Artemisia Gentileschi (b. 1593) is a feminist icon of such power that she has penetrated even to these islands, for instance in a book by our own feminist icon, Germaine Greer. Not only was Artemisia almost the only woman artist of her age, but while still in her teens she was raped by a fellow-artist, and again did what no woman had done before, standing up in court and testifying against her attacker. Her most famous painting, ‘Judith and Holofernes’, was a sweet revenge: it shows the biblical heroine hacking off the head of the invader as he sleeps, with streams of blood flowing towards our feet.
This is not the only historical reality Artemisia draws on. Anna Banti (b. 1895, real name Lucia Lopresti) first finished the novel in the spring of 1944, at the height of the battle for Italy. That summer her house, like many others in Florence, was bombed by the Germans, and the manuscript buried in the ruins. The Artemisia we have now was rewritten over the next three years, and transformed by that necessity for rebirth, so like Artemisia’s own. Banti could not separate her grief from her subject’s, and did not try; instead she wove her own devastation and reclamation into Artemisia’s, and reconstructed the novel as a conversation with her subject.
So Artemisia has not just one heart-stopping tale to tell but two; and the fact that they are both true adds to their power. On the other hand, could any novel live up to the facts and to this ambitious double idea? Does this one?
At first I feared not. Anna Banti was an art historian and a classic Italian writer, and the result is a style not immediately friendly to the English reader. Artemisia’s lost story first comes back to Banti, weeping in the Boboli gardens, as a flood of images like Artemisia’s paintings; and that is how she tells it. We see Artemisia with her childhood friend Cecilia Nari, with her models, with her stern father, her gentle husband, her cold daughter, all in vivid chiaroscuro, but as though in a dream, with no clear narrative line. Sometimes the Italian taste for abstraction forces you to read a line several times to try to puzzle out its meaning; sometimes the subtlety and complexity descend into confusion. Calvino, that master of mystery, said, ‘Writing is hiding something so that it can be uncovered.’ Sometimes what Anna Banti has hidden is too hard to uncover.
But as often as you puzzle over a gnomic phrase you are arrested by a brilliant one. Banti writes as sensuously as Artemisia painted (‘her grief, that horrible infant, moved restlessly in her breast’). And her re-imagining of Artemisia is startling in its candour. This too, perhaps, is an Italian effect, much rarer in the English novel, which retains the moral stamp of its 18th- and 19th-century forebears. What matters to Artemisia is not morality but self-esteem; she is not a good mother, or a great painter, or even a very good feminist model: she is independent, but bitterly, reluctantly, craving the love and approval of her father, her husband, her child.
In this she is like Banti herself, who chose to live in the shadow of her famous husband Roberto Longhi, as Artemisia longed to live in the shadow of her father. In one of the auto-reflections which are among the best things in this book, Banti repents the presumption of her whole enterprise, ‘trying to share the terrors of my own epoch with a woman who has been dead for three centuries’. Imagining Artemisia, she has probably drawn only herself. But that is all any writer can do.