Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Comparison

Italian painting of late XVI – early XVII centuries stands in the shade of earlier painting titans such as Rafael or Leonardo da Vinci, and therefore appears to be less known. Nevertheless, Italy of the time gave birth to original painters of outstanding artistic talent, who are, undoubtedly, worthy of attention. This paper is to trace the lives and oeuvre of two representatives of Baroque Italian painting: Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi. The general subject to comparison shall be their art and style.

The Beginnings

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They both originated from artistic families. Michelangelo Merisi was born on September 29, 1571, in the little village of Caravaggio in northern Italy and received his name after his birthplace. Michelangelo’s father enjoyed a double status as both architect and majordomo to the Marquis of Caravaggio, and was firmly ensconced in that noble household. The Marquis, a patron in the Renaissance tradition, had several artists at his beck and call.

Caravaggio began studying painting at an early age. It was usual that Renaissance and Baroque painters were destined from birth to be artists and that’s why they knew their profession from inside. As Caravaggio aged 13, the family decided he would devote himself to painting. He was apprenticed to the painter Peterzano’s studio in Milan. Peterzano himself was a poor painter however, it was considered, that he would not impose his opinion to his apprentices who would have own occasion to learn. This is the sort of education Caravaggio received[1].

Like many other women artists of her era who were excluded from apprenticeship in the studios of successful artists, Gentileschi was the daughter of a painter. She was born in Rome on July 8, 1593, the daughter of Orazio and Prudentia Monotone Gentileschi. Her mother died when Artemisia was twelve. Her father trained her as an artist and introduced her to the working artists of Rome, including young Caravaggio, who than was one of the most famous and scandalous artists in the city. Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro style (contrast of light and shadow) greatly influenced Artemisia ‘s work. She had little schooling except artistic training She did not even learn to read and write until she was adult. However, she had produced one of the works for which she is best known, her stunning interpretation of Susanna and the Elders (1610), as she was seventeen.

In 1612, despite her growing talent, Artemisia was denied access to the all-male professional academies for art. At the time, her father was working with Agostino Tassi, so Orazio hired the Tuscan painter to tutor his daughter privately. The consequences were dramatic as Tassi raped Artemisia. Even though he promised to marry Artemisia in order to restore her reputation, he later rejected on his promise and Orazio claimed before the court to judge the criminal[2].

7-month trial followed and it was discovered that Tassi planned to murder his wife, committed incest with his sister-in-law and planned to steal some of Orazio’s paintings. During the trial Artemisia was given a gynecological examination and was tortured using a device made of thongs wrapped around the fingers and tightened by degrees — a particularly cruel torture to a painter. At the end of the trial Tassi was imprisoned for one year.

A heavy psychological shock from violence and trial has definitely influenced Artemisia’s later art and her images of suffering or revenging women. Same has this trial has subsequently influenced the feminist view of Artemisia Gentileschi during the late 20th century.

Life and work

Young Caravaggio, went to Rome in 1592. He already possessed fundamental technical skills of painting and had acquired a thorough understanding of the approach of the Lombard and Venetian painters, who, opposed to idealized Florentine painting, had developed a style that was nearer to representing nature and events. Upon arrival he settled into the cosmopolitan society of the Campo Marzio. This was a neighborhood of inns, eating houses, temporary shelter, and little picture shops in which Caravaggio came to live suited his circumstances and his temperament. He was virtually without means, and always strived toward anarchy and against tradition.

These first five years were a period of instability and humiliation. According to his biographers, Caravaggio was “needy and stripped of everything[3]” and changed numerous employments, working as an assistant to much less talented painters. He earned his living mostly with hackwork and never stayed more than a few months at any studio. Finally, in 1595, he decided to establish his own studio and began to sell his pictures through a dealer, one Maestro Valentino, who brought Caravaggio’s work to the attention of Cardinal Francesco del Monte, a prelate of great influence in the papal court. Caravaggio soon obtained of Del Monte’s protection and was invited to receive board, lodging, and a pension in the house of the cardinal.

It may seem, that now he had everything necessary to live and work, but his violent temper prevailed. He had numerous accidents with police and authorities until he ended up stabbing and killing his young opponent, Ranuccio Tomassoni da Terni on the Campo di Marzo on May 6, 1606.

He had to flee Rome, penniless and barely out of pursuit’s reach, and settled in Zagarolo, under the protection of Duke Don Marzio Colonna. He next moved to Naples, where, having already made something of an artistic reputation for himself, he received several commissions. But his behavior kept getting worse, and he again committed triple murder. His life was fraught with danger despite attempts at his protection, and would, from then on, be spent in constant flight.

In 1607-1608, Caravaggio traveled to Malta, where he was received as an outstanding artist He worked hard, completing several works, the most important of which was The Beheading of St John the Baptist for the cathedral in Valletta[4]. In this scene of martyrdom, shadow, which in earlier paintings stood thick about the figures, has been drawn back, and the infinite space that had been evoked by the huge empty areas of the earlier compositions is replaced by a high, overhanging wall. This high wall, which reappears in later works, can be linked to a consciousness in Caravaggio’s mind of condemnation to a limited space, the space between the narrow boundaries of flight and prison. On July 14, 1608, Caravaggio was received into the Order of Malta as a “Knight of Justice”; soon afterward, however, either because word of his crime had reached Malta or because of new misdeeds, he was expelled from the order and imprisoned[5].

He soon escaped to Sicily, landing at Syracuse in October 1608, restless and fearful of pursuit. Yet his glory assisted him and at Syracuse he painted his late, tragic masterpiece, The Burial of St Lucy, for the Church of Santa Lucia. In early 1609 he fled to Messina, where he painted The Resurrection of Lazarus and The Adoration of the Shepherds, then moved on to Palermo, where he did the Adoration with St Francis and St Lawrence for the Oratorio di San Lorenzo. The works of Caravaggio’s flight, painted under the most adverse of circumstances, show a subdued tone and a delicacy of emotion that is even more intense than the overt dramatics of his earlier paintings.

His endless desperate escape could be ended only with the Pope’s pardon, and Caravaggio may have known that there were intercessions on his behalf in Rome when he again moved north to Naples in October 1609. Bad luck pursued him, however; at the door of an inn he was attacked and wounded so badly that rumors reached Rome that the “celebrated painter” was dead. After a long cure he left Naples for Rome, but he was arrested when his stopped at Palo. On his release, he discovered that the boat had already sailed, taking his belongings. Willing to overtake the vessel, he arrived at Port’Ercole, a Spanish possession within the Papal States, and he died there a few days later, probably of pneumonia. A document granting him clemency arrived from Rome three days after his death.

Life of Artemisia Gentileschi was less disorderly, than life of her teacher and mastermind. One month after the barbaric trial, in order to restore her honor, Orazio arranged for his daughter to marry Pierantonio Stiattesi, a modest artist from Florence. The young couple moved to Florence, where Artemisia received an order for a painting at Casa Buonarroti and became a successful court painter under patronage of the Medici and Charles I. During this period, Artemisia painted the Madonna con Bambino (The Virgin Mary with Baby).

She was the first woman who entered into the Accademia del Disegno (Academy of Drawing). She also maintained good relations with the most respected artists of her time, such as Cristofano Allori, and to be able to conquer the favors and the protection of influential people, starting with Granduke Cosimo II de’ Medici and especially of the Granduchess Cristina. She had a good relationship with Galileo Galilei with whom she remained in epistolary contact for a long time. While in Florence, Artemisia and Pierantonio had four sons and one daughter, but only the daughter, Prudenzia, survived to adulthood[6].

 Regardless to her success, due to an excess of expenses by her and her husband, the Florentine period was full of problems with creditors. These problems forced her to return to Rome in 1621 in the same year when her father Orazio departed for Genoa. Artemisia remained in Rome, trying to find a housing and raising her daughters. In addition to Prudenzia (born from the marriage with Pierantonio Stiattesi) she had another natural daughter, probably born in 1627. Artemisia tried, to teach them the art of painting, but she almost did not succeed.

In 1630 Artemisia moved to Naples, in search of new and more attractive jobs. The Neapolitan debut of Artemisia is represented by the Annunciation in the Capodimonte Museum. Later she permanently relocated to Naples and stayed there for the rest of her life, except for only a brief trip to London and some other journeys. Her visit to London took place in 1638 when Artemisia joined her father at the court of Charles I of England, where Orazio became court painter and received the important job of decorating a ceiling in Greenwich. Father and daughter were once again working together, although helping her father was probably not her only reason for traveling to London: Charles I had convoked her in his court, and she could not refuse. The king of Britain was a devoted art lover, ready to ruin public finances to follow his artistic wishes.

Orazio suddenly died in 1639. Artemisia had an autonomous activity which she continued to follow for a while even after her father’s death, although there are no known works assignable with certainty to this period. It is known that Artemisia had already left England by 1642, when the civil war was just starting. Nothing much is known about her later movements. Historians know that in 1649 she returned to Naples, corresponding with Don Anontio Ruffo of Sicily who became her mentor and good commitment during this second Neapolitan period. The last known letter to her mentor is dated 1650 and makes clear that she was still fully active. Artemisia died in 1653[7].

Iconography themes and techniques

Caravaggio has “put the oscuro (shadows) into chiaroscuro[8].” Chiaroscuro was known long before him, but it was Caravaggio who made the technique definitive, darkening the shadows and transfixing the subject in a blinding shaft of light. With this he created the acute observation of physical and psychological reality which formed the ground both for his great reputation and for his constant problems with his religious commissions.

He worked fast, using live models, drafting basic lines right on the canvas with the end of the brush handle. Such working style shocked acknowledged artists of his day, who decried his refusal to work from drawings and to idealize his figures. His models were the key to his realistic manner. Some names of his models are known, including Mario Minniti and Francesco Boneri, both fellow-artists. His female models include Fillide Melandroni, Anna Bianchini, and Maddalena Antognetti (Caravaggio’s concubine), all well-known prostitutes, who appear as female religious figures including the Virgin and various saints.  Caravaggio himself appears in several paintings, his final self-portrait being as the witness on the far right to the Martyrdom of Saint Ursula[9].

 Caravaggio had an ability to express in one scene of unsurpassed vividness the passing of a crucial moment. For example in the Supper at Emmaus he depicts the recognition of Christ by his disciples: a moment before he is a fellow traveler, mourning the passing of the Messiah, as he never ceases to be to the inn-keeper’s eyes, the second after, he is the Savior. Another example is The Calling of St Matthew. We can see the hand of the Saint pointing to himself as if he were saying “who, me?”, while his eyes, fixed upon the figure of Christ, have already said, “Yes, I will follow you”. With The Resurrection of Lazarus, Caravaggio goes a step further, showing of the actual physical process of resurrection. The body of Lazarus is still in the throes of rigor mortis, but his hand, facing and recognizing that of Christ, is alive. This specific manner has inspired the following Baroque artists, for example Bernini, fascinated with themes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses[10].

The installation of the St. Matthew paintings in the Contarelli Chapel had an immediate impact among the younger artists in Rome, and Caravaggism became the cutting edge for every ambitious young painter. The first Caravaggisti included Giovanni Baglione  and Orazio Gentileschi father of Artemisia. In the next generation there were Carlo Saraceni, Bartolomeo Manfredi and Orazio Borgianni[11]. Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the most gifted of the movement. It is not so well-known, that Artemisia’s “manifesto” Judith Beheading Holofernes (1621) repeats the composition and colors of earlier Caravaggio’s work (1599). However, for Caravaggio it was important to pay a realistic vision of killing, even committed with great purpose, and Artemisia stressed a theme of revenge by a woman to a man.

Caravaggio’s brief stay in Naples produced a notable school of Neapolitan Caravaggisti, including Battistello Caracciolo and Carlo Sellitto. The Caravaggisti movement there ended with a terrible outbreak of plague in 1656, but Naples was a Spanish possession and this helped in forming the important Spanish branch of this artistic movement.

A group of Catholic artists from Utrecht, the Utrecht Caravaggisti, traveled to Rome as students in the first years of the 17th century and were profoundly influenced by the work of Caravaggio. On their return to the North this trend had a short-lived but influential flowering in the 1620s among painters like Hendrick ter Brugghen, Gerrit van Honthorst, Andries Both and Dirck van Baburen. In the following generation the affects of Caravaggio, are noticeable in the work of Rubens, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Velazquez, the last of whom presumably saw his work during his stay in Italy.

A research paper of Roberto Longhi, an important Italian critic, dated 1916, named Gentileschi padre e figlia (Gentileschi father and daughter) pointed out the artistic merits of Artemisia Gentileschi in the sphere of the Caravaggisti in the first half of the 17th century. Longhi described Artemisia as “the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting, coloring, doughing and other fundamentals[12]”.

After her famous Judith, Artemisia gave us a generously proportioned vixen, somewhat reminiscent of Cervantes’ Dulcinea, who saws away at the villain’s throat causing crimson clots of blood to destroy the silken sheets. In an earlier canvas, the same heroine is seen a few minutes after the dastardly deed, proudly holding aloft her dagger, wearing a cameo emblazoned with an armed warrior. Blood oozes through the braids of the wicker basket in which her maidservant holds the tyrant’s severed head. In these as in all of Artemisia’s paintings, the use of chiaroscuro is breathtaking, adding dimensions, emotions and fluidity to the compositions.

Artemisia, created her own version of Caravaggisti realism: she combined the realistic style with intellectualism that brings out human emotion. Another intellectual maneuver used by Artemisia is shown in her two of her self-portraits where she turns her gender to her advantage. In one portrait of 1630 she is wearing a laurel wreath, which was a symbol of high intellect and achievement. In the second portrait, Artemisia is adorned with a gold necklace that has a mask pendant hanging from it. This necklace with its mask ornament, when worn by a woman is the emblem for Art, thus, Artemisia has depicted herself as the very essence of Art itself. Not only was this a very bold depiction but it was one in which only a woman could be the participant.

The most recent critic, starting from the difficult reconstruction of the entire catalogue of the Gentileschi, tried to a reading of the career of Artemisia, placing it more accurately on the context of the different artistic environments in which the painter actively participated. A reading like this restores Artemisia as an artist who fought with determination, using the weapon of personality and of the artistic qualities, against the prejudices expressed against women painters; being able to introduce herself productively in the circle of the most respected painters of her time, embracing a series of pictorial genres which were probably more ample and varied than her paintings suggest[13].


Caravaggio and his followers, the Caravaggisti, including Artemisia Gentileschi were the last major original artistic movement, which Italy could give to the world after the end of Renaissance. They lived a sort of life more pertaining to the painters of early times: with no systematic education, moving from one patron to another, driven by their fortune. Caravaggio is said to be a founder of Baroque painting. Perhaps it was really so, however, it was not only Caravaggio, but his followers, who brought new trends of art to Europe, as they traveled from one region to another, creating own local movements.

No doubt, that Caravaggio influenced many famous artists, including Rubens, Vermeer, Velasquez and others. His brilliant student Artemisia Gentileschi is less known, as she stands in the shadow of her great teacher, nevertheless, her personality has individual importance to art history. Her life and work demonstrated, that women can be independent and individual artists and that the art of painting can be successfully advanced by women same, as it is done by men.


1.      Gilles Lambert, Caravaggio, London: Taschen, 2000

2.      Keith Christiansen, Judith W. Mann. Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001

3.      Rosa Giorgi, Caravaggio: Master of light and dark – his life in paintings, Dorling Kindersley (1999)

4.      Peter Robb, M, London: Duffy & Snellgrove, 2003

5.      Anna Banti, Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo, Artemisia (European Women Writers), University of Nebraska Press, 1998

6.      Alfred Moir, The Italian Followers of Caravaggio, Harvard University Press (1967)

[1] Gilles Lambert, Caravaggio, London: Taschen, 2000, p. 8
[2] Keith Christiansen, Judith W. Mann. Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001, p. 39
[3] Gilles Lambert, supra note, p. 34
[4] Rosa Giorgi, Caravaggio: Master of light and dark – his life in paintings, Dorling Kindersley, 1999, p. 24

[5] Peter Robb, M, London: Duffy ; Snellgrove, 2003, p. 46
[6] Anna Banti, Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo, Artemisia (European Women Writers), University of Nebraska Press, 1998, p. 51
[7] See: Keith Christiansen, Judith W. Mann, supra note, p. 69
[8] Gilles Lambert, supra note, p. 11

[9] See: Peter Robb, supra note
[10] Rosa Giorgi, supra note, p. 14

[11] See: Alfred Moir, The Italian Followers of Caravaggio, Harvard University Press (1967) p. 48-50
[12] Anna Banti, Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo, p. 9
[13] Anna Banti, Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo, supra note, p. 82-83

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Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi: Comparison. (2016, Sep 04). Retrieved from