Episode 1, 2, & 3
by Rebecca Silverman,
How would you rate episode 1 of
How would you rate episode 2 of
How would you rate episode 3 of
“Whoever wants to do things as they wish ought to take care not to be born a woman.”
These words were written in 1479 by Nannina de'Medici, and although they don't date precisely to the time period when Arte takes place, they're a pretty good way to contextualize the series: as a woman in the Renaissance Republic of Florence (Italy was still a collection of independent city-states at the time), Arte would have had very little autonomy. But that doesn't mean that she couldn't have existed, as her name indicates – the show is (very) loosely based on the life of Renaissance Master Painter Artemisia Gentileschi, a woman who did successfully infiltrate the all-male ranks of the Accademmia dell'Arte e Disegno, and in fact was supposed to have a show of her works in Florence in 2020. So, if you've been watching Arte and wondering how plausible the whole thing is, the answer is: close enough.
With one exception (more on that in a bit), that's good enough for me, because Arte is an engaging story. Our fourteen-year-old heroine wants to be an artist, which during the Renaissance meant gaining an apprenticeship to a master artisan, but she has no interest in doing it as a boy – she wants to be herself and to be allowed to pursue what she loves. While she goes through the obligatory anime hair-cutting ritual to show how serious she is in episode one – and I firmly believe that she would have cut into her breasts if Leo hadn't stopped her – that's less a statement of her pulling a Lady Macbeth “unsex me here” thing and more her attempt to show how serious she is about being an artist. In episode three, when Leo makes her dress as a boy in order to attend a dissection, she's visibly unhappy; in her mind, her gender shouldn't matter to people and she should just be able to do what she wants as who she is. It's not done in an overt “girl power” way, either; it's just simply how Arte thinks.
Of course, she does have to do a lot of proving that who she is is more than the assumptions people make about her gender. While that comes into play in episode one, when Leo gives her a ludicrous test to become his apprentice, it's really the province of episode two. That's when Arte has to rebuild her rooftop shack into something livable and tries to get into another studio to sketch a sculpture, both of which require her to show the menfolk that she's more than capable of handling whatever they throw at her. But it also means that she has to figure out how to do things like pull a cart or carry heavy sacks of clay while wearing feminine clothes, which is almost as tricky. This is where Arte is actually lucky she's living in the Renaissance: corsets weren't boned yet, just made of stiff fabric, and they didn't cover the waist, so she has much more flexibility than women a hundred-odd years later would. (Mostly they functioned to push the breasts up, as we can see in one of her green dresses.) But as Suzanne Alleyne says in her book Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders, Arte would definitely not be wearing those cute ruffled bloomers that protect her modesty when she hikes her skirts up – previous to the late 19th century, women's underwear as such didn't exist. It's hard to blame the show for adding them in, honestly, but with most of the rest of the series taking such pains with the historical detail, it's a blaringly off note.
All of that aside, these first three episodes do their best to establish Arte as naïve but motivated, and they largely work. Watching her in episode two prove her worth to the men in the other studio is impressive, but even better is the contrast we see between Arte and Angelo's many sisters, all of whom expect Angelo to take care of everything for them when he comes home from his apprenticeship. That's not because they're bad people, but rather because that's the expectation they've all been raised with based on their social class, Angelo just as much as anyone. He thinks women are more fragile than men, and he can't understand why Arte refuses his help. (As a side note, I'm hoping Angelo turns out to be the romantic interest if there is one, but I'm afraid after episode three that it's Leo.) And as Arte is a mind-blowing person to Angelo, the courtesan Arte meets in episode three stands to be one for her – there's a huge contrast between the way that she acts and how Arte's own mother does, and it almost at this point looks as if she has more freedom than a woman of Arte's own social class. That's likely not entirely true, as we stand to find out next week, but Arte is clearly impressed by the woman's ease of speech and manner – so much so that she may not have fully absorbed Leo's statement that the woman is one of his patrons. In this case, “patron” doesn't just mean that she buys his art; it's more of a support pledge that allows Leo to maintain his studio…and as a courtesan, there's a good chance that she, too, has a patron who in turn supports her lifestyle, although the currency is likely a little different.
That's something that Arte isn't likely to know much about, and while these episodes have largely been focused on her staking her claim on a career as an artist and showing that being female is not a barrier to it, the upcoming ones could place more emphasis on Arte learning how the world works when you're not a noble. That should be interesting to see, because the series (and the original manga) are just as much about the place and time as they are about the girl, and once the anime achieves a balance between the two, this could really become something special.
Arte is currently streaming on Funimation.
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