The emphasis placed by Salutati's Lucretia on the impossibility of quelling all sense of carnal pleasure in sexual intercourse, even during an unwanted act, reflects a certain Renaissance
uneasiness about women's sexuality, which rests in part on the belief that women are inherently lustful creatures whose sexuality can be kept in check only by stringent measures (employed primarily by men) for the regulation of chastity. In Act One of Niccolo Machiavelli's La Mandragola, the author set up a scene in which a young man's desire for a married woman is heightened by her virtue as well as her beauty. The young man, Callimaco, has returned to Florence from Paris, where he had been told of the beauty and reputation of one Lucrezia, wife of Nicia Calfucci. On his return to Florence, compelled to see her, he states:
"Having arrived, I have found the reputation of Madonna Lucrezia to be much less than the truth, something which rarely happens, and I am burning with such a desire to be with her, that I don't know where I am."
The remainder of the play is taken up with the planning and execution of an elaborate scheme to get Callimaco in Lucrezia's bed, by deceiving both her and her husband. On the night of the seduction, however, after he makes love to Lucrezia, Callimaco makes himself known to her, declaring his love for her, and assuring her that their liaison can continue undetected and without scandal, if she is willing. Lucrezia agrees to the continuation of their affair. Thus Machiavelli's play, through the comedic ploy of cuckolding a witless husband, points to one of the tensions underlying the Lucretia myth--that adultery committed even under false pretences or through force may prove too pleasing for a woman to resist.
The Renaissance philosopher Lorenzo Valla, in his De voluptate, a dialogue on the use and merits of pleasure, questioned whether Lucretia opposed the advances of Tarquin because she was truly unmoved by pleasure or only because she feared primarily for her reputation. Instead, Valla suggested, if she yielded willingly to Tarquin, Lucretia should look on her adultery as a natural occurrence, one in which her husband has almost certainly indulged as well. Valla reprimanded Lucretia for her suicide and, in so doing, intimated that his disapproval of her actions stemed in part from the manner of her death, by the virile, and hence male-identified, action of stabbing herself. It has been suggested that Lucretia's suicide can be read as analogous to her rape, her stabbing action taking the place of Tarquin's penetration. On Valla's account, this "self-rape" is far more reprehensible, both because it results in Lucretia's death and also because it involves her usurpation of the masculine action of stabbing oneself.
Valla's text--like the accounts by Augustine, Dolce, Salutati, and Machiavelli--points then to the problematic questions inherent in the Lucretia myth: Was she truly chaste? Was she an adulteress or a victim of rape? Was her suicide justified? To these we might add: How does she function as a symbol in Renaissance society? This last question may be used to shed light on Tintoretto's use of pornographic sources for his painting's compositon.
Who is Lucretia, as Tintoretto represents her? She is what male patricians in Renaissance Venice most desired and feared in a woman: a highly sexualized and available figure whose sexuality, if allowed to remain unchecked, threatened to destabilize, if not topple, patriarchal society. With her erotically charged pose and less than resistant gesture, this Lucretia becomes the embodiment of the doubt first raised by Augustine and later pursued by Renaissance writers: was Lucretia complicit in an act of adultery rather than an unwilling victim of rape? That Tintoretto, in the Chicago painting, allows his Lucretia an item of ornament, her pearl necklace, which occupies an ambiguous position in terms of female adornment in Renaissance Venice, serves to emphasize the ambiguity of her position. Wife or courtesan, virgin or whore, adulteress or victim--we cannot be sure of Lucretia's status. Tintoretto's choice of compositional elements borrowed from pornographic engravings serves to heighten this ambivalence, particularly in terms of Lucretia's position as a sexually aggressive woman. There is no question that the male viewer of Tintoretto's painting
is invited to imagine himself taking possession of Lucretia's body, as it is opened to his gaze and highlighted in the center of the composition. But unlike the viewer of Titian's Fitzwilliam painting
, who in taking the position of Tarquin is also permitted to enjoy a fantasy of penetrating Lucretia's body, the viewer of Tintoretto's paintings does not know what type of woman he possesses. In entering Lucretia, does he take the part of rapist, of client, or of adulterer? While any of these positions may offer the male viewer a sense of titillation and erotic delight, the latter is particularly problematic for the Renaissance patrician. For if he fantasizes about adulterous, and complicitous, intercourse with his neighbor's wife, the possibility exists that his neighbor entertains the same fantasies about his own wife--and worse, that his wife may not safeguard her chastity as vigilantly as would be hoped.