Lucretia Cantata at The Bowes Museum

Barnard Castle, County Durham

13 November 2019

The Sir Denis Mahon Foundation was delighted to support The Bowes Museum on the occasion of their exhibition, The Power and the Virtue : Guido Reni’s Death of Lucretia (26 October 2019 – 20 January 2020), which highlights the theme of female beauty in Reni’s painting, particularly the depiction of devotional and legendary heroines such as Cleopatra, Saint Catherine, Saint Mary Magdalene, and specifically the suicide of Lucretia Romana, a noblewoman in ancient Rome, following her rape by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the tyrannical Etruscan King of Rome, after she had rejected his advances.

Reni’s works, characterised by elements of classical idealism and the observation of the natural world, had a profound impact on the development of Baroque art across Europe and his style was emulated by many artists including, in later years, by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called il Guercino (1591-1666). Both of these artists in particular were of special interest to Sir Denis Mahon, who was a scholarly pioneer in the rediscovery and re-evaluation of Italian Baroque art, and it was through the Sir Denis Mahon Foundation that the loan of Guercino’s Lucretia, ca. 1638, was secured for this exhibition.

As Lucretia is the main focus and inspiration for this exhibition, the Sir Denis Mahon Foundation was able to arrange a performance of G.F. Händel’s cantata La Lucretia (‘O numi eterni!’) by the Amade players and sung by the soprano, Eleanor Ross, for the evening reception at the Bowes Museum on 13 November 2019. This very special event evolved from an occasion in 2013 when the Sir Denis Mahon Foundation organised an exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London, featuring the painting, Lucretia, by Guercino, in dialogue with the important Manuscript of Handel’s Lucretia, which had been copied by J.C. Smith and which was already housed in the Gerald Coke Handel Collection at the Foundling Museum.

La Lucretia Cantata by Handel was composed in Italy for the Marquis (later Prince) Francesco Ruspoli, who employed Handel as a household musician for several periods between 1707 and 1709. Handel was apparently absorbed and fascinated by the illustrious collections he saw in Rome and during those years his style of music was clearly imbued with a rich Italian spirit that can be experienced in this piece. La Lucretia is composed only for a soprano soloist and basso continuo, however, Handel created a highly dramatic work which is multi-nuanced, giving a detailed description of Lucretia’sfeelings before she takes her own life and emphasising her impassioned hatred of Tarquinius.

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