Fifteen Eighty Four

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Politics of Sexual Violence?

Péter Bokody

The HBO series Game of Thrones is perhaps the most recent expression of the general view that the Middle Ages were rape-prone. Humiliation and exploitation of female (and male) characters repeatedly come together with direct sexual violence, which is only partially reframed through a series of revenge-sequences in the last season. The cinematic quality of the series contributes significantly to its success and consequently to the stereotypical perception of gendered violence. Although such sensationalist reconstructions are rightly considered simplifying, it is perhaps important to revisit some of the surviving visual evidence on rape to appreciate the complexity of the historical background.

In late-medieval and early renaissance Italy, sexual violence was discussed and depicted in several contexts with very different intentions ranging from endorsement to condemnation. In the predominantly Christian framework most sexual acts were considered a sin. The only exception was vaginal heterosexual intercourse in wedlock aiming at the generation of a child. All other acts, from adultery to sodomy, were branded lustful and hence sinful, and the consideration whether one of the parties (usually the female one) did or did not consent to the act was ranked rather low. Though not exclusively, canon and secular law addressed violence against protected female members of society, such as wives, daughters and nuns, because of their actual, potential or sacred marital status, whereas prostitutes were not allowed to press rape charges.

So, in this respect, rape was permissible or tolerated against a variety of women. This view informed large-scale depictions of Last Judgments where the lustful are subjected to increasingly refined and sexualized torments. It also permeated medical biology, which often promoted a full overlap between consent, arousal and conception, effectively discarding the notion of forced pregnancy. Giovanni Boccaccio’s Nymph of Fiesole describes the violation and impregnation of the female protagonist along these lines making sexual violence a necessary step in the amorous union of the young couple. Several decorated wedding chests and illustrated manuscripts showed these scenes in well-to-do Florentine homes.

It is intriguing against this misogynistic backdrop that critical voices also appeared. For instance, sieges of towns led occasionally to mass outbursts of sexual violence. In the absence of gunpowder, the attackers used famine to break the resistance of the defenders, and during the ensuing capture of the city, women and girls could be thrown at the mercy of soldiers. Some military leaders, such as Emperor Henry VI and Gino Capponi explicitly endorsed military violence, but some chroniclers from city-republics, such as Giovanni Villani and Giovanni Sercambi were critical to its routine. Their illustrated chronicles contain visual allusions and rare direct depictions of the atrocities, where the fate of the city and its women are linked.

The most straightforward condemnations of sexual violence can be found in two political allegories: in Giotto di Bondone’s Injustice in the Arena Chapel (Padua) and Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s War in the Communal Palace (Siena). Both Giotto and Lorenzetti placed the prominent attack on women in the context of tyrannical rule and opposed it to the common good. Giotto’s emphasis on the naked body of the female victim about to be gang-raped by a group of raiders is unique in terms of its radicality and can be compared to Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War. Ambrogio presents a bride who is abducted on the day of her wedding, which underlines the importance of marital status. The frescoes were created at the height of republicanism in both cities.

Similar considerations appear in the medieval romances about Troy and Rome. The abduction of Hesione and Helen provided rich material for Italian illustrators, who had to find ways to express violence, coercion, dissent or consent. The grabbing of wrists or touching of chests were complemented with the open phallic metaphor of the sword or the dagger. Perhaps the most important figure to absorb all these considerations was Lucretia. Her suicide triggered the downfall of Tarquinius Superbus, whose son had raped her, and turned Rome into a republic. Her fate became a political point of reference around 1400 in Florence and was widely illustrated. Besides wedding chests and illuminated manuscripts, a full fresco cycle depicts her story in the residence of the papal warlord, cardinal Giovanni Vitelleschi.

One may wonder if in early renaissance Italy condemnatory politics of rape were already present, how did it come to be that we are so accustomed to view this period as solely rape-prone? Why are these critical considerations missing from our cultural memory making it so natural to accept Game of Thrones as a fictive but realistic reconstruction of European past? There is no easy answer to this question, but it seems that the eroticization of sexual violence replaced condemnatory representations in early modern times. Softened or sanitized rape, where the female victim welcomes aggression, became the norm once again, preventing its full endorsement and full rejection at the same time. This readjustment overwrote previous dissident voices. The trend coincided with the transformation of city-republics into principalities under the rule of the sovereign. Therefore, if another politics of sexuality was possible in Italy at the time when the people ruled, its decline and oblivion mark the return to hierarchical power-structures, instructive to our own contemporary condition.

Gherarduccio (?), First Sack of Troy in Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s The Romance of Troy, 1320-1340, pigment on parchment, fol. 18r, cod. 2571, Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Vienna. © Austrian National Library

The Imagery and Politics of Sexual Violence in Early Renaissance Italy by Péter Bokody

About The Author

Péter Bokody

Péter Bokody is Associate Professor of Art History in the School of Society and Culture at the University of Plymouth. He is the author of Images-within-Images in Italian Painting...

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