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Women Through the Cultural Lens of a Man: Caravaggio on Women’s Day

Art historian Giulia Silvia Ghia presented “Faces of Women: Beyond the Visible in Caravaggio’s Work” at the Consulate General of Italy in New York

A moment of Giulia Silvia Ghia's presentation (Photo VNY/EB)

But should the question “is it a Caravaggio or isn’t it a Caravaggio?” really be at the forefront of people’s minds the evening before International Women’s Day?

Silvia Limoncini, New York Deputy Consul General of Italy, stood in front of the marble fireplace in the main parlor at the Italian Consulate to give a warm welcome to the audience. “We were thinking of doing something special to celebrate International Women’s Day, and…we thought that maybe we could have a nice event combining Italian creativity, Italian art, Italian history and culture, seen through the works of Caravaggio,” she explained.

Then, after a quick joke about her boss being a man and the irony that this holds on the eve of International Women’s Day, she handed the mic over to Francesco Genuardi, the New York Consul General of Italy, who extended his own welcome to the audience. He noted that Ghia’s presentation would be “about Caravaggio, about Italian beauty, and Italian technology,” and that, in Italy, women are making history in the area of diplomacy. He was probably referring to Ambassador Mariangela Zappia, the first woman to lead the Italian Mission at the United Nations. After his introduction, Linda Willett, President of The Women’s Forum of New York, which collaborated with the Italian Consulate to host this event, said a few words. “It’s so timely because in The New York Times this week, there was a story about a wonderful painting that was found and the question was: is it a Caravaggio or isn’t it a Caravaggio?” she chuckled.

Another moment of Giulia Silvia Ghia’s presentation

Finally, Giulia Silvia Ghia, art historian and restorer, took to the podium and began her presentation. Her stance on Caravaggio’s work is one of (justified) veneration, and she stated that “…he [was] the first painter in the history of art able to shed a human light on some of the deepest passions and sentiments of our nature.” And, thanks to Ghia’s expertise on the restoration of paintings, she was able to show her audience the behind-the-scenes production of the human condition depicted in his art: what he chose to change before settling on the final draft of the piece that we see on the surface of his canvases. There must be some metaphor there about how “everything is not what it seems”—which could, of course, be extended to the women that became his muses for famous pieces like The Holy Family or Judith Beheading Holofernes. In the former, the Madonna’s image was modeled after Lena, a prostitute that Caravaggio loved, and in the latter, Judith was depicted as the likeness of Beatrice Cenci, the girl who murdered her abusive father and who was subsequently sentenced to death. They were beautiful muses, but still scandalous figures, to be sure.

The crowd at the Italian Consulate for Caravaggio

Beyond the beauty of these two women, what can we admire about them? Are these the explicit examples of women that we are meant to honor on International Women’s Day? I don’t think there is anything wrong with revering female beauty– so long as it isn’t the only quality of women that we admire. Which is why it might have been better to discuss a compilation of the feats achieved by women during the Renaissance (or some-such significant period) in Italy. Artemisia Gentileschi was briefly mentioned along with her backstory, but what if she had been made the main subject of the discussion? What about Caterina Sforza, Lucrezia Borgia, Isabella d’Este? These were women who accumulated political and cultural achievements during a time when it was the norm for women to have no agency over the outcome of things like foreign affairs—or even their own lives. They were the antitheses of the prevailing societal viewpoints of the time, whereby women were meant to be ornaments–and rarely anything more– in the lives of men. This is the key point: for so much of recorded history, women have been placed on a pedestal for their appearance and not for their deeds, while men have been celebrated for their actions, and their appearance is considered a bonus (if it is above average). International Women’s Day is supposed to turn this kind of thinking on its head.

However, overall, at the Italian Consulate there was a huge audience who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the event. The intricacies of restoring paintings and the meaning that can be gleaned from each x-ray and every incision (the technique employed by Caravaggio to set up the layout of his pieces, wherein he would cut lines in his canvases to guide the strokes that would follow) is definitely worth exploring. And Ghia seems to be the person to guide us through it. It was easy to spot her passion for the topic and the way in which she told her audience the stories of the women’s connections to Caravaggio. I would like to celebrate her and her accomplishments in the field of art history, preservation, and restoration on this International Women’s Day; judging by the applause from the audience at the end, everyone else who listened to her is of the same opinion. It was a great day for art…

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