Visual narratives of suicide : gendering virtue and agency in the Late Italian Renaissance, circa 1550-1650
Images of suicide proliferated during the hundred-year period from the mid-Cinquecento to the mid-Seicento; typically, these depicted eroticized Lucretias or Cleopatras, climactically succumbing to their self-inflicted wounds. While scholars sometimes explain away these suicidal subjects as nothing more than titillating confections of male desire, I find that they offer critical insights into the Zeitgeist of the Late Italian Renaissance. Furthermore, representations of suicide from this period have yet to be considered comprehensively; this study is an attempt to remedy that oversight, incorporating a wide range of images with rich iconographies that offer far more than eroticism. As my title suggests, the corpus of images of “self-murder” is inextricably tied to gender: specifically, gendered notions of virtue and agency. Next to the mountain of female suicides in images from this period, there is a mere scattering of male suicides. The first of three sections in this thesis examines that small subset of male subjects, turning to paintings of Judas Iscariot and Cato the Younger, whose deaths exemplify masculine vice and virtue, respectively. Next, I consider the sixteenth-century shift in representations of classical female suicides from moralizing exemplars of chastity to the ambiguous, eroticized abstractions that became so appealing to artists and patrons alike. Unlike the preceding sections, the final third of this study focuses on female-authored depictions of suicide. Anchored by several key works painted by Artemisia Gentileschi and Elisabetta Sirani, I create a dialogue between male and female subjects, as well as male and female artists. With this threefold approach, depictions of suicide emerge as microcosms of late Renaissance conceptions of gender, virtue, and agency.