Artemisia: A Novel

I have read hundreds if not thousands of books over my lifetime. Loved several and dismissed just as many. Rarely has there been a book that’s subject matter I have thought of time and time, haunting me, over the last decade as the novel Artemisia a Novel by Alexandra LaPierre. I’ve always been interested in strong historical female characters because most often they’ve been deemed as heretics or witches or whores by the male-dominated society in which they lived. Artemisia was one of them. One of the first female painters of the seventeenth century she was lucky, at first, to be taught by her famous father, the artist Orazio Gentileschi who took pride in his daughter’s talent. But, as most fathers during the 1600’s Orazio grew protective of Artemisia and tried to marry her off to the best available male – her tutor Agostino Tassi. When Artemisia spurned Tassi’s advances and refused to marry him, he raped her to “teach her a lesson”. A trial ensued, and Artemisia was tortured by her jailors in an attempt to change her testimony. But because she never wavered Tassi was convicted which astoundingly caused outrage in Rome. A small victory for Artemisia because shortly thereafter this scandal and the fact she “ruined Tassi’s reputation” she had to leave her home, and the city Rome. The novel is one that interweaves fiction with historical accuracy, even including copies of authentic documents from the court case.
Lapierre has included several of Artemisia’s paintings. Interestingly enough some of the subjects “Judith beheading Holofernes” for example, has the male character looking suspiciously like her attacker Tassi. I find Artemisia’s use of painting as a catharsis for her pain fascinating in an existential kind of way. I also found her self portraits interesting in that she used strategies never before seen by the painters of her day. One strategy was to fasten mirrors at an angle high on the wall and the ceiling to view herself from a different perspective.
Artemisia was a woman in history who broke the stereotypical mould for women as set by society. Not only did she successfully pursue an occupation, almost exclusively made up of men, she also possessed the strength and courage to stand up for her convictions and never wavered from the truth even though it meant banishment from her home and being labelled a whore.
I’d like to possess the courage of Artemisia. One way of doing so is to venture out on my own to new and foreign places. Shortly after reading the novel, I decided to travel to London, England, on my own. Day upon day, I travelled and walked and visited places and attractions and historical locals on my own, getting lost on subways and down intricately woven streets. But one day I decided to visit Buckingham Palace. As I was meandering down staircases, and corridors, I peered over a velvet rope just to get a better view of a back room. There, to my delight and surprise, I found one of Artimesia’s paintings. Her original self-portrait and I felt as if I had personally met this incredible woman.

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