Anna Banti’s novel Artemisia tells the story of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi, who was one of the first women to have a successful career as an artist. The daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi, who was a friend of Caravaggio, Artemisia was born in Rome in 1593, and showed great promise as an artist from an early age. She was raped by her father’s assistant Agostino Tassi and took her rapist to court, which did not happen very often at the time, and was tortured to confirm her story. Tassi was found guilty, but got off with only a light sentence, while Artemisia’s reputation was ruined, and Roman society shunned her. As a result of the scandal, she was married off to a neighbor and went to Florence, where she received commissions for her art. Many of her paintings were of heroines from the Bible and classical mythology. Eventually she left Florence and came back to Rome with her husband, but the marriage did not last. She went to Naples with her daughter, and founded a school for art there. But she was never entirely happy in Naples. In Banti’s version of the story, her daughter turned against her. She joined her father in England, at the court of Charles I, and painted the queen’s portrait. After her father’s death, she returned to Italy, where she lived her last years.
Banti, the pseudonym of art historian and novelist Lucia Lopresti, tells Artemisia’s story in a very unusual way. She intersperses Artemisia’s life with her own experiences in war-torn Florence during World War II. The Germans destroyed her house and, with it, the original manuscript of this novel. It was going to be a more straightforward novel of Artemisia’s life, but instead, in the later version, Banti has turned it into a dialogue between herself and Artemisia, and you see Artemisia following the author through the devastated city. This technique makes the novel difficult to follow at first, as the reader tries to keep track of who is speaking, Banti or Artemisia, but ultimately it proves rewarding. Banti’s writing is beautifully lyrical, and her description of Artemisia’s journey to England, in particular, reads more like poetry than prose. This is an excellent novel about a remarkable woman.
Artemisia is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library: http://mirlyn.lib.umich.edu/Record/004963522