Art, women of history


Lucretia was a matron in the history and mythology of Rome. She had an important role in the shaping of the Roman Kingdom into the Roman Republic. Her husband was Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, he was one of the leaders of the revolution that came up as a result of his wife’s death. Although there are no contemporary sources to certify Lucretia as a historical person, historians agreed that in fact there was such a woman.

The tragedy, death or suicide of Lucretia by Botticelli

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome was involved in a war against Ardea, and he sent his son Sextus Tarquinius to Collatia on a military mission. There, he was warmly welcomed the governor and his wife (Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus and Lucretia).

According to one of the most famous versions of the story, Tarquinius and Lucius were debating the virtues of wives during a feast, and Collatinus volunteered to settle the debate proposing a ride to his home to observe his wife, Lucretia. Upon their arrival, she was weaving with her maids. The party awarded her the palm of victory and Collatinus invited them to stay. Later in the night, Tarquinius sneaked into Lucretia’s bedroom and woke her up, offering her two options: she could could submit to his sexual advances and become his wife and future queen or he would kill her along with one of her slaves and place the bodies together, then he would claim he had caught her having adulterous sex.

In a different version, Tarquinius returned from the camp a few days later with one companion to take Collatinus up on his invitation and was lodged in a guest bedroom. He entered Lucretia’s room, while she was laying in her bed naked, he started to wash her belly with water which woke her up. Then he tried to convince her that she should be with him, using all the common arguments to influence a woman’s heart. Nevertheless, she stood firm in her devotion to her husband, even when her life and honour was threatened by Tarquinius, while raping her.

The following day, Lucretia went to her father’s house, he was the chief magistrate of Rome, and took the supplicant’s position. She asked to summon witnesses and proceeded to describe in tears how she was raped by Tarquinius. Lucretia eventually asked for vengeance, and while the people were discussing how to deal with the matter, she took out a dagger and stabbed herself in the heart, dying in her father’s arms. Her death caused an outrage among those who were present and all of them vowed they would rather die than give up their liberties to the king and his son.

The suicide of Lucretia by Dürer

But according to a different version, Lucretia did not go to her father’s house, instead she asked her father and her husband to visit her and each one of them should bring a friend. They arrived with Publius Valerius Publicola and Lucius Junius Brutus. When they all went to Lucretia’s room, she told them what happened and made them swear an oath of vengeance. And, while they were talking about the facts, Lucretia drew the dagger and killed herself. Her death spurred a revolution in the Roman Kingdom that eventually overthrew the king and his son, resulting in the institution of the Roman Republic.

In the Arts

Throughout the ages, Lucretia became an important embodiment of political and literary ideals for different authors, specially because “stories of sexual violence against women serve as foundational myths of Western culture”.

The death of Lucretia by Eduardo Rosales (Credit of Image: Museo del Prado)

During the later Middle Ages the story of Lucretia was a popular moral tale. In literature she appears to Dante in the section of Limbo reserved to the nobles of Rome and other “virtuous pagans” in Canto IV of the Inferno. Christine de Pizan used Lucretia in her City of Ladies to defend a woman’s sanctity, just as St. Augustine of Hippo did. Lucretia’s rape and suicide are also the subject of Shakespeare’s 1594 long poem The rape of Lucrece, which draws extensively on Ovid’s treatment of the story.

In the visual arts, since the Renaissance, Lucretia’s suicide has been an enduring subject for artists such as Titian, Dürer, Botticelli, Rembrandt, Raphael, Lucas Cranach the Elder among others. The two moments most commonly depicted are: the rape and the suicide. In both situations, her clothing is loosened or absent, while Tarquinius is normally clothed.

sometimes the story of Lucretia is depicted as in a series of engravings, in which include moments such as her spinning with her ladies and even the feast.

This subject can be settled in the group of women from legend or the Bible who were either powerless (such as Susanna or Virginia), or only able to escape their situations by suicide (such as Dido of Carthage). These stories formed a counterpoint to the set of subjects known as the Power of Women, which shows the female violence against, or domination of, men. Most of them were often depicted by the same artists and very popular in Northern Renaissance art. In between these two extremes, we can find the story of Esther.

Among the women artists, is not difficult to imagine that this subject would catch the attention of Artemisia Gentileschi, since she had preference for depicting women of history and of the Bible. However, I could not find any other example of this subject by other women artists.

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