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.

The novel is a conversation that the author is having with Artemisia – Banti speaks, daringly, of feeling bound to the novel by ‘our conversations’ – but other claims are evoked, too, as if to affirm a cooler relation with her character (of whom, Banti has already declared in the preface, she is ‘perhaps too fond’). Their bond resembles ‘a sort of contract legally drawn up between lawyer and client, and which I must honour’. Or, Banti proposes, Artemisia ‘is a creditor, a stubborn, scrupulous conscience to which I grow accustomed as to sleeping on the ground’. All this to explain – or further complicate – the truth that, as Banti realises, she ‘will never be able to be free of Artemisia again’.

Banti’s presence in the narrative is at the heart – is the heart – of the novel. In another passage, Banti is imagining the notorious drama of Artemisia’s adolescence, when she was already an artist of startlingly large accomplishment: her rape in 1611 by a painter colleague of her eminent father; the decision to take the rapist to court; the trial, in 1612, in which the juvenile plaintiff was subjected to torture to determine if she was telling the truth; Artemisia’s vindication (which did not lessen the scandal), after which her mostly absent father left Rome for Florence, taking his disgraced daughter with him. And now it is autumn 1944, in Florence, and Banti describes herself as ‘dragging Artemisia on a walk through the Boboli Gardens, battered and deserted after the departure of the refugees; and I compel her to move along with the remaining few, the unhappy proprietors of this large, polluted area, there to meet prostitutes and rough soldiers.’ In Banti’s ingenious dramatising of an author’s freedom to imagine, to re-create, to invent – traditional prerogatives which apply no less to the novels called ‘historical’, informed by documents – Artemisia has become the ward of a tormented, peremptory author, who claims the right to drag a re-created real person about, impose new feelings on her, even change her appearance. At one moment, Banti notes, Artemisia has ‘become so docile that even the colour of her hair changes, becomes almost black, and her complexion olive, such as I imagined her when I first read the accounts of her trial in the mould-coloured documents. I close my eyes and for the first time use “tu” to her.’

Roaming the story as a yearning conjurer of her protagonist, Banti remains in her own time. It is Artemisia who becomes a time-traveller, a visitor, a phantom so real she can be measured physically in the author’s consciousness. Thus Artemisia’s narration of her rape is as told to the author, and when the pitiful story breaks off, Banti says, ‘she rests her head on my shoulder, it weighs no more than a sparrow.’ Indeed, the account of the rape, early in the novel and startling in its brevity, is entirely enclosed in the dialogical exchange with Banti.

Artemisia’s spectral incursions into Banti’s present load every move in the advancing narration of the painter’s life with emotional urgency, a claim for a preternatural degree of intimacy with the inaccessible past. ‘Trapped in time and space like an infertile seed, I listen to a stale rustling, the dusty breathing of centuries, our own and Artemisia’s combined.’ There are conventional spasms of discouragement. It is a year later, 1945: ‘I now admit,’ she writes, ‘that it is not possible to recall to life and understand an action that happened three hundred years ago, far less an emotion, and what at the time was sadness or happiness.’ More arrestingly, Banti asks herself whether the new blow of reality – the war and its devastations – has not outpaced the concerns of the novel and altered the terms in which it can be written. ‘The rhythm of her story had its own moral and meaning which perhaps have collapsed as the result of my recent experiences. A moral and a meaning with which I trifle. Artemisia will have to be satisfied with what follows next.’

And then the novel returns to the painter’s – the woman’s – story.

Today the only female member of the incomparable succession of European Old Masters, Artemisia Gentileschi was not a canonical painter when Banti decided to make her the principal character in a novel. Still, this particular life might seem an obvious subject for this author. Banti’s first decade of writing, the 1920s, was devoted to art history, and she occasionally published monographs about painters (Lorenzo Lotto, Fra Angelico, Velázquez, Monet) during the period, the 1950s and 1960s, when she was most prolific as a fiction writer. Most of her stories and novels had female protagonists – women of exceptional spirit, solitary women (who may be the wives of powerful men), indignant women; the author’s indignation must be inferred from what the austere, elegant third-person narrative voice leaves unsaid. The recurrent use of such material surely suggests Banti’s mixed feelings about her own ambitions and achievements. It appears that in the 1930s she dreamed of becoming a film director, something impossible in Fascist Italy, and only then turned to writing fiction. (Her first work was a short story published in a literary magazine in 1934, for which she adopted the pseudonym that she used from then on.) As she was to say at the end of her long life, her predilection was for stories of women, ‘wise in their own way’, who become ‘aware that good has been defeated’ and that their destiny was ‘an unhappy mediocrity’ – not stories of successful perseverance in an artistic vocation. The novel about Artemisia Gentileschi, written in a relentlessly emotional voice, is the great exception: an account of the triumph of an immensely gifted woman at a time when an independent career in the arts was a nearly unthinkable option for a woman.

Aptly enough, the name Artemisia is associated with female assertiveness, with women doing well what men do. Artemis – Artemisia means follower of Artemis – is the goddess of the hunt. In Herodotus’ great History, it is the name of a queen and a military leader: Artemisia, Queen of Halicarnassus, a Greek city in Ionia, who joined the Persians and was put in command by Xerxes of five of his ships.

A Greek queen commanding a Persian naval squadron is only slightly more improbable than a 17th-century Italian woman becoming a much sought after professional painter of large narrative compositions with Biblical or classical subjects – many of which depict women’s rage and women’s victimisation. Women killing men – Judith hacking away at Holofernes, Jael dispatching Sisera. And women killing themselves – Cleopatra, Lucrezia. Women vulnerable or humiliated or suing for mercy – Susanna and the Elders, the Penitent Magdalene, Esther before Ahasuerus. All subjects that suggest the torments of Artemisia herself, who had already done something heroic, virtually unheard of: taking a rapist to court and demanding his conviction. (Banti imagines ‘the young Artemisia desperate to be justified, to be avenged, to be in command’.) Her heroism, her ambition are intimately connected with her disgrace; she is, as it were, liberated by disgrace, by scandal – the scandal of a rape made public by the victim herself. (As the martial talents of Herodotus’ Artemisia may be imagined to have been liberated by the scandal of the Queen’s defection to the enemy side.)

Banti retells Artemisia’s decision: ‘So I said, I’ll go on my own; I thought then that after my disgrace I at least had the right to be as free as a man.’ For a woman to be free, free as a man, means choices – sacrifices – sufferings that a man may choose, but is not obliged, to incur. In Banti’s account, what is central to Artemisia’s life is not the rape; not the marriage to an obscure young man that her father obliged her to contract once the verdict was brought against the rapist, nor the four children (three of whom died) she bore her husband. It is her solitude: the inexorable result of her commitment to her art. It is her loneliness, for, in Banti’s understanding, the principal relation in Artemisia’s life is to someone whom she loves unconditionally, reverently, and who does not love her: her father, Orazio Gentileschi, master painter and friend of Caravaggio. It was he who trained his precocious daughter as well as her three younger brothers, who proved run-of-the-mill talents. But he was an infrequent presence in Artemisia’s life, and spent his last twenty years in Genoa, in Paris, and finally in England, one of a circle of painters that included Anthony van Dyck at the Court of Charles I, the most important collector of paintings of the age. As the principal relation of Artemisia’s life is to this severe, rejecting father, the most amply and thrillingly narrated event in the novel is the journey Artemisia makes alone, by sea and overland from Naples (via Leghorn, Genoa, Paris and Calais) to London, when she is suddenly summoned by Orazio, now 74, to join him at the English Court.

While heroic in that she defies the norms of her sex (and puts aside womanly needs that would make her weak) in order to become an artist, Artemisia is a familiar feminine type. Her life and character are organised by her fear of and subservience to her opaque, masterful father. There is no mother in Artemisia’s life. The missing maternal presence is supplied by Banti – an author in search of her character, instead of the reverse, Pirandellian, quest – as if, somehow, Artemisia’s pain, Artemisia’s sorrows, could be alleviated by the gift of sympathy that would come when an Italian writer born in 1895 would bring back to life the Italian painter born in the 1590s and would really understand her.[*]

Towards the end of the novel, when Artemisia is alone, abandoned, in England, where her father has just died – the year is 1638 – there is another intersection of the centuries, for it is also 1939 and Banti, on a trip to England and no doubt thinking of the book she is going to write or has already begun, is looking (without success) for Orazio’s grave. And then the novel follows Artemisia as she travels back to Naples, her thoughts only of death. Mourning her father, preparing for her own death in an overturned carriage or in a shipwreck or at the hands of brigands (there are many other versions of this fearsome imminent death), Artemisia does in fact surmount the journey’s perils and hardships, and succeeds in breaking free of her death-bound despair and even of her ‘cruel, closed century’ by accepting her own physical needs – hunger, thirst, sleep – and a spectral consolation, ‘an indefinable presentiment of some benevolent age, of some kindred spirit who alone would know how to weep for her’.

A kindred spirit? In what sense? There is the sympathy extended to her within the novel by Banti – a declared bond of sorrow that connects author and protagonist; a healing act of solidarity as the author encounters those sorrowful feelings in herself as well as in Artemisia. But there is no reflection in the novel of another bond existing between author and protagonist – their enslavement by admiration, justified admiration, of a commanding, important male mentor – although the 20th-century author of Artemisia was just as much identified with a famous man in the same profession as the 17th-century painter was.

Indeed, Artemisia’s worship of her father seems a transposition of Anna Banti’s reverence for her husband, Italy’s pre-eminent 20th-century critic, art historian and cultural arbiter, Roberto Longhi (1890-1970). It was Longhi who, among his many potent reassessments, launched the modern rediscovery of the Gentileschis, father and daughter, as important painters, in an article published in 1916. Banti had been Longhi’s student when the prodigious young scholar taught art history at a liceo in Rome; she was 29 and he was 34, and had been teaching for two years at the University of Rome, when they married. His collaborator in all his activities, a lecturer and writer on art and then an editor and frequent contributor to Paragone, the influential magazine of the visual arts and literature that Longhi founded in 1950, Banti remained in her husband’s shadow, in his intellectual service, throughout their nearly half century of marriage – even as her own reputation as a writer grew. (Artemisia is dedicated to Longhi.)

It is always more defining for a female artist than for a male artist to have a male mentor. Thus Anna Banti is never mentioned without the explanation that she was the wife of Roberto Longhi (the reverse is not true) – just as Artemisia Gentileschi is always introduced as the daughter of the great Orazio Gentileschi. And this is how Banti, like Artemisia, saw herself.

To be sure, all this lies outside what is avowed in Artemisia. It was avowable at the end. Banti’s last book, published in 1981, 11 years after Longhi’s death, when she was 86, is her most directly autobiographical novel. Translated under the title A Piercing Cry – for the Italian Un grido lacerante – it is a naked book, a book of widow’s suffering, of clamorous self-deprecation. How bereft and without value she has felt since the death of il Maestro – which is how Banti’s alter ego narrator, Agnese, refers to her magisterial husband throughout the novel. (The English translation has her call him, somewhat less imposingly, ‘the Professor’.) The novel gives a wrenchingly insecure account of her work as a writer of fiction, replete with doubts about whether it had been worthwhile to write fiction at all. She should have remained a scholar of art history and a literary critic, even if nothing she wrote could live up to Longhi’s near-prophetic standards of scholarship and the renovation of taste. Her ventures into fiction, her ‘stories of proud and indignant women’, were bound to be viewed with condescension, as a dereliction of duty. Hence, the pseudonym: ‘If she failed, her fiasco would not involve anyone. This name, somewhat dull and lacking grace, was all she owned . . . When her books began to be published (and each time she considered them with a genuine scepticism) she realised that they earned a respectful approval, but they were also regarded with suspicion: she was primarily the wife of a prominent man, and she had to pay for the privilege.’

The pseudonym is not just a cover, it is a vow of reticence. To write works of fiction, in addition to literary criticism and film reviews, was what distinguished her existence as a writer from Longhi’s. In fiction, Banti gives voice to feelings and experiences different from his – those of a woman, and one married to this famous man – and displaces them. Thus the extremely intimate ‘I’ of Artemisia resolutely turns away from any autobiographical material. The only relationship Banti declares in the book is with Artemisia. With Artemisia she suffers, from Artemisia she learns: ‘Through Artemisia I have come to realise all the forms, all the different ways in which the grief of a violated purity can express itself.’

Speaking of Artemisia’s pain, she writes: ‘I had thought, with my pages, to have alleviated it.’ But Banti, who had to have been aware of the very complex, harsh feelings that went into the making of the novel, cannot help presenting herself as an aggressor against Artemisia, as well as her rescuer. Her novel is a cruel game as well as an act of love, an expiation as well as a deliverance. She interrupts the story to declare: ‘This awakening of Artemisia is my own awakening. The immunities granted by the war, the extraordinary freedom that everyone felt he was allowed, have ended.’ What she dared think of as ‘a joint collaboration, active and shared, the convulsive game of two shipwrecked women who do not want to abandon the hope of being saved’, has faded. And Artemisia ‘has merged once more into the distant light of three centuries ago, a light which she shines full into my face, blinding me’.

Discouragement again. And the repeal of discouragement soon after. The novelist has set herself an impossible task. Of course, Banti cannot, by a kind of sympathetic magic across the centuries, heal Artemisia’s sufferings or console her for them. But she can, by assuming the full burden of sympathy, console and fortify herself. And the reader – especially the woman reader.

Banti’s Artemisia is hardly the only important novel that testifies to the condition of being haunted, inhabited by the leading character. (Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian is another.) But this one is, specifically, about a woman of great accomplishment haunted by another woman of great accomplishment. Therefore, if for no other reason, Banti’s novel has a feminist resonance. But, not surprisingly, Banti always repudiated any ascription of feminist feeling or attitudes. In a late letter she admitted to admiring Virginia Woolf – she wrote about her, and in 1950 translated Jacob’s Room – but added that she did not find Woolf ‘congenial’. Feminism, she says of her alter ego in A Piercing Cry, is ‘a word that she hated’.

To refuse, vehemently (even scornfully) refuse, a reputation as a feminist was, of course, a common move for the most brilliant and independent women of her generation – Woolf being the glorious exception. Think of Hannah Arendt. Or of Colette, who once declared that women who were so stupid as to want the vote deserved ‘the whip and the harem’. (La Vagabonde, her novel-manifesto about a woman choosing her career and a single life over the love of a worthy man and emotional dependence, was translated into Italian by Banti.) Feminism has meant many things; many unnecessary things. It can be defined as a position – about justice and dignity and liberty – to which almost all independent women would adhere if they did not fear the retaliation that accompanies a word with such a sulphurous reputation. Or it can be defined as a position easier to disavow or quarrel with, as it was by Banti (and Arendt and Colette). That version of feminism suggests that there is a war against men, which was anathema to such women; that feminism suggests an avowal of strength, and a denial of the difficulty and the cost for women in being strong (above all, the cost in masculine support and affection); more, it proclaims pride in being a woman, it even affirms the superiority of women – all attitudes that felt alien to the many independent women who were proud of their accomplishments and who knew the sacrifices and the compromises they entailed.

Artemisia is full of affirmations of the pathos of female identity: women’s weakness, women’s dependence, women’s solitariness (should they want to be anything but daughters, wives and mothers), women’s sorrows, women’s grief. To be a woman is to be incarcerated, and to struggle against incarceration, and to long for it. ‘“If only I were not a woman,” that futile lament,’ Banti’s Artemisia reflects. ‘Far better to ally herself with the sacrificed and imprisoned, participate in their veiled, momentous fate, share their feelings, their plans, their truths; secrets from which the privileged, men, were barred.’ But, of course, Artemisia’s achievement – her genius – banishes her from this home.

Artemisia has had a husband, a decent man, who after some years is no longer at her side. She has had a daughter, who grows up neglected by her mother and eventually ceases to love her. She has chosen to become, to try to become, ‘a woman who has renounced all tenderness, all claim to feminine virtues’ – virtue in a woman means self-abnegation – ‘in order to dedicate herself solely to painting’. Artemisia is a tragic reflection on the condition of being a woman, and of defying the norms of one’s sex – as opposed to the comic, triumphalist, tender fable which is Orlando. As an account of exemplary tribulations that follow from being independent, an artist and a woman, Banti’s novel is also exemplary in its despair and its defiance: the merit of Artemisia’s choice is never in doubt.

Read only as a feminist novel, which Artemisia certainly is, it confirms what we know (or think we know; or want others to know). But its power as literature is also that of an encounter with what we don’t know or fully understand. The feeling of strangeness is a particular effect of that branch of literature tamed by the label ‘historical fiction’. To write well about the past is to write something like fantastic fiction. It is the strangeness of the past, rendered with piercing concreteness, that gives the effect of realism.

As with Orlando, the conventional categories – historical novel, biographical novel, fictionalised biography – hardly do justice to Artemisia. It offers, among its many pleasures, a headstrong, moving reflection on the presumptions of imaginative literature, at the same time as it celebrates the completeness of the imagination that fulfils itself through painting. Much of the novel’s force derives from Banti’s knowing appreciation of how the hand, the eye, the mind paints.

Agnese, the autobiographical protagonist of A Piercing Cry, calls a novel she has written about Artemisia Gentileschi ‘the book she loved most’. Did she mentally exempt it from her wish that she could destroy all the books of fiction she had published? She doesn’t like being thought of as ‘a woman writer’, and is infuriated by philistine women acquaintances who ‘each claimed to have read at least one of her books (always the same one)’. (Undoubtedly it was Artemisia.) She writhes under ‘the accusation of feminism’ and allows, as she recalls the stories she had chosen to tell, that it was perhaps ‘justifiable’. She yearns, after having been for so long in the faithful service of ‘the hypothetical interpretation of history’, to make a fresh start. She wishes – but then does not wish – she could write ‘the modern novel’: one ‘stuffed with an already obsolete present’.

Stories that take place in the past are often assumed to be old-fashioned in form and concern. The very fact of being concerned with the past is taken to be an evasion or an escape from the present. But there is nothing retrograde about Artemisia, with its intricate, daring exploration of what it is to make up a story based on real people – like the stories of most novels, not just the ones called historical novels. In fact, under the guise of historical or biographical novels – fictional versions of a real person’s life – are more than a few of the most original works of fiction written in the 20th century. In the plangent fullness and uncanny sensual precision of its re-creation of a past world, and in its portrait of the evolution of a heroic consciousness, Artemisia belongs with Penelope Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Blue Flower – an account of the life of the poet Novalis. Its obsessive connection with its protagonist, its dialogical or interrogative voices, the double narrative (taking place both in the past and in the present), and the free intermingling of first and third-person narration, give it a family resemblance to Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden – an account of the life of Dostoevsky. Such books – like The Memoirs of Hadrian, they centre on arduous physical journeys, which are also journeys of a wounded soul – would be trivialised by calling them historical novels. And, if the term has any use, at the very least one needs to distinguish between novels that assume an absolute, omniscient voice, recounting the past, and those with a dialogical voice, which set a story in the past in order to dwell on its relation to the present – very much a modern project.

Anna Banti did not want to lose her manuscript in the battle for Florence in early August 1944. No writer could welcome such a destiny. But there can be no doubt that what makes Artemisia a great book – and unique in Banti’s work – is this double destiny, of a book lost and re-created. A book that by being posthumous, rewritten, resurrected, gained incalculably in emotional reach and moral authority. A metaphor for literature, perhaps. And a metaphor for reading, militant reading – which, at its worthiest, is rereading – too.

[*] 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.