Art restorers in the Italian city of Florence have begun a six-month project to clean and virtually “unveil” a long-censored nude painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the most prominent women in the history of Italian art.
Swirling veils and drapery were added to the “Allegory of Inclination” some 70 years after Gentileschi painted the life-size female nude, believed to be a self-portrait, in 1616.
The work to reveal the image as originally painted comes as Gentileschi’s contribution to Italian Baroque art is getting renewed attention in the #MeToo era, both for her artistic achievements but also for breaking into the male-dominated art world after being raped by one of her art teachers.
Her work was featured in a 2020 exhibit at the National Gallery in London.
“Through her, we can talk about how important it is to restore artwork, how important it is to restore the stories of women to the forefront,” said Linda Falcone, coordinator of the Artemisia Up Close project.
“Allegory of Inclination” originally was commissioned for the family home of Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, the great-nephew of the famed artist. The building later became the Casa Buonarotti museum, and the painting was displayed until recently on the ceiling in a gilded frame. When lead conservator Elizabeth Wick removed the painting in late September, a shower of 400-year-old dust was released.
Wick’s team of restorers is using ultraviolet light, diagnostic imaging and X-rays to differentiate Gentileschi’s brush strokes from those of the artist that covered the nudity. The public can watch the project underway at the museum through April 23.
Restorers won’t be able to remove the veils because the cover-up was done too soon after the original, raising the risk that Gentileschi’s painting would be damaged in the process.
Instead, the restoration team plans to create a digital image of the original version that will be displayed in an exhibition on the project opening in September 2023.
Gentileschi arrived in Florence shortly after the trial in Rome of her rapist, during which the then-17-year-old was forced to testify with ropes tied around her fingers that were progressively tightened in a test of her honesty.
She also had to endure a physical examination in the courtroom behind a curtain to confirm that she was no longer a virgin. Eventually, her rapist was convicted and sentenced to eight months in prison.
“Somebody else would have been crushed by this experience,” Wick said. “But Artemisia bounces back. She comes up to Florence. She gets this wonderful commission to paint a full-length nude figure for the ceiling of Casa Buonarroti. So, I think she’s showing people, ‘This is what I can do.'”
While in Florence, Gentileschi also won commissions from the Medici family. Her distinctive, dramatic and energetic style emerged, taking inspiration from the most renowned Baroque painter of the time, Caravaggio. Many of her paintings featured female heroines, often in violent scenes and often nude.
She was 22 when she painted “Allegory of Inclination,” which was commissioned by Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger. Another member of the family, Leonardo Buonarroti, decided to have it embellished to protect the sensibilities of his wife and children.
“This is one of her first paintings. In the Florentine context, it was her debut painting, the same year she was then accepted into the Academy of Drawing, which was the first drawing academy in Europe at the time,” Falcone said.
With the younger Michelangelo as her patron, Gentileschi gained entry to the cultural milieu of the time.
“She was able to hobnob with Galileo and with other great thinkers. So this almost illiterate woman was suddenly at the university level, producing works of art that were then, you know, appreciated by the Grand Duke,” Falcone said. “And she became a courtly painter from then on.”