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One of the most talented followers of the great Italian artist Caravaggio in the late Renaissance art world was a woman. She was seen as a daring painter who became a victim of a violent crime and her art was seen through that lens. A new exhibit in Rome showcases her work in a different light, as that of a feminist icon. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thirty paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi are on view at Rome's Palazzo Braschi. She was born in 1593, daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi. Orazio was a close friend and follower of the fiery Caravaggio, the inventor of the groundbreaking technique of chiaroscuro, light and darkness, that produced a new intensity and stark realism. Orazio encouraged Artemisia to start painting early. At 17, she made her debut in the art world with "Susanna And The Elders." It was a daring work that broke Counter-Reformation taboos.
JUDITH MANN: I am interpreting this very important biblical story, but I'm doing it in a full frontal nude.
POGGIOLI: Interiorizing the voice of the artist, Judith Mann, one of the exhibit curators, suggests Artemisia was also inspired by the contorted bodies Michelangelo had painted a century earlier on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
MANN: So it's not just the nude at rest, it's the new twisted. So here it's very clear that I can do bodies, which means I can do narrative pictures.
POGGIOLI: Two years later, Artemisia was raped by the painter Agostino Tassi. Family honor had to be avenged and the trial lasted seven months. While testifying against her abuser, Artemisia's fingers were subjected to sibille - metal rings that were increasingly tightened - a courtroom practice at the time to ensure the witness was telling the truth. Artemisia's testimony under torture was brutally graphic, and Tassi was found guilty, but he never served his sentence. Curator Mann says historians' fascination with the victim long overshadowed appreciation of her art.
MANN: Because we really understood her life far earlier than we cared, really, about her painting.
POGGIOLI: Artemisia Gentileschi's paintings have been interpreted almost exclusively as symbolic revenge against the man who raped her. Scholars cite her various depictions of the biblical figure Judith, who took it upon herself to seduce the besieging general Holofernes and decapitate him in his bed. In one painting at the exhibit on loan from Florence's Uffizi Museum, two women pin down a man on a bed. With one hand, Judith holds his head still. With the other, she slices his throat with a long sword. The intensity of the scene is highlighted by the dripping blood soaking the white bedsheets and the man's eyes wide open, conscious but helpless.
Art historian Mann, however, sees Artemisia more as a champion of strong women, rather than a woman obsessed with violence and revenge. She points to a canvas painted the year after the rape trial, Judith and her maidservant Abra. Here the head of Holofernes lies in a basket. And Judith, with serene expression and sword resting on her shoulder, is portrayed proudly as victor.
MANN: That is not a characteristic Judith pose. That is something we expect of a male hero. So it's a very powerful representation and there's drama and she's got it. It's just a masterful treatment.
POGGIOLI: After the trial, Orazio married Artemisia to one of his debtors and they moved to Florence. There, the young artist became part of the court of Cosimo II de Medici where, says Francesca Baldassari, another curator of the exhibit, Artemisia thrived.
FRANCESCA BALDASSARI: (Through interpreter) Florence was intellectually stimulating. She meets Galileo and her paintings reflect his discoveries in astronomy. Her talent and erudition grow and she becomes the first woman to be admitted to the prestigious academy of design.
POGGIOLI: The Artemisia Gentileschi exhibit stays open through May 7 next year. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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