Sandro BOTTICELLI | The story of Virginia the Roman [Storia di Virginia romana]

Italy (Florence) 1444 /1445 – 1510

The story of Virginia the Roman [Storia di Virginia romana] c.1500
tempera and gold on wood panel
83.3 (h) x 165.5 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Bequest of Giovanni Morelli 1891

Sandro Botticelli’s narrative panel depicting events that led to the tragic death of  Virginia has long been recognised as the most complex and compelling painting of the artist’s late style.[1] It is the companion piece to another Botticelli panel on the related tragedy of Lucretia.[2] Both are exquisite furniture paintings, probably made as a spalliera—a painting fitted to the wall of a Renaissance palace, often placed above a bed. It has been suggested that the panels were commissioned for the nuptial chamber in a private palace to celebrate chastity and virtue, as exemplified by the two young women, both victims of brutal lust—and it is likely that there were once more panels in this cycle. When Giovanni Morelli bought the painting in Rome in 1871 the subject was described as ‘horsemen and a rape of nuns’.[3] Morelli associated the work with a description in Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 edition of the Lives, of many very lively and beautiful paintings with multiple figures by Botticelli, framed in a spalliera in a room in the palace of Giovanni Vespucci, Florence.[4]

Scenes of judicial atrocity and murder are set against the harmonious proportions of Classical architecture as the story of Virginia unfolds according to the account in Livy’s History of Rome (Ab urbe condita, III, 44–49). The composition of about fifty figures is dominated by the central grouping of Appius Claudius Crassus seated in judgement, as armed horsemen below take an an oath of revenge against him.

Appius had conceived a guilty passion for the schoolgirl Virginia, already betrothed by her centurion father. Appius hired Marcus Claudius to abduct her on the pretence that she was one of his slaves who had been stolen. On the far left a terrified Viriginia is assaulted by Claudius, urged on by Appius, while her maidservants shriek in protest. She is saved by those around her, but nevertheless must appear before the Tribunal to prove her innocence. The central scene shows Virginia approaching Appius, both judge and architect of the plot, who declares her a slave. Below on the right Virginia’s father raises his sword to kill her, so freeing her from her shame. Indignation at Virginia’s death provoked a successful revolt against tyrannical government.

It is assumed that the panels were commissioned by Guidantonio Vespucci for the palace in the via dei Servi, Florence, which he bought for his son Giovanni who married Namicina di Benedetto di Tanai de Nerli in 1500. Some writers have seen political anti-Medicean messages in the imagery.[5] Given the ever-changing politics of Guidantonio Vespucci, who after 1494 was against the return to Florence of the Medici, then from 1496 in favour of their return, he may in 1500 have wished to proclaim the virtues of republicanism to the young couple.[6] Boccaccio succinctly explains the significance of Virginia for Florentine society:

famous not so much for her constancy as for the wickedness
of her ill-starred lover, the extraordinary severity of her father, and the liberty of the Romans that resulted from it.[7]

Jaynie Anderson

[1] As in Herbert P. Horne, Alessandro Filipepi, commonly called Sandro Botticelli, painter of Florence, London: George Bell and Sons, 1908, pp. 282–85.

[2] Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. See Jaynie Anderson, ‘Love and devotion in daily life in renaissance Italy’, supra, p. 63, illus.

[3] Jaynie Anderson, Collecting, connoisseurship and the art market: Giovanni Morelli’s letters to Giovanni Melli and Pietro Zavaritt (1866–1872), Venice: Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, 1999, pp. 118, 204.

[4] Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de più eccellenti pittori, scultore, e architetti, Florence: Torrentino, 1550, p. 514.

[5] Jonathan Nelson, in Virtù d’amore. Pittura nuziale nel quattrocento Fiorentino, Florence:  Giunti Editore Spa, 2011, pp. 139–49, 194–97.

[6] Emmanuela Daffra, in A. Di Lorenzo (ed.), Botticelli nelle collezioni lombarde, Milan:  Silvana Editoriale, 2010, pp. 74–79.

[7] Giovanni Boccaccio, Famous women (c.1360–1374), Virginia Brown (ed. and trans.), Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001, pp. 242–43.