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


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.

Windsor Lucretia.jpg
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.