Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 7, 2015

Women and Art in Florence and Rome

My daughter and I are back from a great trip to Italy where we walked a lot, ate a lot, and visited a lot of museums. I loved my first ever gondola ride in Venice, a wine tour in Tuscany, and learning from my favorite art history major about Renaissance and Baroque art, though I’m usually looking for the women. Venice with its lovely boats and waterways was a bust in this respect. The Accademi Galleries is supposed to hold pastel portraits by late Baroque artist Rosalba Carriera, but there was construction underway, and maybe they were temporarily in storage.



We did a bit better in Florence, seeing work by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656), who is featured in books about women artists and novels including Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia. She was inspired by Caravaggio, whose work was well-represented in many churches and museums, though Emily told me that he was a bit of an outcast in his day, with some patrons objecting to things like how he painted holy men with realistically dirty feet. We saw Judith and her Maidservant at the Pitti Palace.


And Judith Slaying Holofernes at the Uffizi Gallery. This is thought to have been painted for Cosimo II de’Medici, but because of its violence was put in a dark corner (though the Medici family knew plenty about violence, and this theme wasn’t uncommon). Artemisia Gentileschi wasn’t paid for this work, until her friend Galileo Galilei, who wanted to be an artist before he began focusing on science, came to her aid.


This makes me fond of Galileo, though he’s better known for making telescopes that changed his and our view of not only the sky, but the cosmos.


He saw that Venus had phases like the moon, which showed it rotated around the sun. The moons he observed around Jupiter did not circle the earth. It looked like the earth wasn’t at the center of the universe, a point that got him called a heretic by the church and put under house arrest for almost twenty years. About 100 years later, the Catholic Church admitted Galileo had a point, had his body dug up and buried under lovely tomb in the Basilica of Santa Croce.


Sometimes you have to bring along your own signs of artists. May Alcott studied lots of paintings and sculptures in Rome in 1870. I let her enjoy lunch outside the Pantheon, which includes the tomb of Raphael, one of her favorite painters.


I escorted her to the Spanish Steps, where back in the day artists gathered in the morning, often choosing models who sat there or around the Bernini fountain.


Nearby, a street of houses with big doors that once let in big chunks of marble and let out statues is now filled with swanky shops. I ordered cake and a latte in a restaurant in what may or may not have been Edmonia Lewis’s studio.


May-or-may-not is a theme in her story. We know she worked in a studio where Canova worked, as he did here, and then the Tadolini family, whose work is displayed. I added Edmonia Lewis’s name on my napkin and signed it in the guest book. Because one thing Rome has besides layered history is ghosts.


I wove some of my knowledge of and questions about this sculptor into Stone Mirrors, a verse history to be published by Atheneum in 2017. For those who want facts now, Harry and Albert Henderson’s excellent biography is available as an e-book. Edmonia Lewis was the first person of color to receive international acclaim as a sculptor against odds that haven’t changed enough over the past 150 years or so. According to those fabulous researchers who call themselves the Guerrilla Girls, in most major museums, only about 4% of the art on display has been made my women. And so now I’m back on the porch, jet-lagged and doing laundry, writing by asters and hydrangeas.


  1. Loved hearing about your trip! I’m sure May was very pleased to have lunch in view of the Pantheon, and I like that you signed Edmonia’s name in the guest book. Thanks for sharing the gorgeous pics — what amazing riches!

    • Thanks, Jama. It was good to bring along my own ghosts, who seem so alive to me, in a city that has room for more.

  2. Stunning photos! What a wonderful experience!

  3. So much to love in this post!!! I followed your journey a bit on Facebook, but am happy to hear more details!

    • Thanks, Kelly. Good to have my photographer-daughter along for Facebook posts. I was a little sad not to reference gelato here!

      • Did you have a favorite meal?

        • It was hard to go wrong! There was one dish with squash blossoms and crab though…

  4. So fabulous that you brought along May and Edmonia to revisit their favorite haunts. What a thoughtful author you are!

    • Those women do a lot for me, so you know I like to give back. Yes, so very thoughtful I am.

  5. I followed your adventures on Facebook–such a wonderful surprise to see a more extensive travelogue here! So special, that you took this Grand Adventure with your daughter Emily. And that May and Edmonia were traveling companions…well! Given that you’ve been immersed in their worlds (their stories) for a long while now, that doesn’t surprise me in the least. 🙂

    • Glad Emily didn’t mind the extra company I brought along. Yes, after years of those women in my head, it’s nice to travel with them to places they loved.

  6. Hi Jeannine, I enjoyed your photos of what could have possibly been Edmonia Lewis’ studio! I learned about her a few years ago and am fascinated with her story. I’m visiting Rome next week and am going to go to this area as well! Thanks again for sharing.

    • Have a wonderful trip! That restaurant is worth a visit for multiple reasons and just a few blocks away from the amazing Spanish Steps crossed by so many artists, their models and others. Thanks for stopping by here!

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