This stately home is so venerable that it makes other great buildings like Blenheim Palace or Chatsworth look nouveau riche. Burghley House was built during the Renaissance by William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s chief adviser. His descendants created an amazing art collection and one of them, on his Grand Tour, happened to buy Artemisia Gentileschi’s 1622 masterpiece Susanna and the Elders from the Barberini Palace in Rome.
It’s the kind of painting to make a pilgrimage to. This is Gentileschi’s second interpretation of the biblical story of Susanna, which she depicted in her very first painting when she was just 17 years old. Here, at the age of 29, with much suffering and success behind her, she takes up again with new painterly sophistication. Deep blue skies and sparkling green water, fleshy faces and glimpses of sculpture show her experimenting with a velvety style reminiscent of Veronese and Annibale Carracci. But there is a hit. When Susanna tries to bathe, she is spied on by two creepy guys who don’t even bother to hide in the bushes: they grin openly, intimately, with the younger one making an obscene finger gesture.
You might be the kind of art lover who would rather just find this painting among all the other treasures here and enjoy it at your leisure. I’m that type of guy myself. Usually. But Gentileschi is a hero everyone needs to know about. She’s still fighting her battle: The tearful eyes of Susanna, in this painting in this ancient location, recently appeared between two giant, menacing hands on a placard outside the US Supreme Court that read, “Hands off Roe v Wade.” So I’m keen on this VR spectacle that makes Artemisia accessible to all – at a tasteful distance from the painting, in a modernized space where you put on a headset and experience a suitably extravagant narration of Artemisia’s life.
The Light in the Shadow is crystal clear, cartoonized VR fun. It’s like a graphic novel – and it’s full of life. I still can’t get over turning to see a real-looking space behind me as I turned to look out the window of artist Orazio Gentileschi’s house in early 17th-century Rome and take in the view of the St. Peter’s Basilica as I should, watching young Artemisia borrow her father’s colors. Then Orazio’s grumpy friend Caravaggio appears and quickly disappears.
This comic book narrative is quick and easy, but the fact that you’re “there,” in the room where it happened, makes the story hypnotically alive. In no time we are in court where another artist, Agostino Tassi, is on trial for raping Gentileschi in her father’s house. But she’s the one being tortured to test her unreliable female testimonies. She has strings cruelly stretched around her fingers as you stand there watching it “live.” It’s a claustrophobic room with no way out: when I turned around, a guard stepped forward to block my way.
Cerys Matthews tells this violent tale and interprets a few paintings that come to mind, including the National Gallery’s self-portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria. As she explains, Artemisia in this image identifies with an early Christian saint who survived an attempt to kill her with a crushing wheel. She points to the spiked wheel and shows her long, perhaps damaged fingers – the marks of her torture. This was painted in Florence, where Gentileschi was working for the Medici court after the rape trial. We are left with this image of triumph. It will be a success story.
That’s probably inevitable as Gentileschi is reclaimed as a modern hero. These newfangled ‘experiences’ typically celebrate modern art’s most beloved icons such as Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo. It must be an achievement for a 17th century artist to join your company. And this technically perfect affair is full of cheeky populist energy, telling the story passionately, entertainingly, albeit in a somewhat tidy version: parents can rest easy, it does not contain any of the brutal details of Tassi’s robbery, which are included in the study’s transcript.
The past is a different country and it’s getting further and further away. VR is a time machine that can transport you to a room in Rome centuries ago. And then you can travel yourself through the atmospheric corridors and staircases of this grand old house until you come across Susanna and the elders and suddenly time vanishes. There’s a revenge afoot. Gentileschi insults the men. She shows white foam squirting like semen from a fountain with pointed suggestion. If you’re a male viewer enjoying this painting for its lewd nudity, the artist suggests, you’re as much a masturbator as these two are. But the most haunting detail is Susanna’s face, her pain cutting deep into the beauty of the picture.