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Historical Revisionism and the “Quintessential” Italian Sense of Self

A personal reflection on historical revisionism by Cynthia LaMarca

A self-portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Renaissance artist, wearing a blue headpiece.
Artemesia Gentileschi, "Autoritrato come martire," c. 1615. Wikimedia Commons.

It was indeed surreal to find myself strolling through the borough of Saint-Leonard. I hadn’t lived in the area for close to six years, despite spending most of my childhood on Paul Corbeil, frequenting Tony Deppaneur, Pie-IX park, and Viau metro. I had, however, been keeping tabs on the local community; third and fourth generation immigrants had been continuing the good fight for self actualization, Italian cultural identity, and recognition for Italian communal achievements. Specifically, the Verrazzano situation (as the murmurings called it), had shed light on the fact our Italian-Canadian community was still at an impasse about what we represented as a settler community in Montreal. Over dinner, the topic of suggesting alternate names for the new metro station came up, and I was (for once, pleasantly) surprised at the suggestions of my older relatives. Michelangelo, Galileo, Rafael, and so on.

“The Italian legacy [abroad] should be about art and science. It’s not about remembering colonizers,” one impassioned family member had almost screamed across the table.

I was refreshed to see older family members (first and second generation immigrants) denounce colonialism and its hold on the rather conservative community in and around Saint-Leonard; but as the cogs began to turn, I was reminded, in a sense, of why I had left my childhood neighbourhood in the first place. When we think about great feats of Italian art, ingenuity, and classical inspiration, we tend to remember straight, white, cishet men. The ostracization many of us have experienced (as queer, AFAB, gender non binary people, or as people with mixed parents) in regards to the Italian identity is still alive and well; our elders remain forever convinced the legacy of Italian art favors heterosexual, white men.

Ours is a community notorious for its strong sense of “self”; but who (or what) is the quintessential Italian in the context of our Renaissance-era art and history? If we are to understand and stratify ourselves according to the achievements of our ancestors, exactly which ancestors should we concern ourselves with? Which historical figures can reflect the entirety of our community, regardless of skin color, creed, sexuality, or gender presentation. For starters, let us examine three aspects of Renaissance history which have colloquially fallen by the wayside. While this is clearly an informal journal entry on historical revisionism, let us reimagine the communal Italian “sense of self” through art history.

When considering how conservative Italian communities tie womanhood to servitude in a domestic sense, we can also consider how many Italian women have had marriage and children lorded over them for time immemorial. Italian femininity has been equated to the cultural value of domesticity for generations, and there is perhaps no more ironic a case than our setting aside historical figure Artemisia Gentileschi. Gentileschi’s legal history is something of a several-pages talking point in and of itself, so in the interest of keeping this blurb informal, we’ll examine instead her contribution to Italian art history. Content warning for details in this paragraph- if assault is a sensitive subject, it may be best to skip ahead to the next paragraph!

Gentileschi is perhaps most famous for Judith Beheading Holofernes: the biblical tale of Judith and Holofernes tells of Judith captivating him with her beauty, only to get him drunk and proceed to behead him. It is a tale of overcoming tyranny, its allegory coloring much of early Renaissance Florence. Gentileschi famously painted many biblical scenes, usually depicting female subjects, and was recognized for her talent in learning Caravaggio’s artistic style. She was active during the Baroque Era, and drew from her life experiences in Renaissance-era Italy. She was born in Rome, and died in Naples. Her mentor (and later, husband) Agostino Tassi, raped her, and she became a spectacle for participating in her own (still hotly debated) trial. Gentileschi was made to marry Tassi, as he who took a woman’s virginity at the time was to become that woman’s husband. Today, she is remembered as a notorious victim of a crime, and the interest in her eclectic trial seems to take precedence over her artistic endeavors. Why is it important for us to acknowledge not only the presence of an iconic female artist in our community today, but also the attitudes we’ve carried over about sexual purity and dutifulness in our time? Should Italians reflect on the deep-seated misogyny which erases and polices female historical figures, until there is nothing left but the feverish fascination with their chastity? Well, this is certainly a loaded question, and I can’t reasonably have the last word here. I will say however, that it’s important to recognize parallels in the dynamic of power between husbands and wives, men and women, and the way we police our daughters; our cultural staunchness with which we gate-keep both femininity and deviation from the marriage-and-children lifestyle can only be overcome with the healing of generational trauma. We should try to normalize, and if possible advocate, not cramming women in our community into a little “box” to be silenced, marginalized, and policed by male relatives and arbitrary beauty standards. I think Gentileschi is also emblematic of how male figures are touted as quintessential Italian backbones and iconic, when Artemisia herself was recognized by Michaelangelo’s own family for her skills. We have become too “used” to erasing female voices in Italian history, and relegating them to menial tasks and roles; Gentileschi is a reminder that oppression can be fought, and that the re-invention of “femininity” is possible even today.

It is not only women who get the proverbial short end of the stick, though. Just as we talked about white men being emblematic of how we think about art history, Italy’s greatest known family was not entirely white either. The Medici family is a family that’s been spoken about all over the world. It seems a name impossible to outrun in terms of basic Italian historical knowledge; even non-Italians seem to love to talk about it. The Medici were an Italian bourgeois clan which ruled Florence, and later Tuscany from 1434 to 1737. They had a major hand in the development of the Italian Renaissance as patrons of the arts and humanism, and amassed their wealth through wool mercantilism and banking. Among them, Duke Alessandro de’Medici: the first Black head of state in Western history, and son of Pope Clement VII. It is a perpetuated misconception that the presence of Black figures in Italian art history and in government only came about within the last 500 years, as Black cultural influence in the Italy region was present predating Classical Greece. Not only did Arab influence shape re-discovered European social ideals through intercontinental travel, but de’Medici wielded great power as a Duke and generous patron of the arts. However, the deliberate stereotyping of migrants of color over time has led us to believe People of Color must have been defined by slavery and nothing else, which is entirely untrue.

Portrait of duke Alessandro de' Medici wearing silver armour.
Bronzino, "Portrait of Duke Alessandro de' Medici (1510-1537)." Wikimedia Commons.

Black women in particular appear in most Renaissance works either as foreground or background characters; their contributions to the artistic legacy of Italy are often overlooked, namely by the fact they were “put on display” by white nobles as exotic property. Black presence in Italian art has left a cultural and artistic footprint, which shaped much of classic Renaissance motifs. Unfortunately, the racism which distorts the narrative, in an effort to erase their contributions, often makes us interpret European art history as inherently white. Some famous paintings featuring Black women as focal include: Portrait of an Arab Woman, Julia dei Medichi (daughter of Alessandro de’Medici) with Maria Salviati de Medici, and Diana and Actaeon. As far back as the Greco-Roman period, Black women exemplify interest in foreign beauty and individualism, which extends to the artistic potential of Black bodies in classical art. Worth noting is that as the Renaissance toted the somewhat divine power of self actualization, painted Black bodies began to be looked over, excluded from historical narratives, and literally “dimmed” in color and hue on canvas. Exoticism plays a key role in both the decline of appreciation for Black contributions to Italian history, but also in narratives based in prejudice today. Conservative Italian circles are famously racist, a phenomenon we’ve surely seen in our own homes. We tend to adopt an “us versus the outsider” mentality in affairs of marriage, parentage, and friendship. We’ve become increasingly socially isolated it would seem, as we meditate on a fascist-sympathetic history back home in Europe. Particularly as somebody who has grown up with one parent who is a PoC, it has been extremely disheartening to see the reactions the Italian diaspora has had: overt racism, fetishization of culture, and sexualization of PoC or mixed peoples are all troubling social norms for us. We have not deviated so far communally as the Italians of old, who made great efforts to include Black representation for profit, but less-so in appreciation. Perhaps there are no de’Medicis left to wield exceptional power, but the capacity for sweeping change is possible if we care to lend some credence to history. Just as in the case of marginalizing women’s achievements in Italian classics, we can take steps to recognize internalized racism and bias, and rectify the situation within ourselves; a better and more accepting (and fundamentally less racist) society is possible, if we try to do the work at home and abroad.

A painting of Saint John the Baptist, with his finger pointing up to the sky. he is smiling and has curly hair. There is a cross in the dark background.
Leonardo da VInci, "Saint John the Baptist," 1513-1516. One of the paintings Salai is said to have posed for. Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, I wanted to talk about something that was hotly debated even as I did my art history portion of my DEC. To some, it is the butt of inside jokes, and to others like me, an almost-relief as an Italian who has always struggled with their sexuality. As a queer person with an (at-best) iffy understanding of my own gender, I often wondered where in our history I could find somebody like me. I am sad to admit that as a very young child, who was hyper aware I could not commit to heteronormativity or gender conformity, I was often deeply distressed; I was haunted by the revelation that I did not belong in my own community, and I was not safe. I was even once threatened at knife-point by a student at JFK high school while coming home, as they had overheard during the summer that I had come out to a friend as queer. Finally, one day, by accident, I stumbled upon an important piece of Italian history: Leonardo da Vinci famously expressed interest in men. Yes, da Vinci (famously touted as a figure of Italian excellence) was queer- and people knew about it. Now, withholding for a moment that the societal norms regarding homosexuality were different at the time of da Vinci’s life, here comes the kicker: how come we see Italian art history as not only white and male, but also straight? Da Vinci’s storied history with one Salai (whose real name is Gian Giacomo Caprotti) begins in Da Vinci’s workshop, as the poor boy came to be employed and stayed for 25 years. Full disclosure, owing to the norms of the time, Salai was initially ten when they met, with Da Vinci in his late thirties. While Da Vinci had another private secretary (Francesco Melzi), songs, poetry, and lute music was made about the trio’s (homosexual) love triangle. Notably, it was said Da Vinci had such a propensity for drawing Salai (most famously perhaps with small phalluses running after him), that he inspired the paintings Bacchus, Saint John the Baptist, and maybe even The Mona Lisa. As sodomy was not encouraged, despite Da Vinci having been already been accused, he was thought to have been publicly shamed rather than jailed, in an effort to get him to turn himself in.

The Mona Lisa, which art historians have agonized as to her true identity for years, is indeed thought to be a rendition of Salai himself; notably, due to her forehead and cheeky smile. This is the part where I give you homework; go Google Salai and observe for yourself the actual similarity between him and The Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is also notably androgynous- considered by many to have both feminine and masculine attributes; this also lends credence to the theory Da Vinci was going for a kind of self portrait. Even so, the relationship between Da Vinci and Salai was thought to be firmly sexual in nature, even though there is much debate about whether or not Da Vinci was overtly celibate and privately gay or overtly and privately celibate all together. The emotional turbulence of gender anxiety and self expression is not taken kindly to in Italian communities as we know them in Canada. Often, we’re asked to marginalize ourselves before societal expectations of straightness can even be understood by younger children. Before we’re able to understand the self, we’re made to understand the strict limitations of how we “must'' be perceived in order to fit in. If nothing but a funny closing anecdote on this journey of historical revisionism explained, Da Vinci’s gayness (and the iconic Mona Lisa’s gender fluidity) reminds us that Italian art history is not in fact perfectly heterosexual; like our ancestors, we too may face opposition by our own neighbourhood, culture, or in-group. But, it is important to remember your existence is a work of art. Be secure in the fact that societies will change, and every day we strive towards a more inclusive Italian identity is a day well spent. Give yourself space and acceptance to flourish, explore, and become the artiste of your own destiny.

And so, our romp through time comes to a close. If nothing else, I hope you have learned our false idea of Italian artistic perfection is not based in reality. Instead, the people our community marginalizes often are most responsible for a big part of our cultural footprint. Every time somebody refers to the legacy of great Italian art, they’re inadvertently (and perhaps unknowingly) referring to the legacy of PoC in Europe, marginalized women in a patriarchal society, and openly gay men whose lives were later heavily doctored for the history books. Let’s reject colonialism, white supremacy, and hetero-homegeny as the staple of the Italian diaspora, and take good care of yourselves out there.

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