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by Anna Banti


A historical novel set in seventeenth-century Rome, Florence, Naples, France, and England, which interjects descriptions of Italy in 1944; published in Italian in 1947, in English in 1988.


Dishonored as a young girl, Artemisia Gentileschi overcomes all obstacles to become one of the most accomplished painters of her time.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Artemisia is the second novel written by Anna Banti (literary pseudonym of Lucia Lopresti), who was born in Florence in 1895. Her parents soon moved to Rome, where Banti attended school. After she graduated from the University of Rome with a degree in art history, she married Roberto Longhi, a professor at the University. As his fame as an art historian grew, Banti felt compelled to abandon her own ambitions in that field, and acting on her husband’s suggestion, began what was to become her long and successful literary career. Banti had already mastered the art of describing the forms and colors of the plastic arts and only a slight shift of emphasis was necessary to describe the mental landscapes, scenes, and faces so integral to fiction. These pictorial skills, along with her fertile imagination and lifelong interest in story-telling, coalesced into a distinctive writing style. No doubt the style was affected by her experience as an editor of a literary volume put out periodically by her husband’s art journal, Paragone, founded in 1950. Altogether Banti produced 9 novels and 7 collections of short stories, which for the most part concern women and their struggles with societal pressures in order to lead fulfilled lives. Her finely crafted short stories, such as “ll coraggio di donne” (“The Courage of Women”) and “Lavinia fuggita” (“Lavinia is Gone”), earned her lasting fame, which was only reinforced by her fictional biography of the famous artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c. 1652). Banti’s overt purpose in writing about this neglected painter was to restore her to her rightful place, to the exalted position she once held with her contemporaries. In all likelihood Banti’s own marriage to the great “Maestro” (Professor Longhi), did not live up to her hopes (as suggested by her final novel Un grido lacerante [1981; A Piercing Cry, 1996]). This marital disappointment plus a long lifetime of exclusion and challenge as a woman probably sharpened her insight, as Banti resurrected the seventeenth-century from the dusty storage rooms of art history.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The real-life Artemisia Gentileschi

Few facts are known about Artemisia’s life. She was born in Rome in 1593 (the novel, written before the discovery of Artemisia’s birth certificate, says 1597). Her father, the renowned Orazio Gentileschi, taught her the art of painting.

It is a matter of record that Orazio brought charges against the painter Agostino Tassi for the rape of Artemisia in 1611. This resulted in a trial lasting approximately three months, from March 18 to May 16, 1612. Records of this trial are to be found in the archives of the State of Rome, which Banti consulted. Taking the stand, Tassi denied ever having sexual relations with Artemisia and furthermore accused her of having slept with assorted painters and of having committed incest with her father. Artemisia, determined to prove her innocence of these charges and the truthfulness of her accusations against him, submitted to the torture of sibille—the ingenious practice of wrapping a cord around the fingers and then pulling it tight. It was named after the “sibyls,” or ancient prophetesses, with the hope of convincing its victim to tell the truth.


In the 1600s, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, and Milan were ruled by the Spanish Habsburg monarchy; Tuscany was a duchy ruled by the Medici family Venice and Genoa were republics; and Rome and the Papal States were ruled by the pope. These separate political entities (Italy was not united until after 1860) would have made Artemisia’s traveling to Florence or Rome or Genoa somewhat the same as entering France and England. The food, customs, people, and even language were almost as different in each area of the Italian peninsula as in each European country.

In her testimony, Artemisia said she resisted Tassi’s advances at the time he raped her in her bedroom, and raised a knife against him after the rape but never harmed him. Later, after he promised to marry her, she agreed to have sexual relations again. From the start a female neighbor, Tuzia, facilitated his access to Artemisia. This betrayal by her father’s friend and colleague, and the betrayal by a woman she considered her friend, left a lifetime scar.

My father was a close friend of the said Agostino Tassi who, because of our friendship, began to visit our house frequently. … “He who wants me must give me this,” meaning marry me and put a ring on my finger. … I told him that I was feeling ill and I thought I had a fever. He replied; “I have more of a fever than you do.” … He then threw me onto the edge of the bed, pushing me with a hand on my breast, and he put a knee between my thighs. … I tried to scream … I scratched his face. … He said: … “I promise to marry you” … and with this promise he induced me later on to yield lovingly, many times, to his desires…. What I was doing with him I did only so that, as he dishonored me, he would marry me.

(Artemisia Gentileschi in Garrard, pp. 414–18)

The records contain no statement of the trial’s outcome, although an introduction to the proceedings and the skeptical attitude of the judge toward Tassi’s testimony suggest that he was found guilty and perhaps served a prison sentence of fewer than 9 months (through the time of the trial until shortly thereafter). Tassi had also been accused of having his wife killed around the time of the rape (Artemisia had not known he was married and when she learned it, confronted him, but he always denied it). The curious reader can find the entire transcript of this infamous trial translated in Appendix B of Mary D. Garrard’s study of Artemisia’s artistic renderings of heroic women.

Other sketchy records of Artemisia’s life confirm that she married Antonio Stiattesi and had at least one daughter with him, though in letters she mentions two daughters, one of whom was a painter. Without her husband, Artemisia accompanied her father to Florence and to the royal court in England from 1638 to around 1639. These travels are a matter of record, as are her sojourns to Naples and Genoa.

In Rome, Florence, Genoa, and London, her paintings were commissioned by church and civil dignitaries, as well as such worthies as the Grand Duke of Tuscany and the art enthusiast King Charles I of England. Artemisia’s father died in England in 1639, and she returned to Naples, where she spent the last ten years of her life still painting for her various patrons. The circumstances of Artemisia’s death remain unknown, but she probably died after 1651. Throughout the years, rumors of sexual promiscuity surrounded Artemisia, thanks in no small part to her unconventional life. Two satirical epitaphs, published in 1653 after her death, comment on her “as cuckolder of her husband and as temptress, reducing her extraordinary artistic life to a threadbare type of conventional misogyny” that history has since attempted to correct (Garrard, p. 137).

A woman’s place

Only in very rare and exceptional cases was a woman of a certain class in the seventeenth century able to step out of the limiting role defined by society. An unmarried woman was carefully watched over by male members of her family’s, because her good reputation was extremely important, and the slightest taint could bring disgrace to the family’s and dash any hopes for a suitable marriage. Two ways of life were ordinarily possible for a young woman: the convent or matrimony (provided her family’s could provide an acceptable dowry). Married women, though they were considered the property of their husbands, enjoyed more freedom than single women. For a young woman like Artemisia, marriage was a way to escape her father’s severe restrictions at home and to avoid the convent life he is known to have desired for her.

The honor of fathers and brothers was fiercely defended in a patriarchal society. Any man who besmirched the honor of a family’s womenfolk could expect cruel retribution. In Artemisia’s family’s, her father brought the charge of rape against his painter friend and colleague, Agostino Tassi, which led to the sensational court trial described above. This accusation was probably more in defense of the father’s own honor than in consideration of the suffering visited upon his daughter. More suffering would follow for her in the form of humiliating physical examinations and the torture to which she was subjected in the course of the 1612 trial. To be sure, she endured it to redeem her own reputation, but more importantly, from the viewpoint of most patriarchs like her father, to redeem the family’s name.

Women received no formal education in seventeenth-century Italy, except in the wealthiest families of high social rank. The vast majority of the female population in Europe was illiterate at the time. Artemisia could not read or write when she was 18, as attested by the trial records of 1612. She became literate later, taught perhaps by her devoted brother Francesco, for she is known to have written letters in her maturity.

Only the most gifted and ambitious woman could hope to develop her talents and interests, as indeed a handful of female painters did, among them, Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, and Elisabetta Siriani. However, for these artists “it appears to have been enough to be accepted professionally; to attempt an innovative artistic contribution [as Artemisia did] was unnecessary” (Garrard, p. 6). In any case, for a woman, acceptance as a serious artist came at great personal cost. According to Banti’s portrayal, Artemisia had to sacrifice any sort of satisfactory family’s life for the sake of her art. Her husband left her when he felt superfluous; her daughter was raised in a convent and developed little affection for her mother; her father was cool and demanding.

Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti

Michelangelo Merisi came from Caravaggio in northern Italy, hence his nickname. He went to Rome sometime between 1588 and 1592 as a very poor but extremely talented painter. This aspiring artist became famous quite early, thanks to his revolutionary use of live models and his dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, or chiaroscuro, which promoted naturalism, diverging sharply from the artificial, exaggerated, often unrealistically proportioned works of the so-called mannerist style in vogue in Rome. Caravaggio’s innovative style strongly influenced a group of artists who worked in Rome, the most outstanding being Artemisia’s father—Orazio Gentileschi—and Artemisia herself. Others in the group, coming from various parts of Italy as well as from Germany (Adam Elsheimer) and Flanders (Wenzel Coebergher), settled in the area where the Gentileschis lived. Orazio was a personal friend of Caravaggio, and Artemisia would have known him also. His fame spread abroad. Artists as far afield as France’s Georges de la Tour and the Netherlands’ Rembrandt van Rijn found the charm of Caravaggio’s work irresistible.

Art historians eventually labeled as Caravaggisti these and other painters influenced by Caravaggio’s innovative realism and his startling way of illuminating his subject to delineate form. Artemisia would have seen his early, astonishingly vivid and dramatic depictions of a rustic, very realistic Saint Matthew. These depictions appeared in frescoes in the Roman churches of San Luigi dei Francesi, Santa Maria del Popolo, and the Chiesa Nuova—frescoes that Caravaggio had painted when he was 23 years old.


The theme of Judith and Holofernes occupies a larger place in Artemisia Gentileschi’s oeuvre than any other subject. In part, this may be an accident of survival, for although the artist is known to have painted more than one version of several themes—at least four Susannas, two Dianas, two Davids—many of these examples are lost or unknown to us today. But at least five autographed Judiths have been preserved, three of which are deservedly placed among Artemisia’s finest works. More-over, the theme is likely to have held personal importance for the artist, for of all the female characters that she painted, Judith was the most positive and active figure, whose heroic deed held for Artemisia the greatest potential for self-identification.

Artemisia’s five Judiths depict the apocryphal legend of the Jewish widow Judith beheading King Nebuchadnezzar’s general, Holofernes, in his tent to prevent his invading Bethulia Although these paintings have been interpreted as Artemisia’s symbolic punishment of the man who raped her, it was a popular subject for many male artists, such as Andrea Mantegna, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Caravaggio, and Sandro Botticelli, and it was sculpted by Donatello Jo, whose Judith and Holofernes stands in the Piazza Signoria in Florence in all its gory glory.

Artemisia’s father was a Caravaggista, and the influence filtered down to her. Her early reliance upon her father’s model is not surprising. It was unheard of for females of the day to pursue the customary paths to artistic careers, such as training with multiple master artists, traveling, and belonging to guilds. Her apprenticeship to her father was the only way she could realize her ambition to become a professional artist. In fact, her early show of independence from him—she struck out on her own—was perhaps the most remarkable element of her budding career.

Artemisia’s apprenticeship with her father probably extended from 1605 to 1610, and he spoke proudly of his pupil’s work. Even her earliest paintings displayed a talent rooted in a command of technical skills, informal artistic instruction in Rome, and her own dash of creativity.

Artemisia’s paintings are noted for their distinctive color and masterful technique, characterized by the dramatic lighting learned from Caravaggio’s works. Her heroines—Judith, Susanna, Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, Lucretia, Esther, Saint Catherine—painted from live models, are portrayed as strong characters and are neither young beauties nor old hags, as most men traditionally painted women subjects. Many of her heroines resembled the artist herself; in fact one painting, entitled The Allegory of Painting, is a self-portrait.

Banti shows that the reason this talented artist was neglected after her death (and had to struggle harder than usual for her rightful place as an artist during her lifetime) was due primarily to male prejudice. Men were the art historians and they set the criteria for excellence. In general, their own biases blinded them especially to Artemisia’s realistic portrayals of women. A disinterested, when not negative, opinion in relation to her work lasted until the twentieth century when it was reevaluated by people “conditioned by a consciously realized feminism to respond to and share in an art in which female protagonists be-have as plausible human beings” (Garrard, p. 8).

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The novel opens with an explanation from the narrator-writer to the reader: she explains that her original manuscript of Artemisia was destroyed during the war in the spring of 1944, and that she feels impelled to preserve the memory of someone she has become perhaps “too fond” of, as well as to give vent to “personal emotions too imperious to be ignored or betrayed” (Banti, Artemisia, p. 2). She then recounts the few facts known about the life of her protagonist.

The story itself begins with a voice telling the writer not to cry. It sounds like the voice of a young girl, but it is actually a voice in the writer’s head as she sits on a gravel path in the Boboli gardens apart from the other refugees who flee the mines that have been set off by the Germans on their way out of Florence. The writer is crying because the bridges spanning the Arno have been demolished and because the book she had written about Artemisia has been destroyed. She then realizes that the voice she hears telling her not to cry is Artemisia’s as a child of ten playing on Pincio Hill in Rome. Suddenly the image shifts in the writer’s mind. Now Artemisia is a young woman shut in her room, crying in anger and despair, a mental image that mixes with the actual misery before the writer’s eyes of hungry crying babies in war-torn Florence. The twentieth-century writer focuses her attention on a ragamuffin child in her own day, which touches off in her mind an image of Artemisia and her childhood Roman friend, the wealthy but bedridden Cecilia Nari.

Artemisia is quickly growing into a young woman and preserving her purity worries her painter father, Orazio Gentileschi. He wants her to enter a convent but in the meantime has the neighbors keep close watch on her when he is away from home. Her father has taught her to draw and paint, and the famous painter Agostino Tassi has explained perspective to her. Artemisia still slips away to visit her ailing friend Cecilia, but less often now.

The scene then shifts to 1944, in the Palazzo Pitti, where the writer has sought shelter and where Artemisia appears before her again. The writer still mourns her lost manuscript and is amazed by her obsession with this artist from the past: “I am shocked by the impetus with which I am carried beyond the limits my memory allows me, beyond the bounds of the story” (Artemisia, p. 12). She continues meeting with Artemisia, now at the Forte di Belvedere above Palazzo Pitti. Her visitor from the past goes on with the story of her life in the 1600s, as Florence collapses and burns below them in 1944.

Artemisia relates how Agostino ingratiated himself by giving her lessons in perspective, how he visited her father every day in the home studio, how, when she was 14, her good friend Tuzia (a neighbor whose portrait Artemisia painted) acted as a go-between by letting Agostino in and closing the bedroom door. Admittedly Artemisia wanted to get married and Agostino gave her a ring with his promise of marriage. Artemisia, the writer now realizes, has become independent of her, even to the point of walking ahead of her. The writer is now embellishing the account of the seduction to impress Arcangela Paladini, her singer friend, who just came out of an old Duchess’s bedroom at the Pitti Palace. The writer gives vent to her irritation: “But Arcangela’s shadow is fragile and the [1944] refugees in the courtyard are shouting in ill temper; nothing simpler than for me to take Arcangela’s place and once more force Artemisia into the harsh sincerity of the present” (Artemisia, p. 16).

Back under the control of the writer, Artemisia obediently recites the details the writer attached to her after reading the proceedings of the sensational rape trial. The writer cautions Artemisia: “It’s not important to remember what the judge thought of women; even if 1 wrote it, it wasn’t [necessarily] true” because it originated in the author’s imagination (Artemisia, p. 17). Artemisia resumes her account, recalling how her father’s anger initiated the trial, his avoidance of her, the advice others gave her. But she wanted to confess everything in her own way. Agostino had taken her into her room and raped her; she had resisted to the point of grabbing a knife, but only succeeded in cutting her own hand. Her regret over the loss of her virginity under such circumstances will never fade completely, though it will stimulate her to compensate for the loss in an artistic way. The writer had hoped to provide some solace for Artemisia’s pain, but it has come back stronger than ever.


Florence escaped some of the devastation visited on other Italian cities during the Second World War, but as the retreating Germans left it toward the end of the war in the spring of 1944, they blew up all the bridges over the Arno River except the medieval Ponte Vecchio. To impede the Allies’ advance over that ancient bridge, the retreating Germans destroyed the houses at either end. Banti’s house on Via San Jacopo, which ran along side the Arno, was demolished, and with it her first manuscript of Artemisia. Along with other homeless residents, Banti was forced to sleep in the open, in the Boboli gardens of the Pitti Palace. It is here that she envisions Artemisia, the seventeenth-century painter and protagonist of her novel.

The women banter back and forth and the writer admits that she is too close to the subject to write about it without distortion. The already violated Artemisia describes an innocent walk in the country with Tuzia and Artemisia’s brother Francesco that ends with more importuning from Agostino. She feels she should be as free as a man after her disgrace, but wherever she goes there is Agostino in pursuit. One day he gives her a ring that makes her feel safer, almost like a bride.

The writer and Artemisia quarrel: Artemisia is concerned that she isn’t telling the story the way it was written; the writer is tired and angry because Artemisia does not appreciate the loss of the writer’s manuscript.

Artemisia then describes the attempt of her neighbor, old Stiattesi, to free Agostino from jail If Artemisia will say he was not the first man she had experienced, or the only one (i.e., that she was not a virgin), the charges will be dropped and Agostino will marry her immediately. Artemisia follows her impulse to run home where she crawls into her bed and is assailed by disconsolate thoughts “that were too quick, too desperately concise for a brain as young as hers: If only the dark would last forever, no one would recognize me as a woman, such hell for me, woe to others’” (Artemisia, p. 24). Yet she does not hate all those involved—Agostino, the go-betweens, the false witnesses. Today she feels guilty, as guilty as her persecutors want her to feel. She resigns herself to her solitary destiny as an outcast, comforted only by her pride: she will show the world what Artemisia can do.

Returning to the present, the writer interjects further comments about this obsession of hers to revive the biography of a woman so unjustly treated. Then the narrative reverts to 1615. Agostino has been acquitted and is out of jail, thanks to his scheming friends. Artemisia, 17 years old, spends her days shut up in her house painting. Her father eats and sleeps away from home; her brothers Marco, Giulio, and the devoted Francesco come home at night after work. Sometimes Francesco draws with her—an “occupation which is like a conversation for the Gentileschi family’s” (Artemisia, p. 28). They begin talking and Francesco tells her about the painters who are in demand. To her pleasant surprise, he says he overheard words of praise for her work.

Whenever her father comes home, Artemisia does everything she can to win his approval, to prove herself worthy of his attention and love. But nothing she says or does has the desired effect. He remains cold, grim, and indifferent. One exceptional evening he comes home while she is absorbed in her drawing and shows signs of satisfaction that give her hope. That same evening, while eating their supper of soup and omelet, her father announces they will be going to Florence to work for the grand duke. He will take Artemisia with him, but she must get married first.

Again the seventeenth-century storyline is interrupted by the writer: “I will never be free of Artemisia again; she is a creditor, a stubborn, scrupulous conscience to which I grow accustomed!,] as to sleeping on the ground” (Artemisia, p. 33). Then she “drags” Artemisia on a walk through the Boboli gardens.

When the Pitti Palace comes in view, the writer is compelled to face up to the injustice of her enforced walk and lets Artemisia return to her story. The young painter packs to leave Rome, still not sure if she is supposed to go because her father has said no more about it. But finally Artemisia and her famous father are in a carriage on their way to Florence. She has married, but her husband, Antonio Stiattesi, stays behind.

In Florence her father finds Artemisia a commission to paint a panel for the ceiling in the house of Michelangelo Buonarroti, grandnephew of the famous Michelangelo. After completing the assignment, she finds her first commission on her own, to paint the portrait of a woman married to a courtier. More heartening developments follow. The duchessa, wife of the Duke of Tuscany, sends for Artemisia. Befriending her, the women at the ducal court beg her to secretly teach them to paint. Artemisia consents, teaching them as they are able to learn.

At the duchessa’s request to paint an epic subject, Artemisia paints a scene of Judith beheading Holofernes. These new friends of hers like to come to the studio and watch her depict on canvas the burly, bare-chested model who poses as they gossip among themselves. They do not realize whose expression is on Judith’s face—the artist’s own, which she copied from the mirror. The painting itself takes shape from experiences of her past: Agostino, the knife, the four-poster bed.

Meanwhile an immense pride swells in her breast, the awful pride of a woman who has been avenged, in whom, despite her shame, there is also room for the satisfaction of the artist who has overcome all the problems of her art and speaks the language of her father, of the pure, of the chosen.

(Artemisia, p. 46)

She works long and tirelessly on the painting, retrieving from it her sense of worth and victory. The shame she had felt in Rome dissolves in the emotional release of painting the slaying of Holofernes. Presented at court, the picture is a success. Everyone is enthusiastic about it. With her release from shame comes a sense of sympathy or at least forgiveness for men, who are “tormented,” thinks Artemisia, “by arrogance and authority” (Artemisia, p. 50).

Artemisia reminisces about the husband she left in Rome, about when Antonio Stiattesi was a boy collecting odds and ends to sell and trade. The Stiattesis were accustomed to following the Gentileschis wherever they moved, camping in a spare room with their four children. Artemisia had always ignored them and made fun of them just as everyone else did. But her father had chosen Antonio to be her husband, and her thoughts now dwell on that day when he appeared in his finest clothes, along with his family’s, for a trip to the church. Now she is in Florence and he is in Rome; the two will not meet again for several years.

Her father praises Artemisia’s painting of Judith and Holofernes. He informs her he will be going to the court in England and asks her to return to her husband in Rome. Reluctantly, the dutiful daughter complies.

The Stiattesis are living in a dank cellar. By this time, Artemisia has developed enough confidence, thanks to what she has learned from the ladies in Florence, to deal with the railings of her father-in-law. He says Antonio is supporting them all by peddling old clothes and trinkets at markets. An antidote to the misery and degradation around her is the satisfaction taken from her painting, from “all that blood of Holofernes drying on the canvas in the Palazzo Pitti. ’I painted it, and it’s as if I’d killed a tyrant’” (Artemisia, p. 61).

Artemisia is happy to see her husband again and they make a bedroom out of a room once used to store grain, using a straw mattress on the floor as their bed. In time Artemisia begins to enjoy the unusual experience of living with family’s comforts. Antonio is kind and devoted. She finds herself beginning to love him, and yet questions the advantages of love at the cost of losing one’s identity. She wonders just what passionate love is, and if it is worth the consequences: “That constant internal violence, that suppressing of one’s own abilities, limits and preferences?” (Artemisia, p. 74).

In her brother Francesco’s studio Artemisia begins painting her vision of the dying Cleopatra. Francesco approaches her with an offer: a Frenchman will provide her with a lovely apartment in Rome in exchange for ten large canvases a year. Feeling threatened, Artemisia’s husband, Antonio, begins to bring her more luxurious gifts—a fur blanket, thick rugs, a beautiful arm-chair, an oil lamp for a table. She feels torn between Antonio’s gifts and Francesco’s insistence that she accept the apartment. After going to look at it, she tells Antonio she has a surprise. When Antonio hears that she plans to accept the Frenchman’s offer, he is shattered. He follows her to her new house but, entirely out of his element, hardly finds the new environment to his liking. He feels extremely uncomfortable.

Important people begin to visit the house. Artemisia acquires patrons and her career continues to blossom, but she and Antonio grow estranged. Meanwhile, her brother keeps helping her and takes pleasure in her success when she receives new commissions. Relations with her husband deteriorate. Artemisia blames Antonio for not making himself more presentable. In spite of herself—because she still loves him and does not want to lose him—she scolds Antonio bitterly, calling him a fool and accusing him of letting her down. After her outburst Artemisia feels dizzy, and before she realizes it, Antonio has left. She fears he will never return.

The writer intervenes once again to comment on Artemisia’s tears, and to report that the painter never does see Antonio again. Unbeknownst to him, Artemisia is pregnant with his child.

Francesco persuades his sister to move to Naples where she will have greater opportunities. He helps her pack, but, feeling she needs no one, she decides to go there alone. Artemisia settles in the guest quarters of the convent of the Poor Clares and is treated like a noblewoman. Friendships with the humble nuns cause her to modify her former critical opinion of women. Before this experience she had often thought, “If only I were not a woman” (Artemisia, p. 89). Now she thinks differently:

Far better to ally herself with the sacrificed and imprisoned, participate in their veiled, momentous fate, share their feelings, their plans, their truths; secrets from which the privileged men were barred.

(Artemisia, p. 89)

As she observes the Neapolitan scene from the convent balcony, she tells herself that unlike the artists of the North, she is not a landscape painter, but she can use landscape as a background for her figures.

After giving birth to her daughter, Porziella, Artemisia leaves the convent and returns to her painting and to teaching art to young painters. There is little time left for her daughter, whom she really looks at only when she needs a model for a cherub. She shrugs off the rumors that circulate about her loose behavior with men. Others criticize her for what seems to be a lack of maternal feeling, but she does not change her ways. In fact, the criticism makes her feel exceptional, like “a woman who has renounced all tenderness, all claim to feminine virtues, in order to dedicate herself solely to painting” (Artemisia, p. 94). She had chosen a solitary life, and at this point has no use for men of any sort—husband, lover, father, or brother.

The writer begins to realize she has lost Artemisia. She had been disrespectful of her memory, playing a cruel game—”the convulsive game of two shipwrecked women who do not want to abandon the hope of being saved on a barrel” (Artemisia, p. 109). Perhaps she lost Artemisia when she brushed so lightly over her childhood and could not save her from the tragic events of her life. Now Artemisia is exceedingly distant. The writer admits that it is beyond her powers to bring Artemisia to life after 300 years. It was a mistake to try to share with someone so long dead her own feelings of desolation aroused by the war and her frustrations caused by the exclusion of female artists from the cultural mainstream. But now she has no choice but to keep going to the end.

It is 1638 and Artemisia is busy with commissions. Sometimes she feels happy. Now 45, she has reached the height of her artistic powers and begins to think of herself as old. She must get a dowry together by selling property in Pisa so her daughter can make a good marriage. When Artemisia’s father sends for her to join him in England, she makes the arduous journey all alone by carriage and boat, stopping off in Genoa, where she stays a while to paint some portraits. Once she reaches France, Artemisia lingers in Paris for a time, where people on the street seem always to be quarreling. Parisians come to see her paintings.

Artemisia’s father meets her in Canterbury, England, and she is very happy to see him. She and the old and ailing Orazio live together, and she takes pleasure in being of some use to him domestically as well as artistically. Her father had been commissioned to paint by different people and Artemisia helps carry out the work. Father and daughter remain together until the awful day of his death. Grieving the loss, Artemisia wonders if any understanding soul in the future will mourn for her.

Afterwards, Artemisia heads back to Naples, the only place that ever seemed like home to her. She imagines numerous ways she herself might die—from the plague, at the hands of bandits, because of an accident. In the end, however, she dies in bed, the only way she had not considered.

A two-tiered picture of historical attitudes toward women in Italy

Banti’s dialogue with Artemisia in her novel presents the struggles of a woman artist in her lifetime and the sad neglect of her work after her death, merely because she is a woman and men have been in charge of writing art history. Banti hoped to rectify the bias, even though the status of women in Italy with ambitions outside the norm had not changed much in 300 years—by the Second World War, when Banti was writing the novel.

The attempt by Italian women to gain legal rights to equality with men in education, opportunity, and pay began between Artemisia’s and Banti’s days, in 1864, with the publication of La donna ei suoi rapporti sociali (Woman and Her Social Relationships) by Anna Maria Mozzoni. There were a growing number of organizations and conventions in support of this drive for economic and social equality with men until Benito Mussolini and the Fascist Party came to power in 1922, during Banti’s lifetime. Under Mussolini’s 22-year regime, women were admonished to focus all their energies on striving to be exemplary wives and mothers. They should limit their work, said the Fascists, to the home or the fields, and if necessity required a woman to work outside the home, she should only fill a position subordinate to men. Education was not deemed important for females in the Fascist era, nor were women considered suitably endowed to be educators. Not until 1945, after the fall of Fascis and the establishment of a democratic government, did Italian women gain the right to vote. Before and after this milestone, women writers were largely ignored in Italy, Banti among them. Anthologies of the mid-twentieth century and later seldom included female writers, their neglect becoming an acknowledged fact. In Banti’s day it was difficult for the work of a female author to attract the attention of critics, even if it was generally thought worthy of consideration.

There would be some improvement by the time Banti died in 1985, although the inequity would by no means have disappeared. Even then, she could legitimately complain about the situation for the female artist in particular and for working women in general. While late-twentieth-century Italian women had the freedom to choose careers in politics, business, and professions such as law, they were still highly underrepresented in those fields. According to one historian of the period, “the great majority of women’s work was neither managerial nor professional” but service-oriented, with women being hired as “clerks, typists, secretaries, shop workers, and so on” (Ginsborg, p. 37). Yet gender differences have been gradually narrowing: women are better educated than ever and laws of equal opportunities open up new areas of work. There has been “a spectacular rise in the female presence in some high-status professional jobs. The number of female magistrates, to take just one example, more than doubled between 1985 and 1992, increasing from 852 to 1,791” (Ginsborg, p. 35). The translation of Artemisia into English in the middle of this same span testifies to the increasing attention being accorded women writers as well.

Although Band’s novels and short stories, with few exceptions, focus on the barriers women face in a male-dominated society, she “hated” to be called a feminist. Her rather austere personality precluded any public demonstration of solidarity with other women for whatever worthy purpose, and certainly prevented her from taking part in any volunteer activity during the war. When she was reminded that her writings made her position seem clear, Banti defended herself by saying: “[My work] is more a form of humanism than true and proper feminism” (Petrignani, p. 106).

When the writer Grazia Livi mentioned to Banti that feminism had taken on new life in Italy after the war, Banti replied: “Feminism! Again! If you only knew how it irritates me. … I thought it was exhausted by now” (Livi, p. 151).

Nevertheless, Banti carried deep inside her the conviction that men were still so dominant in the Italian society of her own day that only the most talented and determined woman could hope for any success, and only after overcoming numerous obstacles put in her way by a wary establishment. Her imaginary conversations with Artemisia gave Banti the opportunity to explore the status of women in two periods of history widely separated in time, yet with enough painful similarities to make them two sisters in art.

Sources and literary context

In 1916 Band’s husband, Roberto Longhi, published an article about the seventeenth-century pair of painters, “Gentileschi padre e figlia” (Gentileschi Father and Daughter) in L’Arte. One can assume that this article was at least partially responsible for planting the seed in Banti’s mind that would come to fruition as a novel nearly 30 years later.

Setting the outstanding precedent for historical novels in Italy was the first such work to appear, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (I promessi sposi, 1840; also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). The novel, which fictionalized events in seventeenth-century Lombardy, became an instant Italian literary classic against which all novels—historical or not—were measured. None of its nineteenth-century successors, all written by men, achieved the status it attained in Italian literature. As Italian women began to write fiction in the mid-nineteenth century (later than their peers in England and America), they tended to produce more subjective works, writing of the pain caused by an inferior status, which they felt helpless to change. Neera’s Teresa (1886) and Sibilla Aleramo’s AWoman (Una donna, 1906) are examples (both also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Banti’s novel in the guise of historical fiction started a new trend in writing by Italian women. Banti drew on her own experience in writing Artemisia’, she identified with the painter in spite of the centuries that separated them, and wanted to form a bond of mutual suffering as female


One could rightly call Artemisia a historical novel if Banti’s only purpose in writing it were to bring Artemisia’s accomplishments to our attention, But this novel teems with her own concerns as a literary artist Considering its autobiographical characteristics, one wonders how Artemisia should be categorized—as a historical novel, a biographical novel, or a fictionalized biography that includes large sections of autobiography?

It is admittedly a fictionalized portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi, but it is also an analysis of Banti’s state of mind Reflecting on The Betrothed, Alessandro Manzoni’s historical novel, Banti writes that the author of such novels necessarily delves into the past (with a nearly “transcendent memory”) in order to rearrange and reinterpret facts analogous to those of one’s present (Banti, “La memoria storiea” p. 295; tram. M King). In other words, the thoughts of historical novelists cannot avoid being anchored in their own times, This was certainly the case when Banti wrote Artemisia, which aimed to both define what it meant to be a female literary artist in her own time and to reestablish a female painter in official history. As the aims are achieved, the two creative mediums converge: “In Banti’s novel, art and writing are major components of the private haven where the self can break the hold of history and destiny” (Lazzaro-Weis, p. 131). In other words, the two mediums are used to liberate the self from patterns of the past and prescriptions for the future. While Banti used the form of the historical novel to help achieve this liberation, the question of Artemisia’s genre remains open to debate.

artists in a world dominated by men. The writer was, in short, as anxious to tell her personal story as she was to depict the life of the neglected female painter. Thus, she juxtaposed the two different time periods, another innovative facet of her fiction.

Banti continued to write through the war years in Italy (1940–45). The first manuscript of Artemisia, destroyed at the end of the war, was written at least a year before; her first book of short stories was published in 1937, followed by others in 1940, 1941, and 1942. During her adult l she was entirely involved in the activity of writing and publishing. She said in an interview that she had always been a solitary character, without any need for other people (Petrignani, p. 103).


At Uffizi Museum in Florence

  • Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620)
  • Saint Catherine (1614–15)

At Palatino Gallery in the Pitti Palace in Florence

  • Madonna with child (1609–10)
  • Judith and the Maidservant (1613–14)
  • Repentant Magdalene (1617–20)

At Casa Buonarroti in Florence

  • Allegory of inclination (1615)

At Palazzo Cattaneo, or Cattaneo Palace, in Adorno, Genoa

  • Lucrezia (1621)

At Pinacoteca Nazionale, or National Picture Gallery, in Bologna

  • The Portrait of a Standard-Bearer (1610)

At the Detroit Institute of Arts

  • Judith and the Maidservant with Head of Holofernes (1625)

At New York’s Metropolitan Museum

  • Esther in the Presence of Ahasuerus (1622–23)

After the Second World War and after Banti’s pioneering novel, Italian women turned to writing historical novels as a way to understand their times and themselves and in an attempt to redress the lack of narrations about women’s experience in history. Among the many works in this genre, three have had an especially strong impact on the Italian literary scene: Elsa Morante’s History (La storia, 1974), Maria Bellonci’s Private Renaissance (Rinascimento privato, 1985), and Dacia Maraini’s The Silent Duchess (La lunga vita di Marianna Vena, 1990). (See History and The Silent Duchess , also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times.)


Artemisia was well received by critics and readers when it appeared in 1947, and it i one of Banti’s few works that has remained in print since its initial release (the other is the autobiographical novel A Piercing Cry (Un grido lacerante). Fixing on the interplay between the distant and the recent past, the important Italian critic Cesare Garboli characterized the novel as “an imaginary diary of two, an intense dialogue beyond Time and History between two women who were artists” (Garboli, p. 175; trans. M. King). Another critic of note, Emilio Cecci, regards Artemisia as “a myth of a woman artist whose creative power excluded her from a naive and spontaneous life; though she deeply aspired to forget her femininity she was unable to. It is a myth of the female artist, per haps more tormented than a man’s, and Banti has interpreted it with inimitable grace” (Cecchi, p. 22; trans. M. King).

—Martha King

For More Information

Arico, Santo, ed. Contemporary Women Writers in Italy: A Modern Renaissance. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

Banti, Anna. Artemisia. Trans. Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

——. “La memoria storica.” In Manzoni e la critica. Ed. Lanfranco Caretti. Ban, Italy: Laterzi, 1969.

Cecchi, Emilio. “Artemisia Gentileschi.” In Digiorno in giorno. Milan: Garzanti, 1954.

Garboli, Cesare. “Una signora a scuola da Caravaggio.” L’Espresso, April 12, 1970, 175.

Garrard, Mary. Artemisia: The Image of the Female Hero in Baroque Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Ginsborg, Paul. Italy and Its Discontents: 1980–2001. London: Allen Lane, 2001.

Lazzaro-Weis, Carol. From Margins to Mainstream: Feminism and Fictional Modes in Italian Women’s Writing, 1969–1990. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1993.

Livi, Grazia. Le lettere del mio nome. Milan: Tartaruga, 1992.

Ornella, Maria, and Gabriella Brooke, eds. Gendering Italian Fiction: Feminist Revisions of Italian History. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.

Petrignani, Sandra. Le signore della scrittura. Milan: Tartaruga, 1984.

Sontag, Susan. “A Double Destiny.” London Review of Books, September 25, 2003, 6–9.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Artemisia (family Compositae) A genus of perennial (or, rarely, annual) herbs or low shrubs, often aromatic, with leaves that are alternate, and much divided pinnately into narrow segments. The flower heads are tiny, usually numerous, often woolly, and gathered into racemes or panicles. The receptacle is flat and naked, and all the florets are tubular and surrounded by overlapping, scarious-edged bracts. There is no pappus. The genus includes mugworts and wormwoods. Wormwood (A. absinthium) is used for flavouring beers and other drinks; A. tridentata is sagebrush of the south-western USA. There are about 300 species, occurring mostly in dry grasslands of the northern temperate semi-arid and Arctic zones.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Artemisia ★★ 1997 (R)

Artemisia (Cervi) is the teenaged daughter of well-known artist Orazio Gentileschi (Serrault), who encourages her artistic pursuits. He bullies the local art academy to admit Artemisia, a no-no in 17th-century Rome, and she even tries the forbidden territory of the male nude. Soon her artistic passion is matched by a sexual passion for fellow artist Agostino Tassi (Manojlovic), but this time her father isn't so understanding and Artemisia becomes the center of a rape trial. The real Artemisia is considered to be the first known female artist. French with subtitles. 95m/C VHS, DVD . FR Valentina Cervi, Michel Serrault, Miki (Predrag) Manojlovic, Luca Zingaretti, Brigitte Ca-tillon, Frederic Pierrot, Maurice Garrel, Yann Tregouet, Jacques Nolot; D: Agnes Merlet; W: Agnes Merlet; C: Benoit Delhomme; M: Krishna Levy.