Alexandra Lapierre Artemisia: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780802138576

Artemisia: A Novel

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9780802138576: Artemisia: A Novel
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An international best-seller, Alexandra Lapierre's Artemisia sweeps us through the streets once frequented by Caravaggio, Velasquez, and Van Dyck and into the studios of artists who used their daggers as efficiently as their brushes. Born in the early 1600s when artists were the celebrities of the day, Artemisia was apprenticed to her father, the artist Orazio Gentileschi, at an early age. Raped by his partner Agostino Tassi at seventeen, the Gentileschi name was dragged through scandal for Artemisia refused, even when tortured, to deny that she had been raped. Indeed, she went farther: she dared to plead her case in court. Artemisia is the story of a powerful love/hate relationship between master and pupil, father and daughter, and a talent that overturned the prejudices of the day, winning commissions from wealthy patrons, nobles, and kings. Lapierre brings Artemisia Gentileschi to vivid life as she tells of the emotional struggles of the most fascinating and controversial artist of her time.

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Small wonder that biographer Alexandra Lapierre was drawn to write about Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the first female painters to gain acclaim in the male-dominated 17th-century art world. Her story has all the ingredients of high drama: rape, jealousy, and an infamous court trial set against a backdrop of art and passion. Meticulously researched, framed in a fictional context, Lapierre's treatment applies a painterly touch to a scholarly work. Billed as a biography in the U.K. but as a novel in the U.S., it combines the rigor of one genre with the page-turning immediacy of the other.

Born in Rome to the artist Orazio Gentileschi and his wife Prudenzia, Artemisia's life was turned upside down after the death of her mother. Orazio jealously guarded his only daughter, refusing her outside contact even as he taught her the subtleties of painting. At 17, Artemisia, already a skilled artist, was facing a life of spinsterhood as her father's prisoner. Yet the Gentileschi household was full of the comings and goings of artists whose shifting allegiances were as complex as the politics of the time. When Orazio's friend, arrogant trompe l'oeil master Agostino Tassi, set his sights on young Artemisia, her refusals only stoked his passion. What followed was rape. Tassi kept her quiet through promises of marriage; when marriage was not forthcoming, Tassi found himself in court.

Even under torture, Artemisia's statement never wavered, and eventually Tassi was convicted. The mild sentence scarcely harmed him, yet the experience had a lasting effect on his victim. Touched by scandal, Artemisia was able to marry an inferior painter only by virtue of a substantial dowry. Through an unhappy marriage, the deaths of her first children, and the lives of her daughters, however, she continued to paint, eventually gaining considerable acclaim. Interestingly enough, given her experiences, her paintings of religious allegory often portrayed women in illustrations of strength and dominance. If her depiction of Judith violently decapitating Holofernes elicited the Grand Duchess's repulsion, the Grand Duke Cosimo II was riveted. Others in the room saw the allusion to the artist's own past: "'This face, so close to death, brings someone to mind,' the secretary, Andrea Cioli, interjected insidiously. 'A painter, your Highness...'"

Artemisia blends storytelling and careful detail in a complex rendering that will particularly appeal to readers with an interest in either Baroque art or Italian history. Color plates illustrate the haunting quality of Artemisia's work, and the end notes make clear which portions derive from documentation and which are fictional strokes of color. The uninitiated may have a difficult time unraveling the intricacies of characters and politics, perhaps because Lapierre is more at home with scholarship than with fiction. Worse, her breathless prose sometimes tries too hard, even while doing little to reveal her characters' inner worlds. In the end, it's both the compelling quality of Artemisia's story and the lushness of Lapierre's supporting detail that hold this unusual book together. --Anne DeGrace

From the Inside Flap:

In this heroic, passionate story, Alexandra Lapierre sweeps her audience through the streets once frequented by Caravaggio, Velasquez, and Van Dyck and the studios of the artists who used their daggers as efficiently as their brushes.

Born to the artist Orazio Gentileschi at the beginning of the 1600s, when artists were the celebrities of their day, Artemisia was apprenticed to her father at an early age. She showed such remarkable talent that he came to view her as the most precious thing he owned. But at the age of seventeen Artemisia was raped by her father's best friend and partner, Agostini Tassi. Soon the Gentileschi name was being dragged through scandal, for Artemisia refused, even when tortured, to deny that she had been raped. Indeed, she went farther: she dared to plead her case in court. For eight months all of Rome was riveted by the trial. Artemisia won the case, but in return she was ostracized from Rome and from her father.

This is a story of the love-hate relationship between master and pupil, father and daughter, at a time when daughters belonged to their fathers and had no legal rights. Artemisia's talent was such that she overturned the prejudices of her time, winning the admiration of wealthy patrons, kings, and queens. Lapierre brings Artemisia Gentileschi to vivid life as she tells of the emotional struggle of this remarkable, fascinating woman.

"This is one of the most vivid biographies ever written about an artist. It is also a lively portrait of Rome during the epoque of the Cenci and Caravaggio, and of Venice and Naples and London in the throes of Baroque excess. Above all, Artemisia is a fascinating, if often frightening, study of the relationship of a brilliant father and daughter and their tortured but endlessly colorful lives."--Nicholas Fox Weber, author of Balthus: A Biography

"A book bristling with adventure, noise, passion and color which re-creates Baroque Italy in all its diversity, from the ballrooms to the torture chambers, from trials to marriages, from drinking parties to underground conspiracies."--Les Echos

"Alexandra Lapierre's heroines live passionately and wildly.... This book is simply wonderful."--Le Figaro

"Artemisia is cut from the marble of masterpieces."--Beaux Arts

"[Lapierre] has more than achieved the challenge she set for herself and given us a magnificent portrait of a painter and the world in which she moved."--Cesare de Seta, Corriere della Serra

"This wonderfully researched...full of interest and intrigue. It is not art criticism but it does deal with questions of greatness and gender.... A book worth reading."--Jeanette Winterson, The Times (London)

Alexandra Lapierre's most recent book, Fanny Stevenson: A Romance of Destiny was awarded the highly regarded Elle magazine literary prize in 1993.

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