One mean-looking putto
It was a complete accident. She’d read those twitter threads of people getting locked into bookshops, charity shops, and so on until rescued, and had thought that sounded more like fun than a disaster. Even so, this had been a genuine accident.
Janice had arrived at Capodimonte late in the day, one last visit before heading back to the hotel and back home on a late evening flight. The building had several floors, wrapping around the central courtyard, and she needed to find her way to the Baroque gallery before closing, so she headed on up and around, map in hand, to find the right rooms.
She was fascinated by the way you could see individual strands of hair, the grain of fabric, a pulled thread of lace falling from a ruffle in some works, whereas in others it was more of a smudgy mass. When you stood back and compared works side by side, it was obvious again which work was by the better artist. The figures looked as if they were about to stand up and walk out of some pictures, in others it looked like the artist’s models had been corpses. They looked stiff, unnatural, and very grey – surely no healthy person had skin that looked like that?
There was one painting, in particular, at this gallery that she had wanted to see – by Artemisia Gentileschi. She’d been fascinated by the woman’s story ever since she had learnt that she had been so good at painting, and so good at painting hands, that even the other artists had had to acknowledge it, and that the same men who had tried to keep her out of the profession, who thought she shouldn’t be there just because she was a woman, had come sneaking back to her, to ask if she would paint hands for them.
Since then she’d made it a point to seek out every Gentileschi painting she could, and couldn’t help looking at every other work around them, asking herself, ‘Did Artemisia paint these hands?’ Often the answer was a clear no – hands are difficult to get right, and there were some really bad examples out there as proof. She wondered if those artists had been too stiff-necked to ask Artemisia for help, too cocksure of their own abilities to even know they needed to ask, or if Artemisia had turned them down because, no matter how tight money might have been, she simply couldn’t stomach working for them?
The hands in Artemisia’s paintings often belonged to women, which wasn’t unusual by itself – most artwork of that era featured women somewhere – goddesses, mythical figures, and biblical characters were all popular subjects: women were allowed to be art, even if they weren’t allowed to be artists. Not so many of them were portrayed with clenched fists, though. Or wielding swords. Artemisia seemed to be very fond of sword-wielding women, although she was always careful to choose ‘approved’ subjects. Fortunately, the bible contained one story that was perfect for her purpose – Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes – and it was one that she returned to time and again.
In this piece, Holofernes was already dead. Judith’s maid is bundling it up, before they make their escape. Judith is standing there, still holding the sword but gazing to the side, shielding her eyes from the candle flame. As she looked up at the painting Janice was struck by how much this Judith looked like self-portraits of Artemisia herself. She was still pondering this when the security guard came around to clear the gallery, and tell her to move towards the exit.
The gallery was dark, as the winter light had faded long ago and all that was left were the lights illuminating the huge paintings on the walls. She hadn’t realised that he was there, until he was suddenly far, far too close. She tried not to panic, but he was far too close for comfort. She glanced around, but there was no one else there, which figured. If there had been anyone else left in this section, she would have heard the guard talking to them long before he reached her. When she looked at him she realised that it was the same man she’d seen earlier, as he stood guard in one of the other rooms.
She’d only half-noticed his round and babyish face, with curly blond hair, but there’d been nothing cherubic about his expression. What she’d fully noticed was the way he’d looked at her, the way some men do, a look that sent cold chasing to her stomach in worry. Her heart started racing, but when she moved on around the gallery as casually as she could manage, he’d stayed where he was – so she’d dismissed it as nothing. Until now. She started to look around her for anything she could use to defend herself. Could she pick up one of the metal stands carrying the rope that held visitors away from the artwork? She didn’t know, and she wasn’t yet sure that she’d need to. She moved away, towards the exit, giving him a conciliatory, ‘Look, I’m complying’ gesture.
She walked faster, listening out for his footsteps over hers, to see if they were getting closer or falling behind. Out of the room, turn right through the rest of the wing, and through the string of rooms that made up this side of the floor. It sounded like his footsteps had faded, and she started to relax, but when she reached the landing of the stairwell she realised that he had doubled back around in the other direction and was waiting for her. He stood so that he blocked her way to the doors through to the stairs and lifts. She hesitated, noticed that he was standing marginally to the left, so she went right. He moved to block her, with a stupid grin on his face, as if he expected her to find all this as amusing as he did.
She looked again, and all there was to help her were some more of those blasted barriers, to funnel visitors through from the stairs to the exhibition. She hesitated again, wondering what to do. She got her phone out, maybe he’d back off if he thought she was calling for help, but he came even closer and knocked her phone out of her hand and grabbed her arm with one hand, reaching round to try and catch the other. She lunged to the side and picked up the metal stand nearest to her and swung it at the backs of his knees, making a noise that she was sure would travel all the way to reception many floors below, as all the connected stands were dragged over onto the floor.
He let go of her, throwing his hands out to try to rebalance himself, but he went over like a cricket stump. His feet were swept up and he was flung over backwards, then dropped back down like a sack of blubber. As he landed she heard the echoes of her weaponry fading away, the thud of his head as it hit the floor and, weirdest of all, a scream of anger from behind her. She was pretty sure the screaming wasn’t her, in fact she was certain of it as she could now hear it coming closer, along with running feet – was that one pair or two?
She panicked, what if she’d killed him? What if the rest of the security guards were about to discover what she’d done? How much trouble was she about to be in?
Cautiously she peered over at him, edged a little closer, but still wasn’t sure if he was breathing or not – oh god, would it be better if he was dead or alive? She couldn’t make up her mind, she was in for a rough time whichever it turned out to be. Bloody idiot, why couldn’t he have just left her in peace?
He moved. She backed away. He rolled over and levered himself onto his knees, then to his feet, keeping her in his sights as he completed each manoeuvre. She stood there, unable to speak or move, the menace in his expression making her mind race with uncertainty – what on earth was she supposed to do now?
Those footsteps were really close now, but the screaming had stopped at least. Was that comforting, or not? Should she keep her eye on the guard, try to defend herself again, or should she find out who was behind her? She started to turn, but found herself being side-stepped by an astoundingly familiar figure. Judith, or was it Artemisia, took a swing with her sword and severed the guard’s head with such ease that it seemed as if she had been training for it her whole existence.
Gazing at the gore, unsure whether to throw up or not, she realised that the maid had followed Judith and was wiping up the bloodstains with her cloth, then bundling the head into it and twisting it closed before tying it to her belt. The stump of his neck had already been wrapped with another piece of cloth – how had she not seen that happen? Was she imagining all this, was any of it real, or was her mind in another place to protect herself from what was really happening?
Judith and the maid grabbed the body by the arms and legs. Judith spoke to her in Italian, but with such an unfamiliar accent that she couldn’t understand. Then she understood, she needed to help. He was quite a size, and it would take all three of them to manage him.
Still unsure of what the plan was, she took hold of his belt and heaved, and the three of them made their way back to room 88. There was no talking, all their strength was needed to shift the body. The weight pulling on her arms and shoulders sent pain signals back to her brain, and finally convinced her that she wasn’t imagining any of this. Besides, she thought, her imagination had never been this weird anyway. Unicorns she could imagine; hauling a beheaded guard through a deserted gallery with two figures who’d stepped out from a work of art – not in a million.
Finally, with many pauses to rest along the way, they were back at the painting. She hadn’t considered what she expected to see, a ripped canvas perhaps, but she wasn’t expecting it to look the same. Except, not exactly the same. The women left in the painting looked dulled, and flat, as if they’d been painted by an inferior artist.
The maid took the head from her waist and passed it to Judith, who unwrapped it and gave it a brief look of contempt, then threw it at the painting next to her own. Instead of bouncing off with a splat, it passed into the canvas, exactly where she had seen the disembodied head of a putto earlier. It was another Gentileschi work, The Annunciation, but she hadn’t paid it as much attention as the Judith and Holofernes. It wasn’t a subject she was that keen on, and besides, some of those putti looked mean. Cherubs were supposed to be, well, cherubic, but these looked anything but.
She looked closer, and realised that the guard had been a dead ringer for all the putti in that picture – had he been a painting escapee too? Now there was one that looked much less alive than before. His face seemed to be going dark, and his eyes rolling up into his head.
She turned to Judith and the maid, but they were back in their own painting already. She looked, but there was no sign of the guard’s body anywhere – had they taken it in with them? She supposed they must have done, maybe that was what Judith was looking at, off to the left, beyond the frame?
With no trace of the guard or their….interaction….she guessed she was off the hook. Maybe they’d think he’d just had enough of the job and gone home? So, what now? Reluctantly, she reached for her phone and dialled for help. As tempting as it was to stay there all night and see as many paintings as she wanted to without crowds in the way, she was needed at home, and she had a plane to catch.