Ritratto di gentildonna ispirata a Lucrezia (c.1530-1533)

Lotto, Lorenzo (1480-1557)

Ritratto di gentildonna ispirata a Lucrezia (Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia)
Oil on canvas, 96.5 x 110.6 cm
National GalleryLondon

A sumptuously dressed young woman stands between the back of an armchair and a table. In her left hand she holds a drawing of the Roman heroine Lucretia about to stab herself. She points towards this drawing and another paper on the table, on which are written Lucretia’s last words. The Latin phrase is difficult to translate but roughly means that by killing herself Lucretia will deprive unchaste women of a possible excuse for living.

On the table is a yellow wallflower, a common wildflower in Italy, sometimes a lover’s gift. The woman wears a gold wedding band, and tucked into her bodice is a gold jewelled pendant decorated with two putti and two cornucopias. Such items were associated with weddings and known as bridal pendants. The empty chair may be intended to suggest the woman’s absent husband.

The story of Lucretia, who lived in the early sixth century BC, is told in Livy’s History of Rome (I LVII, 4–LX,4). Prince Sextus Tarquinius crept to Lucretia’s room at night, sword drawn, and threatened to rape her. She resisted; he then said he would kill her and a slave and allege they had committed adultery. Lucretia, who could not bear that dishonour, was raped by the prince. She told her father and husband, who were unable to dissuade her from killing herself.

Lucretia’s suicide saved her family from having to live with a woman believed to be contaminated. Notions of family honour and blood pollution were still as strong in Lotto’s time as they had been in Livy’s. The story of Lucretia was popular as a theme for furniture paintings, which were often made for newly-weds, suggesting that Lucretia was considered an inspiring model for wives even though suicide was against Christian doctrine. The sitter in Lotto’s portrait was very likely called Lucretia, as it was common at the time to be portrayed as a historical or holy namesake. She seems to indicate that she would follow her heroine’s example. This Lucretia, however, is not presented as a victim – the heroic and confident manner in which she stares straight at us is highly unusual.

She may be the Venetian noblewoman Lucrezia Valier, who married into the prominent Pesaro family, in whose possession the painting was later recorded in 1797. The force of her gesture and expression breaks with conventions for female portraits of the time. The horizontal format also makes this painting stand apart from Lotto’s earlier surviving independent portraits of women. Indeed, it was an innovation that he increasingly applied in this period, most often for male sitters, which allowed him space to include symbolic elements or texts.

The portrait has been dated to the early 1530s on account of the sitter’s clothes and ribboned cap or scufia, partly made from human hair. Quite a few changes were made during painting, and it was originally a much more colourful picture. The background was not originally grey but had broad vertical stripes of pink and violet or lilac and blue. The tablecloth had blue stripes, and remains of this colour can still be seen around the edges of the paper and the flower which lie on it. A coloured representation of Lucretia is visible below the ink drawing on the sheet of paper. In it, her head is facing in the opposite direction and her arm is raised up high. This earlier version had a coloured background, most probably blue, with a white border. Enough of the blue shows through the drawing to make it resemble a print with a faint plate mark. (NG)

See also:

• Livy (59 BC-17 AD)