Italian Most Famous Female Painter’s Artwork Returned After Illicit Export

Artemisia Gentileschi is a celebrated Baroque artist and one of the few known Italian female painters in art history. A few days ago, one of her paintings has been recovered and brought back to Italy, after it had been taken abroad and put up for auction illegally. The value of the painting is estimated to be around €2 million ($2 million). It was recently found in an auction house in Vienna and brought back to Italy by the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Squad.

While the details of the crime were not unveiled, it was made known that the export happened in 2019, following a request by some Italian artwork dealers to the Art export office, who wanted to bring the panting abroad in order to sell it. According to reports, in their application the art dealers intentionally concealed that the painting was an artwork by Gentileschi. Moreover, according to sources, they underestimated the value of the painting to obtain permission to export it more easily.

The painting portrays the so called Caritas romana (Roman Charity), an episode originally narrated in the Factorum et dictum memorabilium libri IX by the Roman historian Valerius Maximus, a collection of tales on moral subjects that were to be used as ethical guidance. In the episode, a woman named Pero secretly breastfeeds her own father, Cimon, after he is incarcerated and sentenced to death by starvation. Gentileschi is known for her representations of strong and independent women, something which has made her to be known today as a kind of feminist icon. The painting had been commissioned to Gentileschi by the Italian count Giangirolamo II Acquaviva d’Aragona around the mid 1600s. It was kept in the Marchione castle, the Acquaviva d’Aragona’s family residency in the town of Conversano, Puglia.

Who was Artemisia Gentileschi

Gentileschi is one of the few female artists in Italy that became well-known during the course of their life, despite a number of difficulties and general preconceptions about women in art during her time. Born in Rome in 1593, daughter to a painter himself, her father spotted her artistic talent rather early, teaching her a style inspired to Caravaggio. Gentileschi is nowadays known for this peculiar style, not only due to the use of light and shadows, but also for the use of realistic, and not idealized subjects. Moreover, one of Gentileschi’s distinctive features is her engagement with major subjects, religious and historical, unlike most of her coeval female painters, who limited themelseves to still life paintings and landscapes.

Gentileschi also distinguished herself because of her personal life. One of the episodes that has most characterized her story (and heavily affected her artistic reputation afterwards) is a rape that she suffered at the hands of her master Agostino Tassi in 1611, when she was still a teenager. To make up for the damage he had provoked, Tassi had made a vow to marry Gentileschi, but never lived up to the promise. Hence, Gentileschi did something that was uncommon for the time, reporting him to the authorities. In the trial that followed, Tassi was convicted and sentenced in 1612 to a five year imprisonment. One of Gentileschi’s most known paintings, Giuditta che decapita Oloferne (Judith Slaying Holofernes), kept today in the Museo nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples, is said to represent a kind of visual revenge for this traumatic experience.

Despite the impact of the episode on her life and work, Gentileschi went on to live in Florence, Rome, Venice and England, where her talent and reputation grew. In Florence, Gentileschi befriended some of the most notorious personalities, such as Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, grandson to the famous Renaissance artist. In 1616, she was admitted to the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing) in Florence: she was the first female artist to do so. In Genoa she met artists of the caliber of Pieter Paul Rubens and Antoon van Dyck, and in England she was commissioned paintings by royal members as Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain. After being forgotten for centuries after her death, her work was rediscovered in the early 1900s by the art historian Roberto Longhi, who contributed to restoring her name and talent. To date, Gentileschi is one of the most appreciated Italian female painters internationally, protagonist of exhibitions at key international art institutions, such as the National Gallery in London.

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