One of the highlights of The Met's collection of drawings, Raphael's study of the Roman heroine Lucretia, is currently on loan to the Galleria Nazionale di Parma as one of the protagonists of the exhibition Lucrezia Romana: La virtù delle donne da Raffaello a Reni (Lucretia of Rome: The Virtue of Women from Raphael to Guido Reni). Acquired by the Museum in 1997, Raphael's design redefined the traditional iconography of the Roman noblewoman Lucretia and served as an important prototype for the many representations of this heroine made throughout the 16th century—a tradition that was encouraged further by Marcantonio Raimondi's engraving, which records another rendition of the subject by Raphael and is displayed with the drawing in the Parma exhibition.
Lucretia was not a mythological figure, but rather a Roman woman in sixth century B.C. whose tragic history was recorded in Ovid's Fasti and Livy's History of Rome. The books describe how Lucretia committed suicide to save her honor after being raped by Sextus, son of the tyrant Tarquinius the Proud. Lucretia's husband, Collatinus, and Junius Brutus avenged her death by leading a revolt that helped institute the Roman Republic as a new form of government.
Raphael chose to depict Lucretia at the moment just before she plunges a dagger into her own chest, thereby dramatically focusing on the act of suicide, which was seen as the ultimate gesture of sublime female virtue. Made in the early days of his Roman career, around 1508–13, the design reveals Raphael's profound knowledge of antique Roman sculpture and literary sources. Although his figure of Lucretia is not based directly on a specific Roman statue, the proportions, sculptural grandeur, and monumentality of the imposing idealized female figure appear to be those of the canon of antique sculpture and speak to his recent encounters with the remains of Roman antiquity.
The style and pen-and-ink technique of this important working drawing (the outlines of the design are indented with the stylus for transferring the design) are most closely connected to the famous large-scale preliminary studies for the figures in the Parnassus and School of Athens frescoes Raphael painted in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican Palace.
For more information on Raphael's Lucretia, its design process, and function, be sure to read the online catalogue entry written by Dr. Carmen C. Bambach, a curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints, who also contributed an essay, "Raphael Christianized Lucretia and the 'Noble Death,'" to the catalogue accompanying the Parma exhibition.