Artemisia Gentileschi Cleopatra


Fondazione Cavallini Sgarbi




715 x 970 mm



historical period


Exhibit Artwork

Artwork Details

The painting was first mentioned in 1945 when the writer Antonio Baldini (Rome, 1889-1962) published an article in the popular weekly magazine “L’Europeo” recording the restoration work in which the veil that was added afterwards to cover the figure was removed. The revelation of the original forms of Cleopatra then believed a work by Guido Cagnacci, inspired the writer to a literary digression about female beauty, which is most certainly linked to the curvaceous sensuality of the image. Roberto Longhi preserved a copy of the work which he kept in the folder dedicated to Guido Cagnacci in his photo library. There it was seen and attributed to Artemisia with great delight by Gianni Papi, who published the news on “Paragone” in 1994 (Papi 1994, p. 197). Despite the real origin of the work being quite evident, it was strangely left unnoticed in R. Ward’s monograph (1999). The writer identified the work in a Roman house in the early 90s’. Yellow tones blurred and softened their plastic power and seemed to support the traditional attribution to Cagnacci until a simple cleaning brought back the original characteristics of energy and realism that were typical of Artemisia. The feminine figure with almost defiant heaviness and ungainly physical form is elegantly contained by a bright red drapery, closely related to the cold style of her father, Orazio. However, this is a contrast since everything in this female figure speaks of senses and sensuality. Not only her body, which has never been so shameless or excessive even in Caravaggio’s crudest subjects, but also her languid and lustful face. This Cleopatra is a paradigm of realism: the lesson of the full maturity of the father is overwhelmed by her real love for Caravaggio’s art, without indulging in the subjects. Or better still, with a sexual reversion. The naked and lascivious bodies of Caravaggio’s paintings are comprehensively masculine; from Amor Vincit Omnia to St. John the Baptist. Artemisia translated this inspiration into the feminine figure. The impact is even stronger and more evident, both compared to the figures of Venus or Danae by Titian (not to mention Bronzino’s nude figures) and those of her contemporaries Guido Reni, Guercino and Orazio himself. We might remember the very classic Cleopatra by Guercino at Palazzo Rosso in Genoa and its elegant languor, an artistic equivalent of melodrama. Artemisia changes everything. Her realism is absolute, imminent, without any lyrical on intimist concessions. Even Caravaggio shows more prudence, while Cagnacci represents intellectual sensuality, in a more sophisticated manner. Rarely has a nude figure given up in form and pose to any external pleasantness. From this Cleopatra, we can sense the smell, the sweat, the stench. It is not easy to conceive the excessive volumes in the arms and belly of this Cleopatra, who has never been less regal. She is a woman and nothing else, body before soul, existence before essence. Artemisia paints her manifesto, not with the idea of psychological independence of a woman, but with freedom of the body, and freedom to lose harmony. Then the head thinks and suffers. Death is coming, the senses are abandoned, and the consciousness fades. Almost unconscious Cleopatra feels a distant pain. In her body and her head, the animal responds. Every other similar image of the same period, compared to this, shows a grace, an intention to make the extreme gesture almost forgotten, in the measure of forms, in the delirium of an actress who is playing her part. Artemisia’s Cleopatra is a woman who is dying and has no time to think about the elegance of her body or to look graceful. Pain is physical, not the idea of pain. There is perhaps an autobiographical transposition in this face that recall Artemisia’s other works. The beauty of the face turns into a grim, the lust of the body into the abandonment of the flesh. Certainly, there is no uncertainty, there is no hesitation in the gesture of this determined Cleopatra, without languor and who is indeed courageous and not feminine at all. This attribution to a woman of noble attitudes, usually referring to the masculine world, is a novelty element in painting, also for its chronology and relation to the work of Orazio, starting around 1620. For his reason, it can be compared to Lucrezia of the Pagano collection in Genoa (see Garrard 1989, pp. 54-55, 501, not counting the previous bibliography, and the document of G. Contini, Artemisia 1991, pp. 160-162), which is equally explicit and superb in its ‘extra-feminine’ virtue.

Artist Details

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Artemisia was the daughter of a Tuscan artist, Orazio Gentileschi.

Her mother died when she was very young and she had her first artistic training in her father’s workshop, whose style represented the late Mannerism, and who had investigated Caravaggio’s revolutionary representation of light. Orazio gave her daughter very brief and strictly limited training in his workshop, where Artemisia practiced copying prints, drawings and replicas in his father’s study. In the 17th century painting and sculpting were hardly practiced by women, who were kept away from male artists to avoid contacts which would be considered indecent and not conforming to the morals of the time.

Artemisia’s first important work was Susanna and the Elders from circa 1610, where the young artist shows that she had learned well Caravaggio’s style and the representation of realistic figures - however, still very much linked to the classicist examples of Carracci – and contrasts of chiaroscuro, influenced by Orazio’s teachings.

The following year, in 1611, Gentileschi wanted to continue his daughter’s education for her great artistic talent. He hired his friend, a quadrature painter Agostino Tassi, to give Artemisia lessons in painting, teaching her perspective, in which he was specialized. Tassi’s difficult character did not worry Orazio, who entrusted his young daughter to him. However, Tassi abused her in her own home.

Artemisia immediately told her father the terrible gesture, which not even a reparatory marriage - a common solution used at the time in such cases - could have resolved, as in fact, Tassi was already married. Horace filed a case against the rapist, which was a tough test for Artemisia to pass. In fact, someone questioned the truthfulness of the young woman’s story at the trial, creating suspicion that she herself had actually consented at the time of the rape. Artemisia was repeatedly subjected to invasive examinations, both from physical and psychological point of view, as well as to an interrogation using torture called “tortura dei sibilli”, to be sure that she was telling the truth. This meant, that her thumbs were tied and slowly pressed more and more with an instrument until they were almost crushed and she risked losing her fingers.

She passed the terrible test and the trial ended with Tassi being sentenced, which, however, was never delivered. He was protected by powerful Romans and bribed testimonies who would spread false rumors about Artemisia and so Tassi continued his normal life and artistic activities in Rome.

It was also for this reason that Gentileschi left Rome and went to Florence after the trial, where she married a modest painter named Antonio Stiattesi, in a reparatory marriage. In this period Artemisia painted the first version of the subject that would recur in her works, Judith Beheading Holofernes, preserved today at the museum of Capodimonte, characterized by raw and bloodthirsty realism and violent representation of the murder. Artemisia achieve a great success in Florence. The court of Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici, to whom she was introduced by her uncle Aurelio Lomi, brought her important commissions and close to famous figures such as Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo Buonarroti. In 1616 she became the first woman to be admitted to the prestigious Academy of Drawing Arts. In Florence Artemisia painted another version of Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1618-1619), preserved today at the Galleria Palatina of Palazzo Pitti and the famous Judith Beheading Holofernes of the Uffizi Galleries.

In 1620 Artemisia returned to Rome, forced to face her unhappy marriage and disastrous economic situation, worsen by the birth of her four children. In Rome she was free from her demanding father and she was able to distinguish herself in modern artistic and cultural circles and she met other Caravaggesque painters, such and French Simon Vouet, José de Ribera, Antiveduto Gramatica and Massimo Stanzione.

Between 1627 and 1630 Artemisia moved to Venice, then perhaps to Genoa, where her father Orazio was staying. In 1630 she went to Naples, which she left for a brief stay in England, at the court of King Charles I, where she met her father who had moved to England. Artemisia died in Naples in 1653, where she had painted important works such as the three canvases for the cathedral of Pozzuoli, dedicated to Saint Proculus, several self-portraits and where she had close relationships with important active artists in the city at the time, some of which she had already met in Rome, such as Ribera and Stanzione.

Collection Details

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The Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation was founded in 2008 by the couple Caterina “Rina” Sgarbi and Giuseppe “Nino” Sgarbi and their daughter and son, Elisabetta and Vittorio.

It is located in Ro Ferrarese, in their family home, which is now owned by the Elisabetta Sgarbi Foundation and it houses hundreds of works of art – paintings and sculptures from the 13th to the 20th century – that have been acquired in more than thirty years of passionate collecting.

The Cavallini Sgarbi Foundation promotes culture and research and works in collaboration with public and private institutions, organizes exhibitions inspired by rigorous scientific projects. The museum activity includes preservation, valorization and the possible increase of the art collections. The Foundation encourages the art education through training activities and support studies on the history of medieval and modern art with a particular attention to minor contexts and Italian artistic geography.

In addition to its art collection, the Foundation preserves a remarkable library, with sources of art and local stories, starting from the 16th century. For the will of its founders, the works of the collection and the library are accessible to art enthusiasts and scholars.

After having acquired, since 1976, 2800 titles of the 3500 works listed by Julius Schlosser in his Letteratura Artistica, Vittorio Sgarbi understands that “paintings and sculptures could be more convenient and enjoyable than the rarest book”. This illumination came from his encounter with Mario Lanfranchi, a master collector, the first of many persons he met after abandoning the university dogma that led him to “look artworks as spiritually universal goods, only materially unavailable”.

Thus, in 1983 while crossing San Domenico di Niccolò dell’Arca, Sgarbi decides that he would no longer “buy things that are possible to find, whose existence could be presumed, but things that were not known to exist for their unusual nature, or things that were even unthinkable”.
As he himself says “the hunt for paintings has no rules or goals, it is unpredictable. You don’t find something you’re looking for; you look for what you can find. Sometimes it is far beyond desire and expectations”. From this unstoppable impulse, which was closely connected to the love for beauty and the homeland, from this “rhapsodic, original collecting, that aspires to exclusive relationships with artworks as if they were living persons” arose a real summa of Italian art, between painting and sculpture, from the 13th century to our days: a cultivated assortment that reflects the broad and multifaceted culture of those who have found, acquired, studied and ultimately protected the precious pieces that built it.