Of Tragic Heroines
Updated: Mar 15, 2019
Ancient Roman stories of 'lust, betrayal, and violence'* painted by Sandro Botticelli (early 16th century) were the themes in the exhibition Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes that opened this week at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (one of my all time favorite museums) in Boston, MA.
I was thrilled when my friend Iory Allison invited me to join him for the opening. Botticelli with his immaculate tempera technique has always inspired and moved me. His paintings team with sharply delineated figures with skin like translucent porcelain, and the occasional flora is painted to the last botanical detail. But more importantly Botticelli paints the world not as it actually looks, but as he imagines it in his mind, which makes him a 'poet' and not an 'essayist'.
Among other paintings were the Adoration of the Magi into the wild (detail below) and a stunning triptych on the life of Saint Zenobius.
In spite of the other compelling works on display, the following two paintings chronicling tragic stories of Roman ‘heroines’ Lucretia and Virginia stole the show...
Lucretia in ancient Rome was a victim of rape by the son of an Etruscan king. After exacting promise of vengeance from the men in her family, she stabbed herself with a dagger in their presence. The painting above shows her on the left (at the moment of assault), right (collapsing from the shock), and center (dead). The men in her family stand around disarmed with swords in hands.
Virginia on the other hand was murdered by her own father; the latter considered it more appropriate that she die than be defiled by the unwelcome Claudius (judge's client) and Appius (the judge). The painting above shows her on the left (assaulted), center (at the judgement), and right (murdered). The father mounts a horse and flees.
Both women spurred political revolutions with their ‘sacrifice’ as catalysts for the re-establishment of the Roman Republic. According to art historians, 16th century Italians revered them as exemplars of virtue, fidelity and heroic sacrifice. Today their stories scream cruelty, rape and murder. Either way the stories are nothing short of horrific.
Botticelli handles the subject with the objectivity of a cool observer. He aligns himself with his time when rape was less a matter of violence, and more a loss of honor; the honor of the husband and the family, that is. Had Botticelli been alive today, would he be seduced into being an activist instead? Or would the artist in him still call for this objectivity? We will never know. Besides that is a discussion for another time...
In both paintings Botticelli is like a conducting maestro of a grand opera, his compositions carefully laid out with figures in stunning tableaux and billowing garments in playful chorus. Quivering horses and gleaming swords harden the feminine pain. Limbs remain miraculously disentangled.
Lucretia of the Golden Age
I stood there stupefied by the sheer brilliance of this early Renaissance artist. Then I recalled that Lucretia captured the imagination of not only Botticelli, but also other European artists like Gentileschi, Cranach and Titian. As much as I admired Botticelli's draughtsmanship and compositional finesse, the winner for me is the Lucretia that Rembrandt painted (now in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art). Being in presence of this Lucretia shakes up the spine.
It is the stillness of Rembrandt's Lucretia that captures her grief with shattering potency. A young woman stands at the threshold between life and death as she clutches her sole anchor: a dangling chord. The other hand clasps a dagger that she has just pulled out of herself, her tender garment soaking up the warm blood. No fathers, sons, brothers, kings or noblemen flank her. She is surrounded just by the darkness. That tremulous swollen lip and the welling tears say it all. No words, swords, horses or wailing attendants needed here to explain the state of this woman. You feel the dagger plunging in your own heart. We do not know if Lucretia’s fate was adequately avenged. But it is OUR wound that doesn’t heal. This is Rembrandt’s promise to us.
* Exhibition wall text
Related link: Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes (exhibition is on view until May 19, 2019.)