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.

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Lucretia, Cranach the Elder, 1530

I expect he used it to remind himself that the abuse of royal power can lead to the overthrow of the monarchy.