Titian - Lucretia and her husband Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus

by Claire Deuticke

The painting "Lucretia and her husband Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus" was created around 1515 and belongs to one of the early works of the Venetian painter Tiziano Vecellio, also called Titian. As to its provenance, it is known that in 1636 it belonged to the art collection of King Charles I of England as well as to the collection of Leopold Wilhelm and thus circulated in high circles. Furthermore, it is believed that the work originally belonged to a private collection as a gallery painting, as was customary at the time. Today it can be admired in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.


The work superficially shows a woman slightly turned away from the viewer, who occupies almost the entire pictorial space. She seems to be gazing into the distance, almost as if she were petitioning a higher authority. Her expression as well as her posture seem determined and graceful. Her golden-blond curled, slightly disheveled hair blows as if by an invisible gust of wind, giving her a certain dynamism and impulsiveness. Her pale skin appears even, almost flawless. A white, sheer gown wraps her body, hinting at the outline of her chest. The garment has slipped down to the crook of her elbow on the left half of her body, exposing her shoulder and making the sitter appear, as it were, revealing and eroticizing. An overdress in a bright green covers the underdress and contrasts with her pale, even skin. On the right arm, the undergarment and overdress are pushed up to the shoulder. In general, her clothing appears to be carelessly thrown over and slipped on. The extreme materiality of the clothing gives the depiction movement and a certain sensuality. Her right, naked arm is slightly bent, her hand wraps around a dagger with a firm grip - she points the tip at her body. The background of the painting is shrouded in a dark black, but the sitter is illuminated and highlighted by a strong incidence of light. Only at second glance it is noticeable that there is another person in the background: A brown-haired, equally pale man with delicate facial features embraces the woman from behind. His left hand reaches for her left arm - it is not quite clear whether he is responsible for exposing her shoulder. His gaze is on the woman, but she seems to pay him no attention. He wears a red robe, which forms a complementary contrast to the green robe of the woman and thus contributes creatively to the drama of the scene. In contrast to the woman, he is not affected by the incidence of light; in general, he is eclipsed by the woman, who is characterized by grace and determination, and thus assumes a rather background role in the depiction.

The work tells the story of the virtuous Lucretia, a historical figure from the historical work "Ab urbe condita" by the Roman historian Titius Livius, which sets out the 700-year history of Rome. In the narrative, she becomes the victim of rape by the Etruscan king's son Sextus Tarquinius because of her beauty and chastity. Hoping to escape ignominy by the act of heroic suicide, she stabs herself in the presence of her husband, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. To avenge the rape and loss of the beautiful and chaste Lucretia, the hated kingship of the Etruscans is subsequently overthrown and the Roman Republic is founded. The rediscovery of the work was the starting point for Livius' popularity as a school author, especially during the Italian Renaissance. His work was frequently consulted as an example of reason, and the Rape of Lucretia developed into a major theme of European art and literature, as an allegory of the struggle against tyranny, an example of virtue, and representing the founding myth of the Roman Republic.


From this background knowledge, it is reasonable to assume that the depiction shows the moment of Lucretia's heroic suicide in the presence of her husband Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, as the title of the work locates. Interestingly, however, research assumes that the work originally depicted the rape and not the moment of the suicide - as was usually characteristic of the depiction of Lucretia. In this earlier version, the person in the background probably represented Sextus Tarquinius holding the dagger instead of Lucretia and pointing it at her. This assumption would at any rate explain the encroaching exposure of the shoulder by Tarquinius, as well as the slipped clothing, and the almost tempestuous movement of the work. Furthermore, due to Titian's extremely unusual choice of Lucretia's iconography, there are doubts as to whether the person depicted is Lucretia at all, thus also leaving uncertain the role of the person depicted in the background. A clear identification of the listed persons thus remains difficult despite background knowledge.


If we assume, however, that the sitter is Lucretia, the special feature of the work is probably Titian's ability to depict Lucretia in the fullness of her described virtue and beauty, unbroken and graceful, despite the shame of rape and the knowledge of approaching death. It is not the rape or the act of suicide that is ostensibly recounted here, but Lucretia's heroic and honorable virtue that ultimately led to the founding of the Roman Republic.


In conclusion, whether rape or suicide, whether Lucretia or another beauty - it is the lively, graceful appearance of the depicted that captivates the viewer and fascinates even 500 years after the creation of the work.


Titian - Lucretia and her husband Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus

Oil on poplar wood, c. 1515, 82 x 68 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

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