Artemisia

Written by Alexandra Lapierre Liz Heron trans.
Review by Lisa Sweeney

 

This extraordinary novel is a must read for anyone remotely interested in Baroque Italy, art, or painter Artemisia Gentileschi. I have very minimal knowledge about any of these topics, but the author immediately drew me in to share her fascination with this artist.

Born at a time when artists were the celebrities of their day, Artemisia was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a respected painter who noticed her talent at an early age and dedicated himself to teaching her. Passionate about his pursuit of artistic perfection, Orazio viewed Artemisia’s talent as an extension of his own.

A willing disciple, Artemisia worked with Orazio peacefully in his studio until she became a young woman. Her father cloistered Artemisia from the outside world, supposedly to safeguard her virtue. Ultimately, Artemisia was no longer content to live in her father’s shadow, wanting to establish her own artistic identity, and marry and have children.

Artemisia was raped at 17 by Agostino Tassi, another painter and friend of her father. Furious, Artemisia planned to denounce him, but Tassi offered to marry her, a promise he did not keep. The rape trial which followed became the scandal of the day. Within hours after Tassi was sentenced, Artemisia married a Florentine painter and went to Florence, where she blossomed under her husband’s loving care.

The friendships and professional ties Artemisia established with members of the Florentine court, such as Buonarrotti the Younger (the great-nephew of Michelangelo) and Galileo, lasted a lifetime. She painted her most famous work, Judith Slaying Holofernes, and earned the patronage of Grand Duke Cosimo II de’Medici. At 23, Artemisia became the first female inducted into the Accademia del Disegno, a prestigious association that brought together the elite among painters, sculptors, architects, and scholars.

Throughout her life, Artemisia dreaded, but could not avoid comparison with, the works of her father. Who was the better painter? Her father, watching Artemisia’s maturing talent, was haunted by the same question.

This novel is the product of five years of research by Lapierre, who provides detailed notes on references for the events in each chapter, as well as a list of characters, maps, and several color pictures of Artemisia’s paintings. I highly recommend this beautiful book.