investigation, while others are the result of psychological assumptions that often lead thereafter to a series of circular arguments. Nonetheless, Dr. Garrard’s is a serious and scholarly monograph, even if it does not aim to satisfy all the expectations usually aroused by that genre. She wishes to demonstrate not only that Gentileschi’s stature as a painter is much greater than has generally been acknowledged (at any rate by male art historians) but also that the nature of her art was deeply affected by—indeed determined by—the fact that she was a woman, even though it certainly does not correspond to any notion of “womanly art,” and was a woman who had been brutally wronged. These are matters of considerable interest and fascination—but the problem of how to tackle them is a daunting one.
A glance at Dr. Garrard’s formidable and erudite bibliography will confirm an impression likely to be derived from even the most casual observation of much current art-historical writing: issues of this kind have been extensively debated on a theoretical as much as an empirical level. Anyone who has not followed these debates with some care runs the risk of missing significant nuances in the text and of being charged with culpable naiveté. But because this book is quite free of jargon and is not addressed to embattled specialists, it can be approached for the most part without preconceptions.
When faced with pictures from the pre-Romantic era it is, of course, even more difficult to deduce the sex, the psychology, or the attitude to subject matter of those who painted them than it is to speculate about such matters when reading the books of poets, essayists, or novelists. It is true that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries certain techniques and certain types of painting encouraged the making of certain assumptions: thus it would have been impossible to suppose that a fresco cycle could have been painted by a woman, whereas flower pictures came to be thought of as being especially suitable for female artists (I am, however, puzzled by Dr. Garrard’s apparent claim that this assumption applied also to portraits and to pictures of the Madonna). But beyond this the ground becomes very treacherous. The repertoire of acceptable themes available to the ambitious artist—religious, allegorical, literary, or historical—was a comparatively restricted one, and as often as not it was the patron rather than the painter who chose what was to be depicted, and sometimes even how it was to be depicted.
Much more important is the fact that there is little evidence to suggest that artists actually wanted to express their personalities or even their feelings (as distinct from their skills) through the medium of their works, except perhaps in the form of self-portraiture. It is true, as Dr. Garrard emphasizes, that expressive self-portraiture could in a few cases obtrude into even the most ambitious and public of public commissions. Thus in his Last Judgment on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Michelangelo depicted his own features in the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew (though he does not seem to have told this even to his closest friends), and Caravaggio used his own head as a model for the bleeding head of Goliath held up by a victorious but meditative David—a fact that was noted not very long after his death. But such cases are rare.
Dearth of evidence has, however, not proved discouraging for biographers, for they have long been convinced by the theory (which can ultimately be traced back to late antiquity) that all artists necessarily reveal themselves in their works, whether or not they wish to do so: “le style c’est l’homme même,” in Buffon’s famous phrase. The essential clues therefore are to be found not in what was painted but in the style in which it was painted. But stylistic analysis poses difficulties which can be almost as great as those raised by an examination of subject matter, for only a thorough familiarity with the techniques and formal conventions that are prevalent in a particular milieu can enable us to gauge the individuality of an artist working within it. One has only to think of the reckless assumptions once made about El Greco’s mental stability (leaving aside the lesser problems posed by his eyesight) by writers unfamiliar with the anatomical distortions popular with other artists of the late sixteenth century to realize how complex are the issues at stake.
Nonetheless, it would be unreasonable (or at any rate unnatural) to expect art historians to refrain altogether from trying to understand just what elements in a painter’s psychology may have affected the nature of his or her talent. Thus as early as the seventeenth century the violence, or the vulgarity, of Caravaggio’s pictures was related to the irregularities of his behavior, while his more recent biographers have shown little hesitation in implying that his treatment of the male nude indicates that he himself (as well as some of his patrons) had homosexual tendencies—despite the fact that there is almost nothing in the extensive documentation concerning his scandalous way of life to encourage such a hypothesis.
The case of Caravaggio’s follower Artemisia Gentileschi is, of course, rather different. We know that she was a woman and we know enough about the fierce and competitive society of seventeenth-century Italy to realize that the fate of any woman painter who did not confine herself to the most trivial or pleasing commissions cannot usually have been an easy one; and we also know that this particular woman suffered great humiliation, intimidation, and brutality. It is true that her own career was as smooth and successful as that of any of her male contemporaries but it is nonetheless easy enough to sympathize with Dr. Garrard’s claim that the artist must surely have wished to make use of her considerable gifts to express in her principal pictures at least something of her unique experiences of life. And since Dr. Garrard shows herself acutely aware of all the general concerns about method that have so far been raised (and of many more as well) it may be worth considering her approach in the light of them.
Only one convincing self-portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi is known to survive, though there is reason to believe that she may have painted others. It is a work of considerable beauty (it first encouraged Dr. Garrard to study the artist), but it gives no indication whatsoever of her character (let alone of her suffering), and by comparison with other recorded likenesses of her, it is so flattering that I must confess that I have only described it as “convincing” because in recent years everyone else has been convinced by it and because some contemporary documentation indicates that Artemisia has indeed portrayed herself in it. In her left hand, which she rests on a table inscribed with her initials, she holds an easel and in her right a brush with which she is about to begin painting on a completely blank canvas. The light shines on her bare right arm and on her eager young face and some locks of her dark hair stray down her neck, around which hangs a golden chain with a small mask attached to the end of it. She wears a dress of shimmering green with touches of purple.
It was Michael Levey who first made clear, twenty-seven years ago, that the picture constitutes a witty “conceit” in the seventeenth-century sense of the term, for (as was explained in a very popular iconographical dictionary known to Artemisia and all contemporary artists) the Art of Painting was itself to be represented by a beautiful woman with disordered hair, a golden chain, and many other attributes, some—but not all—of which are included in this picture.
Thus the fact that Artemisia was a woman enabled her to portray herself as Painting (in a manner not altogether different from that which had allowed Caravaggio to depict himself as the decapitated Goliath). Dr. Garrard is surely right to point out, in the very long chapter that she devotes to this picture, that we do not need to assume that so ingenious (but also so straightforward) a theme could only have been suggested to the artist by a learned patron; but she then gives what seems to me to be a wildly exaggerated estimate of its importance by describing it as
a sophisticated commentary upon a central philosophical issue of later Renaissance art theory…a painting by a woman that offers both recognition of and a solution for an aesthetic dilemma that had troubled artists for nearly a century
—and one which could have suggested to Velázquez “many of the ideas that would later surface in his Las Meninas.”
Theories of this kind are, however, all too typical of an approach to art that used to be very prevalent a decade or so ago but that (fortunately) now appears to be on the wane: the more complicated an image can be made to seem, the more impressive the sources from which it can be shown to derive, the more learned the allusions which can be traced in it, the greater the genius of the artist. In itself this approach need have nothing whatever to do with feminism, but its appeal to Dr. Garrard clearly lies in the fact that she is determined to demonstrate that “depth, strength, and complexity of Artemisia’s artistic voice separated her categorically from other women artists of the Renaissance or Baroque era whom we presently know”; and some of her wilder ventures into this field read almost like parodies.
Thus—to take just one example—in the fine picture in Detroit of Judith and her maidservant with the head of Holofernes, the heroine’s head is half lit by a candle on the table and half hidden in shadow. After conceding that this “may be understood simply as a theatrical Caravaggesque device” Dr. Garrard prefers to pay “full respect for the artist’s inventive powers” by suggesting that the head has deliberately been made to resemble the moon, so that “by an accident of shadow Judith temporarily becomes Artemis, as she becomes Artemisia, in some fundamental—or perhaps only apparent—way that transcends literal explanation.” The principal attribute of Artemis is a crescent moon, and as Artemisia was a friend of Galileo, she would have been able to make use of his wash drawings of the moon (seen through a telescope) for her depiction of the head of Judith and thus “translate scientific fact into a poetic private emblem.” It hardly seems likely that speculations of this kind will do much for the artist’s reputation.
Artemisia Gentileschi painted a number of pictures devoted to the sufferings of women at the hands of men—such as Susanna and the Elders and the suicides of Lucretia and Cleopatra—and of men at the hands of women—most notably Judith and Holofernes; and Dr. Garrard makes some interesting points about the varying ways that these themes have been handled at different times in art and literature and also about the controversies that have sometimes raged about the place of such women in history. Most of these, however, have little direct relevance to Gentileschi and since all these subjects were (as, of course, Dr. Garrard fully acknowledges) absolutely commonplace for male painters in her lifetime, if we are to try to understand what special importance they could have had for her as a woman we can only do so very cautiously on the basis of the way she treats them.
One picture is always discussed in this connection, and indeed a detail from it is reproduced on the dust-jacket of this book. In her Judith decapitating Holofernes in the Uffizi Artemisia shows us the grimly determined and yet fastidious Judith, who seems to shy away from the streams of blood that spurt from the neck of Holofernes even as she forces her sword relentlessly through it; he struggles desperately on his bed and is partly held down by her maidservant. Looking at this impressive but horrifying picture (which, Dr. Garrard rather chillingly claims, “offends and shocks because it presents an anti-social and illegitimate violence, the murder of a man by a woman”) we today cannot but remember—thanks to the publication in this book of a full translation of the rape trial—the artist’s evidence to the judge about her attempted resistance to Tassi’s assault:
I scratched his face and pulled his hair and…I grasped his penis so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh. All this did not bother him at all.
The temptation to see in this picture a revenge for her despairing impotence has naturally proved irresistible—and I see no particular reason why we should try to resist it. Certainly Artemisia’s painting does seem to carry bloodthirsty violence even beyond the limits set in other repellent treatments of the subject (such as those by Caravaggio and Rubens which inspired her). But such impressions are necessarily personal ones, and it is on these grounds that I am not at all convinced by Dr. Garrard’s suggestion that in the Susanna and the Elders of 1610 “the expressive core…is the heroine’s plight, not the villains’ anticipated pleasure,” and that this reflects the distress felt by Gentileschi at the sexual harassment she may perhaps have experienced from Agostino Tassi or others in his circle a year before the actual rape.
The principal nudes and half-draped figures assigned by Dr. Garrard to Artemisia Gentileschi have in common a certain ungainliness that distinguishes them from most female figures of the kind in Italian seventeenth-century painting, where the poses are more classical and conventional. We know from her letters how keen she was to paint directly from the model, and—assuming that the pictures in question are in fact by Artemisia (for the attributions themselves depend in part on the very characteristics that are then deduced from them)—I think that Dr. Garrard is right to see in them some deliberate, self-conscious distancing from accepted customs. But it seems to me that this nonconformity serves the purpose of increasing rather than diminishing the erotically stimulating effect of the figures. The Lucretia who exposes a well-developed thigh and who holds her sword in her left hand so that with her right one she can “manipulate her nipple” (thereby reminding Dr. Garrard of a Madonna lactans) does not for me, and would surely not have done for the unknown Genoese patron who apparently commissioned it, “rekindle memory of Augustine’s question whether Lucretia’s suicide was necessary, or even justifiable.”
To express such a reaction to this picture is not merely to make a cheap jibe because, in the absence of other evidence, the depth of the artist’s beliefs and the sincerity of her intentions can only be gauged by the validity to others of the image that she has been able to fashion from them. It may possibly be, as Dr. Garrard suggests, that the moral dilemma posed by St. Augustine was familiar to Gentileschi and it is certainly much more likely that, since she had herself undergone the horrible experience of rape, the story of Lucretia had a special meaning for her—but to compare, as does Dr. Garrard, her treatment of the Roman heroine’s suicide with the treatments of Shakespeare and Rembrandt is surely to diminish rather than to enhance her artistic stature.
This is a book in fact which contains a good deal of useful information and some valuable observations and insights, but it does not succeed in what I have assumed to be its primary purpose. And the almost simultaneous appearance of the Testa exhibition catalog helps us to see the reasons for this. For, from this publication, Pietro Testa emerges as having possessed just those elements of originality, complexity, capacity for expressing personal suffering, and (almost) of genius that, despite her great talent, were beyond the reach—or perhaps beyond the ambitions—of Gentileschi. It is true that his friends and biographers have made us very familiar with his character and that their information helps us to see in his works certain aspects of his outlook on life that might otherwise have remained inaccessible. Nonetheless, the images themselves and the use made of them by Testa are exceptionally revealing.
There is a straightforward explanation for this. Unlike Gentileschi, whose known output consists exclusively of paintings, Testa’s principle achievements lay in the field of drawing and etching. As I suggested above, the demands of patronage and of convention, and even the limitations of the medium, inevitably make it very difficult for the viewer to interpret convincingly any special significance in a picture (whether personal or philosophical) other than that demanded by the requirements of the subject represented; it is indeed likely—though not, of course, certain—that an awareness of these difficulties would have discouraged most painters from being too concerned with trying to convey any such significance. The same objections often apply to etchings; but not so in the case of Testa.
In an extremely valuable and important contribution to the catalog Francesca Consagra explains the precise mechanisms by which etchers in seventeenth-century Italy were able to produce, to publish, and to market their commodities—which, of course, required some very expensive equipment. She shows us that by adopting the particular course of finding a series of rich, influential, and well-disposed benefactors to whom to dedicate his prints (in return for substantial rewards) Testa could escape from nearly all the pressures imposing conformity on most other artists of his day and could also make a reasonable, though always precarious, living. He could choose his own subjects, he could bypass the censors, and he could be sure that the more idiosyncratic of his interpretations would only circulate among a relatively small circle of admirers, who would play an essential role in spreading his reputation. Testa made use of his independence to produce some of the most surprising images to appear in seventeenth-century Italy. But to appreciate their significance we have to follow his early career.
Pietro Testa was born in Lucca in 1612 and came to Rome at about the age of sixteen. He studied for a time in the studios of Domenichino and Pietro da Cortona, and he soon drifted into copying Roman sculptures for the leading illustrated publications, or projected publications, of the time. By far the most important of these was the “paper museum” being built up under the auspices of Cassiano dal Pozzo—a sort of visual encyclopedia devoted to antiquity in all its aspects and also to natural history. Cassiano, a leading figure at the court of the Pope’s nephew, Cardinal Barberini, has until recently been remembered chiefly as the owner of an astonishing collection of some fifty paintings by Poussin, “who used to say that he had been trained up in his art in the house of and museum of the Cavaliere dal Pozzo”; but another outstanding contribution to the catalog of the Testa exhibition—by Francesco Solinas and Anna Nicolò—demonstrates more clearly than has ever been done before how extremely significant were his antiquarian pursuits.
Despite some very plausible suggestions by Elizabeth Cropper (who organized the exhibition) and despite the great individuality of his later work, it is not easy to identify Testa’s hand among those of the many other young artists working on this enterprise (which, in the end, was not published). Indeed, it is possible that he might never have developed beyond being a competent copyist of antiquities had he not, as Charles Dempsey shows, found himself among a group of artists in Cassiano’s circle (most notably Poussin) who became interested in distinguishing the nature of Greek as opposed to Roman art. It is almost impossible to pinpoint the exact issues at stake, but there can surely be little doubt that it was Testa’s interest in such matters, combined with his neurotic temperament and the particular opportunities open to him as an independent etcher, that gives such a hallucinating character to some of his mature works.
In a few of these—The Triumph of the Virtuous Artist on Parnassus, The Suicide of Cato, Achilles dragging the body of Hector around the walls of Troy—Testa seems to escape from his own century and to move straight into that excitable, “pre-Romantic” phase of neoclassicism that flourished for a time in the circle of Fuseli in Rome in the 1770s: and although this is a misleading way of pointing out that our impression of their character springs only from the fact that it was these artists who made profitable use of his example, a glance through some of the illustrations in the catalog does show how isolated a figure Testa often was in the Rome of his time. But not always. Some of the drawings and paintings are as lyrical as any to be found in the “neo-Venetian” works of Poussin or Mola, while others are pedantic, even clumsy; and there are many parallels with the more ostentatious eccentricities of Salvator Rosa.
Despite his rigorous training Testa again and again gives us the impression of having been an undirected—but extraordinarily responsive—autodidact: occasionally following convention almost timidly, but more frequently soaring above it with drawings of amazing quality or breaking free altogether. It is not only the inscriptions on his prints—sometimes pleading, sometimes resentful, sometimes awkward; never, however, bland or banal—but also the quite unusual nature of his subject matter and the strained intensity of his treatment of it which so often make us feel that an individual personality of a kind that (as was recognized by his contemporaries) was rare in seventeenth-century Rome is trying to communicate to us his feelings about art and also about himself. That he can appeal to us so powerfully across the centuries is of course due above all to his own mysterious genius, but also to a catalog in which each introductory chapter—quite exceptionally in a publication of this kind—is not only of real intrinsic importance but actually throws light on the works which are exhibited and expertly discussed in individual entries.
July 20, 1989