The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Not a heroine or a saint

Posted on: March 5, 2007

She had never learned to write other than her signature and the only notebooks she possesses are for the creation of her Esthers and Cleopatras and Bathshebas–not to mention that a mother without a husband is not a head of family. Just what exactly her state is no confessor has been able to explain to her, no matter how hard she insisted; just as, moreover, no matter how much thought she gives to it, she has not managed to recognise and define herself in terms of any exemplary figure approved of by her century. Nor is this to be seen as total presumption. She is a woman who wants to mould her every gesture on a model of her own sex and time, a respected, noble model–but cannot find one. An image with which she could identify completely, under whose name she could fight: these are Artemisia’s needs in her thirty-third year, an age at which she is beginning to be influenced and attracted by worldly pleasures and customs. But she is not a princess, she is not a pawn, she is not a peasant nor a tradeswoman, not a heroine or a saint. And not even a courtesan, despite what people say about her. When she was in Florence the reputation of being noble in character was enough for her, “The shy queen of hearts, the chaste adventuress, idol of other women.” In Rome she was a rash maiden, then a legitimate wife. In Naples there is no patron saint for a woman who is mistress of her art. She has to keep repeating, “My Don Pierantonio is trading far away, he sends good news and promises of gifts for Porziella…” And Porziella is growing up, still slightly pump, as dark as an African; and she is at ease only with servants, dogs and working women. Artemisia’s maternal love storms wildly, moans, struggles, becomes frenzied. All in silence, of course. As for the rest–her painting her reputation, her ambitions of fame–Donna Artemisia will have to be content with improvising her own methods and rules, with sowing the seed for them that will produce, whenever it may be, the fruit which could satisfy her present thirst, but which does not yet exist. In any case, let her wear herself out, let her suffer: this is her freedom.

From “Artemisia” by Anna Banti, translated by Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo

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2 Responses to "Not a heroine or a saint"

That was intriguing, but unintentionally disappointing. I hoped while I was reading it that it was something you had written. I’m not familiar with Anna Banti, so I thank you for the recommendation.

Sorry, David, I fear that all excerpts here will be the works of others. I’m a reader, not a writer. :p But I’m glad you were intrigued by it!

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