Moving back and forth between early modern Italy and Nazi-occupied Florence, your book Artemisia, tr. Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo (2003. Original: Artemisia, 1947) unfolds as in a game of hide-and-seek: we are constantly drawn out of your protagonist and into your narrator; out of your narrator and into yourself as an author – and then back again.
When the novel opens, we can only hear a voice – “Do not cry”. We don’t know where it comes from, nor when. Then the narration zooms in on the first-person narrator – you, a writer named Banti -, as she roams the ruins in Florence after a bombing in 1944. Her home has just been destroyed – and, with it, a manuscript she has just been writing on the baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656).
So, Banti, your narrator, may be talking to herself – mourning her loss, crying over the devastation all around, and trying to console herself: “Do not cry”. Maybe, she is talking to the character in her destroyed manuscript, a character who has been lamenting her losses for over three hundred years – Artemisia, dear, “do not cry”. Or, maybe, it is your character the one who is trying to console you.
As you roam the remains of the city, you bump into fragments of Artemisia – the remains of what you had made of her in your lost manuscript. First, as a child in Rome, ignored by a negligent father, Orazio, whom she nonetheless reveres. Then, as a fourteen-year-old who, after being raped by Agostino, one of her father’s assistants, decides to do something completely unheard of at the time: Artemisia brings the rapist to trial and refuses his attempts at bribing her to drop the charges. Despite being the victim, she undergoes torture to prove her innocence, her reputation is questioned during the trial, and she is made an outcast in Rome afterwards. “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.”
Artemisia is then hastily married off to a neighbour out of formality, and removed to Florence in the company of her father – and without her husband. Once there, she begins to establish herself as a painter – with no help from Orazio -, she founds a school, and starts to work on her Judith Slaying Holofernes masterpiece.
When her father decides to go alone to England, Artemisia is made to interrupt her career, in the middle of her growing fame, to return to Rome and live with her legal husband, Antonio. For a while, she is content with married life, but produces no art. With the help of her brother, she is then commissioned for a series of paintings for the upper classes. Shortly thereafter, her husband leaves her, embarrassed by the fact that she had asserted herself professionally. Life ain’t easy for our Artemisia. Pregnant and alone, she starts her life all over again in Naples, where she achieves independence and, eventually, success. Twenty years later, when her husband returns asking for a divorce, a middle-aged Artemisia – disillusioned, heartbroken, and shunned by her own daughter – leaves everything behind and travels to England, to join her dying father. “If only the dark would last forever, no one would recognize me as a woman, such hell for me, woe to others”.
I may have given the wrong impression with my brief summary: this book is not a traditional, linear novel – and that’s why I liked it so much, I guess. Author and narrator are fused, and they are in constant dialogue with their protagonist: Artemisia’s life comes to us in incomplete, evocative fragments, mixed up with the present of the author writing about them.
Your book is no traditional biographical novel either – you are not interested in providing the reader with a detailed, chronological account of Artemisia’s life. It feels much more as if you were expanding in some seemingly trivial moments, so as to illuminate aspects of Artemisia’s inner struggles. Furthermore, your book is not even a proper historical novel – you do not provide the reader with detailed descriptions of setting or historical context; you build no temporal distance between us and your characters. Instead, you make your story as present as you can: you write profusely about the weather, the heat, the rain, the cold – trivial things you make your protagonist feel along with your readers, turning her into a person in flesh and blood, very near to our skin.
In fact, I liked your novel for everything that it is not, everything that it relentlessly refuses to be. Much as Artemisia, who could never fit any of the acceptable roles in her time and in her society, your book fits no fixed category either. It is fictional and factual; it is character study, meta- and autofiction. And it is a memoir of sorts – your memoir of the last days of the war; your memoir of rewriting this book; your memoir of having fused with your character; and the memoir Artemisia might have written, had she had the luck of borrowing your words. We never know who is the ghost(writer) of whom.
You are not interested in being didactic nor in proving to the reader that you have done your research. You have already taken one step forward: rather than grasping with all your might the known facts about Artemisia’s life, you prefer to fill in the gaps with your imagination. Your book is more interesting for what it leaves out about our protagonist, as well as for its effort of empathy toward the woman she was. You are less interested in her professional triumphs than in her frustrations, inadequacies, loneliness, and grief. Her famous paintings barely make an appearance in the book – you are not interested in interpreting them either. You prefer to shed a light on what Artemisia might have felt than on what she factually achieved; and you prefer to illuminate the limitations of biography and the subjectivity of the task of writing about the past: “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.”
The strength of the book lies precisely in the constant dialogue between you and your character: your experience of WWII intermingles with that of Artemisia in the 17th-century, and the first and third-person narrations flow into each other. Artemisia is your child, your guide, your lover, your friend, your muse, your hunter, your prey – and she is also you, in a complex way. “We are playing a chasing game, Artemisia and I.” This book is as much about you and the inspiration you derived from your protagonist during the war, as it is about Artemisia herself. And the strength of this story is drawn from the constant tension between the two of you: “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.”
Our protagonist is dead, her first fictional version has been destroyed in a bombing, but you carry her with you through the ruins: she is everywhere. She may even be here, more than three hundred years after her death, and more than fifty years after you have published this book; here with us, as we read her on.
“There was nothing on any of the canvasses that she would have liked to hide or conceal, nor was she ashamed of being thus exposed through her work, good or bad though it might be, the essence, the unique flavour of days when she had been happily engrossed in recreating a face or a garment, in inventing an effective light, in applying an expressive glaze.” ― Anna Banti,
“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.” ― Anna Banti,
“I have forced her to subscribe to the role of an imperfect, unmarried mother, of an artist of dubious quality, of a proud but weak woman who would like to be a man in order to escape herself. And I have dealt with her as one woman to another, lacking manly respect. Three hundred years have not taught me to release my companion from her human errors … And now I am unable to rouse her, to make her talk, with these memories of unhappy motherhood, the usual topic of women’s conversation” ― Anna Banti,
“We are playing a chasing game, Artemisia and I . We also try to catch one another, not without laying snares (…) She spills a whole bottle of ink onto my papers. And then we look at each other. She has become very suspicious about this period of her life in Naples, the turning point of her career, uncertain whether I will remember what I had written” ― Anna Banti,
“She is a women who wants to mold her every gesture on a model of her own sex and time, a respected noble model — but cannot find one … Artemisia will have to be content with improvising her own methods and rules, with sowing the seed for them that will produce, whenever it it may be, the fruit which could satisfy her present thirst, but which does not yet exist” ― Anna Banti,
About the book
- Bison Books, tr. Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo, 2003, 224 p. Goodreads
- Serpent’s Tail, tr. Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo, 2004, 248 p. Goodreads
- First published 1947
- Original title: Artemisia
- My rating: 4 stars
- Artemisia’s life was made into a movie, directed by Agnès Merlet (1997, IMDb)
- I read this book for 20 Books of Summer & Backpack Through Europe Summer Reading Challenge