Excerpt from The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Passion of Artemisia

by Susan Vreeland

The Passion of Artemisia
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2002, 320 pages
    Jan 2003, 368 pages

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Print Excerpt

I remembered the Delphic sibyl on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo portrayed her as a powerful woman alarmed by what she sees. Papa and I had stood under it in silent awe, squeezing each other's hands to contain our excitement. Maybe the sibille would only squeeze as hard as that.

"Likewise, the sibille is merely an instrument designed to bring truth to women's lips. We will see whether you persist in what you have testified." He squinted his goat's eyes. "I wonder what tightening the cords might do to a painter's ability to hold a brush-properly." My stomach cramped. The Locumtenente turned to Agostino. "You are a painter too, Signor Tassi. Do you know what the sibille can do to a young girl's fingers?"

Agostino didn't even blink.

My fingers curled into fists. "What can it do? Tell me."

The Assistente forced my hands flat and wound a long cord around the base of each finger, then tied my hands palm to palm at my wrists and ran the cord around each pair of fingers like a vine. He attached a monstrous wooden screw and turned it just enough for the cords to squeeze a little.

"What can it do?" I cried. I looked for Papa through the curtain. He was leaning forward pulling at his beard.

"Nothing," the Locumtenente said. "It can do nothing, if you tell the truth."

"It can't cut off my fingers, can it?"

"That, signorina, is up to you."

My fingers began to throb slightly. I looked at Papa. He gave me a reassuring nod.

"Tell us now, for I'm sure you see reason, have you had sexual relations with Geronimo the Modenese?"

"I don't know anyone by that name."

"With Pasquino Fiorentino?"

"I don't know him either."

"With Francesco Scarpellino?"

"The name means nothing to me."

"With the cleric Artigenio?"

"I tell you, no. I don't know these men."

"That's a lie. She lies. She wants to discredit me to take my commissions," Agostino said.

"She's an insatiable whore."

I couldn't believe my ears.

"No," Papa bellowed. "He's trying to pass her off as a whore to avoid the nozze di riparazione. He wants to ruin the Gentileschi name. He's jealous."

The Locumtenente ignored Papa and curled back his lip. "Have you had sexual relations with your father, Orazio Gentileschi?"

"I would spit if you had said that outside this courtroom," I whispered.

"Tighten it!" the Locumtenente ordered.

The hideous screw creaked. I sucked in my breath. Rough cords scraped across the base of my fingers, burning. Murmurs beyond the curtain roared in my ears.

"Signorina Gentileschi, how old are you?"


"Eighteen. Not so young that you don't know you should not offend your interrogator. Let us resume. Have you had sexual relations with an orderly to Our Holy Father, the late Cosimo Quorli?"

"He . . . he tried, Your Excellency. Agostino Tassi brought him into the house. I fought him away. They had both been hounding me. Giving me lewd looks. Whispering suggestions."

"For how long?"

"Many months. A year. I was barely seventeen when it started."

"What kind of suggestions?"

"I don't like to say." The Locumtenente flashed a look at the Assistente, who moved toward me. "Suggestions of my hidden beauty. Cosimo Quorli threatened to boast about having me if I didn't submit."

"And did you submit?"


"This same Cosimo Quorli reported to other orderlies of the Palazzo Apostolico that he was, in truth, your father, that your mother, Prudenzia Montone, had frequently encouraged him to visit her privately, whereupon she conceived." He paused and scrutinized my face.

"You must admit you do have a resemblance. Has he, on any occasion, ever revealed this to you?"

From The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland, Copyright © January 2002, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.

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