One Noble and Secret Language: Anna Banti’s Artemisia
Artemisia, Anna Banti, Hope Road, 2020, £9.99 (paperback), translated by Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo
On 4 August 1944, as the Nazi occupation of Italy was coming to an end, the German forces evacuating Florence unleashed a final barrage of destruction, deploying mines across the city to bring down all but one of the historic bridges which had lined the River Arno for centuries. The blasts brought down many of the houses on each side of the river, including the house of writers Anna Banti and Roberto Longhi. Buried among the rubble of the house was the near-completed manuscript of Banti’s second work of fiction, about the seventeenth-century artist Artemisia Gentileschi. The work of many years of vigorous research, the book was lost to the last act of German bombing.
As she sat on a nearby hill overlooking the recent carnage, Banti wrote that ‘I have lost Artemisia, my companion from three centuries ago who lay breathing gently on the hundred pages I had written.’ Before her mind images appeared – ‘all of them crystal clear and sharp, sparkling under a May sun’ – of the different stages of her subject’s life: a troubled biography of a world intent on revoking her talent. At this moment of pain for Banti, the writer is brought even closer to her long-dead companion, as she resolves to reach into the past to rediscover her lost work.
What follows is Artemisia: a determined and flamboyant reverie of a novel that rediscovers Artemisia’s life. Banti’s prose, intent on justifying ‘the heartbroken obstinacy with which [her] memory never tired . . . [and] remaining true to a character of whom it was perhaps too fond’, dips in and out of the artist’s mind, between Artemisia’s and her own. This forms a long-running conversation between the author and her subject – a woman from three centuries before, whom she feels distinctly connected to, and whose life is so bitterly entrancing.
Artemisia Gentileschi was born in 1593, the daughter of Orazio, the famous painter and devout follower of Caravaggio, who dominated the Italian scene at the time. Orazio mingles with the artistic establishment in Rome; he is sullen and distant from his artistic daughter, though he teaches her painting. Her precocious skill exceeds expectation. Soon her prowess transgresses the norms and strictures reserved for sixteenth-century women. Her early promise, however, is cast aside in the eyes of the public after she is raped by her fellow painter Agostino Tassi. Orazio pursues charges, and Tassi is found guilty, but never justly punished. Artemisia is tortured, ‘to remove all infamy or doubt about her person’ in the words of the judge. Banti, here as elsewhere, paints a striking picture of the artist’s resolve: ‘I am ready to confirm my statement under torture and whatever must be done’; and later, ‘I’ll show you what a woman can do.’
The trial makes Artemisia infamous. Her father’s reputation is deeply damaged by her heroic intransigence, and they move out of Rome. Artemisia’s life is near-ruined by the unspoken determination of the men who surround her, her fate seemingly decided by their agreement that she can never fulfil her talent because of her past. Yet neither Artemisia nor the book are defined by these events; Banti describes the artist’s various sojourns around Italy as Artemisia regains herself through painting, culminating in what is now considered her most famous work: the brutal Judith Slaying Holofernes and her image of Lucretia. The paintings shock those around her but are passed over with little mention by Banti, who seems to see the paintings as merely a part of her irrepressible character. Indeed, the book goes well beyond them, as the paintings are perhaps the most obvious dramatisation of the artist’s brilliance and suffering.
Artemisia drifts constantly between bouts of self-loathing and determination, at times shutting herself up in nunneries, then creating the most penetrative art. Banti is still unable to rid herself of this overpowering image: ‘I will never be able to be free of Artemisia again; she is a creditor, a stubborn, scrupulous conscience to which I grow accustomed as to sleeping on the ground.’ The dense, deeply felt prose flows throughout the novel. Banti is a difficult host discussing a largely diffident character, but the power of the work is never overwhelmed by this; its language never buckles under the weight of its subject.
Having lost her original novel, Banti’s stream of consciousness style lends immediacy to its reprisal. In this sense, the voice in Artemisia is reminiscent of Woolf’s in Mrs Dalloway. The same, too, could be said of the characters. As with Woolf, who influenced Banti, the male characters are never explicitly derided: Orazio becomes reclusive and reticent towards his daughter in old age, yet still she praises him as one of the great artists of his time, unwilling to spoil his genius in her presence, even when the greater artistic soul is evidently hers.
Banti was dismissive of the ‘feminist’ label. But the term has stuck to her and to this, especially, her most famous work. Artemisia sees her own freedom in art. Her devotion to painting transgresses norms, particularly the standards expected of women during her lifetime. She gives them up willingly, abandoning any hopes of being respectable (to either man or woman), but the novel still has at its centre her fight to decide whether she should retreat into silent obscurity, to let her suffering define her.
It is a novel of sleepless nights, of vivid contemplation, of short, awkward conversations, and of silent rejection. As she enters middle age, Artemisia begins to contemplate her own death. She travels from Italy to London to visit her ailing father at the court of Charles I in Somerset House. Largely ignored by the court, Artemisia is confronted by Orazio’s reticence as he tries to hide his paintings from his daughter by facing them against the walls of his rooms. Then, as their mutual silence becomes overwhelming, the shared struggle of their lives can no longer be ignored. Artemisia rejoices as her father decides to look at her paintings. Banti, a lifetime artist and critic, rejoices in this scene, too, reflecting her position in society as the wife of Longhi, the famous art writer.
One noble and secret language that embraced the whole of the visible world over a long span of time, beyond the confines of human life, in an eternal fellowship of artists of which Orazio bore the mark and the wisdom.
Much of the novel’s searing emotion, its own ‘secret language’, is traceable in this passage. Banti vindicates Artemisia’s passion and the worth of her life’s work following the eventual recognition by her dying father, who, in taking seriously her art, brings her ‘Ineffable happiness’. Still the novel remains bitter, as all parts of Artemisia’s life are shrouded in misfortune and neglect – a husband who deserts her, a daughter who refuses to love her, the persistent trauma of her early life.
Artemisia’s life collides with her art. This collision is explored through the metaphor of taste, as a meeting point between one’s personal or subjective, internal experience and the external, material world: Her life is tinted by ‘the unique flavour of days when she had been happily engrossed in recreating a face or a garment, in inventing an effective light, in applying an expressive glaze.’ Happily engrossed in her art, Artemisia – as well as Banti – discovers consolation.
Translated effectively by Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo, the language of Artemisia brims and lacerates. Its emphasis on suffering – a pain which Artemisia herself owns and Banti transforms – is something the author almost revels in. For Banti, there is the loss of the novel that only her shaky memory can recall, the one she reclaims in the aftermath of war. For Artemisia, the burden is much larger, the prize ever greater.
Artemisia’s paintings, when viewed in the flesh, display most vividly the sharp contrast in colours that makes her most renowned works so revelatory. In the later, much larger depiction of Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620-21), the power and strength of the two women is highlighted by the bright colours of their dresses and the magnificently dramatic gasps of blood which leap out of Holofernes’ neck. If that is her most astonishing and passionate work, then the Allegory of Painting is undoubtedly her finest, showing the magisterially intricate details of the dress, the awkward slant of the body while painting, and the penetrating face, intent on the work in progress.
Susan Sontag’s introduction, which opens this new edition, compares the novel to Penelope Fiztgerald’s account of the German poet Novalis, The Blue Flower. They are both interested in loss and its ramifications: Novalis at his lost love, and Banti’s Artemisia in the counterfactual life she never lived, which was taken by force. Sontag also draws out the ‘very modern project’ of Banti’s, to have ‘set a story in the past in order to dwell on its relation to the present’; and how the work is ever-present, as the reader is immersed and intwined in the twin worlds of both writer and character.
Many powerful images populate the world of Artemisia; perhaps the most striking is the image of a shadow that joins together author and subject (each, too, is a reflection of the other). Though banished to dark, unseen corners, both break out into the light through their art. Banti, against the disadvantage of her situation, and Artemisia against her life in all. Facing the idea of her rape at eighteen as a life-defining event, Artemisia, through Banti, rejects these terms. She does so in favour of her love for the Antonio Stiattessi, who would later leave her:
But now Artemisia does not close her eyes to these unpleasant facts, because Artemisia is a strong woman. So much so that she is not afraid to face certain stark truths that she invented herself, such as that it is time that makes us fall in love and out of love, time that makes us and destroys us, which we make and destroy.
Patrick Maxwell is an English writer on politics, literature and music, based near Oxford. He is the editor of Gerrymander, and a writer for many other publications, such as Comment Central and Backbench.
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