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Susan Vreeland’s “The Passion of Artemisia,” loosely based on the life of Italian Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi, thinks it’s a serious historical novel supported by a good, solid corset of feminist principles. But you don’t have to yank on its strings too hard to reveal its truest, blushing self: “The Passion of Artemisia” is as tastefully florid a morsel of psychosexual Catholic folderol as film director Douglas Sirk ever served up (with a soupçon of feminist-revisionism sloganeering thrown in for kicks).
Have a look at this passage in which Artemisia, frustrated by the lack of sexual attention shown to her by her gruff, philandering husband, confronts him with memories of a rare, recent exploit, in which the two climbed a tall belltower the better to gaze down upon the dome of the Florence Cathedral (after which they rushed home in the rain to make mad, passionate love that would shiver the timbers of the Sistine Chapel): “Nothing? Was it nothing that made you get drenched in a storm? Nothing that made you climb halfway to Heaven on a whim of mine? Nothing when you covered my throat with kisses, pressed your hardness against me next to God’s own dome?”
Madre di Dio! Never has reading about the experiences of a real-life woman artist made things so hot under the old wimple. (Let’s not even talk about the part where Artemisia, lonely and sexually frustrated, slips into bed and teases her nipples with a paintbrush that once belonged to Michelangelo.)
In real life, Artemisia (1593-1653), the daughter of venerated painter Orazio Gentileschi, was the first woman artist elected to the Accademia dell’ Arte. Vreeland’s retelling of Artemisia’s life story includes purity sullied (Artemisia is raped at 18 by her painting teacher, and her father uses her misfortune for his own gain), love scorned (Artemisia tries in vain to win the heart of her own husband) and a sequence in which Galileo Galilei flirts with her at a party. (Later, he invites her to come with him and have a look at Venus — a much better line than, “Say, would you like to come up and see my Klimt?”) An independent and passionate painter, Artemisia also serves as a role model for single working moms everywhere: She supports herself and her daughter with commissions from Italian nobility and clerics.
“The Passion of Artemisia” (Vreeland’s second novel — her first was “Girl in Hyacinth Blue”) isn’t defensible as “quality” literature. It’s loaded with howlingly expository language (“Giovanni de’ Medici, Cosimo’s son. Imagine, a duke at ten years old.”) and a heaping helpful of anachronistic colloquialisms (I was just waiting for a wandering minstrel to saunter by singing that old Ren fave “Come on’a My Dome”).
This would be a more honest book if Vreeland had just fainted in the arms of its more disreputable qualities, instead of trying to cloak them in faux seriousness. But no matter. As you turn the pages quickly, feverishly, the dew of anticipation glistening sweetly on your brow, you may find your pulse rate quickening to meet the twin swollen mounds of something or other. And before you know it, “The Passion of Artemisia” has collapsed in a heap of damp pages at your feet. If this is art history, get me an ice cube.