The Passion of Artemisia

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9780670894499: The Passion of Artemisia

In her luminous debut novel, Susan Vreeland told the story of a Vermeer painting that transformed the lives of its many owners with its beauty. Now, in her stunning new novel, she tells the story of a painter who transformed Renaissance Italy with the beauty of her work. The Passion of Artemisia chronicles the extraordinary life of Artemisia Gentileschi, the first woman to make a significant contribution to art history.

At age eighteen, Artemisia Gentileschi finds herself humiliated in papal court for publicly accusing the man who raped her-Agostino Tassi, her painting teacher. When even her father does not stand up for her, she knows she cannot stay in Rome and begs to have a marriage arranged for her. Her new husband, an artist named Pietro Stiatessi, takes her to his native Florence, where her talent for painting blossoms and she becomes the first woman to be elected to the Accademia dell'Arte. But marriage clashes with Artemisia's newfound fame as a painter, and she begins a lifelong search to reconcile painting and motherhood, passion and genius.

Set against the glorious backdrops of Rome, Florence, and Genoa, peopled with historical characters such as Cosimo de' Medici and Galileo and filled with the details of the life of a Renaissance painter, The Passion of Artemisia is the story of Gentileschi's struggle to find love, forgiveness, and wholeness through her art. At once a dramatic tale of love and a moving father-daughter story, it is the portrait of an astonishing woman that will captivate lovers of Gentileschi's paintings and anyone interested in the life of a woman who ignored the conventions of her day and dared to follow her heart.

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Review:

Like her bestselling debut, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland's second novel, The Passion of Artemisia, traces a particular painting through time: in this case, the post-Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi's violent masterpiece, "Judith." Although the novel purports to cover the life of the painter, the painting serves as a touchstone, foreshadowing Artemisia's rape by Agostino Tassi, an assistant in her father's painting studio in Rome; the well-documented (and humiliating) trial that followed; the early days of her hastily arranged marriage; and her eventual triumph as the first woman elected to the Accademia dell' Arte in Florence. Although Vreeland makes a bit free with her characters (which she admits in her introduction), attributing some decidedly modern attitudes to people who would not have thought that way at the time, her book is beautifully researched and rich with casual detail of clothing, interiors, and street life. She deftly works history and politics into the background of her canvas, keeping her focus on Artemisia and her family. Beyond the paintings Artemisia left behind, Vreeland's vision may be as close as we can come to understanding the anger and ambition that kept this talented woman at the doors of the Accademia, demanding entrance, in a time when respectable women rarely left their homes. --Regina Marler

From the Author:

Artemisia Gentileschi burst upon the post-Renaissance art scene with all the drama of an Italian opera. When I learned that she was the first woman to be admitted to the Accademia dell' Arte in Florence, producing paintings of startling invention which expressed a feminist sensibility, and the first woman to make her living solely by her brush, and furthermore, that she was raped at seventeen by her father's friend, her teacher, I knew I'd found material for a novel.

Rather than focusing on the rape or using a broad brush to paint a sweeping biography, I chose to explore the inner Artemisia, her developing state of mind, her transcendence over misfortune and resentment, the possibilities of forgiveness and love in a ruptured life, and the connecting tissue of beauty, art, spirituality, and wholeness.

Such a focused work of fiction about an historical person must be a work of the imagination, true to the time and character always, but true to facts only so long as fact furnishes believable drama. To suit my purposes, I combined actual people into composite characters, eliminated others, and invented still others. Though I used the trial record, her paintings, and her associations with Galileo, Cosimo de' Medici II, and Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger as recorded in art histories, I imagined the personalities and interactions of Artemisia, her father and her husband, and devised dramatic moments that would propel a plot. This is the process by which an historic figure moves from yellowed archives to scholarship, and from academic interest to heroic popular legend, becoming more complex and beloved as a result. With The Passion of Artemisia, I wanted to participate in giving Artemisia her cultural moment.

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