Saving Lucretia 3: Family and Community

So Lucretia complies with Tarquin’s sexual demands, and he departs.  What  Lucretia does next is very Roman.  Livy does not dwell on her distress.  She is simply ‘sorrowful’ or ‘in mourning’ (maesta) and what she does next is completely coherent.  She summons her father and husband – the male figures of authority in her life, and the men who will be most dishonoured by her unchastity.  She tells them to bring a friend each – these are witnesses.  Then she tells her story and reveals her intention to commit suicide, which she dose, despite the men’s protests.

Up till now we have focused on art which tends to isolate Lucretia, often using the conceit of her being unobserved as an opportunity to expose a lot of female flesh.  These versions are untrue to Livy, book 1, because they overemphasise the personal – the rape as a personal trauma, the suicide as a private response.  In fact Livy’s Lucretia is highly socialised.  She does not see the rape as a devastating private event.  She sees it as an attack on herself, her household and family.  Sextus has violated a wife and daughter, and probably a mother (Ovid, in Fasti 2 828 sees her as a matrona).   In addition, by using his royal position to shame and diminish her and her family, he has also called into question the fundamental principles of of the sanctity of the Roman home and the rights of the citizens over their families and property.  Rape is a political act.

Livy’s Lucretia takes charge of the situation despite her grief.  Livy is insistent that she requires the wronged men to bring witnesses, who do not appear in Ovid.  Ovid prefers to have her summon her husband and father on their own – a private and more pathetic action.  But Livy’s Lucretia expects to make a legally witnessed accusation .  In fact, by making the offence public, she is morally compelling her husband and father to take action – not easy given that the offender is the son of the despot.   In addition, she exacts an oath of vengeance before witnesses.  She is more or less demanding revolution.

So already, before the men turn up, Lucretia has assumed direction of the situation, and fully determined what is going to happen.  This includes the suicide – Livy’s Lucretia has anticipated that the men will try to dissuade her from dying and has concealed the dagger before they arrive.  Livy gives her a significant speech and highlights her strength of character.  She gives a blunt account of the violation of her marriage, demands vengeance and speaks again as she deliberately chooses suicide against the advice and expectations of the men.  Ovid softens her character, here and elsewhere, laying the foundations for the victim Lucretia so popular later.  Ovid’s emotional and vulnerable Lucretia can barely describe the rape, and says only as she dies that she does not accept the ‘pardon’ the men give her.  Nonetheless, she accepts full agency in her death.

lucreti (1)
Death of Lucretia, Bernaert de Ryckere 1561

The picture above is much truer to the Roman versions than the solo Lucretias.  Lucretia is seated at the centre of a family group including waiting women, and even a small child, possibly her own.  There are ten figures in the main group.  The women in the foreground are busy with Lucretia  – one even holds her hand and fondles her hair.  There is no question of presenting her as an erotic spectacle.  Lucretia is mostly clothed, with a dark coloured drape across her fine gold-embroidered robe.  Her husband supports her body, and may be about to cover up the bare breast which displays a bloody wound.  He is in turn supported by another man.  The expressions and gestures indicate shock and grief.  Ryckere sees the scene as a tragic family event.  However, Lucretia’s gentle and modest pose has nothing of the stern defiance of Livy’s Lucretia – this is Ovid’s Lucretia, who took care to fall modestly – a topos he borrowed from the death of Polyxena in the Trojan Women.

Death of Lucretia, Francesco Rustici , 1624-1625, Uffizi, Florence

Francesco Rustici, also restores a modestly fallen Lucretia to the bosom of her family, this time, just the four men from the Livy version and one attendant – all shocked and grief-stricken.  This painting is a study in light.  Lucretia’s white dead face is most highly illuminated.  Away from her and her red dress, the scene fades into darkness.  The scene is truthful about the communal significance of Lucretia’s death.  But there is a problem with restoring Lucretia to her family, which is the loss of her stature as agent.  As the family gather round the body, the shared grieving of the living becomes the subject, as at any deathbed.  In Rustici’s picture, Lucretia’s agency is so obscure that it would be easy to conclude that the men had just found her murdered in the dark.  The soldier hesitantly hovering over the dagger in her chest (Brutus, in fact) might be an investigating detective.

So far our visual artists have taken two broad options on the topic of the suicide.  option one is making Lucretia the sole subject, and exploiting her erotic potential at the moment of suicide.  Option two is recreating the Roman version of the scene, but selecting a moment when she has already died, and so diminishing her agency.  Are there other options?  Well, I found one by Orazio Borgianni sold at Christies in 2000 for $79,500.  It is a kind of two in one: a weak and rolling-eyed Lucretia points a dagger at her midriff, while a large man with his hand on her wrist appears to be preventing her.  This respects the idea in both Livy and Ovid that her suicide was defiant, but the painter has made the success of the suicide physically absurd.  And he has nothing to say about her strength and determination, nothing about why she does what she does.   The painters seem to be shy of Lucretia confronting her men, or even speaking to them.  Beauty and pathos trump female agency and aggression.

There is a third option ; the depiction of the consequences.

Death of Lucretia, Gavin Hamilton, 1763-1767

In this painting in the neo-Classsical style, Lucretia, semi-clad and lovely, is relegated to the side of the picture.  The central figure is a bearded soldier.  His large limbs are a bit untidy, but he appears to be stepping forward over her body, raising his chin in determination and his left arm in expostulation, while his strong right arm thrusts forward a dagger held violently upwards, at a 90 degree angle to his hand.  He forms a group with two other men, one old (Lucretia’s father) and one young who steps towards him, hand on heart, offering his own weapon.  They are swearing the oath of vengeance.  A fourth man (the husband ) is holding Lucretia and grieving.  The instigator of the oath is Brutus, the friend Lucretia’s husband brought with him.  In both Livy and Ovid, he grasps the bloody dagger and swears vengeance – the painting makes visible their implication  that Lucretia’s husband is too overcome with immediate grief.    Lucretia’s dying hand clutches at the drapery on Brutus’ knee giving an unfortunate impression that she could do with more drapery (which is true), but with the intention of showing that she has claimed his protection.

A later British artist took this even further.

Eastlake, Charles Lock, 1793-1865; Brutus Exhorting the Romans to Revenge the Death of Lucretia
Brutus exhorting the Romans to revenge the death of Lucretia, Charles Locke Eastlake, 1814 (Williamson Art Gallery, Wirral, UK

Lucretia lies on her bier centre back, while Brutus, with semaphore-like gestures, calls attention to her.  At the sides, other characters do vigorous things, like trumpet blowing, and striding.  In the centre foreground a child extra who has accidentally wandered in from another scene waits patiently for someone to notice.  I’m not sure this is a great painting.  But it does give Lucretia her due as mother of the Roman Republic.  Her sacrifice creates revolution.  So the significance of Lucretia’s act is fully restored by our two British artists; she has impelled the men to take action long overdue – the denunciation and expulsion of the king.

It is probably no accident that these paintings are British.  As the land of the ‘mother of Parliaments’, Lucretia’s heroism in the face of tyranny struck a particular chord in Britain.  Magna Carta, Oliver Cromwell and Lucretia – heroes of British parliamentary democracy.  So in this final painting, Lucretia is not erotically exploited, nor is she a mere object of pathos, but she is silent, and very dead.  Tarquin might simply have murdered her.  Lucretia’s dynamic agency is lost in a familiar plot archetype; a powerful villain has killed a beautiful and innocent woman, and now the good guys will get him.  It could be the plot of a cowboy movie, starring Tarquin as the evil rancher, Lucretia and her family as victimised homesteaders and Brutus as the Sheriff raising a posse from the fearful townsfolk.  Lucretia’s main contribution is being beautiful and good and dead.  Why is it so hard for Lucretia to get to say anything?


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