There’s a great quote from Susan Sontag in the introduction to this novel which made me think of Hilary Mantel’s stunning achievement in the Cromwell novels: To write well about the past is to write something like fantastic fiction. It is the strangeness of the past, rendered with piercing concreteness, that gives the effect of realism.
Artemisia is in some ways a forerunner of Mantel’s Cromwell novels. The boldness and emotional intensity with which Banti allows herself to be possessed by Artemisia is similar to Mantel’s wholehearted immersion into the intimate life of Cromwell. Like Mantel, Banti gives herself licence to imagine and invent descriptive details which bring her character vividly to life. Where this novel differs is it doesn’t have the compelling drama of an exciting historical bigger picture. This is more a study of a character in isolation. Banti endeavours to capture Artemisia in her solitude, where her paintings are conceived and created.
At the beginning of the novel Banti is trying to console herself for the loss of a manuscript. It is 1944 and she has evidently spent the war writing a novel about Artemisia Gentileschi. When the Germans blew up Florence’s bridges everyone living in the vicinity of the bridges was evacuated. Banti’s manuscript therefore was destroyed along with her home. It’s not clear why she doesn’t take the manuscript with her. Clearly there were many things that meant more to her. But the irony is, the loss of one version of the novel heralds the creation of what you feel in your bones is a much more daring and brilliant version.
It should be said Banti leaves a lot out. If you know nothing about Artemisia you might get the feeling from this novel that her accomplishments were less important than history has deemed them. Often we see her in moments of deep insecurity; rarely in any moment of triumph. Banti doesn’t seek to give us any kind of detailed chronology of Artemisia’s achievements. She is more interested in what Artemisia feels than what she does. As Banti says, “Artemisia is not pleased…She was expecting more, above all a logical, calm account, a carefully considered interpretation of her actions, the very thing that I can no longer give her, for she is too close to me.” It’s as though Artemisia is some kind of spirit guide who is helping Banti get through the hardships of the war – because this novel is as much about the inspiration and sustenance that Banti derived from the pioneering Artemisia as it is about Artemisia herself.
Paradoxically though it’s when Banti shows us Artemisia in the larger context of history that this novel really shines. As for example its depiction of Artemisia’s lonely journey across Europe when her idolised father summons her to the English court. Here Banti brilliantly makes us appreciate just how difficult it was for a woman to make her own way in the seventeenth century
The prose is incredibly rich and painterly. If I open the novel at random to read a passage this is what I get: “The slight wind increased, the bellies of the vessels creaked as they rocked on their moorings, and a swarm of rowboats could be seen rushing swiftly to shore, shaving the sides of the ships, the oarsmen competing vigorously and with loud shouts to overtake each other.” This is pretty typical of how visually vibrant and intimate is Banti’s prose. It’s a beautifully written novel, every sentence intricately chiselled and crafted (full marks to the translator as well).