A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited on a Context Italy tour of Palazzo Pitti focusing on Women Artists in Florence. Guided by our fearless leaders: Alexandra Lawrence, Editor-at-Large of The Florentine and Docent for Context Italy, and Linda Falcone, author and university professor, we saw a few paintings by women artists currently on display – and one that has for some reason been returned to storage.
A Guide to Art by Women in Florence by Jane Fortune and Linda Falcone
All said and done I had an amazing experience and am grateful to Alexandra and Linda for sharing their passion and knowledge with us, and to Context Italy and the AWAF for sponsoring our tour. I’m no scholar or Art Historian (my sister Trudy Perks would have been more deserving of this tour), but I can genuinely say that I felt inspired by the stories of the artists and connected to them through their work. With a group of fellow female bloggers – Tiana (Tiana Kai), Georgette (Girl in Florence), Valentina (Too Much Tuscany), and Michelle (Maple Leaf Mama), we discussed the challenges faced by women artists during the Renaissance as well as today. For the centuries that seperated us, we found that we understood these women all too well.
Artemisia Gentileschi & The Restoration of David & Bathseba
One of the best known female artists during the Renaissance (or early Baroque to be precise) is Artemisia Gentileschi, who was succesful and even quite famous during her lifetime. The daughter of a painter, Artemisia went through a very public rape trial as a young woman and afterwards was quickly married off in order to preserve her honor. She moved with her husband to Florence, where she became a very accomplished painter working in the court of Cosimo II.
Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi
The painting in storage that I mentioned before was by far the highlight of the tour for me. We went into the “Salone dal Letto” (a room named after the gigantic four-post bed kept there) to see Artemisia’s David and Bathsheba. This large canvas depicting the moment that David first laid eyes on Bathsheba was recently restored by AWAF, the Advancing Women Artist’s Foundation, who sponsored our tour. It had been laying forgotten in a storage deposit in Palazzo Pitti for literally centuries, and was in a terrible state of decay when it finally underwent restoration, funded by the AWAF.
The restoration of Artemisia’s David and Bathsheba is something of controversy, as most restorations usually are, exactly because of the terrible state that it was in. There are some large sections left missing, including Bathsheba’s left eye. Apparently some important people were not happy about a disfigured-looking Bathsheba.
Art restorers have the daunting task of repairing a work in a way that retains the original artist’s work and respects the life of the painting as well. The fact is that this painting WAS left to decay for centuries, and simply repainting the missing bits wouldn’t only make the painting no longer an original Artemisia, it would cover up an important piece of the work’s history. Personally it does bother me to see the faded colors, missing details, and the sadly distracting missing eye. Shouldn’t it bother everyone? This was an important painting in its time, and today it is still a fascinating depiction of a biblical story of rape by a woman to whom the subject must have been very personal. Would it have been forgotten for so long if the canvas was signed by a male Baroque painter like Caravaggio or Rembrandt?
It felt exciting and mysterious to go into a secret room and shine a flood light on this impressive painting tucked away in the corner of a room cluttered with other priceless objects. It was a unique and intimate way to meet the painting and be introduced to an artist that I’m sad to say I knew little about beforehand.
But even though I had an unforgettable experience, I’m sorry that it comes at the expense of so many people being able to experience this painting. More people need to see Artemisia’s David and Bathsheba and ask why she only has one eye, so that they can hear the story of Artemisia and this once-forgotten painting. Maybe then we can have a discussion about women’s place in art and in art history. There have always been women artists, so where are their paintings now?
In the entire city of Florence there are less than 150 works of art by female artists on display. There are over 1,600 in storage. That’s a lot of forgotten paintings, and a lot of forgotten women artists.
Read more about the AWAF’s restoration of Artemisia’s David and Bathsheba here
To find out more about Women Artists in Florence you can book your own “A Woman’s World” walking tour with Context Italy, and take a look at the many initiatives and events supported by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation