For Rome to be reborn from corruption two women had to die ghastly deaths, or so the stories go. And what stories they are: Lucretia, innocent and chaste, is raped by Tarquinius to prove “all women are whores,” and commits suicide, crippled by shame; Virginia, kidnapped into slavery for the corrupt ruler Appius Claudius, escapes her captive but not her father, who deems her close call with courtesanship a moral stain on the family and murders her anyway. Naturally, their brutal deaths are the ice breakers to restore order to the republic. Such was the path to enlightenment, Renaissance-style.
Those are the short strokes of two moral tales that guided, of all things, the second phase of Florence’s evolution as a paragon of Renaissance virtue. Told by Livy, the chronicler of ancient Rome (his “Ab Urbe Condita” was written in the first century AD), both tales were painted by Sandro Botticelli in close succession between 1499 and 1500, just as Florence was emerging from two centuries of Medici rule.
He intended them, surely, as cautionary tales: Rome had slipped into dictatorship in the 4th century BC under the decemviri, just decades after the empire had evolved from a monarchy to a democratic republic; the artist and his patrons didn’t want Florence, in its next phase, to descend into a similar darkness. These stories, incredibly, were painted as a beacon leading back to the light: Lucretia’s rape led to the overthrow of the monarchy in 510 BC (Tarquinius was the son of an Etruscan king); Virginia’s murder moved Romans to rebel against their increasingly despotic governors a few decades later.
Hanging side by side at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the first time in centuries (though for nowhere near so long; the show closes May 19, and won’t travel), they’re the joint centerpiece of “Heroines + Heroes,” which opened Valentine’s Day. Together and apart, they’re remarkable, horrifying things — crisp, captivating, and impossibly detailed, with their tight gnarls of figures tangled in conflict across their respective frames. Each painting is wound tight enough to explode. Uniting them is a notable feat all on its own (the Gardner owns “Lucretia,” which its namesake acquired in 1894, the first Botticelli to land on American soil), and purists will make note of it as part of an art-historical first: The two are among six of the artist’s narrative “spalliera” paintings brought together here, an exhibition of which has never before taken place. The other four include three of the four of his “Scenes from the Life of Zenobius,” the story of the truly virtuous first bishop of Florence, and Botticelli’s grand, unfinished “Adoration of the Magi.”
It’s all very good, and significant, but ultimately the least important thing happening in the room. The show is in fact about coaxing an elephant lurking in the corner of almost every historical art exhibition out for a good, long look. As accompaniment, the museum commissioned Karl Stevens, a widely published Boston-based graphic novelist, to shine his particular light: Stevens rendered Botticelli’s two tales in comic-book form, and from the women’s point of view, shifting each story from dramatic political allegory to the violent thing that it is. Bold a gesture as it may be, I wish Stevens had taken a little more space; his panels are small and deferential to Botticelli’s masterworks, for which Stevens himself could be excused. Subverting a master canonized over centuries isn’t light work, though isn’t that really the show’s point?
In any case, it’s as though someone has finally turned on the lights: In as genteel an environment as you can imagine — an art museum, surrounded by anointed Great Works — women are being raped and murdered, and society’s somehow the better for it. Upstairs in the museum’s conservation lab, staff are lavishing care on a Titian painting, perhaps the most celebrated piece in the museum’s collection.In it, Zeus, in the guise of a bull, kidnaps Europa, with whom he will procreate all of earthly civilization. Its title is unequivocal: “The Rape of Europa.” It’s an acknowledged masterwork, deemed the very pinnacle of Renaissance painting. What?
I’m far from the first to suggest there’s something wrong, though not entirely surprising, about the foundational era of Western humanism being shot through with violence, depravity, and the validation of male sexual aggression. In fact, such pervasive darkness really explains a lot.
Reams of books and scholarly papers — not to mention an entire school of feminist criticism — have unpacked it over several decades, though with little broad impact. Thousands still crowd into museums around the world to see Eugene Delacroix’s painting “The Death of Sarandapalus” at the Louvre, or Bernini’s “The Rape of Proserpina,” a marble sculpture, at the Borghese in Rome. Botticelli’s own “Primavera” is described, art historically, as containing a “heroic” rape. The list is not short.
Rarely, do we see an institution willing to be circumspect about its most treasured things. It happens: I recall an exhibition at the Manchester, England, Museum last year in which the artist Sonia Boyce removed John William Waterhouse ’s “Hylas and the Nymphs,” one of its most loved pieces, for the sexual violence it implied. But generally, brutal acts glossed over by the transcendent beauty of their renderings is a long-standing institutional practice. Reverence is expected, questions are not.
Boyce’s removal of the painting made its point, one artist to another, though outright censorship should be condemned, not lauded. But really, can we talk? Rare is the moment taken for the honest conversation: Contemporary culture flows from these foundational works, deemed to be human achievement at its highest. Especially now, doesn’t that beg a question or two? The Gardner deserves praise for asking. “It’s a Botticelli, so we all kneel down in front of it and say it’s beautiful. But is it?” says Nathaniel Silver, the museum’s curator of collections. “It’s only when you start to ask new questions that new ideas can grow.” Give the Gardner some credit. It’s a start.
BOTTICELLI: HEROINES + HEROES
At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way, through May 19. 617-566-1401, www.isgm.org