Art restorers have embarked on a project to digitally unveil what was once a nude painting by Italian baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the most prominent female artists from the period.
The Allegory of Inclination, as the 1616 work is titled, originally depicted a nude female figure. But about 70 years later, the nudity was concealed with another painter's addition — to adhere to the moral sensibilities of the male-dominated art world.
The painting was brought down from the ceiling of the Casa Buonarroti museum in Florence, Italy, last month as part of a six-month restoration process called Artemisia Up Close.
The project will use infrared, X-ray, and other modern techniques to create a digital image of Artemisia's original painting.
The original work, thought to be a self-portrait painted by a 22-year-old Artemisia, depicts a nude female figure resting on clouds. Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, the great-nephew of the famous artist, commissioned Artemisia to paint the canvas on the ceiling of his family home-turned-museum.
In 1680, a descendant of Michelangelo the Younger, likely his nephew Leonardo Buonarroti, commissioned Baldassarre Franceschini, known as Il Volterrano, to paint blue draping to cover the nudity of the Inclination. The censorship was "an effort to protect the owner's wife and children from being exposed to a figure that might dent their decorum," Linda Falcone, the coordinator of the Artemisia Up Close project, wrote in The Florentine.
At the time, women were not considered capable of creating great works of art
Still, the fact that Michelangelo the Younger asked Artemisia to create the work "was a gamechanger" for her and women artists that followed, Falcone said.
"You can imagine that women at this time were not considered capable of large-scale, grand works of art," said Falcone in a conversation last year with the project's head restorer, Elizabeth Wicks. Only men were allowed to study the "spiritual" topic of anatomy through art, she said.
The younger Michelangelo's patronage helped open the door for her.
"She was able to hobnob with Galileo and with other great thinkers. So this almost illiterate woman was suddenly at the university level, producing works of art that were then, you know, appreciated by the Grand Duke," Falcone told The Associated Press. "And she became a courtly painter from then on."
Inclination was one of Artemisia's earliest paintings, among what was considered a feminist oeuvre that included several paintings of nude women. Artemisia, the daughter of painter Orazio Gentileschi, drew inspiration from the stark works of Caravaggio and Michelangelo's contorted figures.
Before arriving in Florence, Artemisia was raped by the painter Agostino Tassi. Then 17, she was tortured — as a lie-detection method — during her testimony at a trial against him in Rome.
Her paintings, sometimes violent, are often perceived through a singular lens — that of a rape victim with an appetite for revenge. Many art historians, however, have pushed back on that interpretation to cast her instead as a champion of strong women.
Although there had been talk of removing the drapery from the actual painting, Falcone said it was important to preserve the history of the artistic revisions.
"Il Volterrano's repaints are considered historic and part of the painting's setting and life story," she told The Florentine.
Because the cover-up was painted too soon after the original work, a physical erasure could also risk damaging the painting if the two layers are too closely bonded, she said.
The public can witness the project in progress through April. Then, Casa Buonarroti will open an exhibition from September 2023 to January 2024 centered on Artemisia as well as the findings of the restoration effort.
"Through her, we can talk about how important it is to restore artwork, how important it is to restore the stories of women to the forefront," Falcone told the AP.