Lucretia’s Example

Reni,_Guido_-_Lucretia_-_Google_Art_Project

I recently had my viva and, woo, I’m kind of a Dr now. But the examiners insisted that various bits and pieces be removed from the thesis. I do tend to go on. So that these are not lost to the ages, I figured I would pop them up here. Recycling: not just for my wine bottles! I’ve illustrated it with a lot of pictures of Lucretia: the repeated combinations of bare breasts and violent penetration feels pretty squicky.

In the interests of demonstrating the validity of considering crimes from such variant cultures as being connected to a similar paradigm, this appendix is a brief history of HBV in Italy.

Lucretia and Tarquin by Bellucci

HBV in Italy is well attested and has long historic roots1. Early Roman law granted the power of life or death to biological fathers over their wives and children, and the chastity of wives and daughters was considered a point of honour.

In Livy’s (d. 17 CE) histories of Rome, Lucretia’s husband brags about his wife’s chastity to his drinking buddies. The men spy upon her to discover that even while her husband is absent, Lucretia spends her time demurely spinning. This fosters the ardour of Sextus Tarquin, who determines to sexually possess her. When she resists his advances, he threatens her that he will kill both her and a slave and leave their bodies in bed together, forever tarnishing her reputation with adultery. Lucretia, with an eye to her posthumous ‘honour’, succumbs to this blackmail, but after delivering an impassioned account of Tarquin’s crime to her father, she stabs herself to death. For Livy, her suicide is an attempt to maintain a social order based on the value of female chastity; he has her say, before she kills herself,

‘Although I acquit myself of the sin, I do not free myself from the penalty; no unchaste woman shall henceforth live and plead Lucretia’s example.’ Her father and husband describe her blood, still fresh on the dagger as ‘once pure’: despite believing in her account of the circumstances of the rape, she is still regarded as polluted (Livius 1905).

Lucretia by Rembrandt

Moving into the Renaissance, crimes of ‘honour’ can be discerned amongst the tales in Boccacio’s Decameron, such as ‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’, and in historical accounts such as the murder of Isabella di Morra (1520-1546), a poetess beaten to death by her brothers when they discovered she had been writing letters to a local nobleman2. Convents were used to hide women from murderous brothers, and were also considered to restore ‘honour’ through penitence, allowing women with the means to raise a dowry from inside a convent, in order to leave it through marriage3; it is impossible to say how many inmates of convents in Catholic Europe are women who somehow rendered themselves unmarriageable.

Schneider and Schneider4 state that in Sicily,

…[f]rom puberty to marriage…a young girl’s activities were closely watched. Once there was a fiancé, he visited with her or took walks with her in the presence of her brothers. Should he or anyone else manage to take her virginity, her father and brothers were technically supposed to kill her and her lover (in that order), for virgin daughters symbolised the honour of the family and the loss of virginity plunged all its members into shame, especially if the loss were publicly known.

Lucretia (after Tiepolo)

Such crimes appear to have been carried into the Italian diaspora, where Northern Italian family forms, including high rates of cousin marriages, persisted in America5. Italian-American crime writer Karen Tintori’s6 investigations of her family history revealed that her great-aunt Frances had been killed by her brothers in 1919, for defying parental wishes around her marriage, which they wished to use to gain status within a Mafioso family. A subplot in the semi-autobiographical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, set in the 1920s, features an attempted ‘honour’ killing by an Italian father through the starvation of a daughter pregnant before marriage7. Pietro Germi’s Sicilian comedies Divorzio all’Italiana and Sedotta e Abondonatta also show the existence of a recognisable ‘honour’ culture.

Lucretia by Lucas Cranach

Legally, until 1965, only fathers were able to institute criminal proceedings in cases of crimes within the family8, meaning that parentally approved murders would be very unlikely to be recorded. However, the freeing of the press after the fall of Mussolini revealed high levels of ‘honour’ crimes in rural Italy, where perpetrators had the benefit of reduced sentencing9.

Lucretia by Hendrick de Clerk

This provision was not rescinded until 1972, under pressure from the Italian feminist movement. Indeed, ‘honour’ killings may persist within Mafia subcultures10. In 2006, Giovanni Morabito, nephew of a Callabrian godfather, shot his sister Bruna in the face, while she recuperated from an illegitimate childbirth claiming that the act was intended to save the family ‘honour’11. Control over women’s sexuality by the extended family remains an aspect of male identity within diasporic Italian communities into the 21st Century12.

So the Italian example demonstrates a formerly intense fixation upon female chastity, which was considered to be under the custodianship of male kin, which has, over time, become less likely to be expressed in violent terms, although by no means eradicated.


  1. Cantarella, E. 1991. Homicides of Honor: The development of Italian adultery law over two millennia. In: Kertzer, D.I. and Saller, R.P. eds. The Family in Italy: From antiquity to the present.  New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, pp. 229-247. 

  2. Russell, R. ed. 1997. The Feminist Encyclopaedia of Italian Literature. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp. 210-211 

  3. Ferrante, L. 1990. Honor Regained: Women in the Casa del Soccorso di San Paolo in sixteenth-century Bologna. In: Ruggiero, G. ed. Sex and Gender in Historical Perspective.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, pp. 46-75. 

  4. Schneider, J. and Schneider, P. 1976. Culture and Political Economy in Western Sicily. New York, NY: Academic Press. 

  5. Danubio, M. E. and Pettener, D. 1997. Marital Structure of the Italian Community of Boston, Massachusetts, 1880-1920. Journal of Biosocial Science 29(3), pp. 257-269. 

  6. Tintori, K. 2007. Unto the Daughters: The legacy of an honor killing in a Sicilian-American family. New York: St Martin’s Press. 

  7. Smith, B. 1947/2000. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. London: Arrow Books. 

  8. Caldwell, L. 1978. Church, State and Family: The women’s movement in Italy. In: Kuhn, A. and Wolpe, A. eds. Feminism and Materialism: Women and modes of production.  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 68-96. 

  9. Bettiga-Boukerbout, M. G. 2005. ‘Crimes of Honour’ in the Italian Penal Code: An analysis of history and reform. In: Welchman, L. and Hossain, S. eds. ‘Honour’: Crimes, paradigms and violence against women.  London: Zed Books, pp. 230-245. 

  10. Cottino, A. 1999. Sicilian Cultures of Violence: The interconnections between organized crime and local society. Crime Law and Social Change 32(2), pp. 103-113. 

  11. Hooper, J. 2006. ‘Honour’ Attack Leaves Woman Fighting for Life. The Guardian. 27 March 2006. 

  12. Baldassar, L. 1999. Marias and Marriage: Ethnicity, gender and sexuality among Italo-Australian youth in Perth. Journal of Sociology 35(1), pp. 1-22. 

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