She will never again help me; she will never again react to the real or imagined circumstances of her life with the disgust, the shudders, that made me want to weave its rhythms and images together in a joint collaboration, active and shared, the convulsive game of two shipwrecked women who do not want to abandon the hope of being saved on a barrel. She has merged once more into the distant light of three centuries ago, a light which shines full into my face.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1651) was, by any standard, a remarkable woman. An artist by profession in an age when successful women painters were vanishingly rare - barred as they were from the halls of art academies, and dismissed or shunned as little more than scandalous curiosities - she battled through prejudice, social stigma and violence to make her living and her name.
Artemisia (1947) represents a remarkable, powerful attempt by Anna Banti (pen-name of Italian novelist, art critic and translator Lucia Lopresti, 1895-1985) to engage with Gentileschi as artist, woman, daughter, and emblem. (I read the 2004 edition, translated by Shirley D'Ardia Caracciolo, with an introduction by Susan Sontag.)
Like its subject, the novel survived a torturous history to reach the form in which we have it today. The original, complete draft of it was destroyed in August 1944, "due to events of war which were unfortunately in no way exceptional" - that is, when the Nazi force occupying Florence used mines to demolish most of the city's bridges and surrounding buildings. Banti was devastated, but could not let Artemisia's story lie. She began to write it again, she says in her brief foreword,
To justify the heartbroken obstinacy with which my memory never tired, during subsequent years, of remaining true to a character of whom it was perhaps too fond.
The second version is anything but a standard historical novel; it is threaded through with Banti's burning desire, made more urgent by the setback, to do justice to wronged but tenacious Artemisia ("One of the first women," she notes in the foreword, "to uphold, in her speech and in her work, the right to do congenial work and the equality of spirit between the sexes"). Or, as it is expressed in the opening pages of the novel, which describe Banti picking her way, dazed, through the ruins of Florence:
Under the rubble of my house I have lost Artemisia, my companion from three centuries ago who lay breathing gently on the hundred pages I had written. At the same time as I recognise her voice, hordes of swirling images pour out from hidden wounds in my mind.
Throughout, the author's sense of loss and dislocation mingle with the character's sadnesses. The result is a curious, but very rich and beautiful, amalgam of historical novel, biography and meditation, in which Banti imagines holding conversations with Artemisia, and the evocation of her character's emotions are amplified by her own. It reads as an attempt, partly, to recall the lost words, and partly to recover the lost creation, who has taken on such a life of her own as to become a companion in difficult times. They are co-conspirators, sharing pain and triumph alike, or co-dependants even; there is a clear sense that Banti needs troubled Artemisia as much as she imagines the reverse to be the case; she talks of "keeping her company", but also of "dragging Artemisia on a walk through the Boboli gardens, battered and deserted after the departure of the refugees". At times she experiences their closeness in a very physical, immediate sense:
In the dark, in the brutal roar of war, Artemisia's face, underneath my tightly-closed eyelids, becomes inflamed like a hot-tempered woman's. I could reach out and touch it; in the middle of her forehead I can see the vertical line she had from an early age and which deepened as she grew older. She begins to scream in my ear like a furious sleepwalker; she has the jarring voice and mangled accent of a lower-class girl from the Borgo.
The novel charts a roughly chronological, but heavily impressionistic and fragmentary, course through Artemisia's life, beginning with her slightly wrong-side-of-the-tracks childhood and its central concern: her father and his art.
"Now he's doing a Saint Sebastian, completely naked, with the arrows and the wounds and the blood running down. Yes, real blood," she specifies shamelessly, spurred on by the amazement in the blue eyes, "whoever's modelling for Saint Sebastian has to put up with being hurt." When she talks of her father, of his painting, of his successes, with a mixture of innocent invention and plain truth, Artemisia in her haste swallows both the sounds and the meanings of words.
The image is of an innocent, irrepressible girl, devoted to her father and to her sickly friend Cecilia. Banti makes the most of this brief taste of female friendship, one of the very few in Artemisia's life, and of the social pressures upon it: the difficulties of maintaining a friendship when one is not allowed to travel the city without a male escort, and how easily it is crushed by the demands of marriage (very early, for girls in this period) and running a household. Banti inserts herself into the story, imagining their interactions as if she were there with them ("I can see the effort of the trembling gesture with which Cecilia pushes the [sweets] towards her friend, the shiny skin of her small hand. I do not know how Artemisia takes them").
The narration continually swings back and forth between first- and third-person, between Artemisia's voice and her own and some combination of the two, often with character and author addressing each other directly. As biographers and historical novelists often seek to vindicate or explain their subjects by providing them with (largely imagined, or extrapolated) intellectually-satisfying consistency of motivation and emotionally-satiating psychological trajectories, so Banti offers comfort to Artemisia, speaking to her across the centuries through both fiction and narrative voice. When Cecilia dies young from her illness, Banti comforts the girl, putting her sentiments into reported speech like a character in the story:
I begin anew to console her. "She knew nothing about it, she knew nothing of love, of desertion, of betrayal." [...] In my improvised role of comforter, the words I had written and lost become priceless, as though they were a unique text, and my grief is made all the more acute as Artemisia, her confidence restored, regains her dignity.
This blurring of the various Artemisias - historical individual, fictional creation, emotional ghost - and the accompanying conviction, that restoring the lost written portrait will also restore Artemisia and make author and subject alike whole once more, recur frequently in the early part of the novel:
To have remembered that at the age of ten Artemisia used to say, "Now he's paintin' for the monks," truncating the flow of her inherited Tuscan speech with a harsh borrowed accent, seems to me a measure of success, evidence of my belief in her story.
This is particularly pronounced when Banti recounts the defining crisis of Artemisia's young life, which took place in her mid-teens. By this time she was already a painter of some note; the picture to the left is her Susanna and the Elders (1610; image from Wikipedia, click for larger version). But the customary channels of artistic training were closed to her, since she was a woman. In 1612 her father, Orazio - himself a painter - found her a tutor, Agostino Tassi. Tassi raped her. When Tassi did not make amends by the accepted means of marrying Artemisia, Orazio brought him to court over the matter; Artemisia had to testify, and suffer a further ordeal as she was subjected to a physical examination and judicial torture to 'prove' her case.
The rape and its aftermath is approached here with a mixture of delicacy, pain and anger, fracturing the narrative such that the events are only glimpsed obliquely, largely through their emotional impact on Artemisia and Banti. "Unsteadily she follows the troubled remembrance of what I had written, of what I had tried to guess or sacrifice to the accuracy of her story. [...] Artemisia confesses to me: 'He was ugly, Agostino was, thickset and sallow.'" These are whispered confidences between women.
The resultant disgrace is inescapable; but in some senses it also seems, in the novel at least, to liberate Artemisia; she tells us, "So I said, I'll go on my own: I thought after that after my disgrace I at least had the right to be as free as a man." Being such a subject of scandal already, it is a less precipitous - if still profound - step for her to strike out alone, and seek to make a living from her art.
It is a lonely life, however, being an independent woman, pursuing her own dreams in a time when this could only be done by sacrificing everything else: her patrons and customers have no respect for her even as they sit for their portraits (the ladies, she reflects, "would not hesitate to discredit her, declaring her to be of low and worthless character"), and while she eventually marries for the sake of form, her husband and his family can never overcome their discomfort with either her past history or the fact that she has an income of her own. For much of the time they are estranged. Sometimes she imagines a more conventional life for herself, marrying into a well-to-do family ("she would not meet her husband until everything was final, just like a well-brought-up young lady") and giving up her painting to look after a household.
But she finds freedom in her art ("Only with herself, on the canvas, is she able to speak
it, and she receives a response not only from the artist but also from the young Artemisia desperate to be justified, to be avenged, to be in command"), often (but not exclusively) painting violent, vengeful Biblical scenes, like the Judith and Holofernes shown on the cover at the top of this post. There is comfort, too, in the pretense of respectable widowhood and the company of widows, those marginal, discomforting figures:
"If only I were not a woman," that futile lament. Far better to ally herself with the sacrificed and imprisoned, participate in their veiled, momentous fate, share their feelings, their plans, their truths; secrets from which the privileged, men, were barred.
As the novel progresses, and Artemisia herself grows in stature and confidence and selfhood, the importance of Banti's lost manuscript's words decline, or is surrendered, to the new force of personality inhabiting her imagination. "Even if I saw the lost manuscript with all its marks, its blotches," she says, late on, "lying beside me on the grass that still resounds with the noise of the cannon, I couldn't be bothered to read a line of it."
Banti engages with the issue of fictionalising a historical individual head on, and compellingly. She acknowledges the input of both an uncomfortable, selfish sort of wish fulfilment and a striking authorial intimacy in the process of writing Artemisia, dramatising her manipulation both through the structure of the narrative and through direct statements:
Now it is for my benefit alone that Artemisia recites her lesson; she wants to prove to me that she believes everything that I invented, and she has become so docile that even the colour of her hair changes, becomes almost black, and her complexion olive, such as I imagined her when I first read the accounts of her trial on the mold-spotted documents. I close my eyes and for the first time use "tu" to her.
She notes the distance between 'her' Artemisia, a puppet of her authorial will and imagination, and the real but ever unreachable woman behind her ("I form these words on Artemisia's lips. She must have uttered them at least once"). At other times, particularly later on, she casts herself as a ventriloquist, a mouthpiece rather than a maker - "Perhaps this is Artemisia's reply, a sudden reflex, outside my control, which through me is put into words" - although never without that uncertain "perhaps". For Banti the remaking seems to go both ways: she and Artemisia shape each other, and expose one another's weaknesses in the process of comforting them. "We are playing a chasing game, Artemisia and I," she says. "We also try to catch one another, not without laying snares, which range from the obvious and material to the most subtle." This mutual reliance, the resonance between the emotions of author and subject, is - Susan Sontag argues in her wonderful introduction - especially present when it comes to their problematic relationships with the men in their lives.
One of the major influences on Banti's creative life, Sontag writes, was her sense of being overshadowed by the prominence of her husband, Roberto Longhi. This is reflected, she argues, in the foregrounding of Artemisia's feelings towards her father: she loves him, and is trapped by him. What haunts Artemisia, even in her middle-aged success, is that her life - both the aspects she has chosen, like her career, and those she did not, like her rape - has cost her father's "difficult love", whose "great value is as a sword that slays all weakness, the very image of which is enough to pierce through". He, too, cannot bring himself to see her as he once did, disgraced as she is.
Indeed, Artemisia's longing for her father's approval emerges more vividly from the narrative than even her rape does. She imagines herself "crawling on the ground to show him, as it were, the color of her own contrite blood, a pointless fantasy." Late on, Banti gives us a scene - surely imagined, for comfort? - in which Orazio visits his daughter and at last expresses his appreciation of her art; Artemisia feels "happy and safe", "vindicated" by the "recognition". It is the transporting moment of the narrative. Envisioning the two of them not as father and daughter but as "two minds", Artemisia is at last "released in a fervour of demonstrativeness that gives her courage, raises her head and her eyes."
The book was not at all what I expected, I must confess; but I found it impossible to resist either Artemisia's story or Anna Banti's charged, resonant presentation of it. Highly recommended.