At Large  December 15, 2022  Natasha H. Arora

Lucretia’s Many Bodies Through the Ages

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Sandro Botticelli, Storie di Lucrezia, 1504. Tempera and oil on wood, Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, Boston

The figure of Lucretia persists as equal parts myth and reality. In his History of Rome, Livy  cites the ancient Roman noblewoman's rape by Sextus Tarquinius and subsequent suicide as the birth of the Roman republic, while Ovid’s Fasti (8 CE) and William Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece (1594) rewrite her character into a metaphor for political criticism. Yet most Renaissance and Baroque artists concern themselves less with politicking, and more with depicting popular attitudes towards violence against women, repurposing Lucretia’s iconography to examine, lambaste, and even celebrate various aspects of sexual violence.

Sandro Botticelli both minimizes and magnifies the heroine’s death into civic pride in his fifteenth-century tempera and oil spalliera, Tragedy of Lucretia (Storie di Lucrezia). The panel narrates three critical scenes from the myth, in non-chronological order: the left and right sides show Sextus Tarquinius’ assault on Lucretia, and her dying request to Brutus, Lucretius, and Collatinus, but the breadth of the painting is dominated by male denizens. Outraged soldiers and a flamboyant Forum Romanum overwhelm Lucretia’s dully dressed, static body, and the towering central placement of Brutus, and the statue of David all determinedly reinforce hegemonic political significance onto female victimization: here, Lucretia’s violation emerges as a male proprietary crime, and her self-destruction as parturition to the male Roman republic.

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Titian, Tarquin and Lucretia, 1571. Oil on canvas. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

While the weight of public freedom minimizes the trauma of Botticelli’s Lucretia, Titian’s interpretation bears no such social burdens. Tiziano Vecellio’s 1571 oil on canvas, Tarquin and Lucretia, terrorizes a domestic subject, whose nudity and dynamism emphasize the grotesqueness of rape. Unlike Botticelli’s panoramic and spiritually victorious heroine, this Lucretia remains frozen in an image of victimhood—yet her exposed flesh, jewelry, and unscathed coiffure contradict the violent scene’s realism. Titian beautifies brutality, exploiting history to bare female flesh, arousing the male gaze, and suppressing Lucretia’s survival and rhetoric prowess.

Most other artistic versions of the myth adopt Titian’s model: a starkly chromatic Tarquin intimidates a pale and hypersexualized Lucrece—frequently near a voyeuristic servant—in Tintoretto’s Tarquin and Lucretia (1570s), Felice Ficherelli’s Rape of Lucretia (1630s), and Giuseppe Maria Crespi’s Tarquin and Lucretia (1690s). These scenes eroticize sexual assault, commodify feminine virtue and neglect female Roman stoicism.

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Artemisia Gentileschi, Lucretia, 1625. Oil on canvas. Owned by Gerolamo Etro

In Shakespeare’s epic poem, he recognizes and corrects the defects in this model, introducing his protagonist as “Lucrece the chaste,” and spreading the blame for her attack away from her body and onto Tarquin, Collatine, and even inanimate objects. Paralleling Elizabeth I’s dominion, Shakespeare’s Lucrece extorts a vow from her male companions without sexual manipulation—indeed, she founds her conviction in chastity and oratory, thereby imparting a lingering cultural legacy. 

Artemisia Gentileschi paints three iterations of Lucrece, the donne forti—her 1625 version the most psychological. Here, Lucretia juxtaposes kinetic luminescence with a murky backdrop. She glares at her heavenly destination with a resentful brow, flexed quadriceps, and clenched hands around her breast and blade. Obviously determined to end her life, Artemisia’s Lucretia also directs her fury everywhere: toward providence, and her own form. The painting illustrates the heroine’s emotional conflicts: Lucretia’s self-harm contends with the effulgent sanctity of her human body, her self-loathing emerges despite hatred for Tarquin and divinity, and suicide becomes both punishment for her culpable flesh, as well as ascension to spiritual freedom.

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Rembrandt van Rijn, Lucretia, 1664. Oil on canvas. Nationall Gallery of Art, Washington DC

While rage and contention bind the sinews of this Lucretia’s body into an impressive tension, Rembrandt’s two-part series uses clothed portraits of Lucretia to further examine how self-harm reveals an interior dialogue absent from more mechanical depictions. Lucretia (1664) rises before her self-immolation, lavishly layered in the “golden coat” that Shakespeare’s epic verse describes, while her 1666 counterpart is bloodied but similarly erect, her chest and dress both notably undone by herself. The pair’s cinematic transition—the execution of decision and death—physicalizes Lucrece’s decisiveness. Even as her body is penetrated by both her knife and rapist, the dying figure embodies her Shakespearean counterpart’s declaration, “Immaculate and spotless is my mind.”

Thus, the body and character of Lucretia in art and literature undeniably refigures the political management of reality—her violation and sacrifice births the Roman republic, just as Elizabeth I’s chastity cemented England’s Golden Age. Yet we can optimistically observe that Lucrece’s incarnations also represent an evolution of understanding violence against women. She personifies universal questions surrounding female morality, as well as their evolving answers; perhaps it is better to die, than live in failure of the project of womanhood—likely not. Nonetheless, the visual conversations between these Renaissance and Baroque artists reinterpret depictions of rape from violations of male property, to eroticizations of brutality, into demonstrations of female self-harm and personal resilience—as such, Lucrece remains a profuse representation of contemporary ideologies.

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