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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

"Artemisia" by Alexandra Lapierre

Artemisia Gentelleschi was a woman artist during the Baroque. She worked for Popes and Kings. Her art, which often depicts Biblical women at violent odds with men, is recognised as among the best of this period. She's in the Uffizi, Seville Cathedral, the NY Metropolitan Museum, and the Prado amongst other places. She was the first woman artist to be elected to the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence. And she was the victim in the first ever fully-documented rape trial.

This is a historical novel although it is firmly based on the evidence so it is perhaps more of a fictionalised biography. The events, we are led to believe, occurred. The sense that is made of them, the feelings of the actors in the story, are speculative.

Growing up in her father's art workshop in Rome, Artemisia showed a precocious talent. Aged seventeen she was raped by Agostino Tassi, a specialist in perspective and trompe l'oeil who collaborated with her father and gave her lessons. For the next nine months Artemisia and Agostino conducted an affair; the excuse given is that Artemisia, having been deflowered and dishonoured, could only hope that Agostino would marry her. She thought he was free. His first wife had died (he had been accused of hiring assassins to murder her) and she didn't know that he was living with his wife's sister (technically incest) by whom he was having children. When she discovered that he had no intention of marrying her (and later that he couldn't, since the assassins had failed and his first wife was still alive and paying him off) she accused him of rape. The trial proceeded according to the laws of Italian justice. Agostino was jailed, awaiting sentencing (time in the galleys, or exile, or death), while the witnesses were tortured. So Artemisia had her fingers crushed but maintained her story. Meantime a young boy, working for Agostino, falsely accused her of sleeping around and maintained his story during the strappado, being strung up and hung by his wrists while his arms were tied behind his back which was not only excruciating but led to dislocation of the shoulders; this boy was willing to undergo this ordeal twice because of the promise of a pay off from Agostino. Finally the verdict was against Agostino and he was exiled but, pulling strings, never actually left Rome. Instead Aretmisia found a husband and left for Florence where she mingled with Buonarotti, the great-nephew of Michelangelo and a famous playwright, and Galileo as well as the last embers of the Medici clan. She had four children, three of whom died. 

In her later life, after her good-for-nothing husband finally disappeared, she divided her time between Venice, London and Naples, having affairs with Nicholas Lanier, a musician at the court of Charles I, and the Spanish Duke of Alcala, one time governor of Naples, by whom she had an illegitimate daughter.

She was a stunningly talented artist and she lived in a world of struggle, hardship, early death. She fought against the society-imposed disadvantages and restrictions of being a woman and, despite the patriarchal attitudes towards female sexuality she had a number of lovers. She mixed with popes and kings. But most of all her work makes her immortal.

Some of my favourite lines:

  • "A galley cuts through the mist over the Thames and docks heavily to the accompaniment of a De Profundis, lugubriously intoned by Capuchin monks" (p 3) The opening sentence seems perfect for a book about a Baroque artist.
  • Her father "put her to work, observing her progress with the dread that she would not succeed, and the fear that she would succeed too well." (p 46)
  • "She loved him as people loved their sins." (p 137)
  • "Did he die of the French malady - syphilis - from which so few recovered that the hospital in the Corso, charged with admitting its victims, bore the extremely optimistic name, Hospital of the Incurables?" (p 138)
  • "You cannot have happiness in this life and immortality for all time to come. You have to choose." (p 191)
  • A display at the Pitti Palace in Florence in 1615 showed the moon "with craters and volcanoes, areas of light and shade. One could also see Jupiter and its four satellites, which Galileo had recently baptised the Medicean Stars." (p 208)
  • "Artemisia had learned many things in the Via della Croce. Tassi, who boasted everywhere of having taught her how to 'handle a brush', did not mean these words merely in the painterly sense." (p 280)
The biography of a fascinating artist, with a useful dramatis personae and useful maps and colour plates of her paintings. A wonderful insight into an interesting time made all the more vivid by the clever device of turning it into a novel. 

January 2018; 442 pages

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