A Double Destiny

Susan Sontag

‘Non piangere.’ Don’t cry. These are the opening words of Anna Banti’s novel Artemisia. Who is talking? And when? The first-person voice – that of the author – writes ‘this August day’, omitting both the date and the year, but these are not hard to fill in: 4 August 1944. The Nazi occupation of Florence, following the collapse of the Mussolini Government, has taken its appalling, final turn. At four o’clock that morning, the Germans, who had begun evacuating the city, detonated the mines they had set along the Arno, managing to blow up all the venerable bridges except the Ponte Vecchio and to wreck many houses on or near the river, among them the house on the Borgo San Jacopo where Banti lived, under the ruins of which lay the manuscript of her new novel, nearly completed, about Artemisia Gentileschi.

‘Non piangere.’ Don’t cry. Who is talking? And where? It’s the author, still in her nightgown (as in a dream, she writes), sitting on a gravel path in the Boboli Gardens – on the promontory on the south side of the Arno – sobbing, telling herself not to cry, and finally ceasing to cry, stunned by the ever sharper realisation of what was destroyed in the havoc of a few hours before. Florence’s centro storico is still burning. There is fighting, gunfire. (It will be another seven days before the whole city is liberated by the Allies.) Refugees have clustered higher up, at the Forte di Belvedere, from which she descended a little earlier; here, she writes, there is no one nearby. Soon she will stand and look at the rubble lining the Arno. And a whole day will pass. After the ‘white troubled dawn’ in the Boboli Gardens of the first lines of the novel, it will be noon (there’s a reference to the South African soldiers who entered the city six hours earlier) and Banti will have taken refuge below in the Palatine gallery of the Palazzo Pitti, and then dusk, when she will be once more at the Forte di Belvedere (where, she says, people are risking being machine-gunned to lie out on the grass) and from that commanding view she will continue grieving for Florence and the death all around her, and for the manuscript that exists now only in her fragile memory.

‘Non piangere.’ Don’t cry. Who is talking to whom? It is the stricken author talking to herself, telling herself to be brave. But she is also addressing the heroine of her novel, ‘my companion from three centuries ago’, who had lived again on the pages in which Banti had told her story. And, as she mourns, images of Artemisia surge through Banti’s mind, first of ‘a disillusioned and despairing Artemisia’, middle-aged, in Naples, not long before her death, then of Artemisia as a child in Rome, ten years old, ‘her delicate features expressing pride and ill-treatment’. Mocking the loss of the manuscript, ‘the images continue to flow with a mechanical, ironical ease, secreted by this shattered world.’ Artemisia is lost, but Artemisia, her lamenting phantom presence, is everywhere, irrepressible. Soon – Artemisia’s distress, and Banti’s, are too keen – the anguished first-person voice of the author makes way for the voice of Artemisia, and then gives itself permission to become intermittently, then for longer stretches, the third-person voice that narrates the painter’s life.

For what the reader holds is, of course, the novel written – written again – in the following three years, and published in late 1947, when Anna Banti (the pen name of Lucia Lopresti) was 52 years old. Although she was to publish 16 works of fiction and autobiographical prose before her death at the age of 90, in 1985, this – her second novel – is the one that assures her a place in world literature.

A phoenix of a book, written out of the ashes of another book, the novel is a tribute to bitterness and to tenacity – that of the bereft little girl of the early 1600s who will, against all odds, become a renowned painter, that of the bereaved author who will write a novel that is surely more original than the one consumed in the fires of war. Loss has made the author free to enter the book, talking to herself and to Artemisia. (‘Don’t cry.’) Artemisia has become even more dear to the author, whose feeling has deepened, become almost amorous. Artemisia is the elusive beloved, who, because of the loss of the manuscript, is now more intensely present in the author’s mind and more exigent than ever. It is a love relationship yet to be fully described: between the author, alternately tender and querulous, and the quarry, the victim, the tyrant whose attention and complicity she desires.

Never has the passion of novelist for protagonist been so intently formulated. Like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Artemisia is a kind of dance with its protagonist: through it course all the relations that the author can devise with the fascinating woman whose biographer she has decided to be. The lost novel has been recast as a novel about a haunting. Nothing so crude as an identification: Anna Banti does not find herself in Artemisia Gentileschi – any more, or less, than Woolf thinks that she is Orlando. On the contrary, Artemisia is for ever and supremely someone else. And the novelist is her thrall – her amanuensis. Sometimes Artemisia is coquettishly inaccessible. (‘In order to further reproach me and make me regret her loss, she lowers her eyelids, as though to let me know that she is thinking about something and that she will never tell me what it is.’) Other times she is yielding, seductive. (‘Now it is for my benefit alone that Artemisia recites her lesson; she wants to prove to me that she believes everything that I invented.’) The book is a testament, dictated by Artemisia. But also a tale, propelled by whim and filled out with figments of the author’s imagination, not at all at Artemisia’s behest, though she may waive her objections. Banti asks and receives Artemisia’s permission to tell. She runs up against Artemisia’s reluctance to admit the author to her thoughts. The game of concealment is mutual: ‘We are playing a chasing game, Artemisia and I.’

At one moment Banti claims she no longer cares for the book that was nearly finished: ‘Even if I saw the lost manuscript with all its marks, its blotches, lying beside me on the grass that still resounds with the noise of the cannon, I couldn’t be bothered to read a line of it.’ But that is mere bravado. Artemisia lingers, importunate, in Banti’s mind. Why should she be dismissed? After all, ‘a prisoner needs to amuse himself somehow, and I have very few playthings left, only a doll that I can dress and undress; particularly undress . . . If Artemisia were still a ghost and not a weighty, strange name, she would shudder at my disrespectful digressions.’

An author who may be described as a lover of sorts is, inevitably, one who insists on being there – brooding, interrupting, prowling about in her book. Relentlessly dialogical (it is in the nature of the language of love to be dialogical), the novel offers an impassioned mix of first and third-person voices. The ‘I’ usually belongs to Banti but can be, on poignant narrative occasions, that of Artemisia herself. The third-person voice offers classically detached, omniscient narration or, much of the time, that warmer variant called free indirect discourse, which clings so closely to the thoughts of a character that it amounts to a transposed or disguised first person. The author, with her fervent avowals and nervous probing of what can and cannot be said about Artemisia, on Artemisia’s behalf, is never far away.

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[*] Trained as an art historian, Banti was as respectful of the available sources as she could be, and the novel conveys a brilliantly researched sense of the period. The changes she made in the character or life were in the name of her uniquely possessive relation to Artemisia (child, beloved, sorrow-sister, familiar), and are avowed; they are part of the emotional play of the novel. But the writer’s deliberate choice to alter known facts in a novel based on a real historical personage must be distinguished from imperfect knowledge. Thus, 1598, the year Banti gives in the prefatory Note to the Reader for Artemisia’s birth, was the date accepted then. Only some twenty years after the publication of Banti’s novel was a birth certificate discovered which establishes that Artemisia Gentileschi was born in 1593. With Banti’s date the Artemisia who was raped was 13. And she would have been 12 when she executed her first major painting, Susanna and the Elders, signed and dated 1610. The rape, and Artemisia’s willingness to press charges against her rapist and undergo torture at the trial to ‘prove’ her veracity – not to mention the ability to produce such a mature, brilliant painting – make for a rather different, though no less astonishing, story now that we know she was in her late teens.