According to legend, Lucretia’s brutal rape and tragic suicide precipitated the foundation of the Roman Republic. Botticelli distilled Lucretia’s shocking story into three episodes, beginning at the left. Beautiful and chaste, she attracts the unwanted attention of the king’s son, who threatens Lucretia at knifepoint with sexual assault or a dishonorable death. Raped, she collapses in shame before her outraged family, depicted at the right, and ultimately commits suicide.
The public display of Lucretia’s corpse galvanized the rebels led by Brutus. Brandishing a sword, he rallies an army to overthrow the corrupt regime. The architectural setting of the rebellion remakes the past into the present, likening ancient Rome to Renaissance Florence. Botticelli transformed Lucretia’s body—dagger embedded in her chest—into an emblem of liberty, like the Christian hero and Florentine icon David, who stands on the column above her. Botticelli painted this work to decorate a palace in Florence in connection with a marriage. Perhaps with this in mind, Isabella Gardner placed a cassone, or wedding chest, beneath it. The Renaissance bride filled her cassone with prized and personal belongings—linens, undergarments, jewelry, cosmetics, and sewing implements. Mrs. Gardner draped a velvet textile (now a reproduction) over this cassone and put inside other textiles and an eighteenth-century guitar.