400 years ago, an Italian artist risked everything to publicly accuse her rapist

Self portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi.
Self portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi.
Image: Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/REX/Shutterstock
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It is hard to image a 400-year-old story becoming urgently important, but an almost forgotten piece of history suddenly resonates within this moment. As women around the United States and around the globe reach out to share their experiences of assault and powerlessness, perhaps this account will, if not help us sidestep a dire outcome, at least allow others to see how worn and tedious the pattern has become.

It is the story of the worst episode in the life of the fiercely talented Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the masters of the Italian Baroque. A better story would convey the brilliance, the delicate eye, and the deep emotions of her work, but instead her life and legacy have been defined not by the vibrancy she left in the visual record but by one dark moment. You see, if you have heard of Artemisia Gentileschi, you will likely know her as “the Italian painter who was raped.”

Her case is extraordinary, not because sexual assault was even remotely uncommon in Rome back in 1612 (when the trial began), but rather because there was a trial at all, and one that provided a perfect scandal to be dissected by the gossips of her day. It is also extraordinary that a transcript of this too-notorious case survives, almost wholly intact, providing a rich tapestry of character assaults that continue to color our perceptions of the artist today.

With the testimonies of many witnesses of varying motivations and some thin physical evidence, it is nigh impossible to say now exactly what happened in the spring of 1611, when 17-year-old Artemisia was on the cusp of adulthood, and a commodity with which her family hoped to make a prosperous martial match. The facts we have are as such: After her mother’s death when Artemisia was just 12 years old, her home was populated by only a father and three younger brothers. With her father being a prominent painter in Rome and living and working in a time when artists were considered by their talent to have a social standing far greater than their socioeconomic peers, Artemisia had a bright future ahead of her, and all the more because she was already showing a talent to easily surpass her brothers. It was very possible for her to work as a professional and profitable artist, only somewhat hindered by her unfortunate gender. Even a century earlier, the idea of her working as a painter for money would have been utterly unthinkable.

Artemisia’s father, Orazio, collaborated with many other artists of varying prominence, and at this particular time was employed in a project with an artist named Agostino Tassi. Tassi was a regular visitor to the Gentileschi home and from accounts he was even encouraged in a friendship with Artemisia by a neighbor woman who was brought into the family to act as a chaperone and confidant of the young lady.

This friendly relationship continued for some months into 1612, when Orazio Gentileschi rather abruptly sued Tassi not precisely for rape itself, but rather for forcibly taking the virginity (and marital suitability) of his daughter without entering into the contract of marriage with her himself. Orazio sought remedy from the public court in one of two manners. Either Tassi should marry Artemisia or he should pay a sizable dowry to the Gentileschi family to compensate them for the decrease of her worth.

For Orazio to sue publicly meant he would bring the shame of his daughter’s state into public, so had he been able to settle the matter privately with Tassi outside of the court, he presumably would have. There is evidence that negotiations to this end began well before the trial and continued for at least two months beyond the trial’s start.

In total, the trial dragged on for seven months. Orazio testified before the magistrate. Tassi testified. The neighbor woman testified. The notary testified. A host of other men, neighbors, associates of Orazio and Tassi, and character witnesses with strong opinions on Tassi and Artemisia all testified. Orazio swore he did not know that Tassi and his daughter had had relations. Tassi insisted he had never been in a room alone with Artemisia. Later he insisted that she had seduced him, that she had worked as a nude model, that she had taken countless previous lovers, that her father had sold her as a prostitute (for a loaf of bread), that a string of strange men entered the house at all hours to have their way with Artemisia, and that he had her love letters to other men as proof. Nevermind that Artemisia herself was not literate at the time (yes, this came up in the testimonies). The record does not state where the erotic and amorous letters came from or what became of them.

It is Artemisia’s own testimony, though, that is most striking. She testified to the court twice, several months apart, but her accounts were entirely consistent in their details. She recounts that Tassi visited, and that the neighbor woman left them alone. Tassi forced her into a bedroom, locked the door, forced her down on the bed, shoved a gag in her mouth, and penetrated her as she attempted to scream and claw at him. When he let her up, she grabbed him and gouged his genitalia, then darted across the room to grab a knife. She attempted to stab him with it and he dodged. She drew blood but hardly managed a mortal wound. It was at this point that he promised he would make this act right by marrying her when he was able, before leaving her bruised and bloodied and in pain. It was on this thin promise of marriage, of having her deep shame made into honor, that she willingly continued sexual relations with him for some months.

As part of the procedures of the inquiry, Artemisia was given a pelvic exam by midwives in front of the magistrates to prove that she was no longer a virgin (nearly a year later, little bodily evidence of the attack remained) and material witnesses were sought who could recount whether they had seen bloodied sheets all those months ago. Absolutely everything about the young woman was laid bare and this is why we know, more than 400 years later, that Artemisia was menstruating the night she was attacked. No detail was considered too private.

Readers now could hardly help but wonder why she continued to be complicit in her relationship with Tassi for so many months after this attack—though so long as marriage negotiations continued, Romans of Artemisia’s day would have considered her months of silence unremarkable. Her testimony was powerful, but the words of a sullied woman carried little weight or legitimacy in court. Her sympathizers, understanding that it was her honor, not Tassi’s, on trial, sought to give her testimony the legitimacy they felt it was due. They did this by lobbying for and being granted permission to have her tortured before the magistrates. Strings were tied to her fingers and pulled in separate directions, inflicting permanent damage. Forced to testify again, in physical pain and with Tassi in the room, her account was the same as before. “Such is the ring you bring me?” she is recorded as saying to Tassi during her testimony. The details of her account were unchanged; she insisted, “It is the truth. It is the truth.”

The trial resulted in a guilty verdict for Tassi, whose character had been called into question by several witnesses over the course of the trial. It was already known that Tassi had a history of sexual misdeeds, including a conviction for incest with his sister-in-law, for which he had somehow escaped punishment. His wife had been missing for some years (Artemisia had not, a year earlier, even known he was married); one witness charged that Tassi had hired an assassin as the most expedient way out of an inconvenient marriage.

Tassi was sentenced to five year’s exile from Rome. Two days following the conclusion of the trial, Artemisia was married to the notary’s brother. A year later, it was hard to ignore that Tassi was still living in Rome, having failed to exile himself in accordance with his sentence. He was a middling artist at best but he had powerful friends and patrons, and within a fewmonths, his conviction was annulled completely. Today most people acquainted with Artemisia’s history would be hard-pressed to come up with his name.

Mercifully, Artemisia seemed to have put the ordeal behind her. She worked as a painter for four more decades, raising a daughter in her trade as well, even after her unremarkable husband vanishes from the record a decade or so later. Despite the implications during the trial that father and daughter held no love or sense of duty to each other, they remained closely connected and Artemisia relocated for a time to England to work with her father in the court of Charles I.

Artemisia Gentileschi
A self-portrait by the masterful Baroque painter herself.
Image: Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/REX/Shutterstock

Today, Artemisia is seen as something of a feminist icon for her powerful portraits showing strong women in bold and sometimes violent circumstances, most notably in her works of Judith Slaying Holofernes (two paintings of this subject survive to this day). Unquestionably her rape and the ensuing goldfish bowl of a trial left its mark upon her, but the crime and the subsequent assassination of her character did not fill her works brimming over with emotion. Qualities that made her a masterful painter served her well in her ordeals. She was able to be strong when the world called her weak and virtuous when the world decried her a sinner. She shared the truth she knew when she was surrounded by liars. In that moment, amid the ridiculous cycle of denials and counter-accusations, she stood up not even for herself but for the preservation and well-being of her family and their place within at least a promising attempt at a just society.

Artemisia, the world owes you an apology. We do not laud your accomplishments widely enough nor do justice to your artistic and cultural influence today. We should not be rehashing the salacious details of your attack when the glory and beauty of your masterpieces hang in museums, meant to uplift and inspire. At the moment it was needed, though, you spoke out, to protect not yourself but those you loved. It was a calculated decision involving tremendous risk and suffering.

And for all the women who are choosing this moment to speak out, or choosing this moment to be silent, you need to know that we understand the the great risks you take on either path. If we are to be one iota better than we were in Artemisia’s day, four centuries ago, it will be by all of us coming together to say that we will not tolerate hurt heaped upon hurt, wrong heaped upon wrong. The world could have done far better by Artemisia Gentileschi. Twenty generations of families, neighbors, and communities later, we can do better now.

Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings can be found today in the permanent collections of museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Saint Louis Art Museum, Detroit Institute of the Arts, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Toledo Museum of Art, and Columbus Museum of Art in the United States; the National Gallery in London; Museo Soumaya in Mexico City; the Palazzo Pitti in Florence; the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples; the Prado in Madrid; and the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.