Friday, 12 May 2017

Book Review: Artemisia by Anna Banti isn’t easy to defy established role models or other unwritten rules of society to go your own way, to make a career that people say wasn’t meant for you because you were born this or that and to still find happiness. Only a strong personality can bear the constant fight and the isolation that a life beyond convention often implies and that may also lead into solitude, if not loneliness and resentment. But even with passion and determination to back you, there are moments of weakness and doubt. The much acclaimed Italian classic Artemisia by Anna Banti shows the struggles of the author rewriting her almost finished first draft of Artemisia Gentileschi’s biography that was destroyed in World War Two and those of the female painter from Renaissance Italy on her way from a raped fourteen-year-old unwilling to put up with her fate to an accepted artist of her own right at the courts of Naples and England.

Anna Banti was born Lucia Lopresti in Florence, Italy, in June 1895, but the family soon moved to Rome. After graduating in Literature from renowned University La Sapienza in Rome, she wrote research papers under the name Agnese Lanzi during most of the 1920s and in 1924 she married art historian Roberto Longhi. Only in 1934 she made her fiction debut publishing a short story titled Cortile (Patio) in a magazine. Early works like Sette lune (1941; Seven Moons) and Le monache cantano (1942; The Nuns Sing) weren’t much of a success, but the fictionalised biography Artemisa (1947) established her as a writer of international fame. As from 1950 Anna Banti collaborated with her husband on the art journal Paragone also writing for it. The author’s most important later works of fiction are Il bastardo (1953; The Bastard, later published as La casa piccola [The Small House]), Campi Elisi (1963; Elysian Fields), Noi credevamo (1967; We Believed), Je vous écris d'un pays lointain (1971; I’m Writing to You From a Country Far Away), La camicia bruciata (1973; The Burnt Shirt), and award-winning A Piercing Cry (Un grido lacerante: 1981). Anna Banti died in Ronchi di Massa, Italy, in September 1985.

The opening scene of Artemisia shows the author in Florence on a day in August towards the end of World War Two, when great parts of the city including her house have just been laid in ruins. She cries over the senseless devastation, but already with the resolve to reconstruct her life as well as the burnt draft of her biography of the Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi. However, the work on this novel has brought her too close to its protagonist to be content with just retelling once more her life story based on few established facts. Instead, she sets out to connect with the outstanding woman in a personal dialogue bridging time and resurrecting her as a person in flesh and blood rather than her shadow from three centuries past. The author’s focus is on the periods that made the artist. She grows up in Rome in the care of her noted painter father Orazio Gentileschi whose world revolves around art and who hardly pays attention to his children. Nonetheless, the girl adores him and passes much time in his workshop just to be near him. Then at the age of fourteen, one of her father’s assistants rapes her and she takes him to court not wanting him to get away with it. Although she withstands torture and the rapist is sentenced, it’s she who is shunned after public trial. She retreats to home and keeps herself busy – painting. Her father urges her to marry and eventually she does to be allowed to accompany him to Florence. When he is called to the English court, she returns to her husband in Rome to be abandoned as soon as painting provides her with a livelihood. Pregnant she starts all over again in Naples to stay for nearly twenty years before joining her still adored father in England.

It would be misleading to classify Artemisia only as the biography of an unforgotten though (for centuries deliberately) overlooked woman painter of the Renaissance because it is just as much historical fiction, character study and metafiction. From the beginning it’s clear that the narrative is set in two decidedly different time frames – namely the author’s present in the mid-1940s and the first half of the seventeenth century when Artemisia Gentileschi lived – and that they overlap or even merge ever again which sometimes makes the read a bit confusing. It doesn’t really help that the author mostly tells her own story in first person and the biography of the painter in third person because emotions and events on one time level use to reflect or even comment those on the other. Moreover, the third-person perspective isn’t always that of an unconcerned and omniscient observer, but often that of Artemisia herself. Anna Banti portrays the painter in astonishing psychological depth drawing from only few historical sources available in the 1940s and most of all from her own imagination. The author’s language is dense, rich and picturesque although in no way extraordinary or pretentious. Despite all, it’s a difficult read that needs time and much attention.

It was really difficult for me to get hold of a copy of Artemisia by Anna Banti in Italian, but it has definitely been worth the effort. I had been looking forward to reading the book for a while and in the end I wasn’t disappointed although I struggled quite a bit with the author’s rather varied Italian as well as with the novel’s confusing structure. It was an impressive read that gave me lasting pleasure and that I long to re-read whenever I can find time. There are other – much later – biographical novels surrounding Artemisia Gentileschi (e.g. Artemisia by Alexandra Lapierre or The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland) that I haven’t read and Anna Banti’s book was also made into a film. Nonetheless, I doubt that any of these can compete with the original that I just reviewed and recommend without reservation.

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  1. I read the Susan Vreeland one in 2002. I had never heard of Artemisia before and so found the story gripping. Now I am happy to hear that there is this one you have reviewed, especially because it is written by an Italian author. I haven't read the Alexandra Lapierre one but I can recommend the Vreeland.

    1. Yes, the story of Artemisia Gentileschi is amazing considering how little accepted talented and enterprising women were in a world of men that thought us incapable of anything but keeping house, looking after husbands and bearing them children.

  2. I've been trying to write up my own post about Artemisia since I read the novel several weeks ago, and so was startled and delighted to see your fine review. I agree - this is a difficult and rewarding book (even in English translation) and an especially unusual approach to biography and historical fiction via the writer's emotional connection to her subject and re-evaluation following the loss of the original manuscript in the bombing. From what I understand, Banti is credited with launching a whole new scholarly interest in Gentileschi - an interest that has revealed some minor factual weaknesses in Banti's creative account. But small matter - that's what scholarship does, and Banti deserves enormous credit for fomenting interest in one of the most powerful painters of the Italian Renaissance. The book also held a thrilling personal surprise for me - Banti's inclusion of Annella de Rosa, a little known painter of the period whose work completely wowed me when I saw a couple of her paintings tucked away in the back of a Neapolitan church a few years ago. Although de Rosa only appears briefly in Artemisia, she serves as an example of a female painter of the period who fell victim to the daunting obstacles facing her, and is thus almost as much a subject of Banti's fine novel as Gentileschi herself.

    1. I can well imagine that Anna Banti rediscovered Artemisia Gentileschi for art history although I haven't checked. Her life was really amazing and the way the author painted her portrait intrigued me because - as you say - it's unusual. The bit about Annella de Rosa, however, quite escaped me. Of course, I noticed that yet another woman painter appeared in the novel, but since the name of Annella de Rosa was unknown to me and I was focused on the biography of Artemsia... Well, Artemisia is one of those books that probably needs re-reading to get the full message and meaning.

      And thanks for calling my review fine! It's always good for the soul to hear that I did good work.


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