Palma il Giovane

The Death of Lucretia

Jacopo Negretti called Palma il Giovane
( Venice, 1544 - Venice, 1628 )

Oil on canvas 125.8x109.3 cm

Le Favole Dell’Amore. Rose e spine nella pittura italiana del Sei e Settecento, mostra a cura di Francesca Baldassari e Marina Mojana, ANTIK, Arte e Antiquario, Milano, 2002.

The subject of this painting, Lucretia (died c.508 BC), is a semi-legendary figure in the history of the Roman Republic. According to the story, told mainly by the Roman historian Livy and the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (who lived in Rome at the time of the Emperor Augustus), her rape by Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), the king’s son, and her her consequent suicide were the immediate cause of the revolution that overthrew the monarchy and established the Roman Republic. Palma’s dramatic presentation shows the heroine in the moment after her violation : her eyes still red from weeping and her dress dishevelled, she is nonetheless steadfast in her purpose as she plunges a dagger into her breast. Lucretia is a married woman, but in killing herself – “death before dishonour” – she frees her husband from the responsibility of vengeance. The shame brought on her family is thus wiped away, and she becomes – albeit posthumously – an emblem of fidelity, civic duty and patriotism. The message was an ever-relevant one in the period around 1600 as there was a taste for themes involving moral superiority, and this could be conveyed through Biblical subjects or episodes from ancient history, as in the picture before us. The rich chromatic qualities of this canvas evoke the grand Venetian tradition of Paolo Veronese and Bassano, and the appearance of the Roman lady, in particular her golden curls, finds a parallel in the figure of Venus by Palma – probably also painted during the first decade of the seventeenth century – in the Pardo collection, Paris.