Monday, January 11, 2010

The Passion of Artemisia, Part II

Despite not liking this book much, I did finish it. At some point I dumped the audio book and picked up the actual book from the library--and the good news is that I can read much faster than I can listen.

I do have to lay some of my dislike for the book at the feet of the audio production. The narrator was competent and her pronunciation of the Italian was fluent, but her affect lent a permanent air of bewilderment to the first person narration, creating an Artemisia Gentileschi who just couldn't be very bright, as she was constantly surprised by everything.

Also, the book is written as a series of vignettes, and the audio production would have benefited from leaving longer silences between each scene to replicate aurally the visual use of spaces to represent the passage of time.

Leaving the audio aside--how was the book? Again, not very good. The group pretty much agreed that the subject was very interesting, but the book didn't do it justice. We rated it a C+.

Looking at the task of pulling together such a book, you'd think you'd have a slam dunk. Artemisia Gentileschi lived at a high point of Italian history, painting for Medicis, corresponding with Galileo, working in Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples and England. We have many of her paintings with a rough chronological order. Some of her letters have survived, as has the legal records of the rape trial. The author's task was to pull this patchy data together and create a character who could also speak to modern readers. Vreeland was only intermittently successful.

I think perhaps my dissatisfaction came from the uneasy mix of modern sensibility with period detail. It just seemed that Vreeland pointed out things that the real Artemisia would not have. For example, when attending a ball at a noble's house, she writes of the "too sweet perfume that failed to mask the musky scent of their unwashed bodies." That's a detail that translates the Renaissance for modern readers, but wouldn't Artemisia be used to that and not notice it? After all, she didn't bathe more often than the rest of them did.

The real strength of this book should have been Vreeland's ability to describe the paintings--how she made them, what choices she made as a woman that were different from other artists' depictions of the same subjects. And we do get some of that. Artemisia's Judith slaying Holofernes is described as requiring more realistic work on Judith's part.

Vreeland especially takes time with Artemisia's choices in painting Lucretzia. Traditionally, it is a blood-and-sex subject, in which the victim of a rape kills herself. Vreeland's Artemisia is unwilling to perpetuate the belief that death is the only proper response. After all, she didn't kill herself, why should Lucretzia? We get a lovely set piece with Artemisia holding a dagger and testing poses herself, while looking in a mirror. Should she hold the dagger pointing in, or out? Wrist up, or down? Blade touching skin, or in the air? Artemisia muses on what moment she wants to capture in her painting, rejecting the more extreme emotions in favor of painting a woman who is still undecided about her fate.

I think I would have enjoyed this book more if we had gotten more about the art and less about the melodrama: Artemisia seems to have had bad luck in picking her family. She spends much of the book blaming her father for making her rape public by starting the trial, for the use of the sibille on her, for marrying her off to a man who cheats on her. She spends most of the novel with a major chip on her shoulder, and refuses to have anything to do with him until the end, when Vreeland cobbles up a sort of reconciliation. Perhaps it was necessary to have some sort of arc to the story, but the result was a deeply immature and petulant main character who failed repeatedly to appreciate what he had done for her and dwelled only on what he had done to her.

It came as a relief toward the end when Artemisia's mentor (a nun) gives her a bit of a tongue lashing. Grow up! Get over it! You've had a fabulous life, living in wonderful cities, making your living by what you love, surrounded by art and beauty. You have a healthy child. You have a life that most women can't even dream of, while I've been shut up in this convent for thirty years. Quit whining.

It would have been good advice for Vreeland to have taken earlier with her character.

A word about the title: "The Passion of Artemisia" is most likely intended to play on the many paintings of saints called "The Passion of X." These pictures often (usually? always?) show the saint in a moment of religious ecstasy, sometimes indistinguishable from sexual orgasm. Vreeland doesn't give us a passionate Artemisia--even her love of art doesn't really register as a "higher calling" or something that gives her transcendent bliss. Rather, she is a very practical woman--as she would have had to be--juggling painting with child care, commissions with household management. She tells us she loves to paint, but that love is shown not by ecstasy and an O face, but by the determination with which she manages to keep painting even when that requires major upheaval in her life.

In some ways, the book is diminished by events--at the time the book was published in 2002, it didn't have to compete with Wikipedia, which summarized the factual events of Artemisia's life. When Vreeland wrote it, she didn't have any reason to expect that her readers might Google "Artemisia Gentileschi" and readily access her history. In the world where the internet so dominates, the role of historical fiction may have changed. It's no longer enough to bring forth the facts of a somewhat obscure character from history--authors have to do something more.

1 comment:

Minnie said...

Hello, Cate - I often use historical novels as a prompt to go and study someone/thing in more depth. And so it was with Artemisia Gentileschi, about whom I'm heard but knew nothing. Hugely disappointed by this book, though: massive lost opp., as AG's story is very dramatic and should be compelling. Bah!