As a follow-up to my blog on the subject of rape and a personal turning point, I thought I'd write about a reading and discussion of Anna Banti's powerful fictional memoir, Artemisia we read together on Women Writers through the Ages in 2004.
Anna Banti (1895-1978)
At the time I knew the central story was the rape of Artemisia Gentileschi (early modern woman painter,1593-1656), and I was aware how the story gripped me and that few people beyond me were posting about the book. Since reading so much on rape and writing my paper, Rape on Clarissa, I've seen why, more deeply into the novel, the writer's life and, particularly, the painter's life and works: Gentileschi is known for her violent pictures where (obsessively it seem) women take graphic revenge on men. Like others I find tthese distressing and (this may just be me) over-theatrical, but they are powerful, vivid, memorable. Gentileschi also identified herself with Clio, muse of history (she was determined to tell her tale, she went to court) and so I preface this account of a great 20th century Italian writer and book with her Clio:
But it should be remembered that since torture was commonplace before the middle 19th century point of view spread that it's abhorrent and does not produce true testimony, Artemisia Gentileschi was toruted to see if she was telling the truth when she had the courage to accuse her rapist. That in her case the rapist was an apprentice who might have been pressuring her father to insist on a marriage and thus promote himself. That her later marriage was ruined, her daughter estranaged from her.
I discuss two other versions of this story beyond the real one (with trial papers) in Mary Garrard's art history non-fiction study, Susan Vreeland's 2001 novel. In the comments you will find a discussion of a film adaptation by Agnes Merlet and an essay on Banti's novel.
Banti uses the rape to make a statement about WW2 in Italy and its aftermath; Vreeland to make a modern feminist vision. Alas, the movie brings us back to sexual exploitation. We see parallels with George Elliot's Romola, a Victorian historical novel set in Florence as a center of Renaissance art, and remember that Banti translated Virginia Woolf. I bring in Atwood's historical Jane Eyre tale of immigration to Canada and a girl accused of murder, Alias Grace, and Nuala O'Faolain's frank novels and memoir about modern independent women.
Valentina Cervi as Artemisia in Merlet's film
First what the introductions to my editions told me: I read Anna Banti's Artemisia in Shirley D'Ardia Caracciolo's translation into English, had and dipped into Giuseppe Leonelli's Artemisia (Italian text) and (from a visit to a museum and exhibit a while back) had Mary Garrard's study of Gentileschi as an early modern woman artist.
Banti herself was an important literary figure across the 20th century and Artemisia while her most famous book is by no means her only good or important and interesting one. She wrote novels, short stories, journalism, translations, including one of Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room. Essays about her compare her to the greater women writers of our time, e.g., Marguerite Yourcenar. At the same time she survived in her society by marrying her professor, Roberto Longhi, an art historian and critic and throughout most of her life she was overshadowed by him. In Italy she was much conflicted over feminism. I did buy myself a third slender book, an MLA texts in translation (really in English), The Signorina and Other Stories, translated by Martha King and Carol Lazzaro-Weis, which has several stories by her, and two of them closely resemble Byatt's ("Uncertain Vocations," realistic, and "The Women are Dying," mythic archetypal). In the introduction to the MLA texts in translation series, Carol Lazzaro-Weis compares Banti's work to that of Margaret Atwood.
Artemisia Gentileschi brings us back in time to early modern Europe. While I enjoyed reading a recent novel based on Renaissance documents and supposedly bringing before the reader Renaissance women, Tracy Chevaliar's Girl with a Pearl Earring, the book did not recreate the kinds of presences I have come across in surviving Renaissance women. They had a hard lot and, except when very lucky, lived a rather desperate existence amid sordid demands; there is little sentiment in most of the letters they left,a great deal of guarded posturing. The only letters that move differently are those meant for some very private friend where the writer felt no one else could or would read the letter (highly unusual as letters were not seen as someone's private space and property which individuals had a right to have).
The key event of Gentileschi's life about which there is a long document is her father's apprentice's rape of her, her father's accusation of him, and the trial. Mary Garrard reprints the whole of the extant papers and letters which connect -- in English as well as Italian. These provide a not all that surprising look into the daily behavior and mores of the period. Suffice to say that Gentileschi was herself accused of being "a whore" herself: she did succumb to providing sex for this apprentice after he raped her in the hope he would marry her; it was only months later that her father became aware of what was happening. (In Madame Roland's autobiographical book she tells of her father's apprentice exposing himself to her, sexually harassing and frightening her, but not going so far as to try to rape her. She hid what happened lest she be blamed, but the memory remained with her as so anxiety-producing lest he try again that while she was waiting to be guillotined, she could write about it with distress.)
There is also involved a woman who lived with the family, a type I have become familiar with: she's there as a sort of chaperone/servant/marriage finder. Gentileschi and her father paid a high price for this attempt to gain restitution and revenge. Torture was simply part of what went on in all trials and Artemisia was herself tortured at one point to make her "tell" the truth -- or test the truth of what she said.
There is also the issue of Gentileschi's non-reputation and absence from records for several centuries after she died. It's hard to find all her pictures and really account for a lot in her life since shortly after she died, her work was dismissed. While alive she got in the press of the period (such as it was) the extravagant praise women artists of various types often got (over speaking, making them into extraordinary creatures); when dead, that such women were not taken seriously (except in the cases of some women writers by other women writers) comes clear as the woman disappears from collections of lives and whatever books are written about the earlier period.
So many central issues of our own time, a woman of our own period and one from an important earlier one are here. The European Renaissance remains an important almost unique phenomenon across the histories of the world just simply on the basis of the sciences and technologies that were able to grow in the neutral spaces and cities and courts of the time even if you discount all else, something not easy to do.
And now I realize just about everything about the original rape, the devastating court trial, and the aftermath for Gentileschi (it hurt her life and spirit ever after) is commonplace.
A rare quiet scene of women in a group: Gentileschi, they wash a Biblical boy, St John the Baptist. They do have power over him :)
To the novel-memoir. It's a short book and there were just four postings by me -- over four weeks. I did also read the American author Susan Vreeland's 2002 fictional memoir called The Passion of Artemisia and will describe that briefly at the end of this blog. The second week there wasn't much so I'll combine them.
Pp. 3-40: Opening segment, first week:
What I found particularly impressive: the movement back and forth between the author today and her subject in the early 16th century. Banti elides pronouns so that when you are into a sentence where she is speaking of herself, you find you have been maneuvred into reading a sentence on or thought by Artemisia. The effect is labyrinthian, not just inward but outward. The author is in the Boboli Gardens, Rome (I think) where she is standing amidst ruins. Her 100 page draft manuscript of a novel on Artemisia Gentileschi has been destroyed. Her ruin is that of her heroine the story of whose rape and the trial and relationship with her father and brothers is told in retrospect through the mind of Artemisia who is brooding on the events that have just and are occurring around her.
This makes the narrative move backwards: the barbarism of early modern Europe is the barbarism of the second World War and the reader today extends it to the barbarism going on in Iraq and other places in the world over the last few decades. I thought of the massacres in Africa because of the slaughter of civilians by one another; this week Jim and I watched an old film, Alan Resnais's Night and Fog, a forty minute documentary on the death camps of World War Two which did something to make me remember that in fact the horror of these did surpass the typical concentration-slave camp of our century in that the aim was mass slaughter and the behavior crazy-nightmarish in wild ways. The barbarism of the people Artemisia is surrounded by and what she has known lies at the heart of the book, including the roles of Tuzia, her father, Agostino; one sentence runs (in English):
"She did not have the strength to hate her violent, cowardly lover, the go-betweens, the false witnesses, Cosimo, Tuzia, and all the apprentices, washerwomen, models, barbers, painters, parasites: people who seemed to have scarcely ever have noticed her ever since she was a child and who instead had followed her hour by hour, substituting her actions and movements with unrecognizable ones in the presence of the judge. Today she feels guilty, guilty as everyone wishes her to be . . . (1995 Bison Artemisia, trans D'Ardia Caracciolo, p. 25).
I found very effective the suggestive details of scenes where the man come to jeer Artemisia (e.g., on p. 23). We see how Artemisia turns to painting pictures of Holofernes and Judith out of her trauma and misery. There is no emphasis on anger, maybe even no sense of it beyond the images painted. We are told of grief. The story opens: "Do not cry" (p. 1). Artemisia is ever holding back intense terrible endless crying: "She must wean herself from it if she does not want to die of grief" (p. 26).
Just a detail from Gentileschi's Judith Beheading Holofernes: look at the womans' face; the clothes are richly painted, so too her hair and skin
She is separated off from other women who do not help her. They move away. She is locked in the house as a shameful thing. She wants to stay in the dark -- this image goes back to the beginning of subjective poetry and stories of early modern Europe through 18th century epistolary novels and poetry by w omen to studies of archetypal imagery in women's novels today, e.g., "If only the dark would last forever, no one would recognize me as a woman, such hell for me, woe to others" (p. 25).
Beyond the theme and presentation of the story, I was taken by the sense of recreating the world of Italy in the early modern period. Romola went up in my estimation in the sense that the opening and some of the descriptive set pieces reminded me of George Eliot's work. The same sorts of details, the same ambiance, the same use of female figures: Cecilia, Giovanna. Banti evokes heat, climate, rain, old things, a world which treasures each object, the way light feels., the father-daughter:
Frederick Leighton, a Royal Academy painter, illustrated for Romola
I probably though responded more immediately and readily to the movements into present time:
"'As of you really cared what I have lost!' I find a clean stone on which to sit down. Another day of wartime is drawing to a close.I am tired and the avenues in the Boboli gardens are like one huge latrine. Around the meager fountain that was originall a plaything for the rich, ten women are fighting over the water, but I pay them no heed. I am a repentent bully trying to make amends, and Artemisia's third excursion is haunting me" (p. 22).
The use of "Artemisia" here is of interest. She is assumed to be a strong woman, a strong voice, someone who will not be dragged down to the pit nastiness (detraction), malice, sex, gambling, sycophancy that is the court and town. Rochester chose that name with care. Now Orazio Gentileschi named his daughter Artemisia so Banti didn't invent her use. It's ironically and straightforwardly important as Artemisia is a survivor, no matter how dogged.
I looked up Artemisia in my Oxford Companion to Classical Literature and it says:
1. Early 5th century BC daughter of Lygdamis, ruler of a Carian kingdom which included Halicarnassus, and after his death regent of his kingdom. With five ships she accompanied Xeroex on his invasion of Greece in 480, and is said by Herodotus (himself from Halicarnassus) to have shown bravery and resource at the battle of Salamis.
2. Sister and wife of Mausolus of Caria in whose memory she built the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus c 353 BC. She instituted a literary competition in which the most famous rhetoricians of the age took part, including Isocrates and Theopompus, who won the prize.
Having done considerable reading in writings of early modern Europe, particularly women writers, I know that the associations and changes made in classical figures are often as important as any original legend. However, today when I looked into my copy of The Golden Legend (a huge compilation of legends popular in medieval through early modern Europe), a dictionary I have of Christian and classical lore of the period (which rarely fails me) and good ole' Robert Graves's solid 2 volume, The Greek Myths (which also goes into later permutations), I couldn't find anything on Artemisia. Clearly in the 17th century the charge and frisson the name had is being used by Rochester -- and probably avoided by Anne Finch.
pp. 40-85: Second Week
In this week's instalment Artemisia manages to move out of the imprisoning existence she endures after the trial to where her husband is living. We get a sense of the world of Italy very thickly once again -- a subsidence desperate world of the early modern period where people eek out a desperate living taking in one another's washing (part joke alert). Artemisia is emerging as a strong woman, stronger than her husband; yet she needs him and that she has a husband means much to her. Her friends were no substitute; the painting does not protect or give her enough pride.
Banti has not tried to present Gentileschi's painting except insofar as the subject represents her trauma, depression and anger. I had hoped to get more about the art itself, her imagined world, how she sold and produced it too. The book's relative lack of interest in these things made me connect it to Eliot's Romola again. In Romola what engages Eliot is theological and political conflict, or the world of art.
Again Leighton shows the male central as Romola looks at his work
With Banti, the fascination is with women's issues through a depiction and reliving of an early modern woman.
Banti's book is in some ways the memoir Gentileschi might have written had she been born in the 20th century. There is an interest in recreating life-writing. You can see this in Banti's merging herself with Gentileschi.
Gentileschi, Minerva (perhaps Anne of Austria)
pp. 85-132, third week
Antonio, Artemisia's husband, retreats from her. As far as I can tell, he is presented as a weakling, and she is resentful of his weakness. I say as far as I can tell since we are told about their dialogues indirectly and also these are not recorded in detail.
All this is of interest. She is avoiding giving us the raw hard details of what Artemisia said, but rather only gives us to understand that Artemisia couldn't help herself but say ugly things, felt remorseful, but went ahead berating (?) the man after all. Artemisia doesn't seem to understand that Antonio is probably deeply ashamed, humiliated, at having a wife who has been on trial for having been raped (and the sex between her and her father's appentice was repeated many times as she kept hoping he'd marry her).
I underlined some of this:
"His hands look dirty against the white cloth. Dirty but light. This Artemisia remembers and it tears at her heart like something that has been lost; those hands, when they caress, are as light as feathers [she remembers them as beautiful then] She carries on talking, accusing, so as not to feel moved, and she raises her voice and listens to herself in horror, within these walls which goad her into cruelty and spitefulness" (p. 83)
He leaves her. He runs away in the night. How many times I've heard of a man just disappearing. Mostly it's presented as a treacherous act. Here we see it is cowardly but the only way he could survive without committing suicide or hating himself daily since at home he meets scorn.
This breaks many stereotypes. The heroine is a woman who can't respect her husband because he doesn't behave in a powerful aggressive way, calculating and therefore successful in the world, because he makes her ashamed because she knows what others will think and it agonizes her to see him failing.. She lashes out at him. It's not that I haven't seen this before: in Trollope's now filmed He Knew He Was Right the married wife openly despises and is vituperative to her husband on analogous grounds, but we are (I submit) not supposed to like her particularly. Many real women would probably feel this way, but I for one am very put off by it. I feel for Antonio who is after all doing his best -- he does go out to work even if his attempts seem to her feeble (he sells rags and does very marginal things like most people of the world then -- and maybe now).
It is consonant with what I have read of real Renaissance women. I felt about The Girl with the Pearl Earring and most other historical novels set in the Renaissance with a heroine at the center that it was false because the heroine was so soft, so submissive, openly sensitive. My experience of many Renaissance women is they were a hard bunch; life was hard and if they were to survive they became obdurate, and did take on the sneer of the world against someone who was openly vulnerable or didn't succeed in the marketplace for prestige and place (by which one got money but this not a money-driven world in the way ours is). So this is right or accurate of Banti. Artemisia is then the hard mean kind of woman who in many novels plays the witch-role, only here she is not a witch, she is simply what people are.
She appears to get a chance, is invited to live in Naples and escapes from the humiliating imprisonment her reputation enforces on her in the north. There she gives birth and begins to succeed as a painter. Banti makes sense of the paintings beyond the release of anger and revenge in painting men being beheaded. The intense luxury, ostentation and sheer showing off quality of much of the painting of the period (it can be very offputting once you see it sociologically as propaganda of the super powerful, intimidation and showing off of the bourgeois) becomes a projection of Artemisia's own values and longing. She wishes she were rich and powerful.
She is a driven lonely woman too because it emerges her daughter did not sympathize with her, but broke away. Artemisia sent her to a convent (with much difficulty got her in) and there she was able to carve outa personality which rejected all her mother stands for artistically.
"At the age of twelve she would walk around with lowered eyes, but she was able to tell you what everyone was wearing. Sherefused to ever sit at table with Diego [the man Artemisia hired and who is a submissive lower class type but helps her], and on one occasion she spat in his soup. There is no reply from Artemisia; she is immeasurably distant, light years away [I have to skip] I have forced her to subscribe to the role of an imperfect, unmarried mother, of an artist of dubious quality, of a proud but weak woman who would like to be a man in order to escape herself. And I have dealt with her as one woman to another, lacking manly respect. Three hundred years have not taught me to release my companion from her human errors ... And now I am unable to rouse her, to make her talk, with these memories of unhappy motherhood, the usual topic of women's conversation" (p. 111).
My response here, is I wish it was the usual topic. All I've usually met with is lies when women talk of their relationships with their daughters, false prettifying assertions patently untrue.
Gentileschi, Judith and Maidservant
Artemisia lives in a world of contacts but is alone and lonely. Throughout we see that she does engage in groups of women; in Rome she sits and sews with them; in Naples they help her with her house and the childbirth. It's contacts and the occasional festival-type event she pulls off and invites people to that enable her to carry on her career. Is this an image of our world today? Or a 1947 variant on it?
One thing: no one can accuse this book of being sentimental.
pp. 126-68: The Journey, fourth and last week:
I found this and the very last part (concluding pages) of next week's section the most moving parts of the text. These are the last two sections of the book. In this week's Artemisia is told her husband, Antonio, has returned with "dark-skinned" woman and wants her to divorce or free him so he can remarry. She suffers terrible agony over this betrayal. She cannot get over it, and she decides to flee the place where this is happening. She will go join her father in England. The rest of this week's section tells of her long arduous journey. Our conclusion begins in England.
Her silent agon, the roaring in her mind which no one but she knows of is rendered exquisitely beautifully. The simple statements about her and her thoughts about Antonia, the "dark-skinned woman" and all around are plangent, e.g., "This cautious immobility comes form a long acquaintance with suffering, although she has not yet realized just how much she is suffering" (p. 128) She does think of this other woman as "this unique, heart-rending example of humanity" (p. 130). Many of the metaphoric passages reminded me of metaphors I've come across in women's literature repeatedly. For example,
And in the depths of her heart, as on the gray sand secretly disturbed and marked by the waves, she saw themarks left by this thought which she had faithfully kept and inscribed all these years (p. 130).
It's this idea of stone, of rock, of burning sands, of the mind as this endlessly enduring hard strength.
In another her mind is described thus:
She was coming back from such a great distance, where she had received such terrible blows and lightning bolts that her eyes seemed dreamy ... (p. 131)
There is perception about Francesco as a male: "he likes nothing better than acting as head of his family, feeling bound up with and necessary to the material life of others (p. 129).
Men too become what the patterns of pride offer them by society.
Then there's "What terrible masters words turn out to be" (p. 131). These words she is told about her husband drive her into "exile." She is exiling herself to "satisfy her despair . . . She was so harsh in passing sentence on herself that she did not realize that she was waiting for someone, or something, to prevent her in some way from carrying it out" (p. 132).
But no one does. Francesco would like to go. Her daughter is so cold and unconcerned, so caught up with her own life now. She reminded me of Matilde from De Stael's Delphine. I felt for Artemisia.
The journey gave the book a real sweep: Banti really captured the way daily life to a traveller might have felt in early modern
Europe. The depiction of the boat part seemed as good as what we read in Atwood's Alias Grace. The vignettes of the people, of the places, each figure caught and then Artemisia seen too. She is "at the mercy of new brutal needs" (p. 138). From the outside she would not have been a sympathetic figure: Were I to have seen her I probably would have been put off: "She takes refuge more and mor as the days pass in adopting a puerile sullen attitudes, as though she were a sick child whom no one wants to play or live" (p. 139).
She also liked her trip. She liked not being anywhere in particular and moving on, the transience of it. She is happy to arrive anywhere too. I know that's contradictory but it's what she's feeling. She is surprized she has a reputation -- and pleased. In her mind she writes imagined letters to her husband. The details so swiftly got done, concise, and resonant reminded me of Austen: she suggested a good deal in throw-aways and through irony: "Insignificant events like a child having a bad fall ..." (p. 159). Again: "Afterwards she recalled having seen a puppy, no, a small cat, very frightened, at the sparkling carriage window" (p. 167)
At one point she hits out at a beggar, takes her revenge for having been a woman and because she's tired of being one (p. 163).
And then she moves on from Paris.
Banti seems to specialize in heroines who are not in contact with other minds. This is true of the Signorina and her husband and the heroine in "Uncertain Vocations" and hers. Artemisia is actually slightly unusual for not focusing on art and a desire to create art from a passionate idealistic standpoint.
Artemisia is very like Virginia Woolf's The Years.
Kay Spark's Eurydice, found on a site dedicated to Virginia Woolf
Banti's book may have a more or less conventional plot-design, but its texture is that of Woolf's book, particularly as the heroine begins her voyage and throughout this to the end of the novel. The article I read about Banti's translation of Woolf which turned Banti into someone who didn't appreciate or couldn't come up to unconventional modes was unfair. There is real likeness between the inner quality of Banti's novel and Woolf's prose style, language is continually transforming itself.
I found the book most alert and alive when suddenly Banti herself speaks as herself as novelist recreating the burnt memoir or emerges out of and then into Artemisia again. Perhaps this gives us license to see in the hard burning frustrated Artemisia -- not sexually particularly but from the point of view of having power, career, respect, and maybe true or real friends rather than acquaintances to spend time with and contacts -- a surrogate for Banti. I don't know; it's not explicit.
The movements out of Artemisia and into the narrator and back again are done in the same indirect way so you only realize what's happening slowly. It was in such moments that I really began to underline lots of passages as worth rereading and contemplation and meditation. A few choice passages:
We are playing a chasing game, Artemisia and I . We also try to catch one another, not without laying snares ... She spills a
whole bottle of ink onto my papers. And then we look at each other. She has become very suspicious about this period of her life in Naples, the turning point of her career, uncertain whether I will remember what I had written ... (p. 95)
It's just before this that someone is characterized as horrified by what Artemisia has become: "a she-bear, a wild animal;" the birth experience has not broken and softened her; she is "a woman who has renounced all tenderness, all claims to feminine virtues, in order to dedicate herself solely to painting ..."
"She is a women who wants to mold her every gesture on a model of her own sex and time, a respected noble model -- but cannot find one ... Artemisia will have to be content with improvising her own methods and rules, with sowing the seed for them that will produce, whenever it it may be, the fruit which could satisfy her present thirst, but which does not yet exist ..." (p. 99)
I as read think to myself the models are still not here which are based on a woman's life. Artemisia has had to give up her daughter to get this far -- the daughter rejected her.
Her behavior with others resembles her behavior with Antonio:
"And she goes too far, she threatens reprisals against vague enemies who insult her because she is a woman on her own, who want to give her a bad name, who want her dead . . . " (p. 100)
This long sequence of passages is brilliant. Above we see a woman everyone hates driven to this through her own frustration with the indifference and unemotional nothingness of all around her. We are made to feel for the type in previous novels who is made just a horror.
I was moved by this description of her feelings: she has
"that inexhaustible surge of stubborn hope of someone who continues to nurse the incurably ill" (p. 108).
This is what Fanny Burney did while her husband lay dying As he was literally expiring she began to cover his body with cold wet clothes, fighting death inch-by-inch over a corpse.
I thought this touching:
"I limit myself to the short span of my own memory, condemning my presumptuous idea of trying to share the terrors of my own epoch with a woman who has been dead for three centuries" (p. 111)
Artemisia now older and successful in the worldly way journeys back to Rome. We are told of how emotionally miserable and wretched she is, something she keeps from everyone; what she cannot keep from them is the exhaustion of her spirit this causes. It's draining to keep up such an act of sheer coolness. Well when she begins to wilt under the heat, the burdens, and her attempt (ironical in context) to "formulate a witty concise sentence to express" her sense of how it is to be alive as a middle aged woman,
"it hits her like a physical blow, so real as to make her want to rub the bruise. People pay no attention to a woman of forty-five if they do not know who she is: a double blow" (p. 121)
Germaine de Stael's Corinne is not dead; we are seeing a Corinne in Artemisia except that the feelings are presented not in a direct and idealized way, but through the real experience of a psychologically believable situation. Imagine the real Corinne: she would have been just as this Artemisia inside; she would not have been adulated even in the beginning, not for real. It would have been all apparent admiration and real envy. Note the look of anxiety in the sybil's face on the cover of the modern book:
For myself as an older woman it's more like what O'Faolain presented in her memoir, Almost There, and novel, My Dream of You. I don't writhe for power and success, partly because I don't value the admiration of "the world." I can't see why anyone would want it particularly as it won't pay the rent or buy clothes or provide emotional happiness of an intimate inward sort which Artemisia does want too. I can make it with one man, though like Kathleen it does hurt getting old and uglier and not desirable anymore to most. I don't deny because I have seen too often and on one occasion felt "that intoxcating pleasure of admiring [oneself] in the eyes of others" (p. 105). In this remarkable passage Banti says this is necessary to
"a woman such as she, always more inclined to give and surrender than observe and compromise. It is not jealousy or envy, but the cold certainty that she does not count for anyone since she did not count for that young woman. She feels now as if she has been stripped of everything, talent, presence, beauty, fame; and even of that triumphal ability to repent and pine away, a state into which she has sometimes dreamt of withdrawing with the dignity of a betrayed queen. Repentance appears now as a luxury which is not longer for her, an ostentation of early youth which she can no longer permit herself now that she has a daughter, two servants, a house, these malicious friends and visitors; and no one to protect her, she who can protect no one. She grows peevish, starts to feel sorry for herself, loses her composure ... "(p. 105).
Here out of this hard portrait Banti draws aspects of the familiar pathetic heroine of romance (still with us), the raging "she-queens" of tragedy (still with us -- remember Elizabeth Taylor playing Martha in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and also the dying pining heroince (Clarissas). Artemisia cannot afford these luxuries. She must carry on, and it wears her, she grows peevish and loses it. She lashes out.
In this context Banti is able to do justice to why fights between women seem so venomous:
"No one can hurt her as much as another woman: this is what she ought to have explained to those men who were perahps amused at the conflict between the two painters. 'Look at those two women,' she should have said, 'two of the best, the strongest, two who most resemble exemplary men' See how they have been driven to being false and disloyal to one another in the world that you have created for your own use and pleasure. We are so few and so beseiged that we can no longer recognize or even respect one another as you men do.You set us loose, for fun, in an arsenal of poisonous weapons . . . (p. 107).
Banti's presents these thoughts as if all women saw their state this way, when in fact many simply buy into the male world and judge other women by its values and perceptions of them. Has any woman friend said to you as a woman, How much money did you get for it? Or judged your living room by its furniture? Here we have Lots' Daughters actually giving themselves to this old man: he offered them up to a mob; he valued them not at all; they get themselves pregnant by him. Yuk and disgust:
Gentileschi, Lot's Daughters -- to me a horrible story, the old man who first offered his daughters up to a mob, then how they went to bed with him, faute de mieux. What kind of puntive women-abusing imagination conjured up this? The picture is in the Baroque heroic sumptuous luxury vein that sold so well in the 17th century. Note how our attention to called to the women's vulvas and the space between the man's legs too
Banti's book may have a more or less conventional plot-design, but its texture is that of Woolf's Voyage out and Years, particularly as the heroine begins her voyage and throughout this to the end of the novella. I'm now persuaded that the article I read about Banti's translation of Woolf which turned Banti into someone who didn't appreciate or couldn't come up to unconventional modes was unfair. Another good book compares Banti's Artemisia to Woolf's Orlando.
Vanessa Bell, Flowers
On the stories and Vreeland's The Passion of Artemisia:
I've read two more stories by Anna Banti: "Uncertain Vocations" and "The Women are Dying." The first, like "The Signorina," emphasizes the frustration of a young woman who wants to play the piano and allows herself to be led into other occupations which the world approves of far more than practicing the piano. These include socializing, family life, and marriages that she doesn't enjoy. By the end of the story the heroine has allowed herself to become engulfed by having children with a man who has little money or earning power. You might call it a woman's "Enemies of Promise."
"The Women are Dying" is very peculiar and since I read it at 3 in the morning yesterday when I couldn't sleep I probably
missed something as I came away feeling it was unclear what had happened. I'm not sure it was me altogether as this is yet another story (like Artemisia, "The Signorina" and "Uncertain Vocations") where the focalization is oblique. We are told indirectly about what conversations occurred through characters's memories and feelings about them; the event is always offstage and we are in its aftermath.
The events are half-magical. It's an allegory in the modern way: I suppose some might call it science fiction, but I'd call it moral fantasy. Basically the men in a society suddenly develop a gift of second memory which allows them to return to the past and enrichen their minds and (I think, not sure) live much longer. The women are second class citizens, left out, without this gift. They are dying while the men have this gift of returning life. The metaphor is used throughout to figure forth actual second class citizenship and disdaining of women's gifts, dismissal and marginalization. Women are given no power. It's more than a feminist fable for it's about the power of the imagination and the mind and how women are deprived of what makes a poet and gives that poet immortality.
Artemisia is slightly unusual for not focusing on art and a desire to create art from a passionate idealistic standpoint. It's true it's thwarted utterly in "Uncertain Vocations" and only emerges at the mid-point of the woman's life (and at the end of the story) in "La Signorina." Still it's what's longed for.
L'inclinazione, the cover illustration for Vreeland's Passion of Artemisia
I finished reading Vreeland's book a couple of nights ago. I recommend it as inspiriting reading. As Fran says, it was written with the aim of countering recent (and perhaps older) interpretations of Artemisia as just another half-Tess of the 'Urbervilles, sex-starved, if raped in the first place, wanting sex with this man ever after. My copy of Vreeland's novel included an afterward by Vreeland and some quotations from an interview where she says she intended to vindicate Artemisia from the view that all Artemisia's pictures are rooted in a desire for revenge, in passionate resentment.
Vreeland gives the reader a sense of a woman's community to which Artemisia Gentileschi belonged. It is fragile, made up of but a few women, most of these not living necessarily close to one another, some of this simply the product of Artemisia remembering an encounter in the streets with a desperate beggar. Vreeland does paint Artemisia's relationship with her daughter as one fraught with strain: Vreeland's Palmira is, like Banti's, someone who is not interested in the imagination, who has an ordinary and somewhat closed mind, but she is also the daughter of her mother, feels for her mother and (actually this is more believable than Banti's) through time and proximity the two are something of a half-loving ambivalent team even if the daughter marries and we know will leave her mother.
The book is upbeat and (paradoxically) not as "poetic" in conception as Banti's. It does not end with Artemisia's death but her father's and we are asked to believe that in the end she forgave him and there was a kind of meeting of the minds. It follows the outline of Banti's with respect to Artemisia's relationship with her husband, but Vreeland's husband leaves Artemisia with the much more usual motive of wanting mistresses, being bored and jealous of her; he does not seem weak or susceptible to despair.
Vreeland's book is a lesser text than Banti's: the motives are throughout coarser, more pragmatic, more (I don't know what other word to use) philistine. I just feel people are not this easy to pigeonhole and felt the pigeonholing was aimed at a reader who would join in on these motives or see them as understandable. We had scenes of intense jealousy between Pietro's mistress who meets him originally when Artemisia hires her as a model.
I did like some of the upbeatness, particularly the several chapters where Artemisia is painting and Vreeland moves into trying to conceive of what she felt. It is studded with suddenly passionate statement and dialogues about how art is fulfilling, meaningful, and scenes of good feeling between characters who suddenly find themselves with someone with a heart, intelligence, someone congenial and sincere, scenes of characters getting together to laugh or tease or be genuine.
Some statements (to me) gave away Vreeland's idea about art: at one point she says "some things are too raw" to be put in art; one has to wait it appears before putting these things' in and has to transform them to be less raw. There's a didactic impulse at work here: our heroine asks of a story is "there any harm" in it? Others I underlined because they appealed so. The scenes are too long to type out, so here's just one sudden statement:
I couldn't understand it. If a person loves something above all else, if he values the work of his heart and hands, then he should naturally, without hesitation, pour into it his soul, undivided and pure. Great art demands nothing else.
Many of the chapters are named after people, particularly Artemisia's women friends, women she encountered, and her subjects for painting. At the close of the book we return to a friend in the convent who said at its open that God and man had abandoned her. Graziela somehow manages to die in charity with the world she leaves -- though she is glad to leave it. Vreeland has Gentileschi disliking making pictures of Lucrezia which are falsifying of women's emotions after rape. Like Banti, her Gentileschi does like and want luxury and pomp.
While the plot-design follows Gentileschi's life much like Banti's, Vreeland allows herself fun Banti doesn't. Gentileschi
gets to meet Michelangelo. There is apparently correspondence between Gentileschi and Galileo (at least Vreeland says
there is), and out of this Vreeland invents freely a deep relationship of people who reach out to one another in a world of narrow uncomprehending people. "L'Inclinazione" is presented as painted with Galileo in mind. Vreeland has read Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter and we get Galileo feeling bad about leaving his daughter in that awful place. Vreeland had many many more sources readily available to her than Banti. Gentileschi stays with a kind couple in Genoa and we get to visit Genoa in this period.
There is a long vindication of Donatello's Mary Magdalene. This is a statue of a desperately thin agonized aging beggar
woman. Vreeland makes this image stand for a much more adequate image of truth about women's lives that Gentileschi could not make herself since her clients wouldn't pay for it. Gentileschi has trouble getting into see it: as in many scenes, she is insulted as a whore and has to pull strings to get past a guard. She then writes about it and her memories become part of the skein of thought that goes into the relationship with Galileo which includes passages against the church.
Banti lacks this kind of specificity and somehow or other I think this shows both women's strengths and weaknesses.
I've meant to suggest that Banti's book is finer than, somehow deeper and more alive as a text in itself than Vreeland's. Vreeland's is a rhetorical performance, but Vreeland's is certainly worth reading. Since I remarked yesterday on how the word "feminism" is now losing all meaning, I'll backtrack on myself and say this is a truly feminist text. Vreeland shows us a creditable woman with real feelings who wants to live her life freely and fulfill her talent, who establishes an understandable relationship with her daughter; she vindicates her heroine against the slanders and masculinist wet dreams still hurled at her; she vindicates her art and art in general.
Famous self-portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi
As with O'Faolain's My Dream of You and also Atwood's Alias Grace all three of which I read sometimes in the dead of night, I rose from Vreeland's text feeling better, comforted, sometimes laughing at the wit or remembering a particular lovely passage, from having come in contact with a woman who sees the world through the eyes of decency and calmness, who is not corrupted, who is intelligent and has thought things through consistently in her own individual lights. Banti eludes us much more; she's much more in pain; her "cri de coeur" is too strong for her to emit it in ways that get round her lyrical melancholy book, so the book remains or retains the tragic soul. I was sorry when both books ended -- though somehow much more moved by Banti's.