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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"The claim is ludicrous. I must now defend my mother's honor as well as mine against this mockery?"

It seemed enough to him that he had planted the idea. He cleared his throat and pretended to read some document.

"Did you not, on repeated occasions, engage in sexual relations willingly with Agostino Tassi?"

The room closed in. I held my breath.

The Assistente turned the screw.

I tightened all my muscles against it. The cords bit into my flesh. Rings of fire. Blood oozed between them in two places, three, all over. How could Papa let them? He didn't tell me there would be blood. I sucked in air through my teeth. This was Agostino's trial, not mine. How to make it stop? The truth.

"Not willingly. Agostino Tassi dishonored me. He raped me and violated my virginity."

"When did this occur?"

"Last year. Just after Easter."

"If a woman is raped, she must have done something to invite it. What were you doing?"

"Painting! In my bedchamber." I squeezed shut my eyes to get out the words. "I was painting our housekeeper, Tuzia, and her baby as the Madonna and Child. She let him in. My father was away. She knew Agostino. He was my father's friend. My father hired him to teach me perspective."

"Why did you not cry out?"

"I couldn't. He held a handkerchief over my mouth."

"Did you not try to stop him?"

"I pulled his hair and scratched his face and . . . his member. I even threw a dagger at him."

"A virtuous woman keeps a dagger in her bedchamber?"

My head was about to split. "A threatened woman does."

"And after that occasion?"

"He came again, let in by Tuzia. He pushed himself on me . . . and in me." Sweat trickled between my breasts.

"Did you resist?"

"I scratched and pushed him."

"Did you always resist?"

I searched Agostino's face. Immovable as a painting. "Say something." Only two months ago he had said he loved me. "Agostino," I pleaded. "Don't let them do this."

He looked down and dug dirt from his fingernails.

The Locumtenente turned to Agostino. "Do you wish to amend your claim of innocence?"

Agostino's strong-featured face turned cold and ugly. I didn't want to beg. Not him. Santa Maria, I prayed, don't let me beg him.

"No," he said. "She's a whore just like her mother."

"She thought she was betrothed!" Papa bellowed from beyond the curtain. "It was understood. He would marry her. A proper nozze di riparazione."

The Locumtenente leaned toward me. "You haven't answered the question, signora. The sibille can be made to cut off a finger."

"It's Agostino who's on trial, not I. Let him be subjected to the sibille."


Madre di Dio, let me faint before I scream. Blood streamed. My new white sleeve was soaked in red. Papa, make them stop. What was I to do? Tell them what they want? Lie? Say I'm a whore? That would only set Agostino free. Another turn. "Oh oh oh oh stop!" Was I screaming?

"For the love of God, stop!" Papa shouted and stood up.

The Locumtenente snapped his fingers to have him gagged. "God loves those, Signor Gentileschi, who tell the truth." He leered at me. "Now tell me, and tell me truthfully, signorina, after the first time did you always resist?"

The room blurred. The world swirled out of control. The screw, my hands--there was nothing else. Pain so wicked I-I-Che Dio mi salvi--would the cords touch bone?--Che Santa Maria mi salvi-Gesu-Madre di Dio-make it stop. I had to tell.

"I tried to, but in the end, no. He promised he would marry me, and I . . . I believed him." Dio mi salvi, stop it stop it stop it. "So I allowed him . . . against my desires . . . so he would keep his promise. What else could I do?"

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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