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Beauty In The Beast

The Final Curtain Call

By Leeza CooperPublished 10 months ago 10 min read
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JUDITH BEHEADING HOLOFERNES, UFFIZI GALLERY; FLORENCE, ARTEMISIS GENTILESCHI (1593-1653)

The moment I saw it, I was transfixed. Unable to move. A Colossus of Rhodes astride its plinths as ships sailed beneath and beyond.....an arachnophobe suddenly seeing a huge spider on her dressing-room mirror, I just stood there in a catatonic state, mesmerized, like a deer hypnotized by headlights.

Heaven only knows how long I stood there as waves of people passed around me in the vast ocean of genius which is the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I’d never heard of the painting, or the artist, but from that seminal moment, I was hers and she was mine.

And the painting? Judith beheading Holofernes. A Biblical heroine to her people seducing the Assyrian General who was threatening the nation of ancient Israel. First she got him drunk, and then she and her maidservant Abra cut off his head, put it on a platter, and smuggled it out of the Assyrian camp to show her people that they had nothing to fear.

I stood so long, looking at the vivid splashes of colour and turning my head slightly, partly out of disgust but also smiling at its unashamed raw exploitation of savage power over its subject. My gasps and vocal applause were obviously so loud that a guard overseeing the room came up to me and asked, “Scusami, Signorina, ma stai bene?”

I smiled, and in my broken Italian, told him that yes, I was alright, but I was so moved and startled by the painting that I could barely speak. He immediately took pity on me, and said, “English, I speak! Very good.”

“This painting...it’s captivating.”

“Ah!,” he said nodding wisely, and in his tortured English continued, “yes, she do that, my Artemisia. She make the peoples cry and fill with horror.”

But a disturbance suddenly erupted at the other end of the gallery, and he apologised, nodded and walked away to deal with some rambunctious German youths who were acting up, and I continued to take in the sheer genius of the painting. It was a woman decapitating a man with a carving knife while he was held down like a savage by the women’s bare hands.

I pondered what on earth would have driven a women, any women, to commit such an horrendous crime?

Eventually, of course, I left that room and went down to the entry of the Uffizi, which had originally been built as the Medici’s offices, and in the shop, bought a book of Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings. Judith beheading Holofernes might be her best-known work, but her other paintings were no less astounding. Yet, despite the fact that I fancied myself as somebody who knew quite a bit about Renaissance art, I am ashamed to admit I had never heard of Artemisia.

Being on holiday in Italy and being alone, I was untrammelled and free to go to a little trattoria for some lunch. Over a brimming plate of Fagioli all’uccelletto – Tuscan baked beans – I devoured everything I could find on the internet about Artemisia. And what I read of her tragic life utterly stunned me. For I had found a long-lost sister, even though she had been dead for nearly four hundred years.

Artemisia had been born in Florence, the daughter of a painter, Orazio. The similarities were astounding....my father was also a brilliant painter despite leaving England for greener pastures in Australia in his late teens. Her mother, like mine, had died in childbirth, but not exactly in the same way. My mother was very much alive at this stage of my life, but instead, it was me who, as a baby, had treated my mother like she was dead by refusing to be cradled or comforted, rocked, or even fed by her.

Her own mother, my grandmother, was a real tyrant if ever there was one, and my mother was clearly the Cinderella of the family, cooking, cleaning, sewing and doing all of the chores her mother ordered her to do. So bad was her treatment, that she developed rickets from lack of sunlight and poor nuitrition. It’s true that this happened in Dublin, Ireland, where she was born; it was the land of rain and dampness and not much sunshine, but the truth was that these inclement weather conditions hadn’t affected most young girls growing up on the beautiful green isle. Just my mother, who rarely was allowed out to frolic in the fields and mountains and valleys. Why I decided to visualise my mother as a non-entity as a young baby had puzzled me my whole life. Until now! Now things were beginning to make sense. Artemisia’s painting had made me confront what it was to be a strong....and a weak....woman. The fact that the visual nature of power was playing out in-front of my eyes was extremely confronting, but it was also profoundly liberating.

The artist’s father brought her up in a strict household such as my mother’s, which clearly only created tension and animosity which eventually slipped into madness. When Artemisia was in her mid-teens, she painted a portrait of the Biblical Susanna, bathing, while lecherous old men spied on her. Her father was astounded at her brilliance, and nurtured her talent, encouraging her to paint while working in his studio. He employed a tutor, Agostino Tassi, to teach her landscapes, but one day, while Orazio was out, he and a friend came to her house, and raped her.

Her father took Tassi to court....not for the rape, but for lowering the value of his daughter as a marriageable commodity. Can you imagine! And it was Artemisia who was tortured by the judges with thumbscrews to ensure she was telling the truth.

But Artemisia despite these monstrous crimes against her grew and grew in reputation, and she became one of the most brilliant late Renaissance/early Baroque painters. Yet ironically when she died, nobody believed that a woman could have painted as brilliantly as did she, and so her work was attributed to others, such as her father, and her brothers.

I was so incensed by reading of what happened to her, our similar journeys, her rape at the hands of thugs, her channeling her pain and anger towards men, as well as love and passion into her art, that I could barely finish my meal, and the waiter came over and apologised, thinking that I didn’t like the beans. Beans! As if beans had any importance in my life.

Even beans were a lie to me now; they were supposed to be little bits of magic that we can all afford.”

“Beans: the legume that’s supposed to keep on giving, both in taste and in nutrition.”

It was my artist father who explained to me the importance of planting seeds, how we focus our thoughts on the germination process of our lives through the flowering reproductive stage of the bean plant and wait patiently with fascination as we witness the amazing wonder of the plant kingdom's cycles. Understanding the cultivation and life cycle of beans was supposed to help me become a better, wiser, more well-rounded women.

I had always loved to eat beans, but when I did, I preferred them to be tasty and delicious, instead, as I sat all alone in the back streets of Florence, they tasted sour and unpalatable.

Later that night, in my hotel above the River Arno, I was still so infuriated by what had happened in this very city hundreds of years ago to such a brilliant woman, that my whole life was changed.

My own mother, an artistic woman of enormous talents, had died from my thoughts when I was much too young to have known her properly, and since then, I’d become a bit of a loner, but unlike the stereotypical loner, I was not lonely, I was an escape artist.

A series of relationships with entirely bland and pedestrian men led me to what I thought was the perfect effervescent husband - only to find myself dumped onto a stage with no lights and no applause, no chance at practising my lines or preparing my words or even my thoughts.

And damn me, if I hadn’t married the wrong one, I wouldn’t have even left Australia for Italy. Sure he was a handsome sophisticated lawyer, clever, articulate, and claimed to want a wife like me to hold and cherish, who’d be there for him and he me, and when he came home it would be a fairy-tale delight to the senses…

Well, all of that was just nonsense and lies; the truth was that he wanted a dish maid who looked like a goddess, but with no mouth to complain when he was absent a couple of nights a week, wooing other women.

Much to my embarrassment and shame, when he came home from his umpteenth mistress and entered our house, I turned ugly and screamed, threatened, and walked out on him. This happened several times during our marriage, but it made no difference. He was a serial adulterer, and being the father to our beautiful children made no difference to him, only me.

So having seen how Artemisia depicted what Judith did to Holofernes, having read of her trial and the enormity of what she’d had to overcome, I decided there and then how I’d handle him when I returned home.

The painting stood out like a potent statement of what happens when a women eventually has had enough, and seeks revenge; when men accuse her of succumbing to the devil and losing the plot. It was fucking brilliant, a true masterpiece, and not just because it was technically impeccable. Its canvas housed a thousand unspoken words. Words that women are taught not to think, let alone speak. It obviously espoused an explosion of what men would deem feminist cries of insanity, and it was no wonder that when she painted it, men refused to allow the artist to take any credit for it.

With each long brush stroke, a loud shrill pierced the atmosphere surrounding its prohibitory frame, radiating out into the gallery and incinerating everything around it in its barbaric fury.

As I sat there brushing my long hair, the nightmare tension with my husband making it fall out of my tender scalp with each stroke, I sympathised with the character that Artemisia had become. I too once had dreams and desires of a beautiful life, a life of art and passion, desire and happiness. Instead, my mother was now dead, as well as my father, and my husband with all his women and perhaps even men, might as well have been to me.

I had flown halfway around the world in search of a key to a lock that quite obviously never existed in the first place.

So what now?.....

What was a women to do after complete validation of her internal anger and hatred for a person or persons? Sit and rot and wait until her own death? Wait until someone slit her throat and then leave her to turn to dust?

Where was her blank canvas where she could reset and start again, where were her magical beans?

Beyond the canvass on which the landscapes of our lives are led, and just when she was losing her mind to a world of utter hopelessness, there was a loud knock at her dressing room door.

Tossing the large ball of her long blonde hair from the brush into the bin, she wiped the tears from her face, straightened her dress and made her way across the wooden floor and gently turned the key in the lock and opened the door.

Bravo, bravo!

Brilliant!

Just brilliant!

Sensational!

Suddenly the stage lights struck her in the face with their candescent and potent heat.

Turning to her audience she stood mesmerised and beaming, it took her a moment to remember to bow. And now she did smiling in gratitude for their admiration and support, their devotion and attention.

If ever there was ever a more perfect way to end the last chapter or her life and commence a new one, this was it - without a shadow of a doubt.

THE END

Painting
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About the Creator

Leeza Cooper

Leeza Cooper, a devotee, artiste, creator of published literature & poetry; Studied Degree CU, founder/president of Wheels & Dolls SMC; raising funds for DV, lover of travel, nostalgia & anything vintage.

Ms Australia International 2023.

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  • Alan Gold10 months ago

    I first saw an Artemisia painting in a Gallery in Naples some years ago, and like you, Leeza, I was rivetted to the spot. The look on the women's faces, the restrained hatred, the determination to right the wrongs of the past and the desire for revenge, were breath-taking. Reading your BRILLIANT story brought it all back. Your story was so moving, so emotive, so corruscating, that I had to read it twice for detail, and then once again for the sheer pleasure of how you have created a painting yourself or a moment in time four centuries ago. Thank you so much for this story. It brought back to me all the wonderful memories of my love of Italy, and of Renaissance art......James

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