It is astounding that with their warm, bright colors and delicate gold glints, Sandro Botticelli’s iconic paintings “The Story of Lucretia” and “The Story of Virginia,” its companion, are about violence, trauma, and sexual assault. It is no coincidence, however, that with these topics at the forefront of American political conversation, these paintings are coming together in a formidable exhibition. For the first time in the United States, these two paintings are being shown together along with some of Botticelli’s other iconic works at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. They are the at the heart of the new “Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes” exhibition which opened this Feb. 14 and will show until May 19.
Gardner bought “The Story of Lucretia” in 1894 for £3,400 — it was at the time the first work by Botticelli to come to America and the painting has remained in Boston ever since. Its companion (the piece it was meant to be shown with), “The Story of Virginia,” comes from Bergamo’s Accademia Carrara. Created during the artist’s later years, these paintings were likely produced for the Vespucci family palace in Florence and intended to be hung in the Renaissance home, perhaps even in the marital bedroom as the paneling suggests.
Each work depicts the tragedies of these women and — more importantly for the politically-minded Botticelli — the consequences of these tragedies. In “Lucretia,” the story is told in three different parts across one large tableau, intended to be read from left to right. In the first “scene,” the son of the last king of Rome rapes the eponymous noblewoman. In reaction to this tragedy, Brutus takes an oath to expel the Tarquinii from Rome and succeeds — though the revolt itself is not shown. Yet this does not stop a grieving Lucretia from killing herself, a scene which is at the foreground of the work. Though the story takes place in ancient Rome, Botticelli places it in Renaissance Florence — and while calamity is at the heart of the painting, it also emphasizes the importance of Lucrecia’s death in the founding of the Roman Republic. The painting’s eye-level placement makes the painting feel all the more large, which helps emphasize its sublimity and grandness. The David statue in the background, which is a symbol of Florence, is beautifully rendered: Its centered position readily anchors the painting’s subject in its Renaissance setting, signaling the piece’s political intentions.
In “Virginia,” seven scenes outline the disastrous events of her life. Roman politician Appius lusts after Virginia, the daughter of a centurion, even though she is already betrothed to someone else. In vengeance, Appius gets soldier Marcus Claudius Tacitus to assault and kidnap her. The case is taken before Appius for ruling, forcing Virginia to defend herself and prove her innocence. Though he is the mastermind behind the events, Appius claims that Virginia has always been a slave, thus waiving her rights. Virginia’s father and her fiancée come to plead for her freedom, but she remains in captivity. To preserve her honor, her father kills her. In response to Virginia’s death, the Romans successfully revolt against the tyrannical government, restoring the Roman Republic. Botticelli’s places the scene within a gold-gilded palace in the Classical style also meant to resemble a church, which all the more reinforces the painting’s dual political and themes.
The placement of “Virginia” and “Lucretia” on either side of the exhibition’s walls, mirroring each other, helps to stress their similarity, making their powerful message all the more strong. It is also this placement which makes the viewer feel enclosed within the room, perhaps reflecting the way the women are surrounded by hordes of people in each scene. Ultimately, this curatorial choice instills a feeling of claustrophobia in its viewers, which is effective given the intense crowdedness in each work.
Part of Botticelli’s project in updating the settings was to create a moral standard for Florentinian women: They were supposed to take inspiration from Lucretia’s and Virginia’s brave sacrifices. Yet for the contemporary viewer, it is difficult to read these women simply as “heroines.” Though the founding and restoration of the Roman Republic are monumental events, the exhibition begs its viewers to ask whether the consequences of these women’s sufferings make them triumphant players of history — or whether they are just victims of patriarchal ideas and violence.
To promote more conversations regarding art, violence, and the depiction of women, the museum commissioned graphic novelist Karl Stevens to draw comic book sketches to accompany each story. Though the stories would have been particularly well known to viewers back then, the stories might be less familiar to contemporary audiences. To this end the comics are incredibly useful for explaining the various occurrences.
While the works by Botticelli are central to the exhibition, viewers should not forget the display’s other equally impressive and thought-provoking paintings. “Four Scenes from the Early Life of Zenobius” and “Three Miracles of Zenobius” from London’s National Gallery are particularly well-paired tableaus depicting the Saint’s many miracles. Borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Three Miracles of Zenovius is another part of this series that illustrates Botticelli’s formal use of separate “scenes” to tell a story. “Adoration of the Magi” from the Uffizi is another extraordinary masterpiece, particularly fascinating as it was never completed. Much like the main pair of paintings in the exhibition, these works raise questions about how to portray and confront violence in art. Altogether, Boston is lucky to find itself the place that reunites these masterful works.
—Staff writer Aline G. Damas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.