Atemisia Gentileschi, born in Rome in 1598, is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of art, though very little is known about her life. The daughter of a painter herself, Artemisia painted beautiful scenes of the women of Roman and biblical history even though she could neither read nor write.
Artemisia had, to put it mildly, a turbulent personal life. She was discredited in a rape trial, betrayed by her own father and abandoned by her husband. Her professional life, however, was far different. She was the first woman admitted to the prestigious Florentine Academy; she established a successful art school in Naples; she raised her daughter on her own and supported herself financially during a time when a woman's life was defined only by home, husband, children and the Church.
Although the above is about the sum total of all that's known about Artemisia Gentileschi's life, writer, Anna Banti, managed to flesh out these bare bones facts into one of the triumphs of 20th century Italian literature.
"Artemisia" is definitely not a biography or even a fictionalized one. It is not a historical work; in fact, the setting of this book is definitely ahistorical. It consists of an amazing dialogue between the author and Artemisia. There are, as way I see it, three levels in this book: the experiences of Artemisia, the experiences of the author and a blending of the two, to make a very fascinating third.
The very essence of this book consists of Artemisia's travels, all made for the sake of her art. Included are the young Artemisia's traumatic experiences in Rome, her marriage, her years of success in Naples, her long and undoubtedly arduous journey to England and back again to her native Italy.
One of the things that makes this book so powerful is Banti's constant authorial intrusion, a device that would weaken (or destroy) more conventional novels. Moving back and forth from the thrid to the first person, Banti holds fascinating conversations with Artemisia. This leads to a captivating, but very complex, narrative. As the dialogue between author and subject intensifies, Banti complicates matters even further.
In 1944, when the first version of "Artemisia" was nearly complete, events of the war caused it to be destroyed. The "Artemisia" of the first version constantly intrudes on the "Artemisia" of the second version, however. Confusing? No, not really. Banti is far too good a writer for that. Complex? Yes. And lyrical and skillful and fragile.
Despite the fact that this is not a historical novel, it is highly atmospheric. There are no detailed descriptions to weigh down the weightless quality of Banti's lyricism, but there are many vivid images of 17th century Rome, Naples, Florence, France.
No matter how fast you usually read, "Artemisia" is a novel that should be read slowly. This is a demanding book that requires much concentration on the part of the reader, but this concentration will be richly rewarded.
There is a vague, circular quality about this book and, in a sense, it ends where it began. In reality, however, nothing is known about Artemisia Gentileschi's life after her return to Italy from England.
This book is complex, intricate, self-reflective and extremely lyrical. Although it has an ephemeral, gossamer quality, it succeeds wonderfully in bringing Artemisia Gentileschi to life in a vivid and wonderful manner.