In a welcome respite from the Christmas schmaltz, Michael Palin’s festive offering is a BBC4 documentary about the remarkable life of 17th century painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Despite being forced to endure a graphic public trial after being raped by her art teacher, she went on to become one of the finest Baroque artists – only for her oeuvre to be ignored until very recently.
Below, Michael Palin tells us why he was drawn to Artemisia’s paintings – and why he preferred the hectic streets of Naples to the better known offerings of Florence and Rome.
When did you first come across Artemisia Gentileschi?
I saw one of her paintings a few years ago and was really struck by the power of it. It was very sensual and very violent – somebody having their head chopped off in a Biblical scene.
I thought it must be a typical male fantasy portrait but actually it was painted by a woman. And that intrigued me because there are not many women painters who are particularly well known from that period.
Jael and Sisera by Artemisia Gentileschi, 1620; Jael drives a tent peg with a hammer into Sisera’s brain
She had an extraordinary life. Which part of her story surprised you most?
What conditions were like for painters in Rome at that time. It all seems rather glamorous but actually how she and her father [the Baroque painter Orazio Gentileschi] lived was pretty rough: all jammed together in a fairly small house that was also the studio.
It was quite a dangerous place to live: lots of beggars, lots of prostitutes, crime of all sorts going on. And the more I learnt about it, the more I could see the dark underbelly of Rome. It must have been a terrifying place for someone like her to be brought up.
Did anything surprise you about her?
A little brightness in the dark was her own attitude and determination: she was quite clearly her own woman, she knew what she wanted to do and she was not going to be pushed around by anybody.
You retrace her footsteps from Rome to Florence and finally to Naples. Where did you get the best sense of what life must have been like for Artemisia?
Naples attracted me most because it seems to have changed the least. Rome’s been pretty much cleaned up and so has Florence.
There are over 500 churches still left there within the heart of Naples and the little narrow streets are very much what she would have seen as she walked to work. And there’s something rather grand about the view out over the Bay of Naples that she would have looked at as well: Vesuvius looming across the bay. It really does have a very powerful atmosphere.
The volcano Vesuvius looms over the Bay of Naples
In Naples, you really get the feeling that the city has its own life. It’s totally mad. You go up narrow streets and suddenly a motorbike roars up, swerves round the corner and up the hill and nobody bats and eyelid. It’s very much live and let live.
Had you been before?
No, I was keen to see it and very glad I did. The people couldn’t have been more helpful and the weather was great.
We were warned about Naples. Everyone said: “It’s very dangerous, lock everything up in your car.” And quite the opposite happened. One morning, we were just about to start filming when we realised we’d left the tripod leaning against a wall outside the hotel – and it was still there! So obviously people aren’t very keen on nicking tripods in Naples.
Where should art lovers make a beeline for?
The big gallery, Capodimonte, is just terrific – fantastic selection of paintings and hardly anybody there. Coming from London where the galleries are gratifyingly full but sometimes too full to move, you can’t believe how much space there is in Naples to see these very fine paintings.
One of Naples’ many narrow streets
What did you do after you’d finished the detective work for the day?
In the evening, you go out and find a little restaurant. The food was cheap and great, especially in Naples. And of course I was reading the Elena Ferrante books, which a lot of people are reading at the moment – the My Brilliant Friend series, which is set in Naples. So that gave an added flavour of the place.
Why don’t we see you travelling on TV as much as we used to?
It’s quite deliberate. I’m 72 now and I’ve got two grandchildren and another one coming along. It’s rather nice to be able to spend a little more time with the family and enjoy where I live. I still love travelling and the hit that you get from discovering somewhere new but it will probably be shorter journeys from now on.
Where are you spending Christmas?
At home with the family. I shall be having a traditional Christmas with my son, his wife and my two grandsons. My son will be cooking the turkey and I’m a great appreciator of his work, put it that way! And then we’ve got a bit of an invasion on Boxing Day.
Michael Palin’s Quest for Artemisia will be shown on Monday 28th December on BBC4 at 9pm