Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Lotto's Lucretia

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Lotto's Lucretia

Article excerpt

"How a state is ruined because of women": This is neither a headline from the Washington Post nor a reference to Diana, Princess of Wales. It is the title of chapter 26 of Niccolo Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy. "Women have been the causes of much ruin," Machiavelli explains, "and have done great harm to those who govern a city, and have caused many divisions in these [cities]."(1) He illustrates the point by recalling how "the excess done against Lucretia took the state away from the Tarquins," the Etruscan rulers of Rome.(2) The "excess" to which Machiavelli refers is the rape of Lucretia, Collatinus's beautiful and chaste wife, by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the Etruscan king. Preferring death to dishonor after she had been raped, Lucretia killed herself. Avenging Lucretia, her kinsmen overthrew the Tarquins and established the Roman Republic:.

According to Roman law, only a father could legally kill an adulteress - and Lucretia had committed adultery.(3) By calling for her husband and father, Lucretia effectively preempted their right to accuse her; by committing suicide, she coopted their right to punish her crime - a crime for which they forgive her but which she cannot forgive herself. According to Livy, the primary source for Lucretia's story, her kinsmen "seek to comfort her ... tell her it is the mind that sins, not the body."(4) Lucretia rejects their reassurances, killing herself to confirm her story and inspire her revenge: "though I acquit myself of the sin, I do not absolve myself from punishment; nor in time to come shall any unchaste woman live if she follows Lucretia's example."(5)

The rape of Lucretia is the inversion of the Rape of the Sabine Women as the origin of the institution of marriage. Anticipating Claude Levi-Strauss, humanist sociologists interpreted the mythical rape as the archetype of exogamous marriage.(6) This interpretation was more than a metaphor for Medieval and Renaissance societies. To be sure, they prosecuted rape as a criminal offense - but the punishment did not fit the crime as we perceive it today. The rapist might be constrained to marry his victim, for example, or merely to pay her dowry, thus enabling her eventual marriage to another man.(7) Rape was thus the origin of marriage, directly or indirectly, so long as one was not concerned with niceties of consent. Precisely because Lucretia was a married woman, however, her rapist could not atone for his crime with matrimony or with money.

If Lucretia is seductive, as Tarquin found her to be, the seduction is inherent in her beauty and virtue. Indeed, some authors tell us that Tarquin found Lucretia's virtue even more seductive than her beauty. In this sense, according to her rapist, the fault for the rape falls on Lucretia herself: "The fault is thine," Shakespeare's Tarquin tells her (line 482). Because she is beautiful and virtuous, he cannot be blamed for being unable to resist her. Lucretia's suicide is her answer to that charge. Had she merely accused Tarquin of rape, her testimony could have been dismissed as mere words, a matter of he said/she said. Killing herself, Lucretia confirms her account with the indisputable closing argument of her own blood.(8)

Dying, Lucretia makes her name immortal. Lucretia is the CASTIS EXEMPLAR UXORIBUS, in the words inscribed on a relief attributed to Antonio Lombardo circa 1515 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. But the display of her nude body seems to contradict this declaration of exemplary chastity. The relief arouses libido, and this arousal is only partly stanched by the inscription that names the subject while reminding us that we are to see this nude as the example of wifely chastity. The male beholder is challenged to resist Lucretia's beauty lest he repeat Tarquin's sin, to recognize her chastity despite the voluptuous display of her nude body.(9)

This ambivalence reflects doubts regarding Lucretia herself: did she love her rapist? …

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