The ‘Artemisia at Michelangelo Museum’ Show


Restorer Elizabeth Wicks and Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Allegory of Inclination.’ (photo Rosanna Cirigliano, copyright Magenta Editrice 2023)

Artemisia Gentileschi’s master painting, The Allegory of Inclination, is on view in a small-scale but fascinating exhibition, Artemisia in the Museum of Michelangelo, at Casa Buonarroti on Via Ghibellina 70 until January 8, 2024. The newly restored painting and the results of the complex conservation and study project, Artemisia UpClose, which took place from Sept 2022 to May 2023, are the main attractions of the show. The show also focuses on Artemisia’s Florentine period, with her Penitent Mary Magdalene from the Pitti Palace painted for Cosimo de Medici II, as well as works by other Florentine artists in Artemisia’s circle. There are rare original letters and documents on view pertaining to Artemisia’s introduction into the Medici Court, and to her enrollment in the Florentine Academy of Arts, the first such academy in the world.  Artemisia was the first woman painter to be admitted into the prestigious Academy, in 1616, when she was 22, the year she painted The Allegory of Inclination.

The painting was part of a group of canvases commissioned for the ceiling of the Gallery Room in the Buonarroti home, which Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger designed as a tribute to his “divine” great-uncle. Artemisia met Michelangelo the Younger either in Rome or shortly upon her arrival in Florence in 1613, and he became her close friend and mentor. He commissioned her to paint the personification of an attribute or quality Michelangelo possessed, “Inclination,” which meant the natural talent for artistic creativity. Artemisia portrays “Inclination” as a life-size nude female figure, standing on fluffy clouds, holding a compass and gazing up at the north star as her guide. Galileo, another close friend of both Artemisia and Michelangelo the Younger, may have given the artist advice on painting the compass; a similar 17th century compass, based on his design, is on display at the exhibition.

Artemisia gave the allegory her own face, thus underscoring that the inclination to create was a quality that not only Michelangelo, but also she herself, possessed. This idealized self-portrait, the first frontal nude painted by a woman, was an especially bold choice given the artist’s personal history. At 17, while living in the Gentileschi household in Rome, Artemisia was raped by her father’s colleague, whom her artist father Orazio had hired to teach Artemisia perspective drawing. Orazio brought charges against the rapist, but it was the victim, Artemisia, who underwent torture at the hands of the ecclesiastical court, in order to prove that she was telling the truth. The rapist was convicted, but the resulting scandal made continuing to live in Rome impossible for Artemisia. The Tuscan born Orazio therefore wrote a letter to the Arch Duchess Cristina de’ Medici, asking that she be received at Court, and he also had Artemisia marry a Florentine.  The ground-breaking Allegory of Inclination, audacious in subject manner and exquisite in execution, cemented Artemisia’s professional success in Tuscany, and secured her artistic future as she started her new life in Florence.

After over 400 years lying belly-down on the ceiling of the Gallery, the painting was sagging from its stretcher and in dire need of conservation treatment. The structural problems affecting the canvas had caused very visible cracking and cupping of the paint layers, which impeded a correct reading of the image. Later applications of varnish had darkened and yellowed, obscuring Artemisia’s original brilliant colors, such as the sky, which she painted with precious lapis lazuli blue pigment.

Another reason for the restoration and study project was that several decades after it was painted the nude figure was covered by drapery and veils applied in thick layers of oil paint. Michelangelo the Younger’s nephew, Leonardo Buonarroti, then owner of the home, felt that the naked lady on the ceiling offended the modesty of his wife and young children, and called upon the late Baroque painter Baldassare Franceschini, also known as Il Volterrano due to his origins in the city of Volterra, to cover up the figure. Il Volterrano swathed the Inclination with drapery and veils in white, gray and yellow paint.

Because the coverup was painted by a famous artist, and because the removal of the thick, almost contemporary overpaint could conceivably cause damage to the original underneath, it was decided to leave the drapery. Instead, the figure has been “unveiled” virtually, by using diagnostic imagery to create a digital reconstruction of Artemisia’s original nude. Coordinated by conservator Elizabeth Wicks, the team of scientific experts who carried out the diagnostic research included the National Institute Optics Center for Cultural Heritage, the National Research Council’s Institute of Heritage Science, and image diagnosticians Ottaviano Caruso and Teobaldo Pasquali. Their findings were processed by Massimo Chimenti of Culturanuova srl to create a virtual reconstruction, as faithful as possible to the original painted by Artemisia. The digital image without veils will be shown to the public for the first time during the show at Casa Buonarroti, and will be made accessible to future visitors to the museum.

Wicks said, “thanks to our generous project sponsors Margie MacKinnon and Wayne McArdle, and philanthropist and art collector Christian Levett, we used the best technology to explore beneath the surface and discover Artemisia’s original painting underneath the drapery. Another wonderful aspect of the restoration process was that it was entirely carried out in public view in a dedicated room of Casa Buonarroti, allowing museum visitors to follow the work in progress and interact both with the conservation team and with the painting itself.”

When visiting the exhibition, make sure to also see the museum itself, which houses Michelangelo’s drawings and models, as well as his earliest surviving marble sculptures, the Madonna of the Steps and the Battle of the Centaurs. Casa Buonarroti Museum hours are 10 am to 4:30 pm every day except Tuesday. Museum entrance, including the Artemisia show, is €8, €5 reduced.  (elizabeth wicks)