A first glimpse of Artemisia Gentileschi paintings I had in Rome, were her version of Giuditta and Oloferne was put side by side to Caravaggio’s one.
I could barely stand on my feet. Caravaggio was hung on the left side of a large wall, and Artemisia’s on the right. Light in the room coming from a big window on the far right of the wall.
Both paintings are extreme. They both depicts the moment after death, when life flows out of the body. They are both a depiction of irreversibility of an act.
Artemisia’s one is the most striking. Giuditta is cutting away the head of her enemy as if she is killing a chicken to preparing dinner with it. Her only preoccupation is not to ruin her dress. And the servant is actively participating, holding the hands of the man that are losing their strength, about to fall into death, like a puppet when the strings are cut. Women that do not fear anymore the violence of the strong man and take their just revenge.
You can compare with the more famous Caravaggio version of the moment here below if you like.
Giuditta e Oloferne, Michelangelo Merisi, 1599
There are various differences from the interpretation of Caravaggio in Artemisias that show, in my opinion, the female perspective.
The impulse in Giuditta’s action is towards the shoulder of Oloferne, is pushing him down while the sword is getting drawn upwards in a minimal torsion. Oloferne is awake while she kills him. That’s why the servant is not a old witch, but more a young and strong woman actively participating in reducing the man down in the sudden attach. In the biblical story Giuditta is a widow, so Artemisia does not chose a girl to impersonate her but a mature woman.
In Caravaggio version Oloferne does not seem able to have a reaction, and his motion is empty of strength already, so that Giuditta does not need help from her servant to keep him down. The servant is a witch that maybe have inspired the act, and will receive the head of the man in her cloth to carry away.
If you have seen Caravaggio’s Isacco’s Sacrifice, and had a glimpse to his personal story, you know both the artists have been victims of rape. Yet they have a very different approach on the ways of killing that are allowed to a woman. I find this fascinating in constructing characters and in exploring the shadow of femininity. The black female.
I am also most fascinated by the constructions of hese two paintings, in their differences and their similarities… Both artists were probably using lenses or mirrors to flat the composition on the canvas and depict with realism the figure. So they painted observing the image of a staged action, as much as we do when we want to create a strong image for cinematic purposes. But there is more that puts these two paintings together than a personal story of rape.
Fact is that both Caravaggio and Artemisia were present in the square of Castel S. Angelo when Beatrice Cenci and her family were put to death in a torrid 11 of september 1599You should follow the story of Beatrice as it is reported on wikipedia (italian). Is a quite noir one, for strong harts.
To cut short the story is the following: a noble man is known for his abuses. He abuses his sons and his daughter that he decides to keep confined in a remote castle of his property. Exasperated they complot to kill him.
The homicide is discovered and because it gives the occasion to the Pope Clemens VIII Aldobrandini to incamerate the possessions of the noble man the process is one way. They are all put to death after torture. Their estate is thereafter sold for pennies to the pope’s “nephew”. And this the people of Rome saw with participation and disapproval, especially they plead for mercy to the beautiful Beatrice, that plead that she had not committed the homicide and her confession was extorted with torture.
Recently I read “M”, a version of the story of Michelangelo Merisi by Peter Robb. There also is a lengthy account of the known facts about Caravaggio’s life, given together with the biography of his models and a rich landscape of life in his times. Is a book that can be found in italian too, and that I strongly suggest to the curious. The book is better read with a good reproduction of the paintings aside, since most of it’ fascination resides in putting the dry facts with the stories of the figures that Carvaggio painted. By the way go see the story of what we know about Fillide Melantoni, a young courtesan is the name of Caravaggio’s model for Giuditta… And put it into perspective with the stories of the veline’s in Berlusconi’s italy nowadays…
In later years Artemisia painted another image that in my opinion is referring to the same episode, that is “Jael and Sisera“.
A hit with a nail in the head is the way Francesco Cenci, the father of Beatrice was given the last blow. That is the way, in italy until some time ago, you would kill a pig.