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.’
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.
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
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?