The marble relief offered here is attributed to the Venetian renaissance sculptor Antonio Lombardo who, along with his brother Tullio, was at the heart of an artistic revolution which placed its emphasis on referencing and interpreting antique sculpture. The relief was only recently discovered in a private European collection where its significance was unrecognised, and appears to have been unknown to modern scholars in the field.
The scene depicted here represents Lucretia, a virtuous Roman noblewoman who was raped by Sextus Tarquinius, a son of the last king of Rome. Having recounted the story to her father, husband and other witnesses, Lucretia called for revenge before pulling a hidden dagger from her clothing and plunging it into her breast. Her death caused such outrage that the monarchy was overthrown and a republic established. The story was popular in literature, and in the renaissance it was frequently depicted in the visual arts.
Antonio Lombardo was a member of a dynasty of sculptors and architects who flourished in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Trained by his father Pietro, he is initially thought to have worked in the latter’s workshop, however his first fully documented independent work was for the relief of The Miracle of the Newborn Child in the Santo in Padua, executed between 1500 and 1504. The relief established his reputation, and a number of other important commissions followed, including for the funerary chapel of Cardinal Zen in the Basilica of St. Mark, Venice. By 1506, Lombardo had moved to Ferrara, where he worked for the duke, Alfonso I d’Este, remaining until his death in 1516.
Alfonso and his wife, Lucrezia Borgia, presided over a glittering court in Ferrara, patronising painters, sculptors, musicians and poets. Among those working for the duke were Titian – who painted Alfonso’s portrait twice – Giovanni Bellini, Dosso Dossi and the poet Ariosto. Antonio became court sculptor and was involved in ambitious projects the duke had for the Castello, including the famed Camerino di alabastro. Today it is unclear exactly what Antonio executed for Alfonso, or where his work was intended to go within the ducal palace. However, 28 marble reliefs which are now in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, are universally attributed to Antonio and can certainly be associated with Ferrara, as three of them have inscriptions with Alfonso’s name, one of which is also dated 1508 (for these reliefs, see S. Androsov, ‘Antonio Lombardo e la bottega. I rilievi provenienti dai Camerini di alabastro del Castello Estense’, in Ceriana, op. cit., pp. 132-185). These reliefs are a combination of figurative and decorative panels with the two largest depicting The Contest of Minerva and Neptune and a scene traditionally described as The Forge of Vulcan.
The present marble is related to a series of smaller rectangular reliefs, all of which depict figures from classical antiquity carved in such high relief as to be almost fully three-dimensional (for a discussion of a number of these reliefs see Ceriana, op. cit., nos. 60-75, pp. 250-289). The figures stand on a projecting ledge which is sometimes decorated with a Latin inscription identifying the scene or making a moral comment on it. Traditionally, the reliefs were attributed to Antonio Lombardo due to similarities with the series of reliefs in the Hermitage mentioned above. However, more recent scholarship has tended to attribute the reliefs to several different artists all working in the Veneto including Lombardo, Giammaria Mosca and Antonio Minello (Schulz, 1998, op. cit., p. 62).
When one of the reliefs from this series - depicting Dido, Queen of Carthage - was sold at Christie’s (London, 14 December 1999, lot 74, see fig. 1) it was argued that despite the lack of documentary evidence, there were reasons to believe that it, along with reliefs of Eurydice, Portia and Lucretia, might once have adorned the camerino di alabastro in Alfonso d’Este’s palace in Ferrara. This was due to the fact that the paintings known to have adorned the camerino celebrated the joys associated with Bacchus and Venus, and the four heroines from classical antiquity all represented women whose love remained steadfast even unto death. What weighs against this suggestion is the fact that, although similar in size, none of the reliefs has identical dimensions or formats which would be surprising for a room that was so meticulously planned.
A different theory about the purpose of these reliefs was recently put forward by Michele Collier in an article which examined the subjects depicted, and literary texts popular at the time (Collier, op. cit.). Collier points out that, in fact, the moral rectitude of the subjects could all be called into question for some aspect of their story, and that they represented intentionally ambiguous narratives. The reliefs were therefore the perfect prompt for a humanist scholar and his guests to gather in the studiolo and discuss the ethical issues involved, particularly as they related to the classical texts which would also have been part of an educated patron’s library.
The present relief could easily have been executed with such a purpose in mind, and the fact that the subject is Lucretia might suggest it was commissioned by Alfonso d’Este, whose wife shared the same name. In support of this argument is the fact that the commission is certainly the most lavish of the known examples from the series. It is both the largest in terms of size, and the most complex. Most of the other reliefs depict only one person and none of them has as many as three. Whether part of the decorative scheme of the camerino or some other interior space, the relief offered here must be considered a serious candidate for the ducal collections at Ferrara.
On stylistic grounds, this relief of The Death of Lucretia can be compared to a number of works by Antonio Lombardo. The strong profile of the male figure and the stylised folds of drapery – themselves a conscious emulation of antique sculpture – can also be seen in the bronze figure of God the Father from the Zen chapel mentioned earlier (for an illustration see Ceriana, op. cit., p. 14). However, as pointed out by Anne Schulz (private communication) the relief must date from after the discovery of the Laocoon in 1506; the tilted head and the open mouth with upper teeth visible appears to be a quotation of the head of the son to Laocoon’s right. This is also evident in the figure of Charity executed by Antonio’s brother, Tullio, for the Vendramin Tomb in SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Venice (see Schulz, 2017, op. cit., I, pp. 240-241, II, figs. 485 and 486). However an even more compelling comparison can be made between the figure of Lucretia and a marble relief of Venus Anadyomene in the Victoria and Albert Museum which is accepted as a work by Antonio (inv. A.19-1964; see Ceriana, op. cit., pp. 272-275). The slightly rounded face with wide cheekbones, the delicate nose and open mouth along with the overall body proportions are common to both. The Lucretia would then have been executed by Antonio sometime after 1506 when he was already in the employ of the Duke of Ferrara, and around the time that he was executing the series of panels which are now in the Hermitage, St Petersburg.
We would like to thank Anne Markham Schulz for supporting the attribution of the present relief to Antonio Lombardo on the basis of photographs.