Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia, by Lorenzo Lotto (1530-3)
It is difficult to walk into this room and not be drawn towards this painting. Strong looking women are not a feature of most Renaissance art. So, who is the woman looking at us in such an unnerving way? Why is she staring like this? Why is she wearing such an expensive dress and pendant stuffed with jewels? What is she pointing at? Who is the woman in the drawing? Who was the Lucretia of the title? And who was its artist, Lorenzo Lotto? At face value this is a portrait of a wealthy woman. But look a little closer and her fingers are directing our eyes to a drawing, a piece of writing and some flowers. Look deeper and we have an image that challenges stereotypes of women as objects to be gawped at by men.
Like many portraits of the 16th century this portrait has a back story which would have been familiar to educated upper class Venetians of the time.
So to fill in the details for those not familiar with classical history; the “Lucretia” in the title of the painting is a character in a Roman legend. She was the wife of the Roman army commander Lucius. During a military expedition, Lucius and the other Roman leaders talked about how moral and good their wives were. They decided to return to Rome to see if the women were actually as faithful as each man claimed. They found only Lucretia at home; the other wives were misbehaving while their husbands were away.
One of the men in the group, Sextus Tarquinius, was the son of the Roman king. Fascinated by Lucretia’s beauty and goodness, he went to see her again and raped her at knifepoint. Lucretia made her husband and father swear to avenge the deed and then killed herself.
According to Roman legend, people were so outraged by the incident that they overthrew the monarchy and founded the Roman Republic.
Who paid for picture?
We don't know. Probably a very well off Venetian who wanted a painting of his wife, Lucretia, to mark their marriage or its anniversary.
Fascinating Facts About Lorenzo Lotto
Lorenzo Lotto, Self Portrait
Lotto has filled the painting with the figure of the woman, and by so doing he gives us wonderful details, such as her intense and expressive facial quality and her sumptuous softly painted dress of gleaming green and orange.(For film connoisseurs, the dress that Elizabeth Taylor wears during Kate’s final monologue in Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew (1967) is inspired by this painting).
The woman directs our attention to a drawing held in her left hand. This shows her Roman namesake, Lucretia, about to stab herself after she had been raped by the son of King Tarquin. The portrait, while displaying the beauty of the sitter, also proclaims her virtue.
The painting’s message is underlined by the Latin inscription on the paper on the table, taken from the Roman historian Livy: 'after Lucretia's example let no violated woman live'. It is this drawing and this note that the woman in the painting is demanding that we should look at.
She insists that we have high regard for the sacrifice of Lucretia and that we understand why such a terrible sacrifice was necessary. She is demanding all women to acknowledge this act, and by so doing, agree to marital fidelity and to cast aside any thoughts of treachery.
There is a contradiction in the painting because other elements tell us about the relative independence of the woman.
She is from a wealthy family: the gold pendant is set within two rubies and three sapphires with a pearl drop. She is married, as indicated by her ring and the Balzo which she wears in her head – a sign of marriage.
Her finger and the note suggest that she can read Latin and has knowledge of classical history. In 16th century Venice most women were denied any education and would not have known Latin, let alone classical history.
Lotto portraits are very different to those of other painters at the time. He strove to convey the personality of the person he was painting.
In Lotto’s days, women were often painted for erotic purposes and presented as objects for men to stare at. This painting is different. We have a woman whose eyes have a mixture of anger and aggression. She dominates the painting as an individual in her own right, and is looking at us rather than us looking at her (typical of many female portraits of the period).
We can guess she is educated and strong willed. This shift in power relations is unusual in painting, let alone in the Renaissance.
The Lucretia theme was a popular source of inspiration for many of the best known European painters of the period: Cranach, Lippi, Reni, Sodama and Titian are among the painters who used the Lucretia story for their paintings. These varied from the classical hero, to showing rape and a naked Lucretia as the pin- up nude – Cranach painted thirty-five versions in every stage of eroticism from seduction to orgasm. All suggest that Lucretia must have enjoyed the experience.
None of this is present in Lotto’s work, painted at the same time as Cranach. The drawing of Lucretia in the painting is far from erotic but heroic in stature. She certainly doesn’t look as if she is enjoying herself. Her nakedness is more clinical than suggestive.
We don’t know why Lotto painted his sitter Lucretia in this way. Was it under direction of the person who ordered it for his bedroom? Or was Lotto given the freedom to devise his own composition with reference to an ancient myth? Fascinating questions which we cannot answer.
What we do know is that Lotto was a free spirit who thought outside the box - making him an oddity in artistic circles in the 16th century.
While Lotto did not live in Venice for much of his working life he did work within the culture of Venice, often in areas that were part of the Veneto (region of Venice stretching up to the Dolomites).
During Lotto’s time Venice was one of the richest cities in Europe with a flourishing trade with northern Europe and beyond. Despite a bruising war in the early 1500s with France and the Papal states it remained the only important Italian city that resisted political, military and economic domination by France, Spain and the Papacy. It was nominally a republic and did not succumb to autocratic rule – even the Doge or ruler was elected, not hereditary. He was a figurehead as indicated by Bellini’s impressive portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan in Room 62.
This independence was reflected in its art which was different from that of Florence in terms of the use of colour, choice of subjects and in materials used. It is not known for its frescos as the climate was too damp. Moreover the clients were different and drawn from the merchant, patrician and trading classes. In that sense it had more in common with Northern Europe than its sister city of Florence on the other side of Italy.
Lotto was a complex and largely unrecognised artist for over four hundred years. He is the forgotten artist of the 16th century despite the quality of his work.
Born c. 1480 in Venice, he died in poverty in 1556. For much of his life he belonged to the same world, therefore, as Titian and Giorgione.
Contemporary records tell us he had a nervous, irritable temperament and seemed unable to stay long in one place or to sustain permanent relationships. In other words he was an outsider.
As far as we know he never married.
In the early years, he lived at Treviso, and was influenced by the Venetians whose works you can see in the National Gallery - Giovanni Bellini and Antonello da Messina.
His movements opened him to a range of influences: between 1508 and 1512, Lotto was in Rome, where he was influenced by Raphael, who was painting in the Vatican Palace at the time. Later he moved to Bergamo, where his style matured. The ‘Giovanni Agostino della Torre and His Son, Niccolò’ (c.1513-16), the portrait next to this painting is an example of his ability.
In 1526 Lotto returned to Venice, where he was briefly influenced by the glowing palette and grand compositional schemes of Titian who was his contemporary.
In this period his work became even more emotional, and many works exhibit a highly charged mysticism in their nervous, crowded compositions and pale colouring. His numerous portraits of this period are among his most incisively descriptive of the sitter’s character.
In old age he was destitute and was forced to paint numbers on hospital beds to earn a living. Just before he died, partially blind, he entered the monastery in Loreto. For much of the period after his death he was the forgotten painter, overshadowed by Titian, and generally not rated by art historians.
Andrea Odoni (1527); Lorenzo Lotto
Volta Family, 1547
Giovanni Agostino della Torre and his son Niccolò , 1515