Elizabeth Cohen rebukes the common misconception of Artemisia Gentileschi’s sexuality as being central to her artistic career due to psychological setbacks after her infamous rape by Agostino Tassi. Indeed, Cohen appears frustrated with scholars’ regarding Gentileschi’s career as secondary to her sexuality and sexual experiences. Furthermore, Cohen argues, the conclusions drawn by associating Gentileschi’s artwork with the rape she experienced as a young adult are anachronistic and, consequently, flawed judgments. So, Cohen examines the centuries-old testimonies from the trials that present contextual evidence of the ways in which seventeenth-century Rome viewed and coped with rape, and how our modern views can misconstrue that.
The several witnesses that provided testimonies, Cohen begins, each had their own motives and things at stake that heavily influenced what they said in trial. Tuzia, for example, Gentileschi’s neighbor and father-appointed mother figure, seemed to talk down the severity of the incident so as to preserve her good social standing as a member of Orazio Gentileschi’s circle. Giovanni Battista Stiattesi likewise expressed biased testimony in his continuing to play his role in Orazio’s circle as the arbiter. The most compelling of Cohen’s presentation of these testimonies, to me, is Orazio’s. The extended delay between the occurrence of the rape and Orazio’s petition that brought the case to court presents an array of possible motives regarding his stake in the trial. Given the months-long period of quiet, and the rapist’s promise to marry Artemisia in order to restore the Gentileschis’ honor, Cohen suggests that Orazio may have brought the case to the Pope’s attention because of Agostino Tassi’s delaying the marriage.
With these biased testimonies in mind, Cohen cautions that the people of seventeenth-century Rome were much more concerned with social relations and reputations rather than the individual self. To expound upon this, Cohen distinguishes between modern and pre-modern notions of defining the self. Today, we identify the self with regard to our mind, spirit, and body—singular, personal attributes, that is. Pre-modern societies identified themselves with regard to their groups (families, guilds, etc.) and, therefore, heavily relied on alliances, reputations, and relationships with others. Furthermore, this identifying the self externally has a lot to do with the vastly different way rape was perceived in Artemisia Gentileschi’s environment. Rape then, stuprum, was only legally concerning if the woman’s virginity was sacrificed, in which case the honor of both the woman (now of lesser value in the marriage market) and her family (responsible for the dowry) were at stake.
In this light, Artemisia’s testimony has clearer significance. Graphically and assertively explaining the incident of the rape, she addressed exactly the information the court needed to know in order to rule it a legitimate rape. She also told of her furious moment of revenge immediately after the rape: her attempt to hurt Tassi with a knife demonstrated her active and assertive pursuit to regain and maintain her and her family’s honor. This kind of social awareness, Cohen concludes, exposes the prevalence of social reputations in pre-modern Rome as opposed to the individual’s emotional and psychological repercussions with which we are more readily accustomed to being concerned. Consequently, Artemisia Gentileschi’s art has speciously been viewed in the same light as the 1611 rape rather than as a spectacle of its own accord. An understanding of the social politics of the era provides a much more accurate context in which to view the art of Artemisia Gentileschi.
This summary, an assignment for a Gender and Visual Arts course, is a response to history and women’s studies scholar Elizabeth S. Cohen’s article “The Trials of Artemisia Gentileschi: A Rape as History,” published in The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 31, No. 1, (Special Edition: Gender in Early Modern Europe (Spring, 2000), pp. 47-75).