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The Passion of Artemisia


by Susan Vreeland
Poorly written


I was looking forward to reading this book, having read "M; The Life of Caravaggio" in the past. I was very disappointed. The writing level is extremely low. The characterization, dialogue, and description are around the level of a generic historic romance novel. And when she masturbates with Michelangelo's paintbrush -- ugh!

The Artemisia portrayed in this novel is so self-absorbed as to be obnoxious. Time and again, she describes people who are beneath her and her ambitions, whether they are "lowly stone cutters" , her husband, or members of the Academy. She even details her father 's artistic failings at length (while she somehow forgets to list her own). Whenever her self-involvement means that hardship must be inflicted on other characters, within two paragraph the author will explain that the sacrifices are only made to further Artemisia's art.

However, I think that this analysis gives too much depth to the character -- as written. I couldn't count the number of times that her cardboard enemies "sneer" at her. Like any bad romance novel, the simplistic central character often speaks of self doubt (for reader sympathy), while the author frames the situation so the character is clearly in-the-right.

Further, I recently read David Hockney's fascinating and convincing book "Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters" that demonstrates how optics were almost certainly used by artists of the time. Since the author of this Artemisia Gentileschi book seems unaware of the evidence (published in 2001), this book suffers from passionate (although not exacting) descriptions of foreshortening practice and other techniques that were unlikely to have been used by the artist (here is some online information about Artemisia and optics). This poor research throws the authenticity of the whole book into serious question.

From my amateur painter's understanding of art history, Artemisia was an excellent (although not exceptional) follower of the Caravaggio school of painting. I think that she deserves much better than this novel.

If you're interested in painting, I would suggest you look elsewhere. If you want a cheesy historical romance (sadly using Galileo as the only Romeo), however, this would likely rate four stars.