Artemisiaby Alexandra Lapierre
An international best-seller, Alexandra Lapierre's Artemisia sweeps us through the streets once frequented by Caravaggio, Velasquez, and Van Dyck and into the studios of artists who used their daggers as efficiently as their brushes. Born in the early 1600s when artists were the celebrities of the day, Artemisia was apprenticed to her father, the artist Orazio… See more details below
An international best-seller, Alexandra Lapierre's Artemisia sweeps us through the streets once frequented by Caravaggio, Velasquez, and Van Dyck and into the studios of artists who used their daggers as efficiently as their brushes. Born in the early 1600s when artists were the celebrities of the day, Artemisia was apprenticed to her father, the artist Orazio Gentileschi, at an early age. Raped by his partner Agostino Tassi at seventeen, the Gentileschi name was dragged through scandal for Artemisia refused, even when tortured, to deny that she had been raped. Indeed, she went farther: she dared to plead her case in court. Artemisia is the story of a powerful love/hate relationship between master and pupil, father and daughter, and a talent that overturned the prejudices of the day, winning commissions from wealthy patrons, nobles, and kings. Lapierre brings Artemisia Gentileschi to vivid life as she tells of the emotional struggles of the most fascinating and controversial artist of her time.
New York Times Book Review
- Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
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- 5.48(w) x 10.88(h) x 1.19(d)
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Piazza Ponte Sant' Angelo
11 September 1599
Through air acrid with sweat and dust the light blinded thousands of eyes. Though God knows if those eyes really wanted to see. Opposite the scaffold, the dome of the Vatican basilica blazed incandescent beneath a white sun that blanched the great marble statues of Saints Peter and Paul that rose up at the entrance to the bridge, brandishing the Martyr's Sword and the Keys to Paradise.
A feverish, restless crowd had massed on the banks of the Tiber, swarming into the boats which pitched about dangerously between the yellow mud at the water's edge and the river's currents. The roof-tops, dark with people, threatened to cave in. Bate-headed in the scorching heat, women and children were crushed together at windows, or on terraces and loggias. Even the prison gangways, the loopholes of Tor di Nona and the battlements of the Castel Sant'Angelo thronged with captives who had been granted the privilege of watching this spettacolo edificante. The nobility's carriages jammed the whole neighbourhood, cutting off streets and squares as far as San Giovanni in Laterano. It was, after all, for the aristocracy's sake that the spectacle was being staged.
What they were about to witness was the obliteration of one of Rome's great lineages: the Cenci, whom the Court of Justice had found guilty of murder. The three children and the second wife of the patrician Francesco Cenci had killed him with hammer blows to the head. The instigator of the crime had been thevictim's own daughter eighteen-year-old Beatrice Cenci.
By publicly executing every member of the family despite the fact that their nobility gave them the right to a private execution by subjecting them all, the women included, to the most appalling agonies, the Pope was sending a deliberate message to his barons: on the eve of the 1600 Jubilee, which would bring five hundred thousand pilgrims to the holy city, Pope Clement VIII wanted Rome to exemplify a new order, and to embody in the eyes of the world a model government. The Pope was not just the spiritual head of Christendom, he was a temporal sovereign and absolute monarch, reigning over all the territories of the Church, which extended across the centre of Italy, between the Adriatic Sea and the Mediterranean. Like all other princes, perhaps more so, his concern was to rein in the age-old anarchy of his feudal lords. Beatrice Cenci's crime gave him just the opportunity. After the Council of Trent a new kind of justice had been born, a brand of justice which was not merely repressive, but preventive. Fairness had no place in it whatsoever.
No one on the Sant'Angelo Bridge was unaware that Count Cenci, the victim whose memory Pope Clement today presumed to revenge and whose murderers he claimed to punish, belonged to that self-same caste of blood-soaked aristocrats, tyrants and monsters which he wished to diminish. At sixteen, the innocent Beatrice had been locked up in a fortress where she had been beaten and raped by her father. By killing him, the young woman had done no more than avenge her lost honour. This at least was the view widely held. But the Father of the Church saw higher and further. He required this young woman's head for the sake of the Eternal City. He had therefore refused to listen to her lawyers, going so far as to insult them for having assumed her defence. His grand scheme to decorate the basilica of St Peter's was emptying the state coffers. Funds were running dangerously low and the Cenci were rich. By appropriating their wealth, Clement VIII could hope to complete the Clementine Chapel, which held the remains of his patron saint. By the end of 1600 at the latest, the mosaics on the pendentives of one of the small domes of St Peter's on which a team of more than fifty artists was already engaged would shine with bright radiance only feet away from the precious relics of Christ's closest companion, the first Father of the Church.
Every single one of this team was in the press of people on the bridge, along with all the other painters from the artists' quarter. And they made their way towards the scaffold with such impatience, such a frenzy of zeal that it might have suggested that the members of their guild had a particularly cruel streak. It was, in fact, no more than a matter of professional duty. `For depictions of martyrs, be witness to capital executions', the treatises on painting prescribed. `To represent the torments of the early Christians, observe the gestures of those condemned to death. Note their expressions when they mount the scaffold, their colouring, the movements of the eyes, their precise manner of frowning ...'
The artists who had paid their annual dues to the Accademia di San Luca, the painters' official body, enjoyed a special authorisation which, either individually or as a group, they presented to the constables, who contrived to get them the best places. Recognisable in the front row was Cardinal del Monte's favourite, a short, thickset, swarthy fellow, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, for whom his patron had recently procured an exceptional commission, The Calling and the Martyrdom of St Matthew, for one of the chapels in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Caravaggio's rivals muttered that he had been seen regularly in the dungeons of Corte Savella the week before ... as a favoured visitor. In order to capture Beatrice's features without his work being disturbed, he had gained access to her cell to paint her in the guise of Judith or St Catherine, whereas they would have to make do with a fleeting likeness. They would have to retain the memory of her face, her martyrdom, in this heat, in this stench. Such, at any rate, was the complaint openly made by Caravaggio's former master, the Cavaliere d'Arpino, who could not get over having been ousted by his brilliant pupil. He was supervising the work being done on the decoration of the transept of San Giovanni in Laterano, the cathedral of the world, the Pope's personal bishopric. The task of rendering Beatrice Cenci's portrait before her execution should have been his by right!
Next to this illustrious figure, right at the foot of the scaffold, stood a middle-aged man who was also extremely well known on the Roman scene: the painter Orazio Gentileschi. He was a protégé of Monsignor Pietro Aldobrandini, the most powerful prelate after the Pope. His austere attire distinguished him from his fellow artists and he could be observed from a distance, for he carried a child on his thin shoulders. This was a little girl of six, and he was telling her about the `edifying spectacle' about to be enacted. While he explained the details of the trial and the torments which were to take place, a young man unnoticed by anyone cut through the crowd and cleverly inched his way towards the platform. He was boisterous and excitable and, mingling with the most famous artists, he spoke to them as if they were old acquaintances. In the course of conversation he would introduce himself, all innocence, as: `Agostino Tassi, painter'. He told them that he too could easily have done a picture of Beatrice Cenci in prison. He'd been there himself for a short spell in March. He was twenty-one and just back from Florence at the time. He had been arrested in the artists' quarter shortly after his return to Rome, which was his native city. A charge of abusing, assaulting and wounding a courtesan who had refused to go to bed with him. He laughed as he described the `thrashing' he had given her. The business had had consequences, since he had tried to carve up the woman with a knife, inflicting extensive injuries. Giving testimony, the neighbours had relished repeating the words he had used: `Whore, bitch, trollop, I'll throw a basin of shit in your face! Go and fuck yourself with a flogging-switch! I'll shove my paintbrush handle up your ass!'
This kind of thing was commonplace in the artists' quarter. The law in the papal states was unoffended by such obscenities, of which legal records, cross-examinations and police reports supply plentiful instances. Seventeenth-century men were no prudes; they didn't mince their words, nor did they hesitate to call a spade a spade.
What had really cost the young Agostino Tassi dear in March 1599 was the knife drawn in the margin of the constables' report. The police in Rome prohibited the bearing of arms. None the less, the alleyways of the artists' quarter remained among the most fearsomely dangerous back streets in Europe. And nights in the holy city were the most violent and hot-blooded in Christendom. Men of the same nationality stuck together, living in gangs, and this situation led to all kinds of disorder. The fluctuations of European politics were an excuse for brawls between clans and a pretext for professional jealousies. Every evening, painters from rival factions, Frenchmen and Spaniards, crossed swords under the mocking gaze of groups of Italians who for their part slaughtered one another, Tuscans against Bolognese, Neapolitans against Romans. Therefore no one was allowed to go about wearing a sword unless he was a gentleman, or else a holder of a permit stamped with the seal of the prefecture. Woe betide the man caught by the constables with a dagger in his pocket.
Agostino Tassi had, moreover, been unlucky enough to get caught red, handed at night with a prostitute. Courtesans were so numerous in Rome that the Popes had attempted to pen them into an enclosure along the Tiber, the `Ortaccio di Ripetta', a few hundred yards away from the artists' quarter. These ladies, of course, tended to escape from their ghetto to walk the surrounding streets. Though their presence was tolerated, they had been forbidden from setting foot there after sunset. The Ave Maria bells would sound the start of curfew, the time when the constables, invisible in their great brown cloaks, would spread out all over the city.
But from inn to brothel, from workshop to tavern, painters, whores and hired killers continued to roam around in armed bands. Though the population of the city fell short of a hundred thousand, the majority was male, unmarried, young, foreign, ambitious and quarrelsome. How was public order to be assured in such conditions: Criminality was heightened by the number of `no-go areas': places that were sacrosanct. It was impossible to apprehend criminals in churches and there were more than four hundred churches where thieves and murderers could take refuge. The same applied to hospitals, hospices, monasteries, cardinals' palaces, the homes of certain noble families, and inside the precincts of embassies, where each nation upheld its own law, in accordance with its own jurisdiction, and with its own guard. The constables therefore had to catch the guilty red-handed, a strategy which explained the speed of their arrival and the arbitrary nature of their arrests; it also explained their uniform, those great cloaks the colour of darkness.
The previous March, by a miracle, papal justice had released Agostino Tassi without banishing him from Rome. He had merely had a taste of strappado. With a rope tying his hands behind his back, he had been hoisted several feet above the ground. Half an hour exposed like this at the corner of the Via del Corso and Via dei Greci, in the heart of the artists' quarter: it was the normal penalty for mischief-makers, a punishment which dislocated the shoulders without causing any lasting mutilation. Although, on the eve of the Jubilee, Clement VIII made plain his concern for order, his severity with regard to suspects and his cruelty towards the guilty, the customary thoroughness of the Roman judges had been restrained in these last few months by the Cenci trial which everyone had on their minds. They talked of nothing but the ordeal of the patrician family, the two brothers, the sister and stepmother, who were suspected of murdering their father and husband. But it was about the incestuous and parricidal young woman that they talked most of all.
Agostino Tassi elbowed his way through the crowd as far as the steps which the condemned woman would climb. He positioned himself right at the foot of the scaffold, next to the painter Orazio Gentileschi, who was attempting to lift down his daughter; she was too heavy, he said. But the child was in a rage and struggling. She clung to him, begging him to keep her on his shoulders a little longer.
`Your little girl is right,' said Agostino, intruding. `She won't be able to see a thing ... Do you want me to hold you?' he asked her.
The child turned away without answering.
Orazio bent over, gripped her by the waist and set her firmly on the ground.
All of a sudden it was as if a wave had risen on the Tiber, a gust of wind which made the boats pitch about and dashed the crowds against the balconies and the parapets along the river and the bridge. A great surge forward thrust the front ten rows up against the soldiers.
A few yards away from the scaffold, four monks of St John the Beheaded, the order attendant on those destined for execution, with their black cowls and long, homespun habits, were dragging the wife of Beatrice's father out of the Chapel of the Condemned. She was an accomplice to the parricide, a witness to the incest, and she was to die first. She staggered, ashen, between the lines of constables who led her to the block. Two of the monks supported her under the armpits. A third murmured into her ear, exhorting her to die with dignity. As if holding up a mirror, the remaining one held a tablet of painted wood close to her face, hiding the scaffold from her eyes. This tablet depicted the decapitated head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. The effort was futile: at the sight of the axe and the executioner awaiting her on the platform, the condemned woman fainted. The miserable creature was raised up to the scaffold and tipped on to the block completely unconsciousness. There was no excitement in this, only slaughter. The drama was still to come. As the solitary figure of Beatrice emerged quickly from the chapel, the entire city reeled. All of Rome, from its prisons to its palaces, seemed stirred by the same emotions of pity, admiration and anger.
All except the group of painters beneath the scaffold, who remained mute. With pencils and paper at the ready, they experienced only the fear of failing to get a good look. Though the number of executions was multiplying on the eve of the Jubilee up to five every week those where the victim was a heroine of such youth, beauty and nobility were rare. She was little more than a child, and it was said that she had endured nine hours of torture with unbelievable courage; a child judged by everyone there to be innocent. In the bravery of this very young girl who now advanced unaided into the crowd and climbed towards her death, erect, self-possessed, praying to God and cursing the Pope the Roman people saw the steadfastness with which the Saints Catherine, Ursula and Cecilia had died, all of them martyrs urged upon Catholic memory by the brushstrokes of Christian artists.
Presently, there was silence. The young girl had laid her head upon the block. The executioner was then seen to raise his arms, his axe flashing white in the sunlight. That was all they saw the sunlight, the axe and the dome of St Peter's. The arms fell again, there was the dull sound of an axe blow. The blade had struck against the block.
Something rolled to the edge of the platform. The long dark hair, until that moment fastened by a kerchief, now spread out, bloodied, towards the crowd. The people let out a scream a shriek of horror, a shriek of pity and hatred at the sight of the severed head of a girl who was martyred to a father's tyranny and a pope's iniquity.
Among the painters who had enjoyed a close-up view of the spectacle there were two individuals who had not succumbed to horror-stricken stupor. Orazio Gentileschi and little Artemisia.
Without waiting for the final ordeal there was still Beatrice's elder brother to be stunned, quartered, and the hewn-off parts of his body exposed to the elements Orazio cleared a path back through the crowd, dragging his child behind him.
He was thirty-five years old, with a wife and four small children; the youngest had just come into the world. Six mouths to feed. The last-born of a family of goldsmiths, Gentileschi had left his native city of Pisa to work in Rome. There he had made his living as a miniaturist and engraver of medallions for nearly a quarter of a century. Though he had played a part in all the big projects, and was at that moment a member of the Cavaliere d'Arpino's team at San Giovanni in Laterano, his career had been at a standstill. Up until now. Through the mediation of one Cosimo Quorli, an under-steward to the Apostolic Chamber, an old family acquaintance and a Tuscan like himself, and like Clement VIII, the painter Orazio Gentileschi had just acquired a commission to decorate the gallery of the choir in San Nicola in Carcere. This particular church was the diocesan church of the cardinal who was nephew to the Pope and the man closest to him Monsignor Pietro Aldobrandini.
Pietro Aldobrandini was also the godfather of the executed Beatrice Cenci, her protector, and the intermediary to whom the young girl had entrusted her last hope of winning the Pope's clemency. Who could ever be sure that the cardinal had pleaded her case with as much fervour as he claimed? He was the Pope's favourite, and Clement VIII planned to make him one of the prime beneficiaries of the Cenci executions. He had already assigned to him some of their castles and lands.
Perhaps as an act of contrition, a gesture of regret, the cardinal had ordered the painter who was to work on San Nicola, Orazio Gentileschi, to put a fresco on his new gallery depicting a saint with the face of the gift whose head had fallen that morning. For, beneath the high altar of Pietro Aldobrandini's very old church, there lay a treasure: the relics of three martyrs two brothers and a sister, an entire family persecuted in Rome under Diocletian. The brothers had been beheaded, the sister strangled. And the female martyr (was this the hand of God, a quirk of fate or coincidence?) was called St Beatrice.
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