Saving Lucretia 4: Livy, Ovid and Rembrandt

According to Roman tradition, Lucretia died shortly before the deposition of the Roman kings in 509 BC.  We can presume she was part of both oral and written tradition before Livy recorded her story in Book 1 of his History sometime before 25 BC.  Ovid’s version in the Fasti II is from 8 AD.   It is clearly an embellished version of the Livy story.  In fact, Ovid, a knowingly inter-textual author, very likely expects his version to be read alongside the Livy version and supplemented by knowledge of it.  He can afford, for example, to let Brutus suddenly materialise to swear the oath of vengeance, although in his version, Lucretia summons only her father and husband – we know Brutus had come too, because he is in Livy.

Livy is mainly concerned with Lucretia as a female hero of Rome.  We see very little of her except her extraordinary virtue – first expressed in diligence about her domestic duties, and then by the strength of mind and moral clarity with which she sets about accomplishing her (for him) purposeful and honourable death.  Livy’s Lucretia marries perfect womanly virtue with the highest degree of the virtues which men and women share – courage, love of honour, duty – and in which most women are deficient.  Like Cloelia, in the same book, she attains masculine levels of virtue without compromising her femininity – she exercises virtues appropriate to a woman beyond the level attainable by most women.  Her use of the dagger is significant – she attains honour suicide, like a man and with a man’s weapon.  The typical female weapon of despair is the noose, or poison.   Lucretia also speaks out like a man, tells the men their duty and exacts an oath. She earns this right by her exemplary behaviour.  She becomes their conscience.

Ovid is the originator of the line of pathetic, erotic victim Lucretias , although he can’t be fully blamed for their cavorting excesses.  To illustrate this post, I have chosen Rembrandt’s studies of Lucretia.   Ovid and Rembrandt are both more interested in establishing Lucretia as a suffering woman.  Both erode the toughness of Livy’s Lucretia to create a warmer and more ‘feminine’ character.  Both are more interested in her victimhood than her agency.  But they both allow her dignity as well as pathos, and the capacity for choice.

Lucretia 1664, attributed to Rembrandt, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Leaving aside the question of attribution, the 1664 Lucretia is fully dressed – and dressed with care.  Where some of the more melodramatic portraits break her pearls here they are glowing and  intact – her virtue is unsullied.   This Lucretia is sorrowful, but determined.  She looks perfectly capable of using her dagger and wards off opposition with the gesture of her free hand.  She has left her bodice loosely undone at the top and the dagger will pass through her shift.

Simon Schama has a Guardian article on the painting and this second Rembrandt, of 1666, below.

Lucretia, 1666, Rembrandt, Minneapolis

This Lucretia has a similar dagger and dress, but the dress is only loosely thrown on, exposing a modest shift, stained with blood.  She has done the deed, and life fades from her face. In an odd detail, she supports herself by a curtain cord, or summons a servant with a bell-pull.

Both the 1664 and 1666 painting are studies of a woman in crisis which eliminate the overtly erotic.  The Lucretias are beautiful, but we are drawn to their troubled faces, not to their luscious bodies.  These are suffering souls freeing themselves by death from their earthly troubles.  Rembrandt has found something universal in Lucretia’s pain, but also has brought back some of the violent contrast between domesticity and horror which typifies the Roman account – it is Lucretia’s secure and perfect home which becomes the place of her torment.  In these paintings, Lucretia has to die amid the gewgaws of her normal life, respectably clothed, properly coiffured, even holding a curtain cord.  Her suffering is of the mind.  Nothing except her thoughts prevents her from carrying on as usual.  Sextus has outraged the ordinary.

In dressing Lucretia modestly, Rembrandt follows the Roman sources in spirit.  In reality, Lucretia should be in mourning.  Livy calls her ‘sorrowful’ (maesta) twice.  And she summons the men in an emergency, because a terrible thing (rem atrocem) has happened.  Grief over a significant loss is not a private psychological state at Rome – it is manifested by mourning garments.  Death, obviously, requires deep mourning, but other family catastrophes cause the wearing of mourning: attending the trial of a family member, for example.  Summoned urgently home to hear terrible news, Lucretia’s husband and father should expect to find her dressed as a woman who is ‘maesta’ does dress – she should let her hair down, and dirty her clothing with ash.  This is consistent with the way Livy’s Lucretia behaves – remaining in her room out of public gaze, and crying.

Ovid is completely in agreement with Livy.  Lucretia sits, with hair unbound, ‘like a mother setting out for her son’s funeral.  She summons her aged father and husband, who notice both her grief and her ‘habitum‘ – her mourning dress.   So I think we can absolve Ovid from responsibility for the flaunting nude Lucretias of lurid imagining.  Even when she falls, she does so modestly, borrowing a trope from Polyxena’s death in the Trojan Women.

Ovid does nonetheless move the balance towards Lucretia as victim.  Ovid’s Lucretia speaks a great deal in comparison with Livy’s, but says less.  When her husband and friends visit unexpectedly, they overhear a tearful speech about her devotion to her husband and her fears for him.  She is faint and fearful, helpless to protect her husband except by sending warm clothing.  She seems to have stayed up late to finish this task, rather than being habitually industrious like Livy’s Lucretia.  When her husband reveals himself, she rushes into his arms and hangs ‘a sweet burden’ from his neck.  This is definitely not the standard behaviour of a Republican matrona, but stresses Lucretia’s small physique and childlike naivety Later, she is described as a ‘nupta’ or bride.

Ovid expends a great deal of skill on the domestic idyll and Lucretia’s emotional attachment to her husband – sentimentalising Livy’s bare account.  He allows Tarquin to rehearse Lucretia’s physical beauty, but carefully places the lust in Tarquin’s mind, not in the reader’s.  In Ovid, the rape scene is expressed through empathy with Lucretia.  She is  fearful and helpless, speechless and confused.  She trembles like a lamb.  We catch snatches of her thoughts as the rape progresses – she is too weak to fight, she feels him violate her breast with his hand.   This picks up a detail in the Livy – this is how Tarquin wakes Lucretia, warning her at the same time to be silent.  But although initially frightened (pavida), Livy’s Lucretia is strong, not swayed ‘even by fear of death.’   Tarquin wants cooperation – she refuses it at sword-point, until he reveals his complicated plan to stage her death as an adulteress.  At this point, terrified (territa) not by physical violence, but by shame, she gives way – his ‘lust had conquered her inflexible chastity’.  Ovid outlines the same events, except that his Lucretia seems incapable of putting up much resistance, and so his programme makes less psychological sense.  Ovid’s Lucretia is awake before Tarquin touches her – it is her mental collapse which prevents her crying out.  Livy’s Tarquin comes up with his plan of entrapment when frustrated by Lucretia’s indifference to death.  In Ovid, the plan is just part of Tarquin’s nastiness and Lucretia’s resistance is sketched in the vaguest terms.

Neither Roman author is interested in the steamy details of the physical act of rape.  Livy is presenting Lucretia as a hero of chastity, Ovid as a pathetic innocent – they have no interest in the steamy carnality which typifies many of the paintings we have seen.  Ovid is a famously erotic poet, so his choice here is deliberate.

After the rape, Livy’s Lucretia is ‘maesta’  but orderly to the point of coldness.  She assumes mourning, she sends for the appropriate men and their witnesses.  As soon as they arrive, she makes a short speech, of almost lawyerly type.  She asserts that Tarquin is guilty and that she is not, and demands vengeance in a combative manner.  She is in command, and has a plan.  The men’s words are not heard.  They get a line in which they generically offer consolation and exoneration which Lucretia doesn’t require.  She interrupts them with a second statement, extraordinarily affirming that she absolves herself (effectively making their views redundant), but has resolved to die in any case.  She then kills herself as she has planned.  At the end, in a reversal of normal roles, it is the men who raise the cry of mourning.

Livy’s Lucretia also states the reason why she chooses freely to die, despite being innocent of fault.  I want to look at this separately in yet another post.  In the context it is also clear that she knows her death will force the men to avenge her – Livy has made it clear that the Romans have already been too cowed by the Tarquins.  Everything about her death is planned and purposeful.  Her grief is incidental.  She dies in honourable sacrifice for Rome, just as a man might die on the battlefield.  Her reward is the expulsion of the kings, the founding of the Republic and glory for herself and her family – a glory renewed by Livy’s retelling of her story.

Ovid’s Lucretia is quite different.  She is not so calculated and bold as to summon witnesses, and until Brutus is mentioned, we imagine her in privacy with her father and husband.  She is inarticulate.  She weeps and is comforted before she attempts to speak at all.  It takes her four attempts to utter a sentence, and then she speaks elliptically, too ashamed to tell the truth immediately.  We are told she told ‘what she could’ – it seems the men put together the story from her broken words.  She weeps and blushes.  Her menfolk offer her pardon (veniam) on the grounds she was coerced.  This seems odd to modern minds, but the Romans are act-based thinkers – Lucretia has committed adultery, but it wasn’t her fault, so she gets ‘venia’.   This is quite enlightened for the ancient world; in ancient Athens a raped wife had to be divorced.  Lucretia’s Roman menfolk are exemplary in their support – but suddenly she speaks a few words and stabs herself with the hidden dagger – ‘the pardon which you offer, I myself refuse’ (ipsa nego).

Ovid’s Lucretia doesn’t explain.  Suddenly she is dead, and the reader is as shocked as her family.  Why does she refuse the pardon?  We can fill in the motivation given in Livy, which Ovid intends us to know, but Ovid has made his Lucretia very unlike Livy’s reasoned and determined hero.   Ovid was deeply interested in female psychology.  It is true that his Lucretia celebrates a male stereotype of the pure woman, gentle, helpless, chaste, so fragile that she is mentally destroyed by the violation of her body.  But he also creates a psychological story which sees a rape from a female point of view, and does not cast the reader in the role of perpetrator.  Her death induces wonder.  How could someone so broken have planned this?  Does she act from fixed decision, or is she wavering until the last moment?  Where does she find this unexpected defiance?  How does someone so gentle achieve such violence?   Could she have lived?  I find these questions echoed in the Rembrandt portraits.

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.

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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?


Saving Lucretia 2: The Voyeur

In my previous post on Lucretia here, I started looking at the history of the Roman role model in Lucretia in European art from the Renaissance onwards.   The primary texts come from Augustan Age Rome: Livy’s History of Rome I 57-59, published 27-25 BC and Ovid’s embellished version in Fasti II, published in 8AD.  The Romans regarded Lucretia as a heroine of virtue, a woman who preferred death to dishonour.  But in the art galleries,  Lucretia is portrayed as a helpless victim, gentle, pathetic and, preferably, partially or totally nude for the delectation of the viewer.  Having once been raped, her body becomes permanently available to all as a sexual object.  This tells us a lot about the societies which produced and still view the art.

The story begins in a military mess, where a group of aristocrats decide to pay a surprise visit to their wives.  They find the wives of the king’s sons enjoying luxurious entertainment, but Lucretia, wife of Collatinus, is behaving in what the Romans consider to be an exemplary manner, sitting up working wool with her maids.  She greets her husband and his visitors, who include Sextus Tarquinius, or Tarquin the youngest son of the king.  He resolves on the spot to have sex with Lucretia.  Livy makes it clear that Tarquin, already established as an evil character, is motivated by the challenge of corrupting the perfect wife.  His motivation is ‘evil lust’ (prava libido)  and his objective forcible rape (per vim stuprandae).  Livy sums it up ‘the sight of her beauty (forma) and chastity (castitas) aroused him.’

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Rape of Lucretia, Titian, 1571, now in Fitzwilliam Museum (detail)

Some days later, Tarquin returns to claim a night’s hospitality.  In the Livy version, he brings a companion with him.  Livy’s tale is almost forensic.  He mentions the companion to establish that Lucretia had no intention of being alone with Tarquin, and no reason not to receive him as a distinguished guest.   We are encouraged to infer that Tarquin’s decision to keep his entourage surprisingly small, is further evidence of premeditation on his side.  The companion plays no role in the rape, and Livy forgets about him when he describes Tarquin’s departure.  Ovid tells the tale at much greater length, but he is much more interested in the drama and pathos than the moral technicalities.  He regards the companion as a distracting loose end and leaves him out altogether.  The painters, on the other hand, spot his huge visual potential.  Here is the companion peeking round the curtain in Titian’s famous picture. The voyeuristic companion is also the second soldier with a silly hat in Ambrosius Benson’s picture in my previous post.

Here he is again, a servant lurking about in a doorway.

Rape of Lucretia, Felice Ficherelli, late 1630’s, Wallace Collection

The companion is prone to loiter in doorways and peer round curtains.   He has no role in the Roman story because Tarquin has formulated a very sadistic plan to force Lucretia to cooperate in her rape.  He uses violence only to silence her while he makes his demands.  He doesn’t need or want an assistant or witness, though he may need a victim to kill and leave in bed with Lucretia – an uncomfortable situation for the voyeur, one might have thought.   So when the curious companion arrives in the pictures, his role is to enhance their pornographic qualities with explicit voyeurism, and the suggestion that Lucretia is actually overpowered by two men.  The Don Giovanni cliche of the subordinate who helps his master commit rapes is also in play.  The fact that he can be variously envisaged as a soldier comrade (Benson) or a servant (Ficherelli) or just some guy (Titian) derives from his anonymity in the Roman versions.

I want to finish off with a picture that I find more interesting than the others.  It has the usual features, notably naked female flesh framed by gorgeous textiles.   I especially like the golden cloak which billows out behind Tarquin with the speed of his onrush – a speed which must have been quite difficult to attain in a bedroom.  Here the companion spectacularly become a black servant, in the context, a Moorish page, an exotic Renaissance accessory.  And instead of skulking around, he is in the foreground, holding back a luxurious curtain to reveal the rape to the viewer.  There are connotations of theatre.  But it is also very evident that the viewer is joining him

Rape of Lucretia, Artemisia Gentileschi 

This version is by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656).  As soon as you know the biography, you want to read the art in a different way.  In this case, I can’t make up my mind whether the meaning changes or not.  First and foremost Gentileschi was a successful artist, and this painting leaves no doubt that she could give the market what it wanted, both in subject and in quality. One naked Lucretia with textiles coming up.  Gentileschi’s Wikipedia entry, citing a review by Tom Lubbock,  says optimistically,

She specialized in painting pictures of strong and suffering women from myths, allegories, and the Bible – victims, suicides, warriors.

This is true.  Medea killing her children, Judith hacking the head off Holofernes, Delilah betraying Sampson, these are all strong women.  And Cleopatra commiting suicide naked, Susannah being victimised by the elders near naked, and Lucretias in various stages of undress are definitely suffering.  Gentileschi was a woman and she definitely painted women, either by choice or because, even as an artist of international stature, she was constrained by gender expectations.  And her women have great character and vigour.  But are they the objectivised women the market expects?  She did paint women who were neither actively dangerous nor naked, including herself, but what about the sexploitation topics – Cleopatra, Susannah, Lucretia?  Does she bring something to these ‘as a woman’ or does she paint within a genre?

This is a particularly good question when it comes to Lucretia.  It is a cliche that rape is a woman’s issue, and that women should have some special minority perspective to share.  Except, of course, that women are not a minority, and they don’t have a monopoly on sexual victimhood. So expecting an artist to handle a rape topic in a special womanish way just because she is a woman is a form of sexism.  Why should women identify with the female oppressed?

However, we could expect Gentileschi in particular to have an opinion about rape as she was raped herself, aged seventeen.  She handled the event in a very unLucretia-like way – pursuing legal action against the rapist and achieving his conviction but not his punishment.  And then she had a career as a great artist, in a society where this was not a female role.  I said at the beginning, that having once been raped, Lucretia’s body becomes permanently available to all as a sexual object.  This is a risk for all women (and others) who reveal that they have been raped – which is why we now have anonymity for them in the court system.  But their bodies are still alienated from them and put on display through the excruciating physical detail of assaults which complainants are obliged to recount multiple times in court and which then enter the public domain.  Gentileschi had exposed herself to notoriety by seeking justice for rape.  Why does she enter into the objectivised exposure of Lucretia’s body which typifies mainstream male art?  Is Gentileschi hostile to Lucretia for modelling suicide as the good woman’s response to rape?  Perhaps she doesn’t identify with her that much.

We could look at the theatricality of the staging to provide an alternative.  This is a painting which clearly tells us we are voyeurs.  And the choice of the Moorish page could be exoticism, or something more complex to do with oppression and marginalisation.  But if we want the voyeurism here to be ironic,why does she strip Cleopatra and Susannah?  And Danae?  And Bathsheba?  And the Allegory of Painting (I’m looking at the Musee de Tesse version?  Obviously two of those women were bathing, but that isn’t the point.  The repertoire of Scriptural and Historical subjects in art from the Renaissance on has a tendency to privilege moments which enable the viewer to spy on naked female flesh – and often gratuitously, as in the cases of Lucretia and Cleopatra.  Are we supposed to say that these paintings don’t fulfil male erotic fantasies and objectivise women?  And if they do, what does it mean when a woman joins in?

So my last question is about feminism.  Is feminism about women being strong self-directed persons, or is it about subscribing to a particular programme of women’s rights?   Is the sexualisation of women by men a form of oppression, or an opportunity for a strong body-owning woman to exploit her sexual capital?  Can we disempower a woman (or anyone else) by insisting she be a ‘rape survivor’?  Oh, and now my last question is about art.  Can a woman be an artist, and not a female artist?  Suppose we look at the pictures individually, without the biography, without the catalogue.  Can we tell Gentileschi is a woman?  Should we be able to tell?  And a rape survivor?  Does it matter? Should we know?

Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1638-9, Royal Collection


Travels with Gervase of Tilbury; 2 Wandlebury

I once went to Wandlebury.  I was a student at Cambridge.  It was a terrific day for a student excursion.  We got there by bus and footpath.  On the way back, the supposed Roman road we were following was more a less a swamp.  One of us tried to walk through the edge of a sodden ploughed field and sank thigh-deep in Cambridgeshire loam.  How we laughed.  And there was a pub, where only the one with the cleanest shoes was allowed in to order, and another bus.  Such fun.

It had been my idea to go to Wandlebury.  It is the only bit of Cambridgeshire which threatens to rise above sea level, and moreover it is an Iron Age site.  Iron Age sites, in the days when I could still walk uphill, were places I needed to be.  I risked my life on two hideous descents – one on the cliff side of Pen Dinas, Aberystwyth; the side which doesn’t show in this free picture, but where a sidelong wind tries to peel you off the gorse-infested slope, illustrating why the intelligent Iron Agers didn’t bother with defences on that side.   Stephanie Jennison dared that descent with me.  (The thing which looks like a chimney is a botched monument to Wellington, which, for no good reason, dominates Aberystwyth.)

Pen Dinas, Aberystwyth

The other descent was of Caer Caradoc above Church Stretton, and who cares who dared it with me.  Suffice it to say that I would have done better to do the map-reading for myself.

Wandlebury is fascinating enough without Gervase.  I haven’t personally infested it since the 1980’s, but the clue is in the name.  This is a pre-Roman hill-fort, a major Iron Age settlement, which survived to become a Saxon burh – a defensive point where troops could gather.  The location is also called Wandlebury Rings in reference  to the ditch and bank fortifications, of Iron Age origin, which surround it.  It is today a country park, adequately described in the Wikipedia entry.



But the Wikipedia entry omits a more contentious side to the location, discussed separately here.  When I visited, I knew that 1954 excavations by T.C. Lethbridge had led to claims that the hillside had once sported chalk carvings of Iron Age gods.  If this were true, the site would be of exceptional interest.  At any rate, when I visited, there was nothing of Lethbridge’s imaginings to be seen.  The most notable feature was the four-square stable block, which is all that survives of a mansion on the site, dating back to the 17th century, demolished in the 1950’s.  The incongruous stable block is liminal enough, all by itself.  This is a site where the essential persists, obscured by the accretions of time.

So what does Gervase have to say about it?  I translate to save us copyright problems, though you really do need to own the edition by Banks and Binns.  In Otia Imperialia III 59, de Wandlebiria, he says:

In England, on the edges of the Diocese of Ely, is the town named Cambridge, and nearby, within its territories, is a place which people call Wandlebury, for the reason that the ‘Wandali’ [Vandals] pitched camp there, when they ravaged Britain, savagely slaying the Christians.

Gervase understands that bury means some sort of fort.  The idea that Vandals ravaged Britain is sheer fiction, derived from the name current in his day, whatever it was, Latinized as ‘Wandalebiria’.  He continues

Where they pitched camp at the top of a hill, a circular plateau is surrounded by earthworks, with entrance by a kind of gate.

Gervase means that there is a gap in the earthworks – the usual entrance into an Iron Age fort, which, in its day, may have been accompanied by a wooden gateway.

There is a story, widely attested,  going back far into antiquity that if any knight , after the silence of night has fallen, enter this plateau by moonlight, and shout. ‘Let a knight meet a knight!’ then a knight will come to meet him, ready for conflict; their horses come together and he either overthrows his opponent or is overthrown.  But I should tell you of a pre-condition; the knight has to enter the enclosure alone through the entrance, though his companions are not prevented from watching from outside.

In support of this, Gervase tells the story of Osbert Fitz Hugh, who, not long ago (paucis exactis diebus) met the mysterious knight under the specified conditions, and was wounded in the thigh but won the contest.  It was an empty victory.  The wound broke out each year on the anniversary of the fight, and the remarkable black horse, black caparisoned, which was Osbert’s trophy, escaped at cock crow.  Osbert died on the Crusades – saving his soul.

All of which goes to suggest that Gervase spent time in Cambridgeshire, where he heard the story from the locals (ab incolis et indigenis).  Perhaps he was visiting the University, supposedly founded in 1209, but in being as a scholarly community some time earlier.  By 1209, Gervase was probably established in Arles.  So if you want a liminal destination, I recommend Wandlebury.  Take sandwiches, because there isn’t a tearoom.




Saving Lucretia 1: Lucretia, exploited 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

The Death of Germanicus 2: a Study in Roman Witchcraft

It is very risky to talk about ‘witchcraft’ at all.  It means so many different things to different people.  Everything I write is based on things in my library and I going to look at a passage of Tacitus and use it to explore practices within Roman culture which later scholars call ‘witchcraft’.  So don’t expect anything about Wiccanism, Satanism, coven witches and many other things commonly associated with the term ‘witchcraft’.  I am going to write about the Roman belief that people could exercise power over others by indirect and non-rational means, which we would call ‘magical’.  The Romans seem to have regarded this sort of practice as a common source of harm.  In their literature, practitioners are always regarded as dangerous, but their criminal law legislated against particular ‘magical’ crimes, not being a ‘witch’.   At the end of the post I will ask how appropriate the Anglo-Saxon term ‘witchcraft’ is.

Roman practitioners  of these disapproved arts invoked gods and spirits, but in ways condemned by the community.  Their behaviour was distinguished from the good and proper relations with the gods, which the Romans called religio or religion, although there was an overlap.  The gods of the upper world were associated with light and life and had nothing to do with the pollution of death.  Everyday petitionary prayers went to them.  The dreaded underworld gods were associated with death, misery and darkness and their worship involved nocturnal rituals and the sacrifice of black animals and even the sacrifice of dogs – unclean for normal sacrifice. But all this was part of normal religion – the gods concerned with both light and dark deserved their dues.

We only enter the realm of evil when engagement with the underworld deities moves from the community propitiating them in the proper ways to individuals calling upon Hecate, Dis and infernal spirits secretly and harnessing their power to evil ends, especially towards causing sickness and death.   The Roman sources tell of  forbidden and polluting rites, carried out at night, and including the desecration of dead bodies.  Practitioners were supposed to use harmful incantations.  They also made potions and objects which gave them special powers, especially control over others.  The sources have to be used with caution, but there is strong evidence that these practices did actually exist.  Practitioners were not regarded as having an alternative religion – instead they had illicit commerce with the gods of the religion of the community.

The Latin word we usually translate as ‘witchcraft’ is maleficium – harm-doing, a word which could also be used of harm in general.  Practitioners were malefici  ( female maleficae = harm-doers).  Rome’s oldest laws the Twelve Tables, exist only in fragments but seem to have included, with other crimes against persons and property, enchanting by an ‘evil song’ (malum carmen) and removing crops by enchantment, again by song (qui fruges excantassit).  The references come from Table VIII 1b; 8a quoted in Pliny NH 28. 4). Later legislation follows the same pattern and specifies the banned ‘magical’ practices without distinction, alongside other forms of harm, such as arson and stabbing.   The Romans did not call these practices ‘magic’.  The Latin word magia from which we get ‘magic’ meant something also suspect, but different from maleficium, namely astrology.  In legal texts, the key indicator that we are talking about ‘magical’ harm is usually the association of harm with singing in some way – particularly the malum cantum, the ‘evil song’.  But this is misleading, as we shall see below.  Mentioning ‘evil singing’ identifies the kind of harm that is going on, but Romans assumed that it would be accompanied by a other acts from a wide range of options, including, at the least, ritual activity while the song was sung.

Returning to Germanicus, this magical indirect harm-doing was strongly associated with an undoubted way of doing criminal harm at a distance – poisoning.  A poison is definitely a potion which gives you control over others.  The Romans did have a concept of poison (venenum) as separate from other  malefica (‘magical’ harm-doing things), as the passage below shows, but in the absence of advanced chemistry, it made perfect sense to reinforce the drug with occult methods, which may have gone even into its preparation.  It is not surprising that people adept in poisoning were expected to be adept in other forms of harm at a distance.  Tacitus account of the death of Germanicus is good evidence of the inseparability of poisoning and maleficium in the Roman mind.  It also shows the sort of harm-working things (malefica) which would accompany the evil song.

The terrible intensity of the malady was increased by the belief that he had been poisoned by Piso. And certainly there were found hidden in the floor and in the walls disinterred remains of human bodies, incantations and spells, and the name of Germanicus inscribed on leaden tablets, half-burnt cinders smeared with blood, and other horrors by which in popular belief souls are devoted to the infernal deities. Piso too was accused of sending emissaries to note curiously every unfavourable symptom of the illness.  Tacitus Annals 2. 69

The first symptom of poisoning is, obviously, serious and sudden illness. In the ancient world allegations of poisoning almost invariably accompanied the sudden death of significant figures.  Tacitus likes to cite evidence.  Here he notes Germanicus’ own belief and the curiosity of Piso as circumstantial evidence.  But he also cites as supporting evidence for Germanicus’ belief a bizarre array of nasty objects hidden in the house where Germanicus died.  These, it seems, are the sort of things which may accompany a poisoning.  Tacitus refers to these briefly, because they are well known (in popular belief) and even leaves some for the reader to supply.  He calls the cursing objects collectively malefica – ‘harm-working things’.  Tacitus’ lack of surprise and his assumption that the reader can supply the details of other horrors is extremely interesting – in his Roman mind these bizarre proceedings are a familiar modus operandi.

So what are the malefica?  The human remains look like graveyard pilferings – a common accusation against harm-workers’, and a serious assault on the safety of the dead The cinders combined with gore (tabo) come specifically from the cremation grounds. Human remains were polluting in the Roman world.  Prayers to the upper world gods could not be made in their presence, and so the objects must have compromised the religious safety of Germanicus’ household.  There may also be an attempt to make Germanicus dead by bringing him into contact with the dead.  Below, we shall see this in the case of a different spell.  But it would not be irrational to suppose that polluting a house with human remains would also cause illness.  The finding of the objects concealed in walls and floor is suggestive.  Did Romans often look for malefica in case of sudden illness?  Or did the objects leak and smell?  Did someone know where to look for them?  Were they meant to be found?

The Latin Tacitus uses for ‘incantations and spells’ is carmina et devotiones.  We have met the malum carmen (plural carmina), the ‘evil song’ as the key ingredient of maleficium.  Clearly there might be literal singing, but in this passage of Tacitus we see that writing charms down and placing them in contact with the victim was effective too.  Writing was a powerful vehicle; you could harm your victim both by placing harmful words in your victim’s presence, and by capturing your victim’s name and using it in harmful ways.  And of course, with this kind of access to the victim, harm-workers could support the carmina lavishly with other malefica, and help the spell along with physical means, like poison.

Defixio against Rhodine, from the Baths of Diocletian, Rome

The reference to leaden cursing tablets, defixiones, can be supported from archaeology.  We find cursing tablets deposited by people with grievances in sacred places – usually in water, but, of course, ones thrown into water are preserved best.  The defixio, sometimes in backwards writing, encourages the deity of the shrine to punish the enemy.  Seen by  itself, placing defixiones in shrines could be no more than an emphatic form of negative prayer.   It hardly required secret knowledge.  The gods of the dead were not invoked over the affairs of the living – a transgressive feature of maleficium.  There was, at face value, no  malum carmen, although we cannot know what rituals may have accompanied the defixio.  The physical tablet may only be part of the story, as it is in Tacitus.

Tacitus also mentions devotiones.  The defixio above looks fairly typical.   But it is different because of its content and its location –  it was found in a graveyard and contains a special form of curse – the devotio – which offers possession of the victim to underworld spirits..  On the tablet Marcus Licinius Faustus consigns  Rhodine and several other people to Dis, god of the underworld.  Gifting power over the living to the gods of the dead is something more than a common defixio and it is noticeable that Tacitus makes a distinction.

In certain circumstances, a devotio could be a good thing. Livy (8.9) records the battlefield devotio of the consul Publius Decius Mus in 340 BC.   Decius, according to Livy, sought the approval of the pontifex maximus, the highest religious authority, before dedicating himself and the enemy army to Earth and the underworld spirits.  He then launced himself suicidally against enemy.  He was rewarded with Roman victory and everlasting fame.  But this was an open and self-sacrificing act for the benefit of the community at a place of slaughter, where the underworld spirits were already active.

Marcus Licinius Faustus’ act is the opposite – it is secret and selfish and involves desecrating a grave, presumably by night.  Graveyard rituals and desecrations are strongly associated with maleficium and maleficae in the sources.  It seems that Marcus Licinius Faustus has crossed the line.  As in Germanicus’ case, he brings the victim, or at least her name, into contact with the dead: he writes [may she] have as much strength as the dead man who is buried here.  It would be interesting to know whether he performed other graveyard rituals which leave no trace.

Tacitus’ account shows cursing tablets could be left in the victim’s home as well as in sacred places – something we would be unlikely to find out by archaeology.  We are now developing a picture which suggests the Romans mentally expanded the ‘evil song’ of the Twelve Tables into a complex bundle of acts, including physical attacks on the victim’s home.  Was placing cursing tablets in the house supposed to be magically effective, or were they primarily intended to signal to the victim that he was under occult attack ?  They did in fact signal that an enemy had access to the house.  Would curses against Germanicus also have been placed outside his home, in graves or shrines, or are we looking at variation in practice?  Did Marcus Licinius Faustus try to invade Rhodine’s home as well as working his graveyard ritual?

How did all these malefica, ‘harm-working objects’, get into Germanicus’ house?  The Roman slavery system made hostile infiltration fairly easy.   The agents in other poisoning cases are said to be slaves controlled by the poisoner.  Were the objects meant to be found?  Certainly Tacitus claims Germanicus’ illness was increased by his terror.   In this case, if Germanicus was poisoned, the rational and irrational methods of causing harm at a distance were worked together to produce greater harm than poisoning alone.  So perhaps Roman maleficium was effective on a psychological level, as magic is said to be in many parts of the world even today.  Tacitus claims the forms of malefica he describes were well known and, in Germanicus’ case, the practitioners were rewarded with practical results.  His illness was increased by terror, and, as a bonus, he died in an agony of despair.

Why and how these bundles of actions produced their effects could not be resolved until there had been another thousand years of scientific development.  So the Roman law makers were probably being pragmatic when they identified indirect harm-doing (maleficium) by the ‘evil song’, the malum carmen, as a crime.  We are looking at a society where people in general including those with criminal intent believed in the power of ritual actions.  Rituals and the ‘evil song’  were  part of the toolkit for  practical efforts to control and even kill others.  And although the agent worked at a distance from the victim, we have seen that physical contamination of the victim’s home could be part of the method.

Well, what about ‘good witchcraft’?  This doesn’t really exist as a concept when scholars talk about Rome, because what we are translating as ‘witchcraft’ is maleficium – ‘harm-doing’.  Good-doing, by whatever means, including acceptable ritual practices and invocation of spirits, just wasn’t a problem.  Songs, including sung charms are all called carmina in Latin.  The only kind of carmen worth worrying about was the malum carmen,  the ‘evil song’, which was dangerous and illegal.  Such songs could cause death, although death wasn’t the only objective of the ‘evil song’.  Love charms too could be reinforced with a drugs and ritual actions.   The surviving literary examples – Theocritus Idyll 3 and Virgil’s Eclogue 8 – envisage the love charm as vengeful and coercive.   The Twelve Tables mentions enchanting crops – clearly a big concern.  This suggests a hinterland of persecuting vulnerable people for crop failure, but given our practical evidence for maleficium we have to tread carefully.  Unless you believe in ‘magic’, it is hard to see how any form of spell could damage crops, but threatening or offering to do so could be criminally profitable.  And, as we have seen, your spell might be helped along with physical action.

The Roman believed in other kinds of charms.  In Apuleius’ Golden Ass, the hero accidentally transforms himself into a donkey.  He has got hold of a powerful spell, belonging to a dangerous practitioner of spells, who is able to fly, but it is only harmful to him because he is an idiot – an ass, in fact.  Benign singing and ritual directed at objectives like fertility and prosperity merged into religion.  And benign making of ritual objects and potions for healing merged into medicine, which included non-rational elements at Rome.  Sometimes it is hard to decide whether singing practices are ‘magical’ or not: is a lullaby a sleep charm?

You could say that ‘magical’ ways of doing things were integral to Roman culture.  No public business could be done without examining the sky for signs.  Omens could hold up battles, ritual mistakes could cause enterprises to be abandoned.  There was no stable way of disentangling rational and irrational practices.  There were particular harmful ‘magical’ practices which were distinguished and condemned, like harmful non-magical practices; to the Romans they were all just harmful practices.   Roman ‘witchcraft’, or what we call Roman ‘witchcraft’, is, by definition, always antisocial.

So is ‘witchcraft’ the correct word?  English speakers are stuck with it because of two thousand years of discourse about ‘magical’ practices, which led to whatever it is the Anglo-Saxons meant by ‘witchcraft’ being identified with a combined package consisting of what the Romans called maleficium and other practices which had come into official disrepute by the beginning of the modern era.  These included benevolent charm and potion, which were increasingly excluded from legitimate medicine.  It didn’t help that the Old Testament (Exodus 22.18) condemned ‘witches’ to death – or at least, it did once it was translated accessibly into English in the sixteenth century.  Who exactly was condemned to death in the original Hebrew is hard to say – but the intended target may have included poisoners, something we can easily understand from the Germanicus story.  There is an online article about this here.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were an Information Age, as movable type and the Renaissance rediscovery of the Classics widened both the spheres of learning and the availability of books. Society was moving towards the twin  system of science (the accepted rational) and religion (the accepted irrational) which is familiar today.   This binary system excluded and marginalised all practices not sanctioned either by scholars or priests.   Classical education only reinforced concerns about ‘witches’ with solid Roman authority and horrifying anecdote.   Reports of cultural practices from a range of societies, and going back 2,000 years, gathered in libraries to form the basis of a pseudo-science of ‘witches’ with enthusiasts including James I of England.  ‘Witchcraft’ came to be viewed as a single phenomenon stretching across time and place, with a set profile of inter-linked occult behaviours which now also included obedience to the Devil.  Someone suspected of being a ‘witch’, on any ground, was likely be tortured into confessing other acts from the profile, like flying and devil worship, which as a ‘witch’ she (because women were most suspected) must surely commit.  The seventeenth century became an age where women in England could be hanged, essentially, for having a cat.

‘Witchcraft’ charges have become notorious as a pretext for misogyny, religious persecution and various sorts of abusive and disempowering misbehaviour.  We even have the phrase ‘witch hunt’ to denote meaningless persecution. Tacitus’ account of Germanicus’ death reminds us that in the pre-modern world, certain sorts of ‘magical’ practice were criminally intended, and were supported by forms of physical intimidation still criminal today.  In the popular perception, and it seems, at least occasionally,  in actual fact, these practices were linked to poisoning.  They were associated with terror, physical harm and death.  The death of Germanicus gives us an idea of what the ‘evil song’ might look in practice and why it was illegal in Roman law.

The Donne Triptych: piety and self-promotion


By the fourteenth century the donor of a religious painting or window had the recognised privilege of being added into the image as a humble suppliant.   Initially the donors are smaller than scale and often outside the sacred space – the first of the congregation to adore, but with no pretence to join the object of adoration.  The picture below is a good late fourteenth century example of the tiny donor.

Madonna and child with donors, Cecco di Pietro 1386, now in Portland Art Museum

Richard II, a King of notorious splendour, was an early adopter of a bolder style.   In the Wilton Diptych he appears full size, kneeling at the foot of the saints who introduce him to the Court of the Madonna and Child.  However, he maintains separation from the Court of Heaven by splitting the image between the two panels.  The saints with Richard include his personal patron, John the Baptist and two previous Kings of England – Edward the Confessor and Edmund Martyr.  The king at prayer in this world has powerful divine supporters who mediate for him with the Court of Heaven which he does not enter.  This is theologically correct, but also makes a gesture towards the special sacredness of the King.   The king is joined to the company of Heaven by his succession to the kingship, which he inherits from his sainted royal ancestors; the men who, by God’s will, have passed the royal mantle down to him.   (Edward was, in fact, a relative of some sort, and why not Edmund too?)

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Wilton Diptych c.1395-9

But in the fourteenth century donors get bigger, and, although they still kneel piously, they move fully into the holy space.  Sir John Donne of Kidwelly, sometime deputy governor of Calais, was not a King or even the despot of an Italian city state, but this is the painting he commissioned from Bruges in the late fourteenth century, featuring himself, his wife and a daughter.

The Donne Triptych (Centre Panel), Hans Memling c1478  


Sir John Donne and his wife push Saints Catherine and Barbara into the background, and their full robes spill onto the carpet which defines the space allocated to the Madonna and Child.  In fact the Holy Child is waving cheerfully in Sir John’s direction.  The donors do not face the Madonna, or look sideways like many earlier and smaller donors.  Instead they give the viewer the benefit of their true portraits.

Courtiers in real life, Sir John and his wife seem very much at home in the Court of Heaven.  The Madonna wears the same type of oversized fur-lined robe as his wife.  In token of her perpetual virginity, she has loose hair, but Saints Catherine and Barbara have courtly hairstyles and fasionable clothes.  Saint Catherine wears the daring sideless surcote which shoes off the tight kirtle beneath.  Saint Barbara’s sleeveless surcote shows off her rich under-sleeves.  The Donne’s clothes are distinguished by less brilliant colour, but they are no less rich.  Both husband and wife wear gold suns and roses with jewelled lion pendants  specifically denoting their high tank under Edward IV, and probably given by him – the Court of Heaven is clearly Yorkist.  They are nearer the Madonna than Sir John’s patron Saints, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, who occupy the two wings of the triptych, now shown here.

The language of secular and spiritual power is one and the same.  Those who are first on earth are most definitely not last in the Kingdom of Heaven – they are first there too.  I find these paintings with integrated donors very hard to grasp at the spiritual level.  Clearly, as a believer, Sir John imagines himself in the presence of Heaven when he prays, but does this personal spiritual sense of connection survive being transferred to public display?  There something peculiar about worshipping yourself worshipping, let alone intruding your image into the prayers of others.  Painting like this seem to stake the claims of secular lords to access to divine approval in a way which actually diminishes the separateness and holiness of the divine.  Of course the Church of the period was a highly political place; what is striking is to see that secular power blazoning itself across religious icons, as if Adidas were to start sponsoring altars bearing their logo.

Part of the dissonance is, of course, the courtly fashions.  It is no longer general practice to show holy figures in the clothes of the day.  Ironically, decades of Christmas cards, have made us very accepting of showing divine figures in Renaissance clothing.  On the one hand, there was no tradition in Western Europe of trying to reconstruct some sort of historical dress.  But on the other, the fourteenth century shows a move from rich robes of fairly indefinite period to specific contemporary fashions.  Pietro’s Madonna above, in the restrained style which originated with the copying and recopying of icons, is wrapped in a huge traditional veil which obscures any contemporary clothing features.  In the Wilton diptych, the Kings have identifiable costume, but the Court of Heaven is distinguished by loose garments of overwhelming blue, except for the Christchild’s gold smock.  I wonder how it affected the worshipper first to have the Saints become conscious of high fashion and then have the local gentry join them in their niches.

Sir John Donne’s confidence in divine approval was repaid.  He was one of the Yorkist nobles who successfully retained favour in the Court of Henry Tudor, after the defeat of Richard III and his Yorkist forces in the Battle of Bosworth 1485.  He and his wife are buried at St George’s Chapel, Windsor.  His sons went onto found English dynasties – the Earls of Oxford, Burlington and Cumbria and the Dukes of Devonshire claim descent.  His career is a reminder of how the Tudor dynasty began the marginalisation of the Welsh lands, as many great lords became satellites of the increasingly centralised English Court.  Kidwelly itself has the ruins of its Norman castle to testify that it was once the stronghold of a powerful and wealthy dynast.

General view from the southKidwelly Castle 7(42)
Kidwelly Castle

In this way, Kidwelly and other Welsh castle towns became forgotten by-waters, which now seem to have been gifted with ruins merely to increase the sense of the picturesque. Sir John Donne, knighted on Tewkesbury Field, a great lord of his time, with the might of Kidwelly behind him.  Who would have thought it?

One last note on Sir John – in the picture both his wife and the Virgin have open books.  It is quite novel to have the Madonna try to dandle the Christchild and read at the same time, though not unique.  In fact, Sir John was also a commissioner of prayerbooks.  Two are in the British Library and you can find out more about the third, now in Louvain, here.  Wearing his armour, Sir John  prays (rubric) to his good angel.  The prayer begins ‘O angelic guardian.’  In the beautiful gilded border, under Sir John’s armorial bearings, a peasant cuts grapes.  The creeping vines are heavy laden but infested with snakes.  These could be an allegory of the devil, against whom Christ’s blood, consumed as wine in the Mass, is the sovereign remedy.  Or they could be Lancastrians in the Yorkist vineyard.  In any case, a guardian angel is evidently an important ally.

Louthe or Donne Hours, Simon Marmion, c. 1480


May the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.

The Death of Socrates: living not dying

In 399 BC the Athenian philosopher, Socrates, drank hemlock and died.  He was 70 years old.  There is a full account of his death by his pupil Plato, apparently based on the eye-witness testimony of close friends, as Plato himself was not there.  Socrates had been condemned to death, and according to Plato, died serenely after a long discussion with his faithful male friends and students on the immortality of the soul.  This account can be found at the end of Plato’s Phaedo.

Is the account literally true?  Well, Plato almost certainly created the dialogue on immortality.  Socrates wrote nothing in his life.  Plato spent his life recreating discussions with Socrates – imagining discussions with Socrates was Plato’s way of doing philosophy.  So we can’t always be sure he is recording things Socrates actually said.  But the final section is different.  It is an eye-witness account of how Socrates actually died.

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David 1787

The picture above is a famous representation of the death of Socrates.  You can find an excellent article on it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where it now hangs: just click here.   I’m not going to discuss this painting, especially as someone else has done it so well.  I’m more interested in why death-bed paintings were a popular genre up until the twentieth century.  The idea was not to take a ghoulish pleasure in death but to draw inspiration from people who ‘died well.’   Subjects tended to be people who sacrificed their life in a noble cause, or people who set an example of how to live so as to die without fear or regret.  Socrates ticks both boxes.

Death-bed scenes moved completely out of fashion in the twentieth century, as the so-called ‘first world’ moved death out of homes and into hospitals.  The care of the dying and the clothing of their bodies for burial became a professional job.  Far from families and whole communities gathering at the death bed, it became increasingly hard for them to be present.  In a society where most people can spend years without coming into contact with a significant death, and will perhaps never see a dead body, many people are uncomfortable with the topic of death.  Social approval has moved towards ‘remembering how they were when they were alive.’  Remembering how they died can be seen as unhealthy and even disrespectful; at the very least it is something private and personal.  Medical attendants have replaced family at the bedside, protecting the dying person from being disturbed by grieving relatives.

People in the ancient world rarely got a chance to die privately.  In Ancient Greece the women of the household usually cared for the sick and prepared the body for the tomb – along with any other local women who came to help.  No-one could be unfamiliar with death, especially as life expectancy was fairly low, and a death-bed was somewhere for friends and family to gather.  It was essential for loved ones to be there to kiss and embrace the dying person in farewell, even catching the last breath in their mouths.  And a member of the family was needed to close the eyes and place a coin in his mouth to pay for his passage across the river Styx into the land of the dead.  There was noise too, as pans were shaken to ward off evil spirits.  Death was a  big event.

Prothesis – the lamentation over the body – shown on a 6th Century BC votive tablet by the Gela Painter

Deaths in battle were also frequent and obviously public.  Thinking about the soldier will help us understand the ancient way of thinking.  A solider had to live bravely and die bravely – a man’s whole moral character was in question if he faltered at the end.  Such a man was a risk to his comrades  In the ancient Greek world, there were no professional national armies.  All  free men were expected to fight from their late teens.   The idea of living so that you can die well, without fear or regret, was an obvious concern for everybody.  It was bad enough for a man to fall in battle – what could be done with someone who deserted his friends and neighbours, or was too terrified to fight?

Socrates thought the Athenians should take seriously the idea of living so that you can die well, whether you died in battle or not.  On the battlefield, it is easy to know what to do – stand your ground and fight.  The question is, what is it you have to do off the battlefield?  This was Socrates’ area of expertise.  For him, the key was knowing what was truly good.  People mess up their lives by fearing the wrong things, like death and poverty, and wasting their efforts chasing things they imagine are good.  This is why people need to examine their beliefs and test them.  As long as people believe a hotch-potch of things which don’t connect to reality, it is not surprising that they are going to make terrible decisions.

So the first thing is to make people question their beliefs to see whether they make any sense.  The aim is not to keep questioning for ever.  The questioning has two purposes.  First of all, you need to clear out all the wrong ideas which clutter up your head and make you incompetent at running your life.  Secondly, you need to ask questions which will help you discover what the universe is really like, and how you fit into it.  This includes discovering what is good, and worth wanting, and bad, and worth fearing.

Knowing what is good isn’t easy.  But if you find out, the battle is won.  Because Socrates, or at least Socrates according to Plato, believes that virtue is knowledge.  ‘Virtue’ to Socrates means something like ‘excellence at being a person’.  We have the idea that you could be virtuous but unhappy.  Socrates doesn’t.  Being excellent at being a person is the happiest thing you can do; the alternative is being rubbish at being a person, and obviously if you are rubbish at being a person you will be unhappy.  Once you understand your real nature, you can be excellent at being a person and then of course you will be happy.  When you are dysfunctional, and fighting your true nature, of course you are unhappy.

The key is that the perishable universe is mostly a distraction.  You are essentially your soul, an immortal being.  You will flourish once you direct your being towards immortal things, like Beauty, Truth and Goodness; these are real, and give the physical world what stability it has.  The physical world allows you glimpses of reality.  Wherever you perceive pattern, regularity and beauty, you have an opportunity to move your mind away from the physical clutter of the world of sensation, and begin the journey of pure thought into the real world of things which are eternal, which Plato calls the Forms.  Basically, you should do maths, and hang out with mathematicians in your free time.

But because you have a body, you may have some hardware problems.  Your soul is immortal, but it is wearing a perishable body.  It’s possible your soul has got a bit battered through descending into a perishable body.  One problem is that getting born takes away the soul’s memory about its life outside the body.  In addition, the body places constraints on the soul.  The body has to be nourished and protected, and the part of the soul programmed to look after it is glitchy.  Unless you really nurture the highest part of your soul, the bit that is most really you, then your physical desires, which are only intended to keep your body functional, will start taking over.  You will become obsessed with the things the body craves, like food and drink, and lose track of the things that your true self needs.  This causes unvirtuous – non-excellent – behaviour and unhappiness.

So the cure is to nurture the highest part of your soul.  Bring it into contact with the order of the universe by studying maths.  And discuss goodness and truth.  Question what you thought you knew.  Throw out the rubbish ideas and your soul can start remembering Truth and Goodness and Beauty.  Once you remember those things, the material things you once desired will seem unimportant to you.  You only desired them because you were confused.  Your soul was longing for beauty, so you collected beautiful things which reminded you a bit of Beauty itself.  Your soul was longing for goodness, and it got distracted by things which are ‘good’ for the body, like food.  Once you rediscover Goodness itself, you will never crave those trivial things again.  And you won’t fear losing them either, because your soul will possess them all the time.

Death, it turns out, is a fairly irrelevant part in the soul’s journey, where it sheds a body it has been wearing for not very long.  The upside is that the soul will be free from all the ways in which the body limits the soul and keeps it away from Goodness, Truth and Beauty.  There isn’t really a downside.  This is what the characters in the Phaedo discuss.  The conversation leads up to the moment where Socrates proves that it is possible for a human being to live in the way he has described, by going unafraid into death.  His companions grieve, and he tells them off – he has sent the women away, because he knows they will do all the grieving behaviour that women always do.   He has chosen to spend his last moments in his body, as he had lived, contemplating the goodness of the universe with his friends before he leaves for a fuller life, where they will eventually join him.  Why would they spoil this beautiful event with weeping and wailing?

This is why, in the picture by David, Socrates is vigorously teaching on his bed.  He looks strong and active, because his soul is strong and active.  The cup contains the hemlock, which he will drain without fear, regretting only that he isn’t allowed to make a drink offering from it to the gods.  The jailer weeps, as Plato says he did.  According to Plato, Socrates died peacefully.  Some commentators object that death from hemlock is not pleasant or peaceful, but Plato does not say that Socrates suffered no physical pain.  In fact he records that Socrates suffered slow paralysis, and that he covered his face as he waited, only uncovering for a moment to remind his friends to make an offering to Aesclepius, god of healing, in thanks for an easy death.

Many people have found Socrates’ death inspiring.  The important thing isn’t that he was a martyr for his beliefs – although he was condemned for refusing to renounce his teachings.  It isn’t even that he was brave, although heroic death scenes often do celebrate military values, such as the painting of the death of Epaminondas, painted also in the French  neo-Classical style, just seven years after David’s painting.

Death of Epaminondas, Laurent Pecheux, 1795

Epaminondas is definitely dead.  the viewer gets to share in the wonder and the sorrow, but where he has gone, and whether it was all worth it is up to the viewer.  This is a secular painting and celebrates patriotism, fame and glory as noble life goals.

Many death-bed scenes involve famous last words.  The tradition was that the dying person would make a last act of guidance to the people left behind, even just a few consoling words to the family.  Epaminondas said, ‘I have lived long enough, for I have died unconquered.’  Socrates actual last words, about the sacrifice to Asclepius are relatively trivial.  But for Plato, they show how little the prospect of death occupied Socrates mind.  Socrates ‘real’ last words are the whole of the dialogue, the Phaedo, which culminates in and explains his complete indifference to death.

Nobody ever painted pictures of Socrates dead body.  He says in the Phaedo, when asked about his funeral

 “I cannot persuade Crito, my friends, that the Socrates who is now conversing and arranging the details of his argument is really I; he thinks I am the one whom he will presently see as a corpse.”

After this, anyone painting Socrates dead would look a bit silly.  Socrates doesn’t really have a death-bed, since he refuses to accept death as change to anything important.  It is only his companions who have the uncomfortable illusion that he has died, because the body he used to wear becomes empty.  Socrates is teaching them that we are not our bodies and nothing of what they love about their friend is changing.  Plato was not there at the time Socrates died.  Apparently he was ill, but in Socrates’ case, there wasn’t anything exceptional for him to be there for, although it was a shame he missed the party.  Socrates’ death was particularly unreal for Plato, who would continue to converse with him in dialogues for the rest of his life.

The Death of Germanicus 1: Tacitus and Poussin

The Death of Germanicus by Nicolas Poussin 1627, now in the Minneapolis Institute of Art

High Baroque is not my favourite style of painting, but Poussin is an intriguing artist, not to say strange,  and in this story painting he celebrates (if that is the word) one of the strangest episodes in Tacitus’ Annals, the death of Augustus’ designated heir Germanicus.  So today I am spending time with this painting.  I can’t get to Minneapolis, but there is a magnify button on the linked web page which we can all enjoy.

So we are in the French Baroque period – although Poussin mainly worked in Rome.  The Renaissance rediscovery of Classical art and literature has transformed art and architecture.  The Church remains a great artistic patron, but secular art is thriving, including portraiture and historical paintings.  As the educated elite define themselves by immersion in the culture and achievements of the Classical world, scenes from Roman literature are popular.  Where earlier artists set historical scenes in the dress of their own day, there is now a gesture towards historically accurate costumes and settings.  But this does not mean realism.  Baroque style is mostly concerned with creating a rich visual environment, full of Classical details heaped together with improbable draperies and exaggerated gesture.  The Classical past in Baroque art is more dramatic, more colourful, more grandiose than any real world could be.  It is, in Umberto Eco’s term, hyper-real.

We are in Syria in AD 19.  Germanicus is dying.  He was grandnephew of the Emperor Augustus and husband of his granddaughter Agrippina 1.  Before his death in 14 AD, Augustus had intended Germanicus to be his ultimate heir, but allowed power to pass first to Tiberius, Germanicus’ uncle.  Now Tiberius is Emperor.  Our source is Tacitus, Annals II 69-73.

The Baroque Classicism is worth looking at.  Germanicus has found a large architecturally Roman hall to die in.  Poussin has stripped out the painted plaster which usually adorned Roman palaces.  This is a convention of the style, and partially reflects Renaissance ignorance of Roman use of colour; ruins were stripped back to bare stone and marble, and it was not obvious that there had been paint and plaster.  But the bare stone floor adds to the generally grim effect, which is probably intentional.  This is not so much a room in a Roman palace as a bleak and empty corridor of power literally imagined.  A blue curtain is being rigged up (a figure on the left is still holding it) to make a corner for Germanicus’ bed, which is the only furniture, and which looks like a draped catafalque more than anything else.

Germanicus, apparently already wearing his shroud, is dying in maximum discomfort, in a bright spot created by the white bed linen, or grave linen, as it soon will be. The glitter of his eye gives a disturbing sense of his agonised awareness.  The left of the painting is dominated by a crowd of male figures, his military escort, in a combination of Roman armour and epic undress.  They hold spears, and in one case a legionary standard.  One brandishes a sword for no apparent reason, but probably to swear in oath of vengeance.  Some mourn, head on hands, others gesticulate, one points aloft, presumably to indicate where Germanicus is bound, unless he has seen something on the ceiling.  These are hardly ideal deathbed companions – or rather they are ‘ideal’ and not real.  They represent the emotions of Germanicus’ loyal army.

On the other side, clustered in a more naturalistic fashion are the grieving family.  Agrippina 1 is seated.  The other members of the family are less well defined.  The naked boy is the future Emperor Caligula.  Is that Germanicus’ seal by his foot?  This boy will inherit Germanicus’ place in the succession, after the killing of his brothers, and will be, according to Tacitus, one of Rome’s most murderous emperors, sadistic, controlling and probably insane.  This will be the child’s inheritance.  At the bedside his nakedness is not just part of the heroic style, but denotes his innocence.  Even so he holds a rich drape, prophesying his imperial future, across his shoulders.

The rest of the family is more vaguely outlined.  The woman with partially undraped breast is a nurse, and the baby, if anyone in particular, will be Agrippina’s youngest child Julia Livilla.  The older mourning boy is one of two other sons and two daughters are missing.  The family in grief is carefully stylised – Germanicus is mourned as a public figure on the left and as a husband and father on the right.

Deathbeds are not a cheerful subject.  This one is particularly rich in the imagery of shock, despair and impotent rage.  Here is why.

Tacitus takes the view that Tiberius saw Germanicus as a threat to his own unpopular rule and to the ambitions of his own son, whom Augustus excluded from the succession.  He reports the extraordinary stories of the circumstances of Germanicus’ death – and the general belief that he was the victim of an attack by a combination of witchcraft and poisoning – a usual combination at Rome.

 The cruel virulence of the disease was intensified by the patient’s belief that Piso had given him poison; and it is a fact that explorations in the floor and walls brought to light the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, leaden tablets engraved with the name Germanicus, charred and blood-smeared ashes, and others of the implements of witchcraft by which it is believed the living soul can be devoted to the powers of the grave.

Germanicus, it is said, believed as he died that he had been poisoned by his subordinate, Piso.  The idea is that the poison and the witchcraft have been carried out on his orders.  But behind Piso stands Tiberius.  We are invited to accept Piso as Tiberius’ agent.

Tacitus has Germanicus accuse Piso in his dying words.  And he commends his six children and wife to the people of Rome, reminding them that Agrippina is Augustus’ granddaughter.  Poussin’s Germanicus points to his family with his dying hand.  He goes on to relate that Germanicus was buried without proper imperial honours – the effect of a plague death in a hot climate or deliberate imperial neglect? Tacitus composed Germanicus’ speech with knowledge of the fate of Germanicus family.   Agrippina and Germanicus’ two elder sons would suffer lethal persecution by Tiberius.  All of the children in the end died violently, although they would be perpetrators as well as victims in the vicious struggle for imperial power.

As a murder painting, it is interesting to compare Poussin’s picture with Botticelli’s portraits of Giuliano de’ Medici.  There is the same sense of untimeliness and expropriation, but in Poussin’s painting the emotions are heightened by Germanicus’ dying rage at his  betrayal and helplessness, reflected in the response of his soldiers, who have all the bravery in the world and no-one to fight.  Even without Tacitus’ text, the painting has a compelling character, but it is meant to be ‘read’ by viewers who cut their teeth on the text in the schoolroom.

Poussin has put the emotions of the text into visual form.  And he has refused to be distracted by the most sensational part of the story – the witchcraft allegations.  I can’t find a single reference to these in the painting.  For Poussin these would only detract from the true story of nobility tormented.  But even though Poussin is not prepared to be distracted by the sensational details, they will be the basis of a follow-up post here.

Botticelli’s portraits of Giuliano de’ Medici

Many years before I had a chance to go anywhere virtually, I spent some real life time in Bergamo, with Italian friends.  This was my first experience of Italy, and I was lucky enough to be completely unprepared for the cultural shock.  Bergamo has a beautiful historic centre with many astonishing buildings, and, unassumingly tucked away, one of the world’s great Art Galleries, the Academia Carrara.

I memorised some of my favourite portraits including Bellini’s Madonna and Child with Pear.  But today I am going to share an image I actively disliked, but which drew me with the kind of magnetic quality which makes children keep creeping up to something nasty to see if it is still as horrible as it was the first time round.  In fact, last week I visited it again: I was back in the Academia Carrara and it is hard to miss.  So here it is.

Portrait of Giuliano De’ Medici, Botticelli c.1478

The Medici family need no explanation – the fifteenth century was the time of their rise to power in Florence.  Giuliano co-ruled with his brother Lorenzo the Magnificent.  In the picture, which is a very standard portrait bust,  he is plainly but richly dressed.  His profile is accentuated by the pale square behind it.  He has fashionably curled very dark hair, which suggests youth and beauty, and here is a sign of immaculate grooming.  Then we come to the face.

Male portraits of this period have a strong bias towards what we call branding – recognition and respect are more important than prettiness.  Giuliano carries his chin high and looks, as he was, a distinguished man of about twenty-five.  His distinctive family features are too narrow for the ancient Greek aesthetic; he has a thin face with regular features, a sharp nose, thin lips, and a strong cleft chin.  His eyes are down cast, half-hidden under the lids, his lips are pressed lightly together.  He is oblivious of the viewer, perhaps thinking of some serious subject with calm deliberation.  He is also, as it happens, dead.

Giuliano was killed in 1478 in a botched conspiracy to dislodge the Medicis from power.  This is one of several portraits made posthumously by Botticelli.  Botticelli had painted him living, but some people think this set of portraits show characteristics which come from the use of a death mask – the half-closed eyes, the sunken colourless cheeks and prominence of the nose.

Terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici by Verrocchio, 1475-8

In fact Giuliano looks a good deal healthier in another image from not much earlier.  Here there is a fullness in the face and an alertness about the eyes which balanced the sharp nose.  The contrast is very striking.  In fact we know he was a robust young man who enjoyed sports.

But whether the picture represents a death mask or not, we are also to understand that he is dead from another key feature of the picture – the empty window square.  In North Italian painting of the period, it was common to place subjects in front of open doors or windows.  The view in the background contributed to the meaning and atmosphere of the picture, and might contain local landscapes or significant scenes.  Guiliano’s window contains nothing except strong central light, which illuminates each side of the window equally.  He has no portion in this world anymore, so his lands and his aspirations cannot appear in the window.  He is not, however in heaven.  This is a human portrait not an imagined apotheosis.  Giuliano, with his immaculate hair and rich modern clothing is suddenly and totally dispossessed.  No wonder he looks pensive.

There is a version now in Berlin, which is very similar to the Bergamo one, but the memento mori aspect is even more marked in this version in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Giuliano de’ Medici, Washington Portrait, Botticelli c. 1478


Here Botticelli has added extra symbols of liminality and death.  The window now has two shutters, one open and one closed.  This marks a point of transition, as Giuliano, captured in paint, is poised everlastingly  between life and death.  We are now separated from Giuliano by a sill where a bird perches on a dead twig.  The bird is often an emblem of mortality, and the flight of the soul.  Here it is a dove, emblem of fidelity, perhaps to the widowed bride, or the family he represented.  The dead twig, broken off its living tree, is an emblem of premature death.   The sill itself makes no sense in real space.  Similar sills often separate us from the divine in paintings of the period, as in Bellini’s Madonna and Child with Pear in the same gallery.

 Madonna and Child with Pear, Bellini c. 1488

Here a highly artificial screen behind the Madonna and Child separates them from the scenes of Italian life, over which they nonetheless reign. Close in front of them a balustrade separates the viewer from the holy figures, like the altar rail which seals off the holiest ritual area of a liturgical church.  The balustrade forms a sill where the symbolic object is a piece of fruit – emblem of swift decay.  The painter has also stuck his tag in the centre of it.

The same principles are used in the  Washington portrait is the same.  The sill in this case separates the dead from the living and is ornamented with symbols of death.  But Giuliano is not wholly gone or the frame would be empty.  The viewer is holding Giuliano between the two worlds, between life and death.  This isn’t eternal life through art, it is more like eternal non-death.

This is a truly secular Renaissance painting, rooted in Classical not Mediaeval culture, and in the Court not the Church.  There is nothing Christian about this painting – no fears of Judgement or hopes of Heaven.  We have a young and powerful man in the midst of a rich life, about to be married, in fact, suddenly and horribly expelled from his world and offered instead what appears to be nothingness.   Botticelli uses these portraits to confront  human questions about death, which go far beyond the mere fear of dying.   How can our selves, our whole private universe, depend for existence on a body that gives in to 19 stab wounds in a church in Florence.  How can a person suddenly not be?  How does it feel to have your enemies force you out of life?  Can there be justice for that?  Is this all there is?  How do you construct a life which is not dominated by the fear of losing it?

If you think this is a lot for Botticelli to infuse into this painting, then it is worth knowing that the conspirators had misjudged crowd feeling in Florence.  With the encouragement of Lorenzo, the people hunted out and exterminated them and their associates  Few made it to formal execution.  Numerous people – maybe a hundred – met humiliating and agonising ends.  Botticelli was commissioned to paint images of the condemned as hanging corpses on the outside of the Bargello, the public building concerned with administration of justice.  He had a lot of time to reflect on the wreck of human lives.

As for the influence of  Classical philosophy, this was central to the whole Medici Court.  which patronised many artists and scholars, including the Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino.  The Platonic tradition fostered very different beliefs about the soul and its immortality than those of the prevailing Catholic orthodoxy.   For a start, Platonists thought reincarnation as a human or animal was a possibility.   But, more importantly, the soul is on a journey.  It is indeed immortal, and survives death, but its goal is to escape the imprisonment of matter.  Our conduct in this life determines whether our next existence will be more or less bound by matter – whether we will be philosophers or pigs, or whether we will escape having a material body altogether.  Christian orthodoxy is more sympathetic to the body – Christians hope for a new Resurrection body, without the defects of the old.  This allows for the idea that the individual will continue as a recognisable individual into everlasting life.  But Platonic after life, stripped of the body is more complicated.  Souls which achieve the happiest outcome will return to the One, the source of all life, free from the taint of a material body.  But in what sense will we still exist as individuals?  The whole point of the One, is that it is whole, complete, and not divided.  Will my soul take my individual consciousness there?  Is this life even ‘my’ life – I may have been a cat, or Plato in a previous existence; after death ‘I’ may have more incarnations.  Who am I, once the body is removed?  Giuliano’s soul has clearly left his body.  Where is he now?