cover image Artemisia


Alexandra Lapierre. Grove Press, $27 (427pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-1672-7

LaPierre's heavily researched--but racy--historical novel covers the passionate life of Italian Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1592-1653), who survived rape, ostracism and public scandal and went on to imagine powerful women in her energetic paintings. Artemisia's father was the much-in-demand Roman painter Orazio Gentileschi, who took the unusual steps of making his daughter both his apprentice and his model.As Artemisia entered her late teens, Orazio grew extremely protective, then arranged for her to marry his unscrupulous associate, painter Agostino Tassi. When Artemisia refused Tassi, he raped her. A dramatic trial ensued; Artemisia won, but the scandal drove her to leave Rome, and to marry the lawyer who defended her. All this transpires in the first half of LaPierre's book, which draws on and sometimes interpolates real transcripts from the trial. LaPierre (Fanny Stevenson) then follows father and daughter on their subsequent travels, which bring them both in time to the England of King Charles I. The detailed narrative straddles the line between biography and novel; some passages stack up piles of Renaissance facts, while others reimagine Artemisia's dramatic life scene by scene. (There are even long notes, and a bibliography.) Though the prose is fluent, and the characters gripping, Artemisia is no Romola. The volume succeeds more as history than as literature, but it makes history very hard to put down. LaPierre and translator Heron (who used both the novelist's French and the sources' Italian) offer a remarkable entr e to the eventful life of a pioneer female artist and to the dangerous Europe in which she lived. (Oct.)