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From Caravaggio to Gentileschi: The Ecstasy of Death in Italian Renaissance Art

Caravaggio’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes”

Director Lucio Fulci once claimed that “violence is Italian art.” While this sentiment was asserted repeatedly throughout the Italian cult cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s through genre filmmakers like Bava, Fulci, Argento, and Martino — elevating cinematic violence to a whole new art form with the highly stylized giallo subgenre — and was also explored by more arthouse-friendly names like Pasolini, Bertolucci, Visconti, and Wertmüller with plenty of subversive fare, its origins can be found in the single most influential form of Italian art: Renaissance painting. Through secular themes like war and personal revenge, as well as numerous religious themes, such as the seemingly fine line between spiritual ecstasy and physical agony, stylized and often graphic depictions of violence recur throughout the two hundred year span of Italian Renaissance art, but found perhaps their most elegant and profound expression through two painters who emerged at the end of the Renaissance: Michelangelo Merisi, better remembered as Caravaggio, and Artemisia Gentileschi.

Early Modern Italy, particularly the years of the Renaissance — a period stretching from roughly the early fifteenth to early seventeenth centuries — was undoubtedly a place of violence. Primarily ruled by city states that were each controlled by powerful families often at war with each other, Italy was not a unified country and was regularly subject to foreign influence (and occupation) from major European powers like France, Spain, and England. The country was also home to roving militias, forces hired to protect certain regions, families, and political interests; they were governed by condottieri and were largely comprised of mercenaries responsible for a significant amount of the violence. In Alexander Lee’s The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty, he wrote, “Mercenaries and their commanders were violent, unpleasant human beings inured to war and accustomed to violence. Even among the ‘better’ condottieri, savagery was a way of life. Their campaigns were often waged with a brutality that went far beyond any strategic justification.”

Caravaggio’s “Medusa” (detail)

Urban spaces were also home to a different brand of violence — personal, political, and religious — and both Caravaggio and Gentileschi’s lives were effectively defined by violent acts, respectively murder and rape, which manifests in various forms throughout their work. They both lived and painted in what is essentially the final phase of the Renaissance, which came after da Vinci, Raphael, Botticelli, and Michelangelo, when baroque art reigned. Thanks to their patrons, the subject matter of most art was still religious, but this didn’t prevent it from being overwhelmingly violent, sometimes even outright gory, and even when subdued, it was often symbolic of the tumultuous times. Lee wrote, “Despite their appearance, delicate paintings of saintly figures, fine states of the Virgin Mary, and elegant buildings dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Christ himself were masks for materialistic ambition, rampant self-obsession, endemic corruption, lust, violence, and bloodshed.”

Speaking of bloodshed, Caravaggio was known for his brawling and torrid lifestyle as much as he was for his unforgettable paintings, his stark use of chiaroscuro, and artistic advancements. Though he grew up near and then in Milan, he traveled to Rome as a young man and worked under Pope Clement VIII’s favorite painter, Giuseppe Cesari. But his life was marked by poverty, illness, fighting, and arrests. He developed quite a rap sheet and roster of enemies; ultimately he was forced to flee Rome because he murdered a pimp, though it’s unclear if this was accidental or intentional. He fled Rome for Naples, but similar behavior sent him to Malta, then Sicily, then back to Naples, and he was generally always able to find wealthy, powerful patrons. He rose again in favor and returned to Rome, to seek a papal pardon for the earlier murder, but died en route (either by violence or illness). In his highly recommended biography, M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio, Peter Robb wrote that he “didn’t so much die as go missing. He disappeared and his body was never found. No one witnessed his death. Or those who did weren’t talking” (2).

Caravaggio’s “David with the Head of Goliath”

Despite the steady number of commissions he received throughout his career — and his profound influence — Caravaggio was often accused of being vulgar and sacrilegious; he certainly placed an emphasis on the carnal and mundane rather than the divine. He preferred to paint from live models, generally not a habit of Renaissance painters, and often used beggars, criminals, and prostitutes to the dismay of his patrons. He added an elements of realism and naturalism to Renaissance art and his use of heavy chiaroscuro delightfully became known as tenebrism (tenebre meaning “shadows” in Latin). Generally considered to be bisexual by art historians, there is an emphasis on young, sensual male subjects throughout his work.

But many of his paintings are also characterized by arresting depictions of violence, so even if he was something of an enfant terrible, he was also capturing the tenor of the day. Erin Felicia Labbie and Allie Terry-Frisch wrote in Beholding Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, “Violence in practice, violence in performance, and in aesthetic portrayal increases from the late medieval period to become a point of central focus during the early modern period when communities paradoxically relied on violence to create uniformity and cohesion. Instead of mitigating violence as knowledge becomes more widely disseminated, artistic representations become increasingly brutal in their literal depictions of savagery.”

Caravaggio’s “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist”

One of the most striking early examples of this is “Medusa” (1596), a rare mythic interpretation (painted on a shield, no less) where the Gorgon’s terrifying, decapitated head is twisted in a silent scream and spurting blood, and “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (1598) — where a woman cuts a man’s head off as her maid looks on. Beheading appeared again later in the even more striking “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist” (1609) and “David and Goliath” (1609), where Caravaggio — not without a sense of humor or apparently penitence, as he was on the run from the murder charge at the time — used his own face as a model for the decapitated heads; he actually painted a number of equally horrifying versions of “David” throughout his career. In general though, Caravaggio most often expressed violence in religious terms with horrifying works like “The  Taking of Christ” (1598), “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter” (1601), “The Death of the Virgin” (1605), “Flagellation of Christ” (1607), “The Decapitation of St. John the Baptist” (1608), and “The Burial of St. Lucy” (1608).

Much has been made of the psychological realism of his paintings and it’s no wonder his work went on to influence later masters like Rubens and Rembrandt. Robb (who refers to the painter as “M”) wrote that Caravaggio took depictions of violence to new heights, even for a society accustomed to seeing it every day. He wrote, “The counter reformation church demanded and got endless images of the early Christian martyrs and their various grisly deaths… People were utterly familiar with and quite unfazed by pictures of torture and death. Pain was the mental wallpaper of the age. Then M did a severed head and you saw for the first time what sawing through a neck was like. M showed you how an old man felt when his hands were nailed down. The irruption of reality into religious art was bound to cause trouble and it did” (6).

Gentileschi’s “Judith Beheading Holofernes”

Artemisia Gentileschi, then, is Caravaggio’s immediate descendent not only in terms of style and themes, but also in the deeply psychological and personal use of violence throughout her work. Born in 1592, Gentileschi was one of the most prominent — though certainly not the only — female painters of the Renaissance, no mean feat at the time. She was also one of the best known (and most talented, in my opinion) Caravaggisti, the baroque painters to follow in the wake of Caravaggio, along with her own father, Orazio — who was actually friends with Caravaggio, who visited the Gentileschi studio while Artemisia was growing up — and a handful of other artists like Carlo Saraceni and Bartolomeo Manfredi. Unfortunately she is primarily remembered for a detail of her biography that I’ve already alluded to: she was raped by one of her father’s friends, another painter under whom she was studying. Though he agreed to marry her after the fact (which is disgusting on an entirely different level), he changed his mind and she and her father took him to court, which they were apparently only able to do because Gentileschi had been a virgin at the time of the rape. This involved a lengthy trial, during which Gentileschi was apparently tortured to be sure her testimony wasn’t false or exaggerated.

It’s tempting to interpret Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” painted between 1614 and 1620 and directly inspired by Caravaggio’s painting, as a paean to revenge for sexual violence. The tale of Judith beheading Holofernes was a relatively popular one to adapt for artistic purposes during the Renaissance and was taken from the Old Testament’s Book of Judith, where a young widow, Judith, enters the tent of an Assyrian general, Holofernes — who it is implied that she has either seduced or won over in some way — and decapitates him while he’s in a drunken stupor in order to save the sacking of her city (probably meant to be Jerusalem). She represents a juxtaposition between feminine sexual purity, as she was supposed to be a chaste widow, and the capacity for brutal violence. She was painted (or sculpted) by everyone from Donatello and Botticelli to Andrea Mantegna, Michelangelo, Giorgione, and Titian (and that’s not even to mention her popularity among German Renaissance painters).

Gentileschi’s “Lucretia”

It was around Gentileschi’s time that representations of Judith changed dramatically. In The Jewish Novel in the Ancient World, Lawrence M. Wills wrote, “In the early centuries of the Christian era, Judith was assimilated in Christian art as a type of praying Virgin… The figure of Judith herself remained removed and unreal, separated from real sexual images and thus protected. The new sculpture and paintings that appear in about 1600, however, differ significantly. Violent depictions of the decapitation were created… and Judith became a threatening character to artist and viewer.” Judith’s threat essentially lies in the fact that she became a more tangibly sexual figure and thus more realistically female; the implication is, after all, that she at best flirts with Holofernes and at worst prostitutes herself to gain his favor, a position she then uses to murder him.

Gentileschi replaced the eroticism of a mid-Renaissance example, like Giorgione’s “Judith” (1504), with gritty violence. She used her own face as a model for Judith’s and that of her rapist — Agostino Tassi — as the model for Holofernes. Judith and a young woman, her maid, hold down Holofernes on a bed and set about cutting his throat, which is a messy endeavor that requires a significant amount of physical (and psychological) effort and is not the neat, almost heroic work suggested by Caravaggio. Something of a follow up painting is “Judith and Her Maidservant” (1618-1619), which focuses on two women: one holding a short sword of her shoulder and the other holding a basket with a decapitated head. These two paintings can be loosely grouped in with the “Power of Women” theme that was popular throughout the Renaissance and depicted women who were often dominating or even violent.

Gentileschi’s “Susanna and the Elders”

This was one of the primary themes of Gentileschi’s career and the majority of her paintings have female subjects, among them martyrs, victims, and suicides. Some of them were seemingly innocuous, such as “Woman Playing a Lute” (1610-1612), though they generally grew in boldness — and increasing moroseness — as she came into her own with works like “Minerva” (1615), “Penitent Magdalen” (1615-16), “Mary Magdalen as Melancholy” (1621-22), and “Cleopatra” (1621-22). A number of them also depict women grappling with sexual violence (implied or in action), such as “Susanna and the Elders” (1610), “Jael and Sisera” (1620) and the particularly affecting “Lucretia” (1621).

And though Caravaggio’s influence has been undeniably broader and his talent greater, the two painters provide an important contrast to each other, particularly in terms of how violence was depicted in Renaissance Italy. Together, they represent an alchemical blending of masculine and feminine, public and private, realism and allegory, the sometimes slippery lines between victim and perpetrator and guilt and innocence, and above all the profound impact of trauma on human life: all themes that remain central to Italian cinema.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is the Associate Editor of DiaboliqueMagazine.com and hosts their Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Satanic Pandemonium, has contributed to Fangoria, Paracinema, and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, among others, and she's currently writing a book on WWII and cult cinema.

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