Home » Episodes » Episode 79 – Rome, Italy & Paris, France (Artemisia Gentileschi & Mona Lisa)

We’re back from our Summer Hiatus and once again Emily and Rachel have the same brain. First, Emily goes to Rome, Italy to cover one of the first independent female artists – Artemisia Gentileschi – a woman who was wronged by a man and then spent her life trying to elevate women in art. Then, Rachel heads to the Louvre in Paris to tell us about all of the times when the Mona Lisa was attacked. 

Trigger Warnings: Rape 

Story 1 – Artemisia Gentileschi

Today I am going to transport you back to 17th Century Italy. 

Now. Women didn’t have many career options in 17th-century Italy. Cultural norms funnelled most of them into one of two life paths: joining a convent or becoming a mother. What’s even worse is that laws dictated that the men in their lives – their fathers, husbands, and sometimes  even sons – had to be the ones to make all the decisions and purchases for them. So the story I am about to share is quite bold when you take that into consideration.  

My story today is about Artemisia Gentileschi , a woman born on July 8, 1593, in Rome to Prudentia Montoni and the painter Orazio Gentileschi.

Sadly, Prudentia died when Artemisia was young and the little girl was raised by her father. Orazio started the very first Bring Your Daughter Fo Work Day apparently because he brought his daughter into his studio and made her a bit of his assistant. Orazio painted in the dramatic Baroque style. This means he painted with grandeur, richness, drama, vitality, movement, tension, and emotional exuberance. A lot of these pieces are very dark and dramatic. 

Now this style was pioneered and popularized by an artist named Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio — he has a kind of recognizable painting of David and Goliath where David is standing over Goliath and Goliath’s head seems to be decapitated. This guy was a big influence on Artemisia’s father and therefore on her as well. That’s right – she decided to follow in her papa’s footsteps and started painting. 

Now, it wasn’t Orazio’s intention for her to become a professional painter. He actually tried to send her to the nunnery a few times. But she loved to paint and started doing really remarkable art when she was still pretty young. 

Her first know work (although it has occasionally been attributed to her father… eye roll) was painted in 1610, when she was 17 years old. This piece is called Susanna and the Elders, and it depicts a biblical story in which a fair, pious wife is ogled by a group of lecherous male elders as she bathes. Though it wasn’t an uncommon subject for artists at the time, Artemisia rendered it differently than most. In her version, the woman takes center stage. This is kind of a big deal back then because it was uncommon for art to have such a three dimensional portrayal of a WOMAN. But unlike other representations of this bible story, her version really focused on the woman’s plight, not the villains’ pleasure.And what’s more, in previous versions of this painting a lot of artist would make the images look kind of flirtatious almost like the girls were giggling and laughing and happy because the men were looking at them. But Artemisia was like… That’s not realistic this is a traumatic event happening to these women. They’re being assaulted by these men who are watching them despite them not inviting them in to watch them bathe! 

Now if you look at this piece already it’s like… A 17-year-old drew that? Holy shit! it’s extremely realistic and gorgeous. So it’s no surprise that in 1612, Artemisia’s father declared that his daughter had “become so skilled that I can venture to say that today she has no peer.” A very proud papa! 

Since he felt like she could no longer be taught by him he decided to hire an up-and-coming artist named Agostino Tassi to give 18 year old Artemisia lessons. 

Here’s where things take that horrible turn – where a woman is just trying to learn and become a better person and a man decides he gets to make decisions for said woman instead. And so, Tassi the tutor became Tassi the rapist. 

Amazingly, every word of this court case exists in a transcript. And if you read the 400 year old document what you’ll hear is an eloquent, courageous and compelling story of a women from the pre-modern era taking a stance against the oppression that was just part of day-to-day life.

Because we have those transcripts we also can hear Word for Word from Artemisia about what happened that night… And of course trigger warning this is graphic and might be triggering. 

“He then threw me on to the edge of the bed, pushing me with a hand on my breast, and he put a knee between my thighs to prevent me from closing them,” she testified. “Lifting my clothes, he placed a hand with a handkerchief on my mouth to keep me from screaming. I scratched his face and pulled his hair and, before he penetrated me again, I grasped his penis so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh.”

After the rape was over, Artemisia ran to grab a knife, and shouted after her attacker, “I’d like to kill you with this knife because you have dishonored me.” She threw the knife at Tassi, who dodged it. “Otherwise I might have killed him,” she told the court.

Of course, Tassi’s main defense was that this teenager was – and I quote – “an insatiable whore.”

So… what did the court do to try to get to the bottom of this? Well they held a seven month trial. You heard that correctly seven months.  And another fun fact, during the trial, the court decided that to make sure they were getting honest answers from this teen girl who couldn’t be trusted… They would implement something called ”Sibille” – a form of torture. Yepppp, they tortured her to determine whether she told the truth. The way they implemented this torture is very odd… They wrapped ropes around her fingers, pulling them tight. Then, they asked her if the story about rape was true and she would answer and they would then tighten the ropes… they figured that if she could withstand that much pain and still say it was true and it must be true!  

Side note: No one even considered torturing Tassi, of course. Because it’s nothing new that the burden of preventing, proving and dealing with the consequences of sexual assault all fall to the women. 

On top of that, the trial also featured months of meandering witness examinations. They called friends, tenants, artists and relatives to the stand to ask them about her character and build up a picture of her household. 

Luckily; she was portrayed as a teenager who spent all her time painting, rarely going out. Her rapist, meanwhile, emerged as an even worse character than he first seemed. Several witnesses even claimed he had murdered his wife – and he could offer no good defence.

After seven months in court, the judged finally ruled in Artemisia’s favor. Her rapist, Tassi, was sentenced to five years in prison, but of course he never actually served time. At the end of the trial, he was set free thanks to a powerful friend: the pope. As Pope Innocent X said at that time, “Tassi is the only one of these artists who has never disappointed me.” He walked totally free. 

Thankfully, the ruling in favor of Artemisia helped preserve her reputation as an honorable woman – because if she had not had that verdict in her favor she would have been labeled a ruined woman. She ended up securing a marriage to a Florentine man named Pierantonio Stiattesi. And when I say secure I do kind of mean secure because this sounds like it was more of a business dealing than a love situation. I like to think of her as a very career focused woman and she knew that it was necessary in 17th-century Italy (a society governed by the Catholic church) to have a husband if you wanted to be a successful painter. 

All of that is most certainly horrible but I picked the story because Artemisia didn’t give up after seeing her rapist walk free. Instead, she devoted the rest of her career to painting strong fierce AF women.

After the trial, she left Rome behind and mixed to Florence. There, she started her own studio and began painting the Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. In the story, a young widow sneaks into the warlord’s tent. After plying him with wine, Judith beheads Holofernes.

Know if you look at the art completed by some of Artemisia’s predecessors and contemporaries, you’ll see that they kind of tend to portray Judith as a wily temptress; others captured the moment when Judith escaped with Holofernes’s head. Caravaggio, that artist that was so famous during this time, depicted the very moment Holofernes was killed. In Caravaggio’s version, the heroine seems somewhat nervous and disgusted by the murder she’s carrying out. 

When Artemisia’s decided to take a stab at this piece she decided to follow in Caravaggio‘s footsteps and also focus on the moment he was killed… The difference being that she decided to emphasize Judith’s power and force and anger.

In Artemisia’s version two women are holding a man down on a bed. One presses her fist against his head, so he can’t raise it from the mattress, while her companion pins his torso in place. They are well-built with powerful arms but even so it takes their combined strength to keep their victim immobilised as one of them cuts through his throat with a gleaming sword. Blood spurts from deep red geysers as she saws. She won’t stop until his head is fully severed. Her expression is enraged and resolute. Her victim’s eyes are wide open. He knows exactly what is happening to him.

In fact, Artemisia painted two almost identical versions of the painting, and in one, she actually painted herself as the murdering Judith.

Judith wasn’t the only murderous woman Artemisia painted. She also depicted Jael murdering Sisera, another Biblical story, and painted Lucretia committing suicide after her rape. Essentially, throughout her career, she focused and centered her art on women – she even painted Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, and the Virgin Mary. Plus, because she’s a bad as she depicting herself as a powerful, self-assured artist in all of her self portraits. 

Artemisia became the most famous female artist in Europe. The Accademia del Disegno, Florence’s most prestigious academy for artists, admitted her as its first female member in 1616. She joined an illustrious society that included Michelangelo and Benvenuto Cellini.

Membership in the academy was more than an honor – it meant Artemisia could buy supplies without needing a man’s permission and sign contracts with patrons in her own name. The Accademia gave her what she most desired: power over her own life. She left her husband and lived independently for the rest of her career, raising two daughters, who both became painters.

Sadly, although Artemisia was one of the most in-demand painters of her age, she had to fight for fair pay and validity, even in her later years. In letters to one of her patrons – a guy named Don Antonio Ruffo, she snapped back when he haggled over her fee: “I was mortified to hear that you want to deduct one third from the already very low price I had asked,” she wrote. “I am displeased that for the second time I am being treated like a novice. It must be that in your heart Your Lordship finds little merit in me.” In another letter to him, she pushed against implicit sexism: “And now, I’ll show Your Most Illustrious Lordship what a woman can do!”

In 1639, King Charles I of England invited her to London, and encouraged her to paint her own self portrait. Here too, Artemisia takes the moment to depict herself as a powerful figure. She did this by making a significant change from the standard allegorical depiction of women. A 16th-century iconology book set the standard as “a beautiful woman… with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought, the mouth covered with a cloth tied behind her ears.”

Artemisia did not paint the cloth – she refused to be silent.  

Sadly, after her death, Artemisia’s works were largely ignored and even attributed to other male artists. Luckily in more recent decades – like in 1976, her paintings started gaining more traction and inclusion. She was part of the “Women Artists: 1550–1950,” an influential 1976 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In the show’s catalogue, they said she was “the first woman in the history of western art to make a significant and undeniably important contribution to the art of her time.”

Even today, Artemisia’s work is the constant subject of reassessment—recent feminist essays have been written deemphasizing the role of rape and assault in readings of her work, in an attempt to portray her as a constantly evolving artist rather than as a victim.

Despite this back and forth, though, her impact on the history of art—as a female artist who fought against adversity to pursue a career in painting—is uncontested.

Story 2 – The Mona Lisa

So today we’re headed to Paris. We’ve been here before, so very specifically, today we’re going to go to the Louvre (Loove-Rah). Fun fact: The Louvre hasn’t always been a museum – in fact, it used to be a residence for royalty. It’s the largest museum in the world, boasting 73,000 square meters made up of 3 wings with over 70 rooms per wing.

I’m really interested in seeing Venus de Milo up close, which is the statue of Aphrodite (or Venus, depending on which mythology you’re into), which is the 19 th century statue with missing arms and awesome curves.

Of course, I’d want to see the French crown jewels, including the 140-carat “Regent” diamond. But every piece of jewelry is ornate and looks heavy as fuck. Plus I think it would be really cool to see the medieval louvre, which is an underground area featuring
the medieval fortress of King Philippe Auguste, which was built in 1190.

And of course, there are many, MANY portraits. Everyone knows we are basic bitches, and we love a good selfie. But in the 1500s, portraits were actually pretty rare. They could be commissioned by the wealthy, but they took so long to complete that most people would only have one painted in their lifetime. Imagine, sitting still, trying to look regal, in the same position for hours or even days. Not. Talking.

Pass. I’m vain but not that vain.

But you know who did sit for hours, leading hers to be arguably the most recognizable face in the world? Lisa del Giocondo. Don’t recognize her name? That’s probably because A. I’m terrible with Italian pronunciation, and B. You probably know her as Mona Lisa.

Lisa was most likely the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, who was a silk merchant in Florence. Leonardo Da Vinci most likely began this iconic painting in 1503, and continued to tinker with it over the next 15 years or so, adding layers on layers of thin oil glazes. The painting was still in his studio in 1519, when Da Vinci died, meaning it never made it back into the hands of Francesco.

Instead, Francis I, King of France was all, DIBS! This made sense, as Da Vinci spent the last few years of his life in Francis’ court. But then, it just hung out (pun intended) in the French palaces for the next couple of centuries. Obviously, a lot happened between the 1500s and early 1800s, but in the shortest history lesson ever, insurgents claimed all the royal art as property of the people during the French Revolution, then Napoleon liked the Mona Lisa enough to have it hanging up in his bedroom, and then finally, it was turned over to the Louvre.

And people were into it. Some people head to the museum just to see the Mona Lisa, with her knowing smile and eyes that allegedly follow you wherever you go in the room.

But – not everyone who pushes and shoves their way to the front to catch a glimpse of this painting (which is apparently way smaller in person than it seems on the internet), is there with good intentions. In fact, for the first 100 years that it was displayed in the Louvre, the Mona Lisa wasn’t even that famous.

But in 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian immigrant and handyman, unknowingly created a chaos that would propel the painting into legendary status. The Louvre hired Vincenzo to create protective glass for some of its paintings, including the Mona Lisa. But Vincenzo has other plans. He hid in a closet overnight, and early in the morning on August 21, 1911, when the coast was clear, he took the Mona Lisa down from the wall, slipped it underneath his cloak, and then walked out the door.

But not all the way out the door, because it was locked. Vincenzo was all, “I’ve made a huge mistake,” and removed the doorknob in attempt to make his getaway from the museum. But it was still locked. Luckily, a plumber with an extra set of keys was all, “hey buddy, you trying to leave?” and opened the door for Vincenzo, and he walked away with the masterpiece.

At this point, the Louvre had over 400 rooms, but only 200 guards on duty – and that was when they were fully staffed during the daytime. No one noticed Vincenzo walking out with the painting, and it was a full 24 hours before anyone even noticed the Mona Lisa was gone. But once they noticed, the media was STOKED.

Her picture was plastered on the front page of every newspaper in France with headlines like “60 detectives seek stolen Mona Lisa.” The stolen painting quickly became worldwide news, with even the least art-appreciating people wanting to hear the tea. Morbid curious came to the museum in droves just to look at the empty space in which the Mona Lisa once hung.

The painting was missing for 2 years. I don’t know what was going on with the police at that time, but the source I read from CNN described them as “bungling.” At one point they arrested Pablo Picasso as a suspect. They interviewed Vincenzo Peruggia twice, but figured it couldn’t have possibly been him. The head of the Paris PD shamefully retired.

Finally, after 2 years of police shenanigans, an art dealer in Florence reported that he’d gotten a letter from someone claiming to have the Mona Lisa, hoping to sell it. The letter was signed “Leonardo.” Spoilers, it was Vincenzo. He had kept the painting hidden in his apartment, in a trunk with a false bottom. He was only 32-years-old, and claimed his motive for stealing the Mona Lisa was to return her to Italy where she belonged. He was sentenced to 7 months in jail. Apparently, he was genuinely disappointed, thinking he would be seen as a national hero, not a criminal.

The Mona Lisa spent the next 100+ years existing peacefully, enjoying her fame, except for a little chaos during WWII, when she was considered “endangered” and moved around quite a bit. But in 1956, her safety would again be threatened.

First, someone attempted to take a razor blade to slice the painting, I’m guessing Joker from the Batman style, but this attempt was thwarted. Ah, the 1950s, when you could just walk into a museum with a razor blade. Then, a woman decided it’d be a good idea to throw acid on the painting, which left a couple of dents in the lower part. Later that year, a Bolivian man, Hugo Unjaga Villegas, decided to throw a rock at the iconic painting. He later commented on the incident, noting “I had a stone in my
pocket and suddenly the idea to throw it came to mind.”

This is literally the kind of stuff I have to ask my children not to do. Just because you see a button doesn’t mean you push a button. Just because you see a rock doesn’t mean you throw a rock. The painting had already been enclosed in glass, so no permanent damage was done, but the rock did end up knocking off a little paint. It was restored quickly and put back on display, although they reinforced the glass to make it bulletproof.

The Mona Lisa had another quiet couple of decades, until she was lent to the Tokyo National Museum in 1974 a Japanese woman named Tomoko Yonezu, who had a disability sprayed red paint on the Mona Lisa, hitting the glass case that protected the painting. She stated that she was protesting the museum’s treatment of people with disabilities. The painting wasn’t damaged, however Tomoko was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor, and ended up having to pay a fine of 3,000 yen. But she did incite change,
as the museum scheduled a day in which only people with disabilities could come see the Mona Lisa.

Over 30 years later, In August 2009, when Mona Lisa was doing her thing being famous and coy at the Louvre, a Russian woman came up to the painting, reached into her purse, and pulled out a ceramic teacup, hurling it at the Mona Lisa. She apparently was angry that she had been denied French citizenship and was taken away for psychiatric examination. Mona Lisa was unharmed again.

The Louvre was all, “yeah, it’s maybe time to amp up our protection.” In 2019, the Mona Lisa was set behind a thick, transparent piece of bulletproof glass, offering not only increased protection, but also a zoomed-in kind of effect which allows people to feel as though they are getting closer to the masterpiece.

But still, people are doing weird shit. The whole reason I wanted to do this story was because I read that Terrible Today article in which someone threw a piece of cake at the Mona Lisa this year, in 2022. For those who didn’t listen and/or need a refresher, a 36-year-old man came to the museum, sitting in a wheelchair, disguised as a woman. He was apparently protesting climate change, stating that people need to think of the planet.

I did do a quick google about why people would choose to vandalize the Mona Lisa, specifically, because we all know that your friendly neighborhood therapist is interested in the psychology behind why people do anything. I didn’t find a root cause – there were some thoughts about mental instability, but often, as we’ve seen here, people are protesting things that they find unfair.

My educated guess is that the Mona Lisa is one of those mysterious paintings that give people a strong emotional reaction. And sometimes, strong emotional reactions lead to thinking that something needs to be done. Just a friendly reminder that feelings are temporary and cake is for eating.

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