Bartolomeo Colleoni and his Chapel

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The da Campione Porch of Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo, left, the Mortuary Chapel of Bartolomeo Colleoni, right, photo AES

So what is the startling building, like a marble Wedding Cake, crowding the entrance to Santa Maria Maggiore and obscuring its facade?  The ancient and amazing Church, which I blogged about here, has no real front face.  The main entrance from the Piazza Duomo is just a very pretty porch in a blank wall; the rest of the building on that side is hidden by this later building.  When it was built in the 1470’s, the Sacristy of the Church had to be pulled down to make way for it.  Here is another view of it, which shows the contrast with the sober Romanesque architecture of its surroundings.

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Facade of the Colleoni Chapel, Bergamo, Photo AES

It may be correct to think the Colleoni Chapel extremely beautiful, although I think it is a bit hideous.   It is certainly spectacular, a High Renaissance riot of everything in the catalogue.  It has domes, it has roundels, it has pillars in contrasting shapes, it has a rose window, it has a colour scheme of red, white and black, all done in marble lozenges.  And on top of this, there are more decorative elements, although they get a bit lost in the overwhelming impact of the whole: reliefs of Biblical scenes and the Labours of Hercules, medallions of Julius Caesar and Trajan on each side of the rose window.  Even at the height of Renaissance Classicism, it can’t be said that scenes from pagan myth and history are standard decorations for religious buildings.  The general impression is that the man who commissioned this building said, ‘I want everything, and I want it to be very, very expensive.’   He probably did.

The walls and ceiling of the interior are as lavishly decorated as you would expect from the outside, but otherwise there is a lot of empty space.   The main feature is an extravagant tomb featuring a crowned figure on a horse, all in gold – this is the founder of the Chapel, Bartomoleo Colleoni himself, who lies buried here, with his daughter alongside in a separate monument.  The whole structure is a celebration of this one man, his wealth and power.

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Tomb of Bartolomeo Colleoni 

Bartolomeo Colleoni is one of the most interesting figures in Bergamo’s history, not because he was extraordinarily powerful, but because his story encapsulates a particular period of the city’s history.  He was born in 1395 into a minor noble family associated with Bergamo, which at that time was ruled by the Dukes of Milan, 30 miles away.  But this period of Italian history was dominated by wars between the many independent city states which competed for their share of Italian territory and feuds and coups within the city states themselves.  This is the period of Romeo and Juliet, or, in real life, the Guelphs, political supporters of the Pope, and the Ghibellines, supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor, who fomented rebellions and tore cities in two.  Along with this instability went vicious dynastic struggles, intrigue, murder.

The Colleoni family were Guelphs, out of favour with the ruling Visconti Duke of Milan.  While Bartolomeo was still a child, a relative killed his father and brother and seized the family fortress.  He was imprisoned himself, but released after his mother paid a ransom.  Dispossessed, the young Bartolomeo began his climb back to wealth and power in the obvious way – as a soldier.  He began as a nobleman’s page, and went on to distinguish himself in many battles as a mercenary, in a period when mercenaries were all important.

The Italian word condottiere or condottiero is often translated mercenary, but this isn’t strictly correct.  The condottiere was the leader of a band of mercenaries – a political power could make a contract (a condotta) with the condottiere for the services of his company – specifying how many men were being provided.  These were not enlisted peasants, but professional soldiers with the latest armour and weapons, usually lance-carrying cavalry.  The loyalty of the condottieri was wholly conditional on being paid very large amounts of money.  They were also liable to change sides at short notice.  Condottieri were powerful deal makers and breakers off the field of battle, giving them real power, which sometimes led to high political office.

Bartolomeo Colleoni started out as a man at arms in mercenary companies, but in the 1424 he became the leader of his own – just 20 cavalry.  This was in Naples, where he also became the lover of the Queen, Joanna II.  By 1428, his company was twice that number, and he was back in the Bergamo area, fighting for the Venetians against his personal enemies, the Duchy of Milan.  In this year, Bergamo passed from the control of the Dukes of Milan and became a Venetian possession.  Within 4 years Colleoni was leading 300 men at arms; by 1437 it was 800 and he was once again fighting for the Venetians against Milan.  In 1441, the Venetians and Milanese made peace, and Colleoni served Milan before being imprisoned by the Duke.  In 1447 Francesco Sforza, himself a condottiere became Duke, ending the rule of the Viscontis.  Colleoni served him for a while, but finally returned to the Venetians who, in 1454, made him their ‘captain general’ – effectively the head of the armed forces.  His commands now numbered thousands.

The reason for Colleoni’s spectacular success was his skill as a general and tactician, especially in deploying the relatively new weapon, artillery.  He lived to attain great power and wealth.  In 1456 he built himself a castle near Bergamo, which I haven’t seen yet.  I have borrowed this picture from Wikipedia.

Malpaga Castle

Originally, this castle was surrounded by defences: it was not ornamental.  However, the Venetians retained Bergamo and Colleoni never had to defend his estate, where he died in 1475, surrounded by his large family and his soldiers.  He had been created a member of the Venetian nobility and entertained the Danish king at Malpaga.  He was a Renaissance man – he had been brought up as an aristocrat, and although his success was based on warfare, he was a patron of the arts and interested in the intellectual culture of the upper classes.  He was also enormously keen to be remembered.  He left a great legacy to the state of Venice, on condition that the city erected an equestrian statue of him – this was cast in bronze by Verrochio and still stands in Venice.  He commemorated himself in the same way in his Mortuary Chapel at Bergamo, but with gold leaf too.

The Chapel tells us a lot of what Bartolomeo Colleoni felt he had achieved.  His funerary image is crowned – he was in effect an uncrowned king of Italy, a king-maker and decider of battles.  Plenty of retired warlords have ploughed their wealth into religious buildings as a kind of insurance against punishment in the hereafter, but there is nothing repentant about Colleoni’s shrine to himself.  The medallions of Caesar and Trajan, conquering emperors of high reputation indicates his vision of himself as a warrior-ruler in the Classical tradition.  Hercules was a demi-god who carried out twelve labours to the benefit of mankind: his appearance in the plaques on the Chapel reminds us of Colleoni’s own heroic labours.  Despite its Catholic elements, the Chapel seems to me to lack any sense of religious devotion.  It is a humanist temple to the attainments of a man who believed he had achieved the Renaissance ideal – he is a warrior, a ruler and politician, an acknowledged aristocrat, a landowner, but also a courtier, a man of the finest tastes in art and culture; modern, but steeped in the values of the noble Classical past, an heir to the Caesars.   There could be something sad about the ostentatious tomb of someone so invested in worldly success, but Colleoni’s self-confidence is overwhelming.  No doubt he felt entitled to eternal life too, but his Chapel isn’t overly interested in that.  ‘Look,’ he seems to say,’I did it.’  And he did.

Santa Maria Maggiore

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Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo, Photo by AES.

The Nave of Santa Maria Maggiore: in case you are wondering ‘maj-OR-ray’ – St Mary the Greater.

You will find the main entrance to Santa Maria Maggiore in the Piazza del Duomo – Cathedral Square.  And you could be excused for thinking that it is the Cathedral, but it isn’t – that’s next door.  This Church was founded in 1137, and its underlying style is plain – architects call it Romanesque.   The main features of Romanesque architecture are massive walls, sturdy plain pillars, barrel vaults, round arches and colonnades.  The structures are usually symmetrical and uncomplicated – Santa Maria Maggiore is on a typical cross-shaped plan.  Windows are not a major feature: they are narrow and topped by round arches.  You can see a lot of these features in this picture.

Romanesque architecture may be essentially plain, but there is nothing plain about Santa Maria Maggiore: in this view you can see the lavishly decorated ceilings from the 16th century – and that is real gold.  The wooden balustrade separating the Sanctuary from the Nave is by Lorenzo Lotto.  Huge tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries cover much of the wall space, and the rest is taken up with enormous oil paintings of religious subjects.   You can get an idea of the size of the tapestries from this photo with a Confessional, elaborately carved by Andrea Fantoni, in the foreground.  Incidentally, this is a working Catholic Church and confession is offered in a number of languages for teh benefit of the international visitors.

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Confessional by Andrea Fantoni, Photo AES

Before all these pictures and tapestries came the 14th century wall paintings which are fully visible in some places.  In the UK, the Reformation stripped out the painted work, and left us accustomed to see ancient churches as austere structures of bare stone and plaster.  Santa Maria Maggiore remains chaotically decorated, as she always has been – originally by wall paintings, then later by everything subsequent eras, including the Italian High Renaissance and Baroque periods, could throw at her.  The effect isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I find it welcoming – like a giant lived-in room or Christmas.

The Church is so surrounded by buildings that it is hard to take a picture, so I have borrowed this one from Wikipedia.


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Santa Maria Maggiore

Although work started in 1137, building continued into the 14th Century and the process of adding long after that.   The bell tower was not started until 1436.  The main entrance is through Giovanni da Campione’s 14th Century porch; the top section of this was added a quarter century after his death.  This is a beautiful entrance, but it is a very narrow entrance for such a grand basilica, and not even central in the wall.  The reason for this is that the Church was once attached to the Bishop’s Palace, which took up the space where you would expect a Great West Door to be.  Why was the location so crowded?  This wasn’t the first Church on the site.  In fact the site started out as a Roman Temple.  The transformation of Temples into Churches was a general practice: we cannot know how long there has been worship on the site of Santa Maria Maggiore, but two thousand years is a minimum.

Back to the porch and the end of this post.

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Campione Porch, Photo AES

The porch is the elegant simple structure on the left, not the hideous marble wedding cake on the right.  That is something else completely.  Up the sides of the doorway run reliefs of dogs hunting.  Then come two tiers of statues.

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Close-up Campione Porch, Photo AES.

The central statue of the lower tier represents St Alessandro, who is commemorated all over Bergamo as their first evangelist, martyr and saint.  The story is that he was a military standard bearer in the 3rd century AD who was condemned to death in the persecutions ordered by the Emperor Diocletian.  After daring escapes, he hid in the woods around Bergamo, where the Gospel had not yet been preached.  He converted many, but his zeal for the Gospel led to his discovery and death by beheading.  The tier above contains statues of Mary and the infant Jesus.  She is attended by two female saints; one (I think the one on the right) is St Grata, an early convert who stole St Alessandro’s body for burial after his execution.  She carried the severed head herself, and persuaded others to lift the heavy body.  The column which is said to mark the spot of the martyrdom is still preserved outside the Church of St Alessandro in the lower city.

Mantegna’s Resurrection: a lost picture rediscovered.

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Resurrection of Christ, Andrea Mantegna 1492, photo by AES.

At the moment (Summer 2019) there is an incredible exhibition at the Academia Carrara, Bergamo, and it is all about this picture.  I wish I were an Art Historian, so that I could tell you all about what makes Mantegna’s work special.  You can see for yourself, that he mastered body modelling and proportion, perspective, foreshortening, not to mention vibrant use of colour: or can you?  Because the fact is, that for more than a hundred years, this wasn’t a Mantegna at all.

The Art world is a puzzling place. If you find a Renaissance masterpiece in your attic, there are several possibilities.  Perhaps it is an original by a named artist, or a work from his studio, where assistants did lots of the boring bits, or a work by his disciple, or a copy from his period, or a recent copy, or just a poster someone bought and framed.  Most of us can probably tell a cheap poster from an oil painting, but only an expert can tell the difference between the hand of the Master and a very good painting in his style – yet the difference may be worth millions.  And the experts are not always right.

This painting was originally considered a Mantegna – Count Guglielmo Lochis bought it as a Mantegna in Milan in 1846.  On his death, he bequeathed it to the Academia Carrara, with other works from his great collection.  That is cutting a long story short, because he originally intended the City of Bergamo to take over his whole collection and a brand new Museum he had built for it, but the generous gift was just too expensive for the city to accept.  Some lawyers later, there was a compromise, and the art expert Giovanni Morelli picked out about half the collection (240 pictures) to be re-homed in the Academia Carrara, a gallery which already existed in the city, the generous legacy of Count Giacomo Carrara in 1796.

Giovanni Morelli clearly thought this was a fine painting.  But he did not think it was by Mantegna.  His opinion carried a lot of weight because he was a pioneer of the use of scientific method in the identification of artworks.  Before this period, identification was a bit hit and miss, and salesmen had a lot of motivation to be optimistic about the origin of their wares.  If you know anything about pictures at all, clearly you can tell whether a picture looks like the work of an individual artist; perhaps you have a charming tradition that a work was by such and such an artist, or a letter to that effect signed by someone important and so on.  For Morelli, this was not enough.  He had trained as a doctor, and realised that objective analytical tests could be applied to painting.  He looked beyond broad resemblances to tiny details – how did the artist paint the folds of an ear or the fingers of a hand in a background character?  These techniques were the ‘tells’, the unique fingerprint of the artist.  And according to Morelli, this painting, though fine, was not by Mantegna himself.  This did not prevent it being a copy, or a work from his school, but it was NOT a Mantegna.

And so it remained until last year, 2018.  Morelli’s method has survived him, but we now have the advantage of many objective scientific tests unknown to him: X rays; ultra-violet light; advanced chemical analysis.  This painting has become the first painting of wood to be studied by tomography: imaged cross-section by cross-section.  We also have techniques of digital analysis and comparison which enable us to place side by side works which are located in different continents.  This is what happened here.  In 2018, it was discovered that this work was not only a Mantegna, but the top section of a larger work – the bottom section is in the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection in Princeton USA.  Yes – somebody at some point decided to double his stock of Mantegnas by sawing a big one up.   This is not that unusual.

Descent into Limbo, Andrea Mantegna, 1492
The paintings reunited.

Together, the two paintings make up a single story – and there would have been more on each side.  The red circle shows the location of a tiny cross that matches the sections together.  The colours in the photos I have uploaded are not very good – but you get the idea from my photo at the start.  So at the top, Christ rises from the tomb, to the astonishment of the Roman soldiers guarding it.  If you are English, no, he is not carrying the St George flag – the little white and red pennant is a symbol of the Resurrection.  Although Renaissance artists aimed at naturalism in representing objects, including the human body, the composition of religious pictures was still based around ancient symbolic elements.  Mantegna did not think Christ actually stepped out of the tomb carrying an aerial with the St George flag: the flag is one of the signs that the picture tells the story of the Resurrection.

If you think that stepping out of the tomb in flowing white garments is enough to tell us that we are in the story of the Resurrection, look below.  Christ still has the little flag, in a much more mysterious picture, but the fact that we know that the flag means the Resurrection helps us decode it.  Christ resurrected (with the little flag) is visting a cave: not a Biblical story.  In fact he is helping an old man climb out of it, while other figures, male and female, who appear to have ascended already, stand by in reverent attitudes.  All these figures wear nothing except scraps of drapery – their grave clothes.  This scene, the Descent into Limbo, also called the Harrowing of Hell, represents the rescue from death of those chosen by God in the Old Testament – Adam and Eve, the Patriarchs – who lived justly but could not be fully redeemed until the coming of Christ.  According to the tradition, this act of salvation took place between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

Although this story is not strictly Biblical, it was taught as early as the 2nd Century AD.  Theologically, it is a way of solving the problem of how Adan and Eve, Noah and Abraham and all the Old Testament righteous could be saved if salvation is through Christ alone.  The many Christians, including Roman Catholic and Orthodox, who accept this tradition believe it is confirmed by a number of Biblical texts, especially 1 Peter 3: 19-20.  The Athanasian Creed and the Apostle’s Creed both contain the words ‘he descended into Hell’: here the word ‘Hell’ really means ‘Hades’, the realm of the dead, as the damned are not rescued.  Modern Christians may understand these words differently; for Mantegna and his world, they referred to the Harrowing of Hell.  The painting is split permanently, but together the two parts illustrate the connection between the Resurrection of Christ and the Redemption of Mankind, which has begun even before Christ leaves the tomb.

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.