Caravaggio (Milan, 1571) was a scoundrel. “The bad boy of the Italian Baroque”, in the words of art historian Sara Rubayo. He used vagabonds and prostitutes as models for his paintings – even those of religious themes -, he looked for fights, he frequented bars and he earned a police record that only remains in the background because his work is one of the greatest in all of History Of art. “He was a revolutionary”, Rubayo tends, “and he brought chiaroscuro to its maximum expression”. Such was the admiration he aroused in his contemporaries, that a constellation of artists was soon generated around the Milanese painter who tried to imitate those raw and dark scenes in which the light only appears to emphasize the main action. Among all those followers, Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the main exponents. Originally from Rome, Gentileschi did not have an easy life, although from the cradle she sucked the art that flowed from her father’s brush, and, although she was born 22 years after Caravaggio, “in the specific case of the painting that each It is dedicated to the biblical episode of Judit and Holofernes “, says Rubayo,” we can say that the student could even surpass him “.
In both cases, Holofernes comes out badly, that is clear, but, as the historian explains, “the harshness and coldness with which Gentileschi paints the scene advances on the right, in this case, the idealization with which Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio portrays the characters and the space “. While the master of the ‘caravaggistas’ – as his court of admirers was called – plays to focus attention on Judit, a young woman with an angelic face with features that denote very little effort, in her gesture halfway between disgust and disgust. disbelief and in his glowing chest; Gentileschi demonstrates his knowledge of the feminine physiognomy (two women take a lot of effort to finish someone as big as Holofernes) and draws six diagonals to guide the gaze towards the already practically inanimate face of the man. On the other hand, Artemisia stains the mattress with blood, lets the red threads fall to the ground and the gushings splash the arms of the executioners themselves. Although Caravaggio’s painting is also absolutely crude and surprised everyone at the time, it seems that Artemisia learned very well one of the most famous quotes of the master: “You must not just look at my paintings, you must not contemplate them. You must feel them.”
But what happens at the scene? The action is the same in both cases. Judith and her maid surprise the Babylonian general Holofernes from behind, who is lying on his bed on a night’s rest during the invasion of the biblical city of Bethulia, where the young woman lives. Hours before the bloody denouement, Judit had received a tip-off: the general was in love with her. He did not think twice. Accompanied by her maid, she took a knife and dressed in her best clothes. Once in Holofernes’s shop, the girl dined with the general and saw to it that he gave a good account of the wine. When he got him to lose consciousness, he reached for the knife and finished him off. That’s him frame exactly captured by the two Baroque painters. Judit had become Bethulia’s savior.
Both works are like a mirror in which their authors reflected. In Caravaggio’s, the provocateur appears. In Gentileschi’s, the heroine. Caravaggio painted a Holofernes that many art historians identify with a self-portrait of his. As if painting his own murder! “You have to take into account,” says Rubayo, “that he had already done it other times, as in David with the head of Goliath“. For its part, the face of effort of the Judith of Artemisia has the desire for revenge and the rage that the painter must have felt when she suffered in her flesh the rudeness of the time for being a woman and dedicating herself to a high office such as of painting. “She was always surrounded by prejudices and disadvantages that prevented her from forgetting her condition as a woman and a victim,” the historian resolves. Gentileschi made an effort in her Judit decapitando a Holofernes (exhibited today at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence) for printing on canvas all his artistic knowledge and demonstrating that he was of sufficient quality to rub shoulders with the greatest of his time, even the great Caravaggio. And, in the long run at least, it succeeded. Furthermore, “she has gone down in history as a feminist icon,” adds Rubayo, “and as one of the pioneers in the representation of powerful heroines.”
However, the place that History reserved for Caravaggio is privileged. It matters little, after all, that he killed a man – as the chronicles of the time have it – that the police put a price on his head or that he had to flee Rome because of his problems with justice. Michelangelo Merisi took the drama of chiaroscuro to another level and created what we now know as tenebrism. “He did it by focusing all the light in the painting on a single point,” explains Sara Rubayo, “which made his scenes terribly disturbing.” All this, together with the realism of the human figures in his works, profoundly marked the evolution of Baroque painting. He was a creep, but also a genius.