The Trial of Artemisia Gentileschi

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A Dramatic Narrative About Gender Stereotypes

The Trial of Artemisia Gentileschi is at the same time a dramatic narrative and a true historical document.

Despite the faithful reconstruction of the trial, it is important to question whether the protagonists Artemisia Gentileschi and Agostino Tassi were actually as they appear in the film. After all, a rape trial is not exactly the place where the personalities of the two protagonists may shine through: guilty parties lie to avoid consequences and try to make themselves look innocent; and of course the innocent try to make a good impression on judges.

It is not surprising that Agostino Tassi's entire defensive strategy centered on his attempt to make himself seem a good man, an honest and loyal friend to Orazio Gentileschi, who unjustly accused him and to crudely paint Artemisia as a whore. In the course of the trial, however, the real Tassi is unveiled, and especially in the final scenes he shows himself to be a rapist and stalker.

Nonetheless, in a culture based on gender stereotypes such as Seventeenth Century Italian society, even the victim, Artemisia, had to face the trial with some caution. Could she have effectively created an image of herself as an independent woman and artist, as the Artemisia that she was even at the time of the trial, despite her young age? Probably not. It is not by chance that at certain points Artemisia seems to rebel against the sexist stereotypes of the age (it is in these moments that we most likely see Artemisia's true character). She actually shows this side of her only during the most stressful moments of the trial. More often, however, she seems to want to give the impression that she is a woman that accepts those stereotypes, especially when she dwells on the theme of Agostino Tassi not following through with his marriage proposal. We today might strongly doubt that Artemisia truly aimed to become the wife of a painter. But this is the image that Artemisia chose to give of herself: to avoid the prejudices of an age that would have labeled her once and for all as a woman of questionable morals, which would have therefore led to a judgement favorable to Tassi.

In short, to the question Are the Artemisia Gentileschi and Agostino Tassi in this film exactly as they were in real life? we can respond, Only partially. They are effectively Artemisia and Agostino as they appeared before the judges: deformed by the gender stereotypes and the judicial processes of their age. Instead of working from fantasy to improbably reconstruct characters, in a vain attempt to find the real Artemisia and the real Agostino, the director preferred to focus the narrative on these two aspects: the judicial process, and the sexist stereotypes of the time.

The judicial process seems far away from our current practice. The trial lacked in guarding the most elementary of individual rights (arbitrary arrests, denied contestation of accusations, the use of torture, etc.). But most importantly, the end of the trial was not a simple ascertainment of the truth. In a lay court, run by the Papal curia, the influence of Catholic thought was very strong, and for this reason it was crucial to obtain a confession and repentance from the defendant. For this reason, there is a marked theatrical quality to the investigatory trial. But its aim was not only to obtain proof of guilt, but rather a full catharsis, an acceptance of guilt on the part of the accused and then a Christian repentance. Therefore the judge, near the end of the trial, when he is already convinced of Artemisia' s innocence and Agostino's  guilt, decides to have Artemisia undergo torture to push Agostino to confess his sin in the Christian sense. The judges do not torture Artemisia because they believe her to be guilty; she is tortured for the exact opposite reason: they know her to be innocent, and they use her suffering as an admonition to the guilty party to confess and repent.

Gender prejudices and stereotypes play a large role in the judge's decision to use Artemisia in this way: to obtain repentance from the rapist and therefore, according to the Christian thought of the period, to secure his salvation. These prejudices and stereotypes are the driving force of the film. Viewers will be able to fully comprehend their role at that time, as they were then explicitly declared. The disparity between man and woman was expressed in the universities, in the churches, and in the courtrooms. In court and with lawyers it was nearly impossible to condemn a man for the rape of a woman of dubious morals. The lack of rights that a woman held over her own body was undisputed and incontestable. Viewers will not find it difficult to understand how those sexist prejudices are unacceptable. They will understand as well how a large part of these prejudices and stereotypes, that we think of as so far away, are actually still alive and well. (They may not perhaps be explicit, but are rather masked by aesthetic or value judgements.) They are no less active and capable of producing the same injustices that embittered the life of Artemisia Gentileschi.

This movie is undoubtedly militant in a certain light, but as such it has avoided the creation or use of fictional elements, ensuring the film's adherence to historical truth.

Paolo Bussagli