An ‘unvalued person’: guest post by Adrien

By skepticlawyer

[SL: Adrien, as you all know, is a regular commenter on this blog and over at Catallaxy. A while ago, he offered us a series of occasional guest posts on matters artistic, to which we heartily agreed as Adrien has forgotten more about fine art than most of us have ever known. In light of recent comments on this thread over at Catallaxy that Ozblogistan — and specifically, the libertarian bit of it — could do with some more art writing, we’re very pleased to present Adrien’s first piece in what will be an ongoing series, on Italian early Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Enjoy].

The king of the Babylonians, Nebuchadnezzer, has sent his armies forth to conquer those who refuse to become his ‘allies’.  Again Israel, in some nether period between the Babylonian exile and the birth of Jesus Christ, is confronted with an enormous foreign army. The general Holofernes has laid seige to the city of Bethulia, cutting off its water supply. This is a religious contest. Holofernes asks what god is there but Nebuchadnezzer? The Israelites’ response, as usual, is that there is no God but G-d. Despite this defiance, the Jews are dispirited. They have decided that the one true God has abandoned them for their sins. They despair.

But in this city (which never, in fact, existed) there lives a woman of great beauty. A widow who is famous for strict piety. Rich, she wears coarse cloth. But now she dons finery, accompanied by her servant and supplied by many days-worth of kosher food. She approaches the Babylonian camp. Then, as now, beauty had power and she is shown to Holofernes’ tent. Here she tells the general that she has a plan by which Bethulia will submit without bloodshed. He believes her, or he believes her pretty face. She’s lying.

They have many meetings. Dinners really. She refuses the Babylonian cuisine, preferring her own pious fare. Before their last dinner Holofernes declares to his comrades his intentions: he will seduce this woman or be a laughing stock. What happens is much worse for him. He drinks too much at Judith’s behest. And when Holofernes is inebriated to incapacitation she takes his sword and cuts off his head. She and her servant then return to the Bethulia. Assuming the general’s success, the guards at the gate smile knowingly. They are unaware of the deadly irony.

This is not a modern army. Not even a Roman one. When made aware that they are deprived of their leader the Babylonians panic and scatter. Emboldened by Judith’s brave act the Jews rise and slaughter those left. Israel is saved.

The Book of Judith, a book not regarded by Jews or Protestants as scripture, was nevertheless affirmed as such by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent. Judith was a popular subject in the opening decades of the 1600s for reasons of propaganda as much as anything else. The Baroque era demonstrates well that great art and excellent propaganda are not mutually exclusive, provided that the artists don’t understand the ideology too well and the ideologues don’t understand the art. Following the schism the Catholic authorities had decided to clean the house of the corruption that had alienated so much of northern Europe during the 16th century. Of course, this did not mean changing their ways but everyone else’s. The banning of the vernacular Bible was strictly enforced. And copies of such were publicly burned. Banned, also, were some of my favourite books: The Decameron, The Courtier, The Prince.

The brief for painters was to make use of the spectacular achievements in Italian art over the previous two hundred years to impress visually upon all who saw it the mysteries and superiority of the Catholic faith. At the end of the 16th century emerged a new school of painting many thought ideal for the purpose. The preeminent art critic of the time, Giovanni Bellori, remarked that the shining light of this school had come along at a time ‘when realism was not much in fashion’ and that this new style ‘avoided prettiness and vanity’ giving to its figures ‘flesh and blood’. The shining light of this new school was one Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio from Milan.

Despite his acknowledgments of excellence Bellori did not much approve of Caravaggio or his work. Many concurred. Caravaggio got into trouble occasionally for taking his gritty reality too far: saints with dirty feet. He would also get into trouble regularly with the law: arrested many times for crimes of the sword. It was illegal to carry a sword unless noble or licensed and Caravaggio was neither. Arrogant, with red-hot temper, he finally killed someone and had to flee Rome leaving a group of influential followers. Among these followers was an older man, Orazio Gentileschi, who’d been converted to the new style when he was almost forty. This style perfected chiaroscuro, a technique featuring illuminated figures against dark backgrounds. Caravaggio rendered this so realistically that adherents of the Hockney–Falco thesis, myself included, believe it to be a kind of photography. No matter, it was a new highpoint for narrative art, cinematic almost, in which the moment portrayed is the one that punctuates the highest drama. It was at that point the most visceral depiction of action yet devised. Gentileschi had four children. Only one inherited his talent, his daughter Artemisia. In 1620 she painted this:

Even critics like Catherine Puglisi — who prefer Caravaggio’s version — acknowledge that Gentileschi the Younger has surpassed the master in narrative realism. Many prefer Caravaggio’s work still. They argue that it possesses a psychological ambivalence absent in other work. However there is general agreement that Artemisia’s looks more like the real thing. Look at it. They mean business, these women. Look at their faces; look at their clothes. They are of different social rank. The smaller woman serves her that does the killing. Her job is to hold down he who is being put to death. She is small but she is strong. Her arms are muscular. They are serious women, ruthless, business-like. Germaine Greer mused that this may depict two prostitutes murdering a hapless client. Indeed Caravaggio’s work had established that duality where mythology and social realism co-exist simultaneously in the same picture. But this is not murder, it is an act of war.

What makes it so real is that the artist that created this understood what it would take for a woman to kill a much larger and more powerful individual. There are two of them. There has to be. Where Caravaggio’s painting appears ritualistic, this looks like it’s actually happening. Caravaggio’s Judith (the courtesan Fillide Melandroni) is, like the Biblical Judith, beautiful and young. But her sword arm is held at an awkward angle and Holofernes is almost co-operative. In Gentileschi’s picture he is surprised, slowly struggling out of stupor. It’s too late. Judith is serious about her work and it is almost done. He’s gone. Notice that, contrary to tradition, Gentileschi’s Judith is not especially beautiful. She is older, too. A matriarch putting something odious out of its misery. There’s nothing sadistic in her countenance but I’d wager the artist enjoys the blood. There is so much of it. It splatters Judith’s finery. It spurts from the neck in macabre jets (Artemisia pinched that from Caravaggio, he’d had first hand experience). This is the bloodiest picture Gentileschi the Younger ever painted. Among the bloodiest that anyone ever painted.

It’s thought by the pre-eminent Gentileschi scholar, Ward Bissell, to be the last commission completed for her Florentine patron Cosimo d’ Medici II. By this time she had spent years in Florence refining her technique and absorbing the work of her other major influence: Michaelangelo. But the picture is a mature version of  a painting she first executed 8 or so years before when she was a teenager. That execution is obviously more primitive. The colours are basic. Red and blue. The shading on the faces is not so nuanced and the tip of the sword actually looks more like a stain. It’s unclear who commissioned this early version, if anyone. But what is known is that the painting was executed soon after Gentileschi was raped.

The perpetrator was one Agostino Tassi, a colleague and friend of her father. A man so odious as to make Caravaggio seem a good bet for cucumber sandwiches at Lady Windemere’s. Years before he’d been arrested for assaulting a courtesan who’d had the temerity to decline him. Witnesses testified to him screaming at her: ‘whore, bitch, trollop. I’ll throw a basin of shit in your face’. He’d cut her face. Years later he boasted he’d had his wife killed. Charming guy. Then, as now, rape trials were unpleasant for those seeking justice because it was they that found themselves accused in turn. Some comfort can be had in the fact that rape is now a criminal offence. In Artemisia’s time it was an action for compensation filed by her father. She was his property and Tassi had damaged it. The trial lasted for months and created a scandal that would follow Artemsia all her life, even to London. Orazio had filed charges some months after the rape, as he’d apparently remained ignorant of it. Agostino and he had even had dinner together the day the crime took place. Justice was also delayed by the fact that after Tassi had taken Artemisia by force he promised to marry her and she agreed.

Strange as it seems today, this was then the standard solution. Rape only went to the courts if the victim was a virgin. Punishment was then meted out only if the rapist refused to marry his victim. For months afterward Artemisia had carried on an affair with Tassi assuming them to be virtually husband and wife. The charges were pressed only when it became clear that Tassi had no intention of honouring his obligations. Eventually he was found guilty, but powerful connections saw to it that he never faced his punishment: 5 years exile. He never even left the city.

Look at the painting again. Tassi was a handsome man with black hair and a beard. Is this a revenge fantasy?

That reading of Gentileschi the Younger’s Judith Slaying Holofernes is the standard one asserted by feminist advocates for the inclusion of female artists within the Canon. As the second most pre-eminent Gentileschi scholar (and feminist) Mary Garrad has acknowledged, Artemisia Gentileschi was the centrepiece of such revisionism. Germaine Greer called her the magnificent exception. A lot of such advocacy is facile and even silly. But Garrad’s work is sound, and I believe she’s right. Gentileschi the Younger had been excluded from scholarship on the period until c.1970, and I can’t think of any reason for this to be so apart from her sex. Garrad has gone further then Bissell and shown that Gentileschi not only succeeded in her time but influenced the depiction of the female figure for posterity. Those influenced include Rembrandt and Reubens. I didn’t read Garrad’s arguments on this matter; I simply looked at the paintings she cites. She’s right. The influence is obvious. Garrad argues that Gentileschi was the first female artist who set out to compete with the finest in her craft. To be the finest. She also asserts that, tho’ a celebrity, she was not taken seriously. This contradicts her other assertion and cannot be the entire truth, considering that Gentileschi was admitted to the Accademia del Disengo, the prestigious institution founded at Vasari’s suggestion by Cosimo d’Medici I (the Great) and including such talents as Michelangelo.

Still, Gentileschi’s correspondence is full of quite civil but angry complaints that she is being taken advantage of because she is female. In one, for example, she is declining a client’s requests to send preparatory drawings for a commission. The reason she gives is that she had done so previously and that the client had given them to a lesser painter who used them to create a much cheaper painting. She got nothing. “This would not have happened to me if I was a man”, she writes. I agree. Women didn’t carry swords and the justice system obviously left much to be desired. Still, she worked at the top of her field: in Rome, in Florence, in Rome again, London and Naples, the relative backwater that welcomed her as a celebrity but saw her decline largely due to the relegation of her style to the status of the recently unfashionable. This happens to the best of them, Rembrandt for example. The facts are plain however: she was successful. She was working until her death at the age of 65.

Her negligence by posterity is however also a fact. Interest in Caravaggio and his followers was rekindled at the beginning of the 20th century, but all of the authoritative tomes from this period exclude her. It is thanks both to Bissell’s excavations and feminist revisionism that we can think her current status now so official that Judith Slaying Holofernes appears in the latest Art History reference books (eg A World History of Art Hugh Honour et al) as representative of the period. Likewise in the excellent reference Art: The Definitive Visual Guide (Andrew Graham-Dixon ed). Artemisia’s painting represents the Caravaggisti in a double spread that focuses on Caravaggio’s importance. If you, as they say, come to adore the period, your preference for Caravaggio, Artemisia, her father or any of the other Caravaggisti is, I think, largely a matter both of personal feeling and the importance one ascribes to stylistic innovation, movement leadership and correspondence with the artist-as-rebel motif. For my money, however, this Judith by Gentileschi the Younger is the apex of the form. The thing that makes the early Italian Baroque remarkable is not just the vivid depiction but the social verisimilitude. These figures may illustrate scripture but they could also very well be ordinary, contemporary folk. Caravaggio’s Judith does not look like any woman on the street. Gentileschi’s does.

At her trial Artemisia repeated her testimony under torture. The device used was the sibille, which consisted of cords tied around the knuckles of the witness and tightened, causing agony. Gentileschi consented to this cruelty and repeated the truth of her statement in front of the accused to whom she cried: “this is the ring that you give me and these are your promises!” She was 17 when she was raped. She finished the first version of this picture by her 20th birthday. But exactly when, and in what circumstances, she began work on the first Judith Slaying Holofernes is unknown. Some feminists attribute the warring sexes theme that runs through her oeuvre to the rape. I disagree. It appears beforehand in her version of Susanna and the Elders (executed in 1610). This was subject to centuries of argument about date and authorship, grounded in the skepticism that such a young girl could be so skilled.

However when she began this Judith it isn’t much of a stretch to think that her fingers were still swollen and sore from the sibille. That she herself — her future in doubt at the time as a fallen woman — was bitterly angry and expressed this anger by depicting one of the few female heroes in Western literary history at grisly work.

We shall never know. She was one of the finest, but still merely labouring a trade. A prestigious trade and a prestigious tradeswoman but nonetheless one who worked and with her hands. At the time they were, as Shakespeare put it, unvalued persons. The internet is awash with various feminist takes on the rape in connection with this picture. I tend to agree with Mary Garrad that this is a facile reduction. But what is obvious is often the truth of the matter, and the link cannot be denied. She would not be human if Artemisia had not put her scorched feelings into the picture. How sad and sadly unsurprising that history’s first significant female artist should be forever linked with male sexual venality.


  1. Nick Ferrett
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I have to say I know very little about fine art although I did see the Caravaggio exhibition in Sydney a few years back and thought it absolutely stunning. Adrien, your post was fascinating. I congratulate the editors for posting it and hope that it’s the first of many.

  2. su
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Thankyou for a very interesting post. It is interesting how women’s work is often valued as esoterica. Certain people whisper among themselves about how marvellous the work is but it stays relatively unknown, as if it would be unseemly for it to become more popular. Caravaggio can be the subject of sensationalist movies and blockbuster exhibitions and noone would feel his work was devalued as a result. I wonder whether there isn’t an unconscious feeling still that women’s work is too slight to withstand that attention?

    There is a bit of a campaign in England to get the government to upgrade the heritage listing on Mary Beale’s home and workplace Allbrook farm. It is not going well as I understand. As England’s first known professional woman artist you would think she would warrant a greater effort at conservation and a greater attention. Her portrait of Aphra Behn hangs in St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

  3. Peter Patton
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 5:20 pm | Permalink


    I’ve only skimmed it for now, but thank you so much. It is so unusual to find people who have the sheer depth and breadth of not only artistic knowledge, but religious, and the minutiae of the court intrigue of the time, and the subtlety of the artist’s ironic response to them, all the while being able to effortlessly integrate it within a broader macro historical perspective.

    I think the sign of a truly great educated mind is effortless intertextual responses to works of painting, prose, poetry, music, and so on.

    That takes proper education, the type that takes effort to master hard things, skills which seem valued very rarely these days.

  4. Posted February 10, 2010 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Adrien. I took my daughter to the Caravaggio blockbuster (it was some years ago, and she wasn’t very old). The Caravaggio Judith and Holofernes absolutely blew her away.

    She remembers it because it was something so in-your-face, the contrast between the relatively “sweet innocent” looking girl and the brutal act. The G-the-Y version doesn’t have such a subtext and thus doesn’t hit a tween so hard.

    The C is is the only painting from that exhibition that I recall seeing there (as opposed to in books) because it made such an impression on my daughter. (But still, our favorite NGV memories are of lying on the floor looking at the stained glass ceiling).

    And su… a St Hilda’s at Oxford too? Didn’t know that. Back when I was at St Hilda’s Melb (just after males were allowed in), the former students; assoc was still called “old girls”.. but it had been made gender neutral by the time I would have been an old girl, and I went there on a Methodist Ladies College scholarship! Would have liked to be able to /really/ confuse people by my CV just out of uni. damn.

    BTW all, LE and I had a decent exchange on various medieval women, as well as hypatia, a while back. I can’t believe people like von Bingen, etc, are considered “esoteric”.

  5. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Great post Adrien.

  6. Posted February 10, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    To me, this is fascinating for what it reveals about societies where the rule of law is weak. It may not be pleasant to admit, but lots of societies have had legal systems where the accused can be tortured and the wheels haven’t fallen off the society in question, but from a legal perspective, a society that allows the torturing of witnesses is heading downhill, fast. Even the Law Code of Hammurabi forbade the torture of witnesses, and the court procedure and remedies described here would have made a Roman or Han Chinese jurist throw up everywhere.

    I mean, rape was even a crime against the person among Romans (and we’ve got lots of records of successful prosecutions, too), which shows you that it’s entirely possible to go backwards legally over time.

    It’s long been known that things like duelling and vendetta are signature characteristics of societies with a weak rule of law. You never hear of duels taking place in the Roman world (despite it being a very warlike society), and you only get them in China during the Warring States Period. This case gives one a clue as to why vendetta has become associated so intimately with Italy, and why it took so long before it stopped being a ‘first resort’ among Italians who had been traduced by the ‘justice’ system.

  7. Posted February 10, 2010 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] said “It’s long been known that things like duelling and vendetta are signature characteristics of societies with a weak rule of law”

    Hmmm. Hamilton and Burr? US Law MAKERS 1804 (actually a former treasurer v vice president)

  8. Posted February 10, 2010 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    There’s a reason the West was Wild, Dave. The nearest courthouse was a lot further away than the nearest saloon…

    In fact, the US took a remarkably long time — for a society that was relatively wealthy and developed — to get rid of duelling. At least they didn’t have vendetta, though, which is much nastier and persists for generations.

  9. Posted February 10, 2010 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]: My nominations: (1) Hypatia – even though she’ll be well known soon because of the movie, (2) Hildegard von Bingen, (3) Pharaoh Hatshepsut, (4) “Admiral” Artemisia of Caria, (5) Rear-Admiral Grace Hopper.

    There’s an “Uppity Women” series of very funny and informative books, starting with Uppity women of ancient times.

  10. Posted February 10, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Nebuchadnezzer was king of the Babylonians, part of the coalition that had destroyed Assyria.

    The “Caravaggio and followers” exhibition was fascinating (apart from really annoying curator’s notes at the Melbourne showing: I could have done better). But it was blindingly obvious that Artemisia Gentileschi was the greatest of Carravagio’s artistic followers. (BTW Peter Robb’s biography of Caravaggio is a great read.)

    The notion that a rapist should marry his victim comes from Deuteronomy. The notion that sexual sin should be understood in terms of damage done to the male responsible for her is in Aquinas.

  11. Posted February 10, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Great post also 🙂

    As an aside, Mel Gibson reckons Caravaggio is his favourite painter. Are we surprised?

  12. su
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    I’m still waiting for the release of Agora. SL’s post on that film is another favourite of mine. Just seven more to make the ten then LE!

  13. Posted February 10, 2010 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    I have no idea what’s happened to Agora in English speaking countries, su. It’s been out in Spain and Portugal for months, and an Israeli friend saw it in Tel Aviv a couple of weeks ago… and it had been subtitled in Hebrew to boot, which is not a quick exercise (the original language is English). No idea what’s going on there, sorry to report.

  14. Patrick
    Posted February 10, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Great post I loved it, and I’m a right-wing philistine to boot. Thanks.

  15. Posted February 10, 2010 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] “There’s a reason the West was Wild, Dave.”

    Can’t get much more east than manhattan! Still, I’d encourage it for politicians who don’t like how they’ve been slagged off… solve an awful lot of problems or increase the tone of politics.

    [email protected]/[email protected] : Yeah… what gives with Agora? Is it too sensitive a topic? I could understand that in the US… but surely not England. Anybody heard of anything in Germany/France/etc?

    Tell you what though, and in line with other comments about the post… the number of tangents in the comments proves how richly-woven Adrien’s article was!

  16. Posted February 10, 2010 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    What’s interesting is that that incredibly stupid rule about victims being forced to marry their rapists is in Deuteronomy, but that the Jews had done away with the behaviour (and for all time, too, ie it never came back) by the first century BC.

    Some people are clearly better at reading the Bible than other people, methinks.

    …. in other news, it is currently blizzarding in Oxford.

  17. Posted February 10, 2010 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    Is Empress Wu ZeTian a bit too late for the list (circa 700AD) ?

    Empress Theodora?

    (sorry, in an Empressy mood today)

  18. Posted February 11, 2010 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    Her support for Laozi is interesting; quite a few libertarians are of the view that China would have been far less authoritarian and more liberal had his thought prevailed over that of Confucius.

  19. Ken N
    Posted February 11, 2010 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Then if you’d like to hear Juditha’s story in music try this:

    Disclosure of interest: I am a director the Pinchgut Opera.

  20. Posted February 11, 2010 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the kind comments everyone. I must confess that this piece makes it look like a I know a lot more than I actually do. 🙂
    Nick – I did see the Caravaggio exhibition in Sydney a few years back and thought it absolutely stunning
    This one?. I went too in Victoria. Literally awesome.
    I seem to recall that this painting was the one by Artemesia featured. That’s the one that sticks anyway. Bit hazy now.

  21. Posted February 11, 2010 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    The other really fascinating thing about this post is the information about the ‘Hockney-Falco’ thesis. I did what is now called ‘Technical Drawing’ at school (it used to be ‘Geometric Drawing & Perspective’) because I came perilously close to being an engineer or architect rather than a writer/lawyer.

    I remember looking at some of the very best chiaroscuro artwork (which included all the images featured in this post and in various comments) and thinking, ‘how in the flying f* did they do that without photography?’ Really good drop-shadows and light dispersal in engineering design is BLOODY DIFFICULT and is something that even really great artists bugger up, because if they’re working in oils they go back to the same spot/set-up over a period of days and the shadows have moved!

    Now I have an explanation, for which I am very grateful.

  22. Posted February 11, 2010 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Viz Hockney I recommend David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge. Worth having a look if only for the Great Wall of Art. When mirrors and lenses arrive in Europe everything suddenly gets way more realistic. And when the film camera is invented everything goes back again.
    Lucid and quite humble. It’s interesting to look at this stuff because you realize that some artists draw and others don’t so much. Caravaggio is not known to’ve made a single solitary drawing.

    When I discuss Western Art with Asian friends, I like to smile and say: we cheated. 🙂

  23. Nick Ferrett
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Adrien @ 26: Yes that was the one. I looked at the images published at your link, but they don’t include the one that really knocked my socks off. I think it was an actual Caravaggio; someone holding a severed head, but all the characters were male. He was a bloodthirsty bugger.

  24. Posted February 12, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    I think it was an actual Caravaggio; someone holding a severed head, but all the characters were male. He was a bloodthirsty bugger.
    His David With the Head of Goliath I think. The severed head is a self-portrait.
    It’s interesting this early Baroque stuff. When you consider the mix of High Art, venal realpolitik and extreme violence that was standard in the days of the Medicis the art hits home. These paintings are huge. Imagine being in the home of a Medici with one of these things hanging on the wall lit by candlelight.

    It’d make dinner at the Corleones seem like a trip to Disneyland.

  25. Posted February 12, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    L’eagle, good book innit? And makes us incompetent moderns feel a little better about our wonky drawings. 🙂

    Don’t worry the Western classical tradition is alive and well – in China.

  26. Posted February 12, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Don’t worry the Western classical tradition is alive and well – in China.
    Too bad about their own.

  27. Nick Ferrett
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    The one I’m thinking of was more in profile and much darker (colour-wise – I don’t think the subject matter could get a whole lot darker).

  28. Tim R
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink


3 Trackbacks

  1. […] occasional posts on matters artistic; his first — on Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi — is available here, with some background. I should also point out that Adrien has been moving bloggy house of late, […]

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    […] woman’s body was not a thing that belonged to her. What it did was central to a functioning economy, to the political order. She didn’t have […]

  3. […] occasional posts on matters artistic; his first — on Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi — is available here, with some background, while the second, on Franco-Swiss neo-classical painter Angelica Kauffmann […]

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