This is the first installment in a trilogy of an intensely powerful historical graphic novel about a female painter, sexual assault, and her pursuit of her attacker during the Italian Renaissance. Didn’t know that there were many, or any, female painters in the 1600s? I didn’t. To say the occupation favored males is quite an understatement. Certainly, there were women painting—they just weren’t talked about. Their lives were rarely documented, their works rarely celebrated, and their talent seldom promoted. Fortunately, Artemisia Gentileschi’s artwork and story survive. Her father, Orazio, was a fairly well-to-do artist at the time. He was heavily influenced by the stark new baroque works of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
This story begins with the Cenci family in Rome. They were an extremely wealthy clan, headed by a tyrannical father named Francesco who locked his daughter Beatrice in a tower for three years. To quote Siciliano on Beatrice: “her story spread quickly amongst a counter-reformation society that popularized notions of fantastic suffering and triumphant martyrdom.” To free herself from the tower, she conspired with a guard to murder her father by pushing him off a balcony. The Cenci family was found out, put on trial, and publically beheaded—Beatrice being last. Shortly after this event, Caravaggio and other renowned painters started including imagery of decapitations in their work. One of his most famous pieces, Judith Beheading Holofernes, is a scene that Artemisia took on later in her career.
The biggest tragedies of Artemisia’s life were being raped by her father’s friend Agostino Tassi and being sexually assaulted by another of his friends, Cosimo Quorli. While I’m no fan of the bible, the story of Judith is heavy in female heroism in which she seduced a general, got him drunk, and cut off his head in order to save her people. In Artemisia’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, she depicted herself as Judith and Tassi as Holofernes. Not only was she believed to be a freak of nature—a woman who could paint well—it was completely unheard of to have one who pushed feminism and a woman’s perspective in their work. A strict hierarchy existed in the art world at the time: painters started with still life, then portraiture, and only if you were extremely talented, you were allowed to do biblical works. Artemisia was so skilled that she was painting biblical scenes by the age of sixteen, possibly younger. She cathartically depicted these events of sexual assault again in her painting Susanna and the Elders.
I Know What I Am covers the early portion of Artemisia’s career, the back story of her family, and influences (including stories of fights, murder, and exile involving the thuggish badass Caravaggio). Part one ends with her sexual assault which left me feeling as vulnerable and alone as she must have felt. The graphic novel contains sixty-six pages of hand-drawn and hand-lettered panels, executed solely with ball point pens. There is extensive research pumped into this project—which is made evident with quotes from translated historical documents spoken by the characters—and painstakingly accurate depictions of the architecture and clothing of the time period. Images of large-scale oil paintings by Caravaggio, Orazio, and Artemisia are also meticulously recreated in pen. Siciliano’s talent is undeniable. Both her art and story telling are equally captivating. –Kayla Greet (Mend My Dress Press)