Who the Hell Came Up With an Artemisia Gentileschi “Rape Room”?

The exhibition Artemisia Gentileschi: Courage and Passion at the Palazzo Ducale in Genova, Italy, is a failure in storytelling and a cheap sensationalization of the pioneering artist’s life. 

Collaboratively curated by Agostino D’Orazio and Anna Orlando from Palazzo Ducale together with Arthemisia, a company producing blockbuster exhibitions in Italy, the exhibition sells itself as a “faithful portrait of the complex personality of one of the most celebrated artists of all time.” However, it regrettably falls flat and ultimately presents a unilateral representation of Gentileschi, trading a celebration of the artist’s opus for a violent spectacle. 

Gentileschi is one of the most famous artists of the Italian Renaissance. The first woman to join the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing) in Florence, she was a baroque artist and master of portraiture. In her canvases, women are active agents rather than victims of the male gaze. However, Gentileschi’s art has historically been overshadowed by the violence that she suffered at the hands of painter Agostino Tassi in 1611 and the subsequent rape trial, the first recorded in history, which destroyed Gentileschi’s reputation, forcing her to flee Rome and change her identity.

It is precisely these events that the exhibition revolves around. Upon entering, visitors are greeted with a timeline of “Artemisia’s abuse,” a map on a wall recounting the places where the violence occurred and the tribunal of the trial, setting the tone for the rest of the rooms. The following galleries host many of Gentileschi’s portraits, often displayed alongside those of her male contemporaries: Caravaggio, her father Orazio Gentileschi, and Tassi, her convicted abuser who’s described in a wall text as having talent and a “bad temper.” 

Exhibition Room
The installation dubbed by some the “rape room” recounts the details of Artemisia Gentileschi’s sexual assault. (photo by Noemi Tarantini)

The most horrific part of the exhibition is what its critics have dubbed the “rape room”: a dark room with a bloodied bed at the center, surrounded by projections of Gentileschi’s paintings, also dripping in blood. Echoing in the space is the voice of an actress reciting Gentileschi’s contestations at trial, recreating the artist’s rape in every detail. 

The cherry on top of this haunted house-like experience is the gift shop, featuring merchandise like T-shirts and keychains emblazoned with Tassi’s self-absolving quote “I was the minister of my evil” (“Io del mio mal ministro fui”). The obscene book At Night You Drive Me Crazy: Erotic Acts of Agostino Tassi, Painter by Pietrangelo Buttafuoco, the Italian rightwing journalist who was chosen to helm the 2024 Venice Biennale, is also proudly on sale. 

T-shirt for sale featuring Agostino Tassi’s self-absolving quote “I was the minister of my evil.” (photo by Noemi Tarantini)

Multiple visitors have shared the experience of feeling deeply disturbed by the exhibition. Several activists, art history students, sector professionals like Noemi Tarantino and Valentina Crifò, and organizations, including Non Una di Meno (Not One Less) Genova,  About Gender, and Mi Riconosci, as well as art history students have been actively fighting to hold Palazzo Ducale and Arthemisia accountable for such irresponsible curation. I have joined them in circulating an open letter in Italian and English, so far signed by over 4,000 people, calling to shut down the so-called “rape room” and remove the merch from the museum shop. Most importantly, these groups are calling for more open dialogue around gendered art historical narratives and have hosted a series of public talks and actions around the topic. 

Exhibitions are spaces where art interacts with the public and our contemporary world, not mere displays of work in a room. This show, and how its curators have handled the controversies it sparked, is emblematic of the ways museums and cultural institutions are falling short of their social function, and how gender and patriarchal violence remain largely mishandled. Once again, women are reduced to the men in their lives: the ones they are measured against, and the ones who have hurt them. 

Gentileschi’s life story and trial became a ticket-selling gimmick, a spectacle to be consumed by the masses, who in turn leave uneducated, 16 euros poorer, and traumatized due to the exhibition’s carelessness with such sensitive themes. Even some 400 years after her death, we continue to fail Gentileschi.

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