Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Passion of Artemisia, by Susan Vreeland

"Reading" this one on audio, as I'm in a serious case of Reader's Block. My book club chose this one, and I voted for it, based on my affection for Vreeland's earlier book, The Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

Bad choice.

I'm about five chapters in, and the relentless self-pity and melodrama reduce this book from the level of art Vreeland showed in Hyacinth Blue to mere genre "historical" fiction. Do I really have to finish this book?

As a matter of background, Artemisia Gentilischi was an actual historical person, who lived in 17th century Italy. Her father was a painter, and as he had no son, taught her to paint. He also hired painting tutors for her, one of whom raped her. The trial took place in Rome, and the documents are apparently available. After the trial, the true, historical Artemisia entered an arranged marriage and continued to paint, becoming one of very few women artists of her age who achieved prominence both in her lifetime and afterwards. An exceptional woman in an intriguing profession at a time when the Renaissance was sweeping Europe.

Chapter One is called "Sibille" and with it the promise of richness and metaphor. Artemisia and her father are plaintiff/witnesses in the trial of Artemisia's rapist. A device called the "sibille" is used on Artemisia to test the truth of her testimony. Narrow cords are woven between her fingers and tightened -- torture, in short. A "sybil" is a mythological prophetess, and Michelangelo painted a Sybill on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. The sibille is used to test the truth of an artist's testimony, an artist who is herself a woman, with the down side that the sibille appears to risk the use Artemisia's fingers.

But since the book is written solely from Artemisia's perspective, we already "know" that she is telling the truth. The use of the sibille is never justified or presented as anything other than gratuitous torture with a side order of permanent maiming and the destruction of her painting career. Nobody else cares about the effect of this torture on her--and there is not even any indication that the evidence she is bringing is all that important anyway.

The trial continues--the "defense" seems to be that the accused is innocent and that Artemisia has slept with many men. So the sibille is used to test her denial of sleeping with a laundry list of other men. Are those men ever called in to testify? Are they ever even questioned? We don't know, because that is outside what Vreeland is doing, which is creating a melodramatic scene of a woman oppressed by the men who control the society.

Other than making the reader angry at this sexism, does this make any legal sense? Especially since AFTER this, when Artemisia denies the other sexual partners, THEN then bring in midwives to check if she is still a virgin. WHAT? I mean, everybody agrees she isn't a virgin: I don't think that even defendant denied sleeping with her. So, what is this for?

Then, it appears that Artemisia's father and the defendant worked out a betrothal, and that she was going to marry him, and so after that point, she didn't fight him. So, what's the point here? Is this actually a breach of promise suit--did the defendant refuse to marry her after all? Is there such a thing as marital rape in 17th century Rome--I mean, if she was going to marry him, why is there even a trial?

There is something in there about a stolen painting--presumably the defendant stole it from Artemisia's home, and so this trial is about her father's claims for the painting and a virgin daughter, both of which were taken by the defendant? What is going on here?

Vreeland doesn't tell us, presumably because she doesn't care. The point is not to illustrate the culture or the social structure of the time--it's just that men humiliate and destroy women simply because they can. Sure, that's bound to happen in a city where the legal and the religious structures are hopelessly intertwined, but it would be a better book if we saw the scope of entrenched sexism inherent in a rape trial of this time. I mean, if a rape trial -- by the laws of the city -- required the testimony of midwives that the victim was not a virgin, then we could understand why those women were called. Did the laws require that the examination be conducted in the courtroom? Did they require that the notary (presumably the Renaissance equivalent of a court reporter) be present? Then tell us--because that sort of institutional disregard for a woman's experience tells us so much about Artemisia's situation.

Instead, this stuff just happens, and Vreeland only gives us Artemisia's embarrassment and the take away is that all these men are pigs. But "men are pigs" simply is too modern a sentiment to fit comfortably in this 17th century milieu. Ditto a subsequent scene where Artemisia watches her father count out the coin for her dowry. She is entering an arranged marriage, presumably so she can get out of Rome and the gossip about her and her trial. "I felt like a bartered goat," she says, but I can't get the outrage. Aren't arranged marriages pretty standard in Rome at this time? Don't most girls get married off by their parents and sent off with a dowry as well? If this is usual, then there is no reason she should feel so insulted by the process. It's what she's been expecting her whole life. It's as if a modern woman complained about walking down the aisle--if there is something unusual about doing this, or unusual about your feelings about it, you have to make that clear.

But Vreeland merely gives us Artemisia's outrage and disgust, and then moves on. There is so little detail to anchor this story into the time and place of its setting, that it almost feels like a costume drama, where modern people don old fashioned clothing.

Life is too short to slog through bad books.