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