Saving Lucretia 1: Lucretia porn victim

Lucretia is Rome’s most famous rape victim.  She is raped by the son of  Rome’s last king – her suicide spurs her family into revolution and the monarchy is swept away.   Lucretia’s story was celebrated in antiquity; the earliest surviving versions are by the Augustan writers Livy (early 20’s BC) and Ovid (AD 8).  Her fame in Britain has declined with the decline of Classical education, but she still boasts a poem by Shakespeare and an opera by Benjamin Britten.  And lots and lots of historical fine art, and it mostly looks like this.

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Lucrezia, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

 

In fact, this eighteenth century example is at the mild end of the genre.  Lucretia’s beautiful face is not distorted by her death agony.  Her eyes are raised pathetically in supplication.  The pearls, symbols of purity, which adorn her lovely hair, hang on a broken string – her chastity is gone.  In order to stab herself, she reveals a pleasing expanse of soft flesh, although not too much for modesty.  The sword juxtaposes masculine violence with all this female softness.  It makes a decorous wound with little blood.  Although the prominence of her hand stresses her agency in her death, she seems otherwise gentle and helpless.

We can track these themes though other paintings, which are more or less shameless about presenting Lucretia as an object of sexual predation; the moral tale provides an excuse for gazing on her nakedness and savouring her reluctance.  The viewer is supposedly sharing the view point of the witnesses of her death – her husband and father – but she is drawn more from the point of view of the rapist.  Poor Lucretia’s rape entitles her to become an icon of titillating nudity for the rest of the history of European art.  If western art were Instagram, there would be a law against it.  In case you think I am overegging, this, we can look at some more Lucretia pictures.

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Lucrezia Romana, Parmigianino, 1540

Parmigianino’s 16th Century Lucretia looks like an ancestor picture for Tiepolo.  We have the upturned eyes, and pathetic beauty, here combined with a killer hairstyle, and we have the determined sword hand.  Lucretia has bared the whole of one soft breast and shoulder for the blow, and then absent-mindedly struck into the luscious fabric which shimmers over her other breast.  No wound.  No blood.

But why not take off all your clothes – like the Lucretias of Cranach the Elder and Durer and several other people.

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Lucretia, Cranach the Elder (1525-30)

This style of Lucretia bares all to the viewer.  She has dressed bizarrely for the occasion, wearing a gossamer drape under a massive red velvet cape with fur trims.  The whole point of the garment is to make a frame for her pearly flesh.  The false modesty is staggering.  The huge enveloping garment is tucked tightly behind both breasts, and the conceit of the fine drape makes a pretence that the viewer isn’t actually seeing Lucretia’s pubic hair.  The dagger is being used as a pointer.  Lucretia doesn’t seen much interested in her suicide, having enough to do with trying to control her robe with her left hand

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Lucretia, Ambrosius Benson, early 16th century

Benson’s Lucretia has got herself dressed up and done her hair after the rape, but she has left her rich dress open down to the groin, showing off her breasts, navel and pubic area through the implausibly fine linen of her shift.  The blade is again just an accessory.  Meanwhile, in the background, we see her naked in bed, while one soldier proposes to get in with her, watched by another, watched by us.  Voyeurism probably is the right word.

But why keep the actual rape in the background?  Lucretia’s rape is complex – in our Roman key sources, Livy and Ovid, it is a rape by forced consent.  This means, in the original story,  that Lucretia complies with Tarquin’s demands for sex, and risks being accused of willing participation – a major factor in her suicide.  Women’s groups have fought hard to make courts recognise rapes of this kind in recent history.  A woman going uninjured to the police station would not have got far with a rape case in my living memory.   Mostly women comply to avoid immediate violence – and this is Lucretia’s case, with additions.  She is prepared to let Tarquin beat or kill her, but he also threatens to dishonour her whole family and disinherit her children by setting her death up to look as if she had been caught in adultery with a slave.  This is a refinement of cruelty open to Tarquin because of specifically Roman circumstances, but it corresponds to modern parallels where threats to family members play a part in coercing victims.

None of this, however, is of any interest to our artists.  It is much more exciting to see a naked woman grappling with a hairy soldier.

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Rape of Lucretia, Titian, 1571, now in Fitzwilliam Museum

This Titian painting is the most well-known example of the focus on the rape.  The naked woman is falling back beneath the highly clothed man.  She raises her boneless arms in entirely futile protest.  Luckily her bed sheets are only two foot wide, so we can see her entire body from toe to fingertips.  Titian has made the mistake of misplacing her arm to partially shield her breasts, but we get a great expanse of tummy instead.  And if we need the breasts to be there, we can try various other paintings including a lurid version from the circle of Jan Gossaert where Tarquin too gets his kit off, and where there is a snack on the bedside table for later.  Somebody bought it in 2014 – I hope they don’t give it to me.

Next time I want to blog about the original meaning of the Roman story and some more sympathetic artists.  Meanwhile, if you haven’t had enough of exploitation pics of Lucretia, you could visit the Royal Collection, which has many, many examples.  I leave you with two.  At Hampton Court Palace (Middle Closet) this Lucretia thinks she is a picador; she has decided to swirl a cape (which covers only her face) while wielding a dagger to unclear purpose.  Apparently Charles I bought this picture.

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Lucretia, Francesco Vecellio, 1530

Later, Prince Albert secured another gem by Cranach for the King’s Dressing Room in Windsor Castle.

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Lucretia, Cranach the Elder, 1530

I expect he used it to remind himself that the abuse of royal power can lead to the overthrow of the monarchy.

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