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Compositional interpretation is, as Chapter 4 points out, a term of my own invention. In her essay Textual Analysis as a Research Method (Griffin, G. (ed.), Research Methods for English Studies, 2005, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 160‒78), Catherine Belsey instead uses the term ‘textual analysis’ to describe its approach to the painting 'Tarquin and Lucretia' by Titian. There is more to her essay than I will explore here ‒ there are several discussions of authors, writing and readers that are more generally about the making of meaning in all cultural texts – but I want to focus on her discussion of her method in which 'the text sets the agenda' (Belsey 2005: 167), which is very close to what I have described as compositional interpretation.
To view an image of the painting in question, click here. It's large – some 189cm high by 145cm wide – and oil paint on canvas. It was painted by the artist Titian near the end of his life, for his patron King Philip II of Spain, and currently hangs in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
To work through the activity, read through these extracts from Belsey's essay. For my annotations relating to the essay, read the ‘Annotated Notes’ section at the end of each extract. The aims of this activity are:
- to follow an example of a compositional interpretation in action;
- to reflect on its strengths and its limitations.
Click on the arrows below to view each available extract.
What, then, to pose the inaugural question as broadly and baldly as possible ‒ is going on in Tarquin and Lucretia? The first and most immediate answer is rape. Even to a viewer who does not know the story in advance, the position is clear from Tarquin's raised dagger; his knee between Lucretia's legs; his muscular dominance over her body, already placed visually at a lower level than his, and so subject to it; and from the white bedlinen draped over her thighs as the only available protection against violation. Her nakedness and the bed point to the sexual nature of the assault; they also show her to be defenceless.
This is a moment of considerable intensity. The painting arrests and fixes an instant immediately before the rape itself, offering to enlist the viewer in a kind of suspense. What we are invited to fear will follow is left to our imagination, and may well in consequence be experiences as more, not less, painful. Rape is a sustained action; its duration is part of the horror; and in that sense a still image cannot capture it. But this one comes close ‒ partly by showing the figures so evidently in motion, but above all by leaving the action to be completed in the spectator's mind.
Lucretia is evidently already in bed, and is taken by surprise. Human beings seem to be at their most vulnerable when they sleep, especially if they sleep without clothing. The female nude in general tends to hover between helplessness and sexuality. Where does the emphasis fall here? My second question, then, would be how the painting invites us to see Lucretia. Is she presented as a victim struggling to resist a brutal assault? Or is she offered as an object of desire for the spectator, as well as Tarquin?
Where, in other words, are our sympathies? The light comes from the left and falls on Lucretia's naked flesh. To that extent, the nude body of a woman, set against her bedlinen, is offered as a spectacle. On the other hand, the breasts, usually a focus for the erotic gaze, are here only indicated, rather than depicted. Meanwhile, two main composition lines draw attention to the violence rather than to her body itself: the diagonal line formed by the legs, and most sharply defined by Tarquin's, leads direct to her left shoulder, drawing the eye to the other diagonal formed by her left arm and right. So the visual emphasis falls on what goes on between the figures. And because the woman seems to have no chance against Tarquin's greater strength and the threat indicated by the dagger, the occurrence seems to me to be on the whole more shocking than titillating.1
But there is room for debate, and a researcher might well want to come back to this uncertainty, since it arguably constitutes part of what continues to hold the viewer's attention. Whatever the decision, the painting evidently plays a part in the history of gender politics. If, on the one hand, it confirms the view that images of the high-lit, naked female body objectify women, on the other hand it goes some way to substantiate a good deal that feminists have been arguing about rape since the 1970s. Rape, we have maintained, constitutes assertion of force over vulnerability; it is as much about power as sex.
1 Notice Belsey's focus on Lucretia rather than Tarquin here. She assumes that Lucretia is the most important figure. Why? Belsey is clearly approaching this painting as a feminist. While she does not ignore Tarquin and his significance by any means, she certainly pays most attention to Lucretia, as the victim of what many feminists would argue is the most brutal expression of men's power over women. (Though there are other reasons for her focus. For example, in the story pictured by this painting, it is Lucretia who carries the narrative forward; her subsequent actions lead to the founding of the Roman Republic.) However, I don't see any reason in the painting itself to pay quite so much attention to Lucretia at the outset. Here we can see that compositional analysis, as a method, need not be entirely formalist; it need not pay attention only and entirely to the image. It can also be informed by other theoretical impulses (a point Belsey herself makes at various points in her essay).
So far, my research on this painting has consisted of analysing the image fairly closely, in the light of something I bring to it from elsewhere. There is no such thing as ‘pure’ reading: interpretation always involves extra-textual knowledge. Some of this is general, part of the repertoire of knowledges that constitutes a culture; some of it is personal, a matter of one’s own interests or biography; and some of it is derived from secondary sources. The first impulse of many researchers, confronted by an unfamiliar text, is to look up what others have said about it on the internet, in the library, in bibliographies provided for the purpose.
Secondary sources have their uses. They will soon make clear that the story of Lucretia is told by Livy and Ovid, and discussed by Saint Augustine. 2 They will indicate the place of this painting in Titian’s work, and provoke comparisons of his manner of painting with his contemporaries and his master, Giovanni Bellini. All this is valuable, if it leads to further textual analysis. Always read the sources and consider the analogues. Never take other people’s word for it. This is the key to saying something new: what is distinctive about this text emerges as its difference from all the others.
Secondary material can be unduly seductive too, however. Textual analysis is hard - and, if it isn’t, it ought to be. It is always much easier to do a literature search, or read an anthology of essays. It is easier, but less productive. What secondary sources usually provide is well informed, coherent and rhetorically persuasive arguments, which can leave the researcher convinced that whatever can be said has been said already. The way to use secondary sources is very sparingly indeed. I prefer to make a list of the questions posed by the text and arrive at my own tentative, provisional answers, and only then to read other people’s interpretations.3
2 You can read one version of the story of Tarquin and Lucretia here: http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/pharos/collection_pages/italy_pages/914/FRM_TXT_SE-914-7.html
3 Look very carefully at the painting now, using the elements of compositional interpretation described in Chapter 4: content, colour, spatial organisation, light and expressive content. Don't worry about not knowing much about the painting; just jot down all your impressions and thoughts, and do as Belsey suggests as well: make a list of questions prompted by your viewing of the image itself in its compositional modality.
The text, as a tissue of signifiers, makes certain demands on the textual analyst, and provides the material for analysis. That material is by no means an empty space, a vacancy into which we pour whatever we like; instead, the text itself participates in the process of signification. It reproduces or reiterates meanings, which always come from outside, and are not at the artist's disposal, any more than they are at ours. The work of art is in that sense always citational, constituted, as Barthes puts it, of quotations. Tarquin and Lucretia reiterates a familiar tale, quotes an existing narrative, 4 and, in turn, the classical sources themselves re-inscribed a story already in circulation. But even when there is no narrative to cite, the text invokes intertexts: new female nudes signify in relation to existing female nudes, just as domestic interiors allude to other domestic interiors, and landscapes are intelligible in relation to the tradition of landscape painting. There is no moment of ‘origin’, but only breaks with what went before. In that sense, every iteration is always a reiteration. Research involves tracing these intertexts, and reading them attentively too, to establish the difference of the text in question.
At the same time, texts can only ever quote with a difference. ‘Iteration alters, something new takes place.’ In Limited Inc Derrida makes the paradoxical point that, while a repetition is the same as the original utterance ‒ or it would not be a repetition ‒ it is also the case that a repetition is never the same as the original, or it would be the original itself. In other words, every time anyone uses a familiar mark or image, they shift its meaning very slightly in the process, precisely by quoting its previous occurrences, as well as changing its setting. In that sense, every text breaks with what went before. Maybe artists shift the meanings or break with the past more radically at times, but changing meanings is not the same as making them up.
The possible meanings of Tarquin and Lucretia, then, are to be found ‒ or perhaps more accurately, supposed, hypothesised - in the relation between the painting and the viewer who is its destination. And each party - the picture and the spectator ‒ contributes to the process of making it mean. The viewer faces the picture from a place outside it, and examines from that location the internal relations on the surface of the canvas.
As an instance of one elementary imposition of limits exerted by the painting itself the optimum physical place of the spectator is fairly sharply specified by Tarquin and Lucretia. The picture is not visible, for example, from the back. What is more, it is not clearly visible from one side or the other, because the lines appear distorted from there. And from too close up, the trompe l'oeil effect disappears. The folds of the fabric, for instance, dissolve into lines on a flat canvas. 5 An image in monocular, fixed-point perspective, as this is, addresses a viewer who stands in a specified place, directly in front of it, and with one eye closed. Only from there do we fully grasp the three dimensions simulated on a two-dimensional canvas. In this instance, Tarquin, Lucretia and the properly placed viewer form a triangle.6
The text exercises certain constraints, and yet we are not entirely at its mercy. A good textual analyst would be aware of the text’s requirements on us, in this sense, but the same good analyst would also acknowledge that we might deliberately refuse the position the text offers, might choose to look at it from somewhere else. On close examination, Titian poses a puzzle: the very precise mimetic effects are apparently achieved by techniques that, viewed from close to, appear quite impressionistic, compared, for example, with Bellini. How, we might want to know, is it done? An analyst of Titian’s brushstrokes would reject the optimum position of the viewer, would get close and lose the three-dimensionality in a good cause. Alternatively, the composition lines might draw my eye to the violence, but I remain entitled to look at the bedlinen. Engaged in dialogue, the textual analyst retains a certain independence.
How does this account of the reader’s relative self-determination square with Barthes’s account of a reader who is no more than the destination of the text? Barthes helps to locate meaning where it belongs, in the signifier, not in the head of either the author or the addressee. But at the same time, his essay retains a trace of structuralism. Fully alert to the differences that make up the text, Barthes here ignores the differences between readings. If the textual analyst understands all the quotations in the text, grasps all its intertextual allegiances, every trace by which it is constituted, how is it possible for interpretations to differ? How can we, after all, say anything new?
4 As an example of the citational practice of art, here is a short discussion of the difference in approach between Titian and two of his younger contemporaries in sixteenth-century Venice, Tintoretto and Veronese: http://mini-site.louvre.fr/venise/en/exhibition/women_of_desire.html
The Fitzwilliam Museum also points to two earlier treatments of the same subject by the German artist Heinrich Aldegraver: http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/pharos/collection_pages/italy_pages/914/FRM_TXT_SE-914-7.html
The Fitzwilliam Museum also claims that "the great Venetian painter both borrowed from, and improved upon, earlier compositions". Do you agree? On what grounds do you think Titian's composition is better than Aldegraver's? These sorts of judgements about aesthetic quality are very typical of compositional interpretation undertaken as connoisseurship. Belsey's approach rather rigorously avoids such judgements about the quality of the painting, however. She is more interested in how it makes its meanings than in its visual quality. This reinforces the point that compositional interpretation can be used to very different ends.
5 Belsey doesn't make much more of the qualities of the oil paint in this image: its texture or its colours. However, both the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Louvre Museum do mention it. What do they say?
6 Belsey's approach at this point is quite similar to that of Griselda Pollock in her discussion of Robert Doisneau's photograph 'Un Regard Oblique', which was discussed in Chapter 2. Pollock too argues that the viewer is placed by the formal composition of an image into a specific position in relation to it. Unlike Pollock, however, Belsey does not suggest that the positioning invited by 'Tarquin and Lucretia' also invites the spectator to identify more with one of the people pictured than the other.
Any specific textual analysis is made at a particular historical moment and from within a specific culture. In that sense, the analysis is not exhaustive: it does not embrace all the possible readings, past and future. At the same time, it is able to be new. Suppose we return to the painting and analyse it from the specific point of view of the historical differences it inscribes. Is there anything there that seems to modern eyes to need accounting for? There is the costume, of course, and the bedding ... but those differences are only to be expected. What else might we find?
One feature of this picture does seem odd. I have described Lucretia as naked. She is evidently already in bed, and she is now apparently attempting to get out of it, though Tarquin’s body blocks her escape. But she is wearing at least one earring, a pearl necklace and two quite substantial bracelets, as well as a wedding ring. Surely this jewellery is very slightly out of place? Do people normally sleep in their portable property in this way? Not these days, I think. What, then, do we make of it? Even if Venetian woman habitually wore their jewellery in bed in 1570, the presence of these bracelets, the necklace and the earring seems to me potentially significant.
In the first instance, they might cause us to reopen the question of the overall project. This body is decorated, adorned, and to that degree correspondingly spectacular, an object of the gaze. Second, the jewels indicate Lucretia’s wealth. Do other textual details confirm this? The bedlinen is very fine, almost translucent; is it silk perhaps? The valance is certainly silk. The edge of the pillow facing the viewer is delicately embroidered. Behind the figures, a looped bed-curtain also implies propriety and taste.
By now, our researcher, self-consciously outside the painting, and outside the historical moment when this story would have been familiar, will certainly have been prompted by secondary material to investigate its classical sources, acknowledging in the process the degree to which 'a text is made of multiple writings’. In this instance, the picture retells a well-known story; it cites ‒ with an inevitable repetition, and an equally inevitable difference ‒ a narrative that enjoyed wide currency at the time. The sources will have revealed that, while Tarquin was the heir to the kingdom in the early days in Rome, before it became a republic, Lucretia was the wife of his friend and comrade-in-arms, Collatinus, who was evidently therefore of noble blood himself. Does the painting make a relation between rape and rank? Is the intensity of this image linked with the fact that the victim belongs to the rapist’s own social class?
Lucretia’s wedding ring is critically placed on the canvas, exactly at the centre measured horizontally, and one-third of the way down vertically. She is married, the spatial relations emphasise - and married to her rapist’s friend, the story confirms. A new aspect of the research project I have sketched begins to surface in response to these observations, and it concerns the historical specificity of rape. Is it more culpable in Renaissance Italy if the victim is aristocratic and married? Regrettably, I think the answer is yes. The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that rape is etymologically theft (‘rapacity’ still indicates a propensity to lay hands on other people’s goods). In medieval law, rape was a crime against the property of the husband or father. Consent came into the question in the first instance in order to distinguish between rape and adultery. It was not until humanism began to invest women with a will of their own that their wishes in the matter became the central issue. The virtue of aristocratic wives must have been a distinctly valuable object. Tarquin’s theft of Lucretia’s is correspondingly disgraceful.
Lucretia herself, whose propriety was part of what inflamed Tarquin in the first place, refused to live with the dishonour, but went on to reinstate her name in the high Roman fashion. Some of the interest the story seems to hold for the early modern period attaches, no doubt, to this subsequent affirmation of her own autonomy in her suicide. How far does this painting align itself with a new humanist interest in the will of the victim?
Without pursuing an answer here, I am suggesting that, while research entails unearthing information, it is the textual analysis that poses the questions which research sets out to answer. The reverse process tends to distort the text. And since the project of cultural criticism is to understand the texts ‒ or rather, to read the culture in the texts ‒ or since, in other words, the texts themselves constitute the inscription of culture, the appropriation of the text to illustrate a prior thesis seems to miss the point. Of course, in practice, it is never quite that simple: once the knowledge is lodged in your mind, it becomes part of what you bring to the text. But in principle, my idea is that the text has priority; ideally, the text sets the agenda.
So, let us get back to ours. Tarquin 7 is fully, though informally, dressed, even if his disordered state is evident in the rolled-up sleeves and collapsing right stocking (‘down-gyved’, like Hamlet’s). These are rich clothes, and they are brilliantly coloured. Oil paint highlights the folds of the fabric with loving verisimilitude. The contrast between Lucretia’s pale, naked, half-supine body and Tarquin’s, defined by both costume and stance as dominant, driven, insistent, emphasises the tyranny of his lawless act.
This is royalty in disarray, 8 in breach of the obligations of monarchy to enforce the law and protect the subject. As Livy tells the story, Lucretia’s rape was an abuse of power so appalling that the Romans rose against it, abolished the monarchy, and installed the Republic. After her suicide, her dead body was paraded through the streets as the motive for a heroic revolt. The rape of the chaste Lucretia led to the overthrow of the Tarquin dynasty and its replacement by a form of government committed to less autocratic values.
The painting, then, does not confine its interest to sexual politics. State politics, too, contributes to its meaning, and the contest it depicts is not only between a woman and a man, but also between a class and its oppressor. On this reading, Lucretia’s struggle against Tarquin stands in for the resistance of the patricians. No wonder the work draws attention to her wealth and taste, her well-appointed bed and the evident propriety of her elegantly dressed hair.
To stand back yet again from what I am putting forward as a research method here, the textual details may be overdetermined, may signify in more than one way. In other words, when we have considered a question raised by the text, we have not necessarily done with it. Lucretia’s jewellery and the rich furnishings make the rape more shocking, according to the sexual politics of the period. But they also vindicate her right ‒ or perhaps her obligation ‒ to resist, as the representative of a class that deserves to be reckoned with.
Meanwhile, Tarquin’s costume makes no attempt at historical accuracy. There is nothing Roman here. Comparison with contemporary paintings reveals that this is a Tarquin in modern dress, the costume of a wealthy Venetian in about 1570. Was this because Titian did not know any better? Or was he simply indifferent to history, like Shakespeare, who brings a striking clock into Julius Caesar? Alternatively, is there a quite different motive for anachronism here? What might the founding moment of the Roman Republic mean in the Venetian Republic in the second half of the sixteenth century?
Venice’s heyday was now past. Instead, the Venetian empire was considerably diminished, and the city itself was threatened by the expansionist plans of the Ottoman Empire to the east. Could this picture be read as an appeal to the Venetian Republic to assert itself against the Turks? The Fitzwilliam Museum, where the painting hangs, places it between 1568 and 1571. Tarquin and Lucretia was sent to Titian’s patron, Philip II of Spain, in 1571. In May that year, a treaty was signed between the Papacy, Venice and Spain to join forces against the Turks. And in October, at Lepanto, Don John of Austria led the allies to defeat the Ottoman Empire. This victory seemed to have beaten back the Turks for good, and was greeted with great rejoicing. What are the resonances of a picture of the founding moment of republicanism, sent by the foremost painter of the Venetian Republic to the King of Spain at this historical moment?
Overcoming my own impulse to follow up this question, I again draw attention to the methodological issues here. The textual analysis I am recommending is anything but an empty formalism. It leads outwards into sexual politics, and then into cultural and political history. But once again the text itself poses the questions that scholarship may be able to answer, and not the other way round. I rather suspect that, if we started from the cultural implications of the battle of Lepanto, we might take quite a long time to get to Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia.
Meanwhile, a related element of the painting would take us back into history in a different way Barely visible behind Tarquin, a shadowed figure, with what appears to be a darker skin than the protagonists’, holds apart the bed curtains and watches the action. His expression is impossible to read: curiosity, outrage, trepidation? Who is this enigmatic observer? The Latin sources reveal that Tarquin backed his violence with a threat still more dangerous to Lucretia’s honour. He will, he says, kill her if she does not submit, and place a dead slave in her bed to destroy her reputation. Adultery with a slave was evidently more scandalous than rape by a king’s son. Lucretia gives in.
To modern eyes the difference between monarchy and republicanism might not seem as large as it did to the Romans themselves. The Roman Republic, too, was founded on slavery. Slavery also played a part in the history of the Venetian Republic. The slave trade was a crucial component of Venice’s commercial success in the early days, and slaves made an important contribution to the economy of the household, as well as in the galleys that made Venice rich and powerful. If domestic slavery diminished in the course of the sixteenth century, the idea of slavery was by no means alien at this time. In 1539 Titian himself painted a portrait of Fabricius Salvaresius with an African page, probably a slave.
What does Tarquin and Lucretia invite us to make of its slave? Anything, or not much? The figure is too indeterminate to be sure. But his inclusion in the margins of the image has the effect of doubling the brutality of Tarquin’s tyranny: in front of Tarquin is a defenceless woman, whose resistance is heroic; behind him is a slave, who has no real scope for resistance. The slave is not in full possession of his own body, since it belongs to another. The painting thus enters into the history of imperialism, in which some people become the property on others and, as such, are expendable at the will of a tyrant. Is it anachronistic to detect a certain symmetry between the highlit Lucretia and the shadowy figure whose defencelessness redoubles hers?
Either way, the slave’s death does not happen. Lucretia is subdued by the threat and no more is heard of the slave.
7 One aspect of Belsey's approach is worth mentioning here; she does not take one long look at the whole picture and somehow come to an interpretation of it, or even make her list of questions of it. Instead, she takes it piece by piece. She starts with the overall composition and expressive content; then she looks carefully at Lucretia (her body, her jewels); at the furniture (the bed and its linen); then she turns to Tarquin; and now she is turning to the figure in the background. This process takes time. A complex image, like this one, deserves not only a careful reading but a slow one.
8 'This is royalty in disarray'. This small sentence does something very important I think: it emphasises how even the most basic descriptive work can have rather important consequences if you have confidence in the care with which you see things. Look at Tarquin. Flushed, staring, sleeves pushed up and falling down, a snapped garter, almost off-balance, his hand awkward on his dagger: in disarray indeed. It's pretty obvious. But what Belsey does in her use of the word 'royalty', though, rather than using the word 'Tarquin', is to emphasise the symbolism of what is shown. This isn't just one man, it is a prince, and by extension the monarchy. The visual display of the mess he's in isn't only a description of one man, it is also describing an institution. This is what Belsey stresses in her phrase 'royalty in disarray'. What we can learn from this small example, I think, is the potential significance of what might seem like rather banal and unimportant descriptions. When using compositional interpretation, describe everything, not just what you think might be significant initially. Note it all down and, as Belsey says, see where it takes you.
In each instance, I have suggested we address a question posed by the text. Where are its sympathies? What historical differences does it present? Are there any surprises? In other words, we start from a problem. This is a method of textual analysis I owe ultimately to psychoanalysis. It is only the caricatures of psychoanalysis that present it as claiming the key to all mythologies in the Oedipus complex, or answering all questions with the phallus before they are even posed.
In my view, the main value of psychoanalysis to cultural critics is not so much in its conclusions and explanations as in its way of reading. Freud listened attentively, and not only to the surface narrative. He worked on the assumption that a deeper or more subtle meaning was to be found in unlikely places: in incidental observations, denials, jokes, slips of the tongue. Freud concentrated on the detail that did not fit, that pulled against the coherence of the official, intentional story. And he treated these unexpected components of what was said as intellectual problems, which analysis would set out to solve. We do not have to agree with his solutions to admire the method. (Indeed, anyone with a rooted antipathy to psychoanalysis in its entirety might prefer to take as a role model the detective Freud most admired. Sherlock Holmes, like his descendant Miss Marple, and any number of television detectives, teases out the incoherence in the story, the puzzling detail that causes the obvious interpretation to unravel.)
Tarquin and Lucretia includes one element that does not fit the obvious narrative. Although not all that marginal, it does not stand out at first, not least because it seems to pull against the most likely reading. This detail is the angle of Lucretia’s left arm. 9 There is no muscular force there. If she were pushing Tarquin away, pushing as hard as she would have to against his evident insistence, we should expect that arm to be fully extended, rigid. It would be much more difficult to exert force with her arm bent. I cannot escape the feeling that Lucretia’s left hand, the hand with the wedding ring on the third finger, placed at the horizontal centre of the canvas, is not resisting as firmly as it might.
Could this be a mistake? It is legitimate to ask. But this is a late work by a man who was by this time the most famous artist in Europe, and has never to this day lost his place in the pantheon of Renaissance painters. The arm in question is central, moulded in some detail, and highly lit. Nothing about its depiction appears accidental. And what about the rest of the body? Lucretia is in tears, but she is not self-evidently braced against Tarquin’s assault. Is it possible, then, that Lucretia’s resistance is in question?
The classical sources relate that she submits not just to superior force, but in the light of the danger the threat of the slave poses to her honour. By this mean, she protects her husband and her name from disgrace. The visual space of the painting constructs a kind of ironic symmetry between the blond Lucretia and the dark slave, or between the highly lit Lucretia and the slave in deep shadow. Is it possible that the moment Titian has depicted is one not just of external struggle between the protagonists, but of inward struggle for Lucretia herself? Some of the intensity of the image for the viewer would then stem from the fact that the painting arrests the action at a turning-point, the instant when the chaste Lucretia reluctantly concedes the victory and ceases to struggle.
Titian’s triumph is that again and again he gives the impression of painting interiority made flesh. His hunched popes and desiring Venuses seem to put their emotions on display in his canvases. What an extraordinary painting this would be if Lucretia’s body were depicted at the moment of transition between fighting off the rapist and yielding to him under duress.
There is one more possibility. I venture this idea with some considerable (feminist) reservations. We might see Lucretia’s bent elbow as indicating another kind of turning-point. The gesture of the hand on Tarquin’s chest could almost be read as a caress. Once the thought has established itself, I find it difficult to dislodge. Could the transition in question be from resistance to pleasure? And does the theatricality of the painting lie in its capture of that moment in the struggle?
I would certainly do my best to overcome this unworthy speculation, if it were not for the fact that Lucretia’s story was given currency in the early modern period by Saint Augustine, as well as Ovid and Livy. Augustine, who discusses the rape in The City of God, saw sexual desire in fallen human beings as the effect of an involuntary reflex, not subject to conscious control, or, as he would have put it, the will. The disobedience to us of our sexual organs, he believed, was a proper punishment for the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Augustine was not at all convinced that Lucretia, however chaste, was any more able to escape the effects of this sexual reflex than other mortals.
There is a context for Augustine’s doubts. The City of God was designed to reassure the Romans that the fall of the city of Rome into the hands of invading barbarians was not a disaster, because these Goths were also Christians. Augustine’s argument in the early books juxtaposes Christian values with Roman paganism, and argues that Roman ethics were not up to the standard of Christian morality. But surely Lucretia’s example showed that pagan values were at least as demanding? To justify his counter-argument, Augustine skilfully undermines Lucretia’s status as an exemplary Roman matron, by calling in question the heroic account of her suicide. Why did she do it, he asks. After all, if she was innocent, she did not need to punish herself; since she took her own life, however, perhaps it was because - ‘but she herself alone could know’ - she succumbed to involuntary desire, and so committed adultery with Tarquin.
Is that what Titian has depicted? A reflex, the disobedience of the self to the self, not just an assault against her will, but the response of her own body, as much against her conscious consent as the violation itself? What does Lucretia’s face register? Tears, certainly. And in addition, fear? Or an incipient desire, as she holds her attacker so directly in her gaze? 10
And is that also the source of the ambiguity I began with, the uncertain relationship in the position offered to the viewer between outrage and titillation? Does our doubt about how to read the image repeat Lucretia’s contradictory response? Perhaps undecidability goes to the heart of the painting’s appeal, as it offers to enlist the spectator in the enigma is also depicts.
9 It is interesting at this point to compare Belsey's reading with that offered by the Fitzwilliam Museum, which states that 'the look of surprise and terror on Lucretia's face is unmistakeable. Small, bright tears glisten on her cheek. Certain Christian writers condemned Lucretia for allowing herself to be raped. Titian seems unambiguous about her innocence.' Which interpretation do you agree with? Why? For my part, I agree with more ambiguous reading of Belsey. It seems more grounded in the painting's formal qualities, although I also always find ambiguity the more interesting option. However, this raises an importat issue for me. Which is, what do such close readings of images achieve? For Belsey, her elegant reading – carefully staged and composed – enables her to make some more general points about the undecidability of meaning. This is important. However, it is also a very particular kind of reading; indeed, Belsey is clear that her chapter is about doing research using textual analysis. It is not about doing, or exploring, other sorts of looking at this painting: the kind of looking it might get in the Fitzwilliam now, or the sort of look it got from Philip of Spain when he received it from Titian. Belsey's reflexivity about the purpose of such a reading thus seems appropriate.
10 Belsey concludes her essay by returning to what is its core theme: the making of meaning. This is of course the concern of many of the methods that Visual Methodologies discusses. At moments, Belsey's approach is close to that of mainstream semiology and discourse analysis; she also mentions psychoanalysis. Here we can see that compositional interpretation is an important part of many methodologies that are used to interpret visual materials. We can also see, however, that it is not sufficient for a critical visual methodology.