Magazine article The Spectator

Rape and Intrigue in Rome

Magazine article The Spectator

Rape and Intrigue in Rome

Article excerpt

Rape is a horrible and perennially senrational crime. But no rape has seized the imagination of art historians as has that of Artemisia Gentileschi in 1612. That is why the remarkable exhibition, Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Father and Daughter Painters in Baroque Italy - which has now reached the St Louis Art Museum, until 15 September - has, as an appendix to its excellent catalogue, a set of court reports.

The detail and drama of early 17th-century Roman legal transcripts have helped to make an artistic star out of not only Artemisia, but also Caravaggio. We can hear the latter give testimony - in a thoroughly shifty, evasive fashion - in a series of cases involving libel, assault and affray (though not the murder he committed, since that caused him to flee the city).

And Artemisia naturally took a prominent role in the trial of the painter, Agostino Tassi - a specialist in architectural perspectives - for her forcible 'defloration' as the crime was then described. At crucial points, as was customary, the thumbscrews were applied to Artemisia and other witnesses, to encourage truthfulness and accuracy.

This is evidence of a melodramatic vividness that the biographers of such distant figures generally pine for in vain. It is therefore not surprising that Artemisia has been the subject of a flood of scholarly writing, two fictionalised historical novels (the first by the wife of the great Italian connoisseur, Roberto Longhi), and one feature film. Caravaggio has racked up a similar total. The interest of their lives - as well, of course, as the violence, intensity and edginess of their work - has helped to make early 17th-century Rome one of the corners of art history in which we in the 21st century are most fascinated.

Nor is it unexpected, given the nature of the crime of which she was a victim and the time at which she re-emerged into arthistorical prominence, that Artemisia became a heroine of academic feminism. A great deal of ink and paper has been expended in attempts to see in her work the characteristic attitudes of late 20th-century feminists - anger against men, rejection of stereotypically masculine attitudes.

The scholars, of both genders, who write in the excellent catalogue to this show, are rightly chary about all that. The evidence noted down by those legal clerks nearly 400 years ago is electrifyingly intimate. These long-dead painters seem to be brilliantly illuminated, and we hear them speak again. But it is only for a few moments, and at a time when they had reason to be economical with the verite.

It is unwise to read into their behaviour and statements the attitudes of a contemporary person; the main complaint of Artemisia and her father against Tassi, for example, seems to have been not the rape itself, but his subsequent failure to marry her as would have been customary. (Peter Robb's attempt in his book M: Caravaggio to resuscitate the artist as a bloody-minded Australian bohemian is dubious for similar reasons.)

Much remains to be discovered about the Gentileschi. Art historically both are work in progress, and this exhibition attempts - with considerable success - to put them in context by displaying them side by side. Orazio is as strange and intriguing a character as his daughter. He was, to begin with - hearteningly for those of us in middle years - a startlingly late developer. Until 1600, when he was 37, his work was, as Keith Christiansen writes in the catalogue, `of a qualitative level that can only be described as dismal'. …

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