When I had the opportunity to take an art history class during undergrad, I jumped at the chance and purchased the massive $100 text book. Although it was a survey course, there wasn’t a painting I didn’t enjoy studying. Dada, and the Baroque, were particularly fascinating, and Baroque Italy was Artemisia Gentileschi’s stomping ground. Her infamous Judith Slaying Holofernes is a sight to behold. To my never ending awe, I was able to see this painting in person when a Caravaggio and his followers exhibit visited the National Gallery of Canada. It’s a gruesome piece, but captivating. I spent nearly twenty minutes studying the colours, the composition, the shadows.
Last week, I stumbled across a fantastic documentary on the Baroque, which reignited some of my earlier interests in Gentileschi’s work. The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland seemed like the perfect reading choice.
Artemisia’s life as a painter is articulated and illustrated with great depth and promise in Vreeland’s novel. She is a three-dimensional woman, treated not as a historical figure, but a woman on the cusp of great talent. The book opens with tragedy when, in open court, she testifies against her rapist, and is then punished with unusual instruments of torture, then humiliated with two invasive medical exams to confirm she is no longer a virgin. When she courageously rises above this, and is then shuffled off into a marriage of convenience, every moment of triumph shines even brighter. She moves from Rome, to Florence, then later to Naples and Venice. Each city is described with an observant but unpretentious eye. I enjoyed picturing the balustrades and olive trees, the sculptures and the clothing. Each landscape was brought to life with a few simple but effectively worded paragraphs.
I was disappointed to discover that, ten years ago, a film was made of her life that re-interpreted Artemisia’s rape into a love affair somehow. Much debate has ensued ever since its release and, though I’m certainly not an art historian, I’m inclined to agree with the historical records, which reportedly outline her adamant accusations of rape. Her painting, Susanna and the Elders, is a great example of Gentileschi’s ability to capture the gender culture of her time, in particular the power of the male gaze.
Vreeland’s version of Artemisia, thankfully, does not consider this insulting interpretation in her novel. In The Passion, Artemisia’s rape is a game changer. It alters her relationship with her father, her future husband and daughter, her artistic ambitions. Everything. Historical fiction is always tricky, however, because the author may make changes to suit the flow of the narrative, which Vreeland admits and explains. It’s up to the reader how he or she chooses to interpret these changes. It’s Artemisia’s internal struggle, with producing art she cares about, supporting her daughter, and somehow translating her passion into an income, that is most captivating. The Passion of Artemisia is probably the best novel I’ve read this summer. It’s touching, without being syrupy; detailed without being tedious. Artemisia is a fantastically ambitious, flawed, charming character, as is her daughter, Palmira, who doesn’t share her mother’s interest in art. At first, mother and daughter clash over the function of career and marriage in their lives, but slowly begin to understand one another, but Vreeland manages to convey this without hitting the reader over the head with unnecessary and/or flowery metaphors. She achieves this effect through authentically written dialogue.
Another element of note is the relationship between father and daughter, Orazio and Artemisia. She had never truly forgiven him for allowing her rapist to go free, for allowing the court to humiliate her as it did, for not understanding the depth of his betrayal. Over time, through letters and stray meetings, they come to see one another with more clarity and less anger. It’s not a perfect reconciliation, but emotionally satisfying.
If art or Italian history is a keen interest, you will be fascinated by Vreeland’s interpretation of the Baroque. And don’t forget to check out Judith! It’s fantastically shocking.