Artemisia Gentileschi & Da Vinci Discoveries

Artemisia’s St. Catherine of Alexandria hides a self portrait by the artist below the surface

“Hidden in plain sight” is a phrase that is thrown around freely nowadays. Paintings like “Saint Catherine of Alexandria” by Artemisia Gentileschi and Leonardo da Vinci’s Sketch 8P, located in two separate sections of the Uffizi Gallery, however, prove that the saying is not to be taken lightly. Secrets concerning the artists as well as their techniques have just been uncovered in both works and the discoveries made public. 


Artemisia Gentileschi had a habit of disguising herself in her portraits; whether she painted Judith, the Allegory of Painting, or an unidentified martyr, her self portraits often featured her in the role of other historical or religious female figures. With new analysis, the Uffizi Gallery has discovered that their copy of her work “St. Catherine of Alexandria” hides a self portrait below the subject.

Underneath the ornate St. Catherine hides Artemisia dressed as Catherine with a turban in place of a crown, watching the viewers more so than her facade. Her hands are extended beyond the frame, away from the wheel of Saint Catherine’s execution, and her face is turned more towards the audience along with her eyes. In fact, there is another layer, just a simple sketch of facial details, underneath Gentileschi’s self portrait that is completely unfinished. It is possible that Gentileschi abandoned this painting and returned to it solely for the canvas on which it was painted, hiding it from view until now.

The original work is of Saint Catherine was commissioned by the de’ Medici family as a gift for the marriage of Catherine de’ Medici, daughter of Ferdinando de’ Medici. An almost exact replica of the painting underneath is owned by the National Gallery of London, billed under the name “Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria”. This, along with other self portraits, have allowed art historians to identify her as the painter Artemisia Gentileschi. In an interesting choice of placement, the work will be moved specifically to the same room that contains Caravaggio’s Medusa, a contemporary of Artemisia’s father. Not the best of placements maybe.

The artist’s typical subjects are Judith, Mary Magdalene, and Susanna. Her work displays headstrong, brave, and independent women, often in horrible situations: Judith murdering Holofernes, Susanna being blackmailed and emotionally tortured by the elders, the discovery of Cleopatra dead via snakebite, and Lucretia in the midst of her suicide. All of these depictions, however, hold one common element: strong female agency. Her history often overshadows her work, though.

Gentileschi was born in 1593, daughter of painter Orazio Gentileschi, who taught her to paint even before the death of her mother. Her style was heavily influenced by Caravaggio, a good friend of her father’s. While she may not have known him for a long time, as he was chased out of Rome when she was 13 for supposed murder, her style of shadows and colors are heavily influenced by Caravaggio. Her own style is still distinguishable from his and his followers, though, what with her choice and depiction of subjects. In addition, her use of realism in her paintings is said to be stronger than his. This strength has been hidden behind what some consider to be a sordid past, however. At age 17, she was raped by her art tutor, who was brought to trial after it was made clear that he had no intention of marrying Artemisia. During the trial, Artemisia was put under torture to verify her account and the rapist was banished from Rome, thought the punishment was never carried out.

Soon after, Gentileschi married another painter and moved to Florence, where she became the first female member of the Academy of Design. She continued to travel around Italy following her work and family, at one point even moving to London with her father after she was offered the position of Royal Court Painter by King Charles I of England. She later relocated to Naples and nothing more was heard from her, though the last proof of her continued life is in a letter from 1654. It is thought that she died in the plague of 1656. Her works became more popular in the early 1900s thanks to art historian Roberto Longhi, who championed distinguishing her paintings from her father’s as the two were often grouped together under her father’s name.

Da Vinci

There is another discovery for the art world, just in time for the 2019 celebration of the Leonardo da Vinci anniversary year. With evidence from a small sketch believed to be da Vinci’s first known work from 1473, it is now believed that da Vinci was ambidextrous.

Using two inscriptions from the drawing designated as 8P, owned by the Uffizi’s Department of Prints and Drawings, handwriting analysis determined that one inscription was written using his right hand in normal script. Another was written in his unique “mirror writing” and probably with his left hand, as determined by small differences between the two scripts. These were differentiated using analysis and comparison to other documents of da Vinci. They are by both by da Vinci, though, due to very distinctive similarities unique to da Vinci’s font style. Da Vinci was born left-handed but he was taught to be right-handed because, in his era, being left-handed was a sign of the Devil as signs to summon the Devil were performed using the left hand. This did not stop him from using his left hand to write nonetheless.

Also discovered were several earlier versions of the Landscape, discovered through infrared technology. There are two versions somewhat different from the finished product on the font and two completely different versions on the back. In addition, in several versions, da Vinci used carbon black, a sketching material, in earlier works than first imagined.

There were also several incisions made by a “blind” or “colorless” stylus, which is a sort of scalpel used for art that does not leave traces of leadpoint in the incisions. One series makes a horse and the other a secondary set of mountains, neither of which were in the final product. The existence of the incisions infers that the paper was never meant to be a final product but a sheet of paper used for everyday use.

With all of these new discoveries, art historians have theorized how the work was made. There were several different techniques and phases in the work. In the first phase, da Vinci used a stylus to create an outline sketch of the background. The rest of the picture was drawn freehand using a different sort of ink, differentiated by the chemical composition from the first type.

It may even still be possible to date the phases, according to scientists, by comparing the chemical compositions of the inks to those used on dated historical documents, many of which still exist.  (katy rose sparks)