This is the text of a lecture I gave for a conference to consider the Titian: Love, Desire and Death exhibition at the National Gallery, London. If you’d prefer this in video form, you can see a recording of the lecture on YouTube.
There’s a lot of rape imagery in art museums – the rape of the Sabine Women, the rape of Europa, the rape of Lucretia, the Rape of Ganymede and so on. It’s so common, in fact, that when I started off in this field I used to think it was a ‘special-art-history-word’, like ‘contrapposto‘ or ‘chiaroscuro‘ or ‘formal analysis’ that you used in the correct way to prove you were part of the (terribly refined) gang. Then I read Diane Wolfthal’s book, Images of Rape: The Heroic Rape Tradition and its Alternatives (2000), and felt that I’d been duped all those years. If you can spot a #MeToo moment in the History of Renaissance Art – and arguably, this has not yet happened – then that book must mark it. She argued that these works ‘glorify, sanitize and aestheticize sexual violence’. Art Historians’ reactions to Titian’s Rape of Europa are particularly subject to Wolfthal’s scorn. Rather than merely sanitizing sexual violence, she sees this painting deliberately eroticising it. Yet scholars who deal with it “usually focus on style,” she says, “and glorify the artist as a creative genius”.
Since Wolfthal’s bracingly furious analysis, other scholars like Yael Even have agreed that Europa’s rape is sexually titillating in an ethically compromising way, some scholars arguing that the moral complication of evoking desire in a rape scene dispels any potential aesthetic enjoyment. Others have sought to excuse Titian of any so-called wrong-doing, as his careful rendering of Europa’s plight is sympathetic to women and allows them new social roles. She is ‘the epitome of the unchaste female body … a woman in the position of total abandon’. Others, still, continue to sidestep this debate by focusing on style. There’s been some fancy footwork in the National Gallery exhibition, I think, which is keen to emphasize Titian’s “sympathy” with the victims in these cases, and emphasising the painting as a complex mix of “ecstasy and violence but also distinct humour”
This retains the valence of ‘rape’ a special-art-history-word that has little to do with forced sexual intercourse. It’s presumably this approach that has led to the jarring marketing decisions that sees Europa being re-used for a cosmetics bag on sale in the gallery shop. What’s the message here? Put on some make up, make yourself look pretty and maybe you, too, can be abducted and raped by a god in the form of a bull?
Rape in the sixteenth century
Elsewhere in the National Gallery, we see this document on display. It’s Artemisia Gentileschi’s testimony of her own rape scene. Here’s a translated extract.
He shoved me onto the edge of the bed, forcing me with his hand on my chest, he put a knee between my thighs so that I could not close them … he placed his hand with a handkerchief over my throat and mouth that I would not cry out… Having before placed both his knees between my legs, and pointing his penis at my vagina he began to push and he put it in inside so that I felt it burning strongly and giving me great pain, but because of the gag that he held at my mouth I could not cry out
This upsetting language might feel familiar to anyone who has suffered sexual assault, and we should believe Artemisia’s testimony, extracted under torture. It’s become a rather dull trope to say that we can’t judge history on our terms, that we have to understand that people thought differently then – but to suggest that violent rape was something that rape victims thought was ok is patently ridiculous.
However, we should also understand that the cognitive, legal and personal framing of stupro was not the same in the 16th or 17th century as it is today. Our word rape indicates non-consensual penetrative sex, but it doesn’t map on to renaissance concepts of rape very well. There are two words that you’ll find commonly used in Italian in this period – ‘stupro’ and ‘ratto’ (stuprum and raptus in Latin).
In his dictionary of moral theology, the Summa Angelica, first published in 1486 but with many subsequent editions, Angiolo da Chivasso neatly explains the differences of degree. Stupro “is when the virgin woman consents voluntarily and spontaneously offers herself up to sin’. Thus it doesn’t necessarily have to be forcible sex, just sex outside of marriage. Stupro could apply to virgins or widows under their fathers protection. A worse kind of stupro is called ‘violence’, when a maiden’s virginity is taken away by force. The third is called ‘ratto’ and is “when the woman is stolen and taken by force from her house, even if she later consents.” The use of violence and ‘ratto’ ‘changes the sin into another type. In stupro, the perpetrator should give the victim a dowry and preferably marry her, if her father agrees. The desired outcome of Artemisia’s trial is that her attacker would marry her.
Although this may seem horrendous to us, historians Elizabeth Cohen and Cecilia Cristellon have shown – working respectively in sixteenth century Venice and seventeenth century Rome – that the Renaissance system was much more flexibile and less clear cut than the legal framework might suggest, and it wasn’t necessarily a bad system for the woman involved. Cohen summarises:
Even in the aftermath of experience in which standard morality and parental expectations, on the one hand, and the persistent demands and even physical force of would be lovers, on the other, left girls scant room for manoevre, some of them spoke to the judges not as passive victims but as participants in the making of their own fate
Rape, therefore, is seen in the Renaissance as a point of transformation between a virginal state, under the protection of the father, to a married stage under the protection of the husband – if social order is to be maintained.
Rape and War
Rape was also, however, a tool of war, and a symbol of cities under attack.
From 1494 until 1559, the Italian peninsular had been subjected to periods of several invasions, involving brutal sacks of cities and widespread slaughter of civilians. The key actors was the king of Spain, the Imperial forces – joined in the person of Philip II’s father, Charles V from 1519-1556 – and the French kings, all of whom had claims to the Kingdom of Naples and other Italian states.
As part of these invasions, French, Spanish and Imperial troops raped Italian women as part of a litany of horrendous cruelty to civilians during the Italian wars. Stephen Bowd notes several examples of women killing themselves by drowning rather than submitting to rape by soldiers. In his eye-witness account of the Sack of Capua in 1501, the priest Marino Casalena, described how one of the city’s noblewomen, Laura de Antiniano, threw herself into the river to avoid rape, saying “better to die than to be defiled”.
The story of the Rape of Lucretia – where the ancient Roman noblewoman killed herself after her rape by the son of the tyrannical King Tarquin – provided an example of this type of virtue that some renaissance women took to heart (and here I’m showing you a portrait by Lorenzo Lotto done around 1530 that shows the main figure holding an image of Lucretia’s suicide. Lucretia’s rape and suicide led ultimately to the establishment of the Roman Republic.
The Rape of the Sabine Women – another example of violent ‘raptus’ as part of war, and another popular subject in Renaissance art similarly lead to transformation, the start of a war that was eventually brokered by the women themselves, who brought their Sabine fathers under the protection of their Roman husbands.
Again, the rape of women in both stories act as a hinge point, a driver of historical change.
Narratives of Rape and Transformation
Renaissance readers understood the stories of Jupiter’s rapes of mortal women in this way too, as a catalyst for transformation with wider and sometimes unexpected consequences. Rape was a popular subject of poems, plays and paintings in this period because of its inherent drama, but also because of its transformative effects. Before we judge this period for its use of violence against women as a trope for entertainment, we should take the mote out of our eye and think about how violence, rape and murder of women is a central narrative of many crime dramas, where resolution is found not through the woman’s marriage – often the central victim is dead by this point– but through the identification of the perpetrator.
The Rape of Europa was retold many times in Renaissance Italy, and often in a much neater way than the Ovidian text, which leaves Europa literally hanging off the bull at the end of the second chapter. A text that I think helps us to understand Titian’s version of Europa’s rape is a narrative poem called ‘Europa’ written in 1551 by Girolamo Muzio. Muzio was embedded both in Venetian literary circles (this book is dedicated to the important patron, Domenico Venier) and like Titian, worked for members of the Habsburg circle, such as the mercenary general Alfonso d’Avolos, the Marquis of Vasto, and the influential Habsburg agent Antoine Perrenot di Granvelle – who Titian painted when he visited the imperial court at Augsburg in 1548.
Muzio has a similar attitude to Europa as many art historians detect in Titian’s painting. He first asks the audience to look at Europa in the same way as Jupiter, with desiring eyes:
“The golden hair and the delicate breast, Adorned with white, pink and vermillion”. When Jupiter saw her face, Muzio tells us, his heart tempted him with a new desire, to have the pleasure of seeing her naked.
Like other sources, he emphasizes the beauty of the bull – which I think we mistakenly read as comic – he has a ‘delicate flank’, is ‘whiter than fresh snow’, shining horns, and a ‘sweet odour’ – to explain why Europa is lulled into a false sense of security to get on his back.
After this description of the beauty of the main protagonists, the tone switches to focus on Europa’s fear. “With trembling voice to her companions/ she shouts now help help” And now by name /She calls her dearest friends, now this one, now that one”
She tries to grip on the bull’s horn, but cannot reach it so rests her hand “all trembling, on the robust shoulders” whilst her friends on the shore in vain “call her back, in vain extending their arms”. Despite the calm sea and blue sky, Europa’s mood turns from fear to despair. “The graceful Europa, whose sorrowful face “Turns back so that at last she sees /Her home hillsides so far away .. with bitter heart and hoarse voice” cries out for her homeland.”
The story, however, turns on a dime in the last page. Venus arrives with her cupids and comforts Europa by telling her the end of the story.
Put an end to your sorrow, to the weeping and plaints, Royal clear blood, lineage of Jupiter. Called to another homeland, to a another kingdom, to a better fortune. A hundred great civilisations will have you as Queen … with torches lit the most peaceful Hymen awaits you. This horned steed, who sweetly and quickly rides over the sea, made happy and proud by you as his trophy, this is the great King of the Gods …. In another form conjoined with you, he will make you fortunate mother, of many lands; your bloodline will eternally bear sceptres, and your share of the world will serve your name with eternal renown.”
This version of the image sees Venus as revealing Europa’s (or Europe’s) destiny – to suffer strife, but then to triumph. Given his Habsburg patronage, it’s likely that Muzio was referring to them as the rightful bearers of the ‘eternal sceptre” as rulers of a newly happy Europe.
He wasn’t alone in eliding the story of Europa with Habsburg rule over the continent. The legend of the Rape of Europa was Europe’s founding myth, and the story is recounted in many Italian sixteenth-century geographic texts and encyclopedias before describing the qualities of the continenet. See, for example, the The World And Its Parts; Garzoni’s encyclopedic Piazza Universale .
As John Jeffries Martin has noted, the continent of Europe if not completely “invented” in the sixteenth century ,was certainly popularised then, particularly by the Hapsburgs who saw their lineage as Europe’s rightful custodians, its protector against threats from the Ottoman Turks, and at the vanguard of conquest of other parts of the world. Europe is pictured as Queen Europa with Habsburg Spain at its head in maps of the sixteenth century, and it’s under the patronage of Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, a leading minister of the Spanish Habsburgs (and a friend of both Titian’s and Musio’s) that one of the first maps of Europe was made in 1554.
It may be a coincidence, of course, that Titian changed the subject of his last poesie in 1559, from an image of Jason and Medea to an image of Europa, just a couple of months after the peace of Cateau-Cambresis which ended a 65 year struggle over the balance of power in Europe and which secured Habsburg rule over most of the continent. It’s unlikely though, that Philip II would have been unaware of the significance of this change. Europa is not just a raped woman, but a raped and suffering continent, about to be led to peace and happiness by the glorious Habsburgs. It is, fundamentally, an image of hope.
I’d suggest then, that understanding renaissance attitudes to rape can help us understand these paintings. Titian’s sympathy to Europa is not an indication of his peculiar sympathy to women – he is absolutely in line with Europa’s presentation in other accounts, which are designed to evoke pathos to make the story more exciting. It’s less an ambivalent consideration of women’s plight, more of a narrative pivot, reflecting ideas about rape in both art and life in this period. The treatment of rape in ahistorical terms can present women as passive victims of a monolithic patriarchy, ironically under-estimating female agency and resilience. Ignoring the harsh facts of rape through aestheticization prevents us engaging with Renaissance understandings of both ratto and stupro as catalysts for the transformation of suffering into something better, transformations that can equally be deeply individual, but also act as a synecdoche for the experience of an entire continent.