“Through Artemisia I have come to realise all the forms, all the different ways in which the grief of violated purity can express itself. I have gained this realization from Artemisia’s mien of sacrifice and danger, which is increased, along with everyone’s regrets, by her regret at having in vain been brought back to life.”
It just so happens the last modern literary novel I read was biographical and as much about the author as the subject, which is the case here. However, Artemisia was written more than seventy years earlier, this novel must have been ground breaking and is far more ambitious in its desire to reveal the inner self than anything else I’ve read recently. Nothing short of remarkable and deeply insightful this novel is well deserving of this reprint.
Artemisia is a meditation on history and perception and the impossibility of separating the artist from her subject but that’s a minor theme not the preoccupation of the novel in the way it might be with a modern fiction. Artemisia explores the psychology of its protagonist through the prism of the authors feelings and emotions. This is Banti’s response to the devastation, upsets and let downs in her own life, own world, a reflection of her pain, hurt, sacrifice and torment. All of which comes from her family background, growing up under fascism, and the violence of the Second World War, (it’s all in the novel). Banti’s thwarted ambition, her own feelings of loss, the hardship of life in the 1940s Italy and the lack of recognition that her work received are here. All of which infuses her novel Artemisia, not so much blurring the line between novelist and protagonist as erasing it. Yet the distinction between the two is always clear, drawing on her own experience is never used to compare actions or circumstances directly and so we still have two distinct psychological portraits. Banti writes herself into and out of the novel with an ease that will charm readers. Banti’s reimagining of Artemisia reveal the artist’s trauma, experience, motivations, artistic force and powers of recovery. A woman who was the victim of rape but refused to bow to the patriarchy and act as if nothing had happened, who rebuilt her own life, which was often miserable and hard but also creative and driven. Banti isn’t shy, as we say in maths, ‘of showing her workings’, allowing her character to try on the feelings she attributes to her, this could be a hit and miss process but remarkably it feels like she hits the mark consistently, credibly.
“Another convergence and alliance of past and present, another instance of historical-literary symbiosis, an attempt at infusing into the polluted swamp of contemporary literature the pure spring waters of our language as it once was: such were the ambitions of the story. . .”
Now we know Artemisia Gentileschi, (1593 – c. 1650s), to be a great Renaissance artist, side-lined for being a woman. She craved the attention of her dismissive artist father, Orazio, Artemisia began her own career working with him on his commissions. Agostino Tassi, now only infamous to memory, was an artist collaborating with Orazio on the vaults of Casino delle Muse when he attacked and raped Artemisia. Seen as ‘devalued’ by her loss of ‘virtue’ Artemisia was essentially blackmailed into a relationship with Tassi on the promise of marriage, a promise he had no intention of keeping. When Artemisia realised this she had the courage to stand up for herself and took Tassi to court. She was tortured in order to verify that she wasn’t lying. Tassi was exposed and expelled from Rome, Artemisia, in so far as it was possible at the time, was vindicated. Nonetheless she was sent away to Florence by her father and soon married off. She was later abandoned by her husband in Rome. Artemisia finally gained recognition as an artist after years of trying to fulfil her potential, she had been constantly underestimated, and was even castigated as a poor mother, before finally winning her father’s respect and affection again. Her work often depicts female heroes, perhaps best known is Judith Slaying Holofernes, (Uffizi), her work carried a dramatic power.
In the novel Artemisia is fourteen at the time of her rape, Banti’s character is effectively groomed as a child by Tassi:
“Daddy was painting and not saying anything. Agostino stopped to look at what I was drawing on that little board and he says, ‘D’ya wanna learn about perspective.”
A trusted neighbour pressed Artemisia to encourage Tassi’s attentions; ‘he’s dying for you’, before betraying her, ignoring her cries during the rape. The mood is dark, Artemisia is seen experiencing violence, rejection, driven by her maddening talent, facing knockbacks, a bad marriage, illiteracy, misogyny, abandonment, hardship and disapproval. The well of pain that Banti draws on for Artemisia are her own anger and outage with her times. We learn that the first 100 page draft of the novel was destroyed, Banti lost Artemisia before finding her again.
Banti gets to the dark emotional core of her character but this is a story of fortitude and courage, of an independent spirit, even glimpsing the impetus for great art. Rich, complex, emotionally wrought, unrelentingly harsh, but beautiful and poetic.
Artemisia has an insightful introduction by Susan Sontag and is translated superbly by Shirley D’Ardia Caracciola. Anna Banti, the pen name of Lucia Lopresti, was born in 1895 and was a prize winning author, an art/literary/cinematic critic and translator. Small Axes, an imprint of Hope Road Publishing, was founded by Rosemarie Hudson in 2010.
Sadly the first major exhibition of Artemisia Gentileschi’s work at the National Gallery due to take place between April and July this year has had to be postponed.
Paul Burke 5/4*
Artemisia by Anna Banti
9781913109004 Hope Road Small Axes Paperback April 2020