In late October, the New York Times (among other news outlets) reported that an anonymous painting damaged in the 2020 Beirut harbor explosion had been identified as a long-lost work of art by 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi. It was found damaged at the historic Sursock Palace on Rue Sursock in the Rmeil district of the Lebanese capital.
In the aftermath of the tragedy that was the Beirut explosion, the city reported 218 confirmed deaths, some 7,000 injuries, and an estimated 300,000 people left homeless. Still, as the dust settles, bits of gold can be found. And while the discovery of this painting is certainly cause for celebration among art curators and Artemisia enthusiasts, I find myself captivated by something more internal: it takes two faded, separate memories of mine, and brings them together.
Considered one of the most accomplished artists of the 17th century, Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi often evokes one of two facts regarding her life: (1) she was one of the only women painters in a scene dominated by men, and (2) she was raped by her mentor at the age of 17. But Artemisia was a force of nature, producing professional work as early as her teens, painting for an impressive roster of patrons including the House of Medici, and eventually becoming the first woman to become a member of the Academi di Arte del Disegno in Florence.
Artemisia was known for her skill at depicting the female figure with great naturalism, and for using color to express depth and drama. Her paintings tended to feature women from myths and allegories, as well as the Bible. Most widely known among them is her Biblical work of art entitled Judith Slaying Holofernes (in which Judith beheads a struggling Holofernes while her maid holds him down) as described in the Book of Judith.
Although I knew next to nothing about Artemisia, I knew Judith. I had seen the painting hanging in the Uffizi Gallery some seven years ago, back when I was attending a university writing workshop in Florence. After a month of lectures and field trips to museums, the art – of which there was a great deal – had begun to blur together. But Judith was exceptional – she was strong, commanding, ruthless, nothing like the timid and gentle heroines of Artemisia’s male contemporaries.
But Judith was exceptional – she was strong, commanding, ruthless, nothing like the timid and gentle heroines of Artemisia’s male contemporaries.
The long-lost painting – Hercules and Omphale – was found at the Sursock Palace, a grand residence that stands as a symbol of the Sursocks (a Greek Orthodox family from Lebanon that was once one of the most influential families of Beirut). The mansion once held a large art collection amassed by Alfred Sursock and his wife, Donna Maria Teresa Serra di Cassano, who together collected Italian Baroque and Lebanese paintings of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Just last month, a few weeks before Hercules and Omphale was identified publicly as a Gentileschi piece, I paid a visit to Rue Sursock. I was in Beirut visiting a dear friend, who wanted me to see the beautiful big houses of the Rmeil district. As we strolled down the quiet street one warm, humid night, we were at once struck by the grandeur of the mansions and saddened by the overwhelming emptiness of the place, with doors locked shut and windows reflecting only darkness back at us. If a 20-year civil war hadn’t already put enough of a strain on the city (including on Rue Sursock), then the devastating explosion and a sustained financial crisis had taken away what vivacity it had left.
We stood in front of the mansion, admiring the geometric motifs cut out of its window bars, without thinking about what stories lay concealed behind its panes.
We stood in front of the mansion, admiring the geometric motifs cut out of its window bars, without thinking about what stories lay concealed behind its panes. Just as I had looked upon Artemisia’s Judith, and praised without wondering. News of this lost painting – Hercules and Omphale – came and dusted the cobwebs off two scenes from my memory before building a bridge between them. Destruction unified them.
Hercules and Omphale depicts a scene from the myth of Omphale (Queen of Lydia) in which the Greek hero Hercules must become Omphale’s servant for a year. It is currently being restored at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
© Roza Melkumyan (11/09/22) – Special for FF2 Media ®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read about the discovery of Hercules and Omphale in ArtNet:
“After a devastating explosion that damaged the painting, we are honored to be entrusted with its conservation,” museum director Timothy Potts said in a statement. “Hercules and Omphale is one of the most important recent discoveries within the corpus of Artemisia Gentileschi, demonstrating her ambition for depicting historical subjects, something that was virtually unprecedented for a female artist in her day.”
Follow this link for a quick overview of Artemisia’s life on Wikipedia.
Follow this link to learn more about the death of Holofernes as told in the Book of Judith. Many artists in addition to Artemisia across many historical eras – including Botticelli, Goya and Klimt as well as Judy Chicago – have depicted this incident.
Follow this link to learn more about Omphale who has also been the subject of many works of art over time.
Follow this link to learn more about the 2020 explosion in Beirut Harbor.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo Credit: Sursock Palace (Wikipedia Commons)
Also from Wikipedia Commons: