“Artemisia” by Anna Banti, translated by Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo
Posted April 8, 2007on:
Artemisia is not a typical fiction in significant ways. It could be labelled as a biographical novel but follows little of the conventions one would expect. There is no detailed or even comprehensive chronological narrative given of her life. Moments are chosen and expanded to reveal aspects of Artemisia’s character,or personality, many of which are not obviously significant. Artemisia achieved much fame in her life but Banti does not explicitly chart the expected highs and lows of the artist’s career. Indeed one does not really get any significant pay off, no apogee in which Artemisia triumphs in her success, the author faithfully depicting her enjoyment of each subsequent advantage; followed by the usual moments of creative frustration, abject poverty, tainted love and so on. It could be called a historical novel, but Banti does not not regale us with the usual in-depth setting description and development, she invites no wonder at clothes, at physical surroundings and her writing does not vulgarly exhibit her no doubt thorough research on Artemisia Gentileschi.
What we have, as Susan Sontag articulated in her introduction, is a dialogue. A dialogue between Banti and the figure of Artemisia, three hundred years into the present. For much of the novel Banti’s personal observations on her circumstances in Italy during WWII, the story’s progression and interactions with Artemisia interchange with her account of the painter’s life. There is tension between the two as each seeks to navigate the account, the subject at times dissatisfied and domineering.
Artemisia is not pleased…She was expecting more, above all a logical, calm account, a carefully considered interpretation of her actions, the very thing that I can no longer give her, for she is too close to me. Having her follow me so closely means that she distorts the images and memories I have of her. Now it is she who tells me about the time she went to San Paolo…
At other times she is petulant and passive, vulnerable and pitiful, or aggrieved and withdrawn. It is at the last moments that it becomes clearest that this figure is entirely a reflection of Banti’s current feelings about her burgeoning novel, whether she feels confident and inspired or subdued and overly critical.
I now admit that it is not possible to recall to life and understand an action that happened three hundred years ago, far less and emotion, and what at the time was sadness or happiness.
These connected moments lend the novel a very unstudied and intimate air. We feel as if much of Banti’s knowledge, even the writing itself, comes from her familiarity with the tangible phantom, rather than from books. It lends it an uber-fictional air that I found very satisfying, the extra life that I feel books like this need in order to avoid being historically didactic.
In step with this Artemisia’s story switches between the first and third person, changes that can be missed or little noted because, even in third person, Artemisia’s tone achieves a startling directness and intimacy, her private thoughts offered with an ease that suggests no third omniscient barrier between the protagonist and the reader.
Artemisia herself is a wonder to behold. I remembered one of the conclusions I drew from a TLS review and thought it definitely applied to Banti in the 17th century: “One of Larrington’s conclusions is that women had to operate outside of family and courtly society in order to become or remain autonomous; characters who accepted the traditional roles of mother, daughter or sister were passive.” Like many other artist Banti is proud to the point of arrogance, absorbed in her work; and, for her, this dedication to art requires a contemptuous dismissal of roles and emotions that are stereotypically feminine. She is something of an idol for her younger brother Francesco, who sometimes tentatively but faithfully cares for her, holds enormous respect for talent, and asks for little or nothing in return. Artemisia accepts this as her due. Her marriage is concocted so that she may respectably follow her artist father to Florence and foreseeably continue her work, without the husband. When she returned to him, for a time, to resume her wifely role she produces no art. When she has a daughter the expectedly fierce maternal love and protection that wells up in her is something to be shocked and horrified at for their conformity to feminine ideals and also, I think, for the competition they could develop between her love for art and her child.
Much of her pride and strength was formed by the rape she suffered at 14 and the legal trial she went through in which she accused Agostino, her father’s friend. She had to undergo torture in order to prove her innocence and, in the novel, Agostino and his associates try to bribe her with the promise of matrimony in exchange for dropping the charges, “admitting” he was not her first. No matter the verdict this scandal would have and did taint her public reputation and harden the minds of her neighbours who were already inclined to think badly of her, because of her unconventional interests and visible pride. The rooms in Rome that the family lived in became a prison, where Artemisia would not even open the windows, no matter how hot, in order to avoid, finding what solace she could in herself and in her art, determined to excel.
It is ironic that she learned such strength of character, gained and learned such pride from her negligent father, Orazio. He is her idol who can do no wrong, who rarely if ever gives her filial attention or affection, who punished her with his silent condemnation for her lost virtue. It never occurrs to Artemisia that her father’s negligence in protecting her, in demanding respect for her from his friends, all male, when they piled into his rooms to discuss art and business, was to blame for making her especially vulnerable to Agostino’s attack. Orazio certainly showed no signs of guilty emotions. His eyes only ever lit up when they talked about art. Artemisia’s self-confidence, when it outwardly crumbled, did so in Orazio’s presence. It was painful to read about this indomitable character turning into a humble mouse my the mere thought of her father.
“They’ll just see who Artemisia is,” she says. Her pride, girlish and slightly arrogant, comes now to comfort her, a black, childlike angel, innocent and strong, that slowly returns to watch over her. It is not familiar with the humility, the softness, the cautious, touchy uncertainty of the female character; nothing holds the wind back from its wings. It can only be stopped by a feeling of affectionate awe if Artemisia Gentileschi thinks of her father. But Orazio’s difficult love has been removed from her and its great value is as a sword that slays all weakness, the very image of which is enough to pierce through. She must wean herself from it if she does not want to die of grief.
If anything this lack of support prepared her for the steely, often unstable life of an artist. She sought her own commissions and successfully established a school with no help from her illustrious father. (He got her her first commission but the patron didn’t pay her upon the work’s completion.) Yet this all came at a high price, as Sontag perfectly expressed in an observation on Gentileschi’s art:
Women killing men–Judith hacking away at Holofernes, Jael dispatching Sisera. And women killing themselves–Cleopatra, Lucrezia. Women vulnerable or humiliated or suing for mercy–Susanna and the Elders, the Penitent Magdalene, Esther before Ahasuerus. All subjects that suggest the torments of Artemisia herself, who had already done something heroic, virtually unheard of: denouncing a rapist in court and demanding his conviction…Banti retells Artemisia’s decision: “So I said, I’ll go on my own; I thought then that after my disgrace I at least had the right to be as free as a man.” For a woman to be free, free as a man, means choices–sacrifices–sufferings that a many may choose, but is not obliged, to incur. In Banti’s account what is central to Artemisia’s life…is her solitude, the inexorable result of her commitment to her art.