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29 July 2005

The Passion of Artemisia

By Susan Vreeland

"Narrated in the wise, candid first-person voice of Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi, [Susan Vreeland's] novel tells the story of Gentileschi's life and career in Renaissance Italy. Publicly humiliated and scorned in Rome after her participation as defendant in a rape trial in which the accused is her painting teacher (and father's friend) Agostino Tassi, Artemisia accepts a hastily arranged marriage at the age of 18 to Pietro Stiatessi, an artist in Florence. Her marriage, while not a love match, proves at first to be affectionate, and the arrival of a daughter, Palmira, strengthens the bond with her husband. But rifts soon develop as Artemisia begins to have some success: she wins the patronage of the Medicis and is the first woman to be elected to the Accademia dell'Arte before her husband. Studio and home become the battlefields of Artemisia's life, and Vreeland chronicles 20 years of the painter's struggles while raising her daughter alone."

I enjoyed this book much as I did The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunnant. In both novels the dialogue is very modern, in that no attempt was made to use patterns of speech contemporary with the times (except for a bit of Italian thrown in here and there). I wasn't expecting vintage 17th c. Italian phrasing, but just a little nod to the notion that they would have spoken differently. However, whereas Dunant described Florence in a simple, effective prose style - capturing a sense of the bustle and drama of the city - Vreeland relies much more heavily on internal dialogue for the dramatic thrust, leaving scenery and descriptions to a reader's understanding of great works of art. A character is compared to Michelangelo's Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica. How can the average reader know what that means if they don't have an art encyclopedia in front of them? On many, many occasions, these references felt like mere name-dropping.

Artemisia was at once strong and waffling, passionate and confused - much like Dunant's Alessandra. But there was a hint of annoying in this attempted multi-faceted portrayal, a disagreement I had with Vreeland's Artemisia that I cannot precisely name. She was raped, forced into a marriage of convenience, and had to balance her artistic life with obligations as a mother and wife, yet I kept coming away with a sense that she was not a fully-developed character. Too many assumptions were made - again, like with the art references. It was as if Vreeland assumed the reader would understand these trials: the aftermath of rape, the utter degradation Artemisia must have dealt with to survive as an artist, the heart-sickness she must have felt at the dissolution of her marriage.

Instead, while Artemisia's betrayal by her father is dwelled upon to the point of fatigue, other emotions are glossed over in favor of her next commission. Perhaps that was the point. Artemisia was so focused on her art and her need for recognition - the passion - that every other emotion was a pale shadow. I'll give Vreeland the benefit of the doubt, despite this lack of psychological meat.

All of this is not to say I disliked the book. My comparison with Dunant is intentional because both authors are credible storytellers. The plot, the pacing, the building curiosity - it's all here. Despite the drawbacks I've mentioned, I read the book quickly and with a good deal of enjoyment.

Quoted text: Publishers Weekly; ©2001 Cahners Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier, Inc.

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