Giambologna and his ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’

Hendrick Goltzius ‘Portrait Giambologna’ 1591      Detail portrait

When Giambologna (Self-portrait, Rijksmuseum) was commissioned to carve a statue from a single large block of marble, his aim was to surpass the classical sculptors. Technically speaking, the work was an unprecedented feat of craftsmanship. It was entirely in line with what Pliny the Elder had already recommended: ex uno lapide. Giambologna had made a study of Hellenistic statues. According to Pliny, the Laocoön, but also the Farnese Bull, was carved from one piece of marble, but the excavation of these statues dispelled that notion.

Goltzius ‘Portrait of Giambologna’ detail
photo: Farnese Bull: Maria-Lan Nguyen

Athanadoros, Hagesandros, and Polydoros of Rhodes Youtube
The Laocoön          Snakebite       Laocoön’s son      In situ

The Laocoön   
Wikipedia and photos: snakebite: Sergey Sosnovskiy In situ Richard Mortel

These statue groups consisted of several blocks. Moreover, in Antiquity there was no statue in which one figure was lifted up by another. In addition, the three figures that make up the Rape of the Sabine Women have no simple postures. For a sculptor, the woman’s arm, protruding far upwards, is certainly no easy feat to accomplish, for the chance the arm breaks during the carving is rather substantial. We have already seen such a difficultà, an outstretched arm, atJacopo Sansovino’s Bacchus in Bargello.

Jacopo Sansovino 'Bacchus'
photo: dvdbramhall

Jacopo Sansovino Bacchus’

The real theme was not so much the story, but more an example of unprecedented craftsmanship. In a letter from Giambologna, which is about a figurine with two figures, the artist explains his new approach. According to the artist, the statue can be interpreted as ‘the kidnapping of Helena, or even of Proserpina, or the kidnapping of one of the Sabine women. The theme was chosen to highlight the reach of knowledge and the study of art.’ Once the decision has been made to place the statue in the Loggia dei Lanzi on the spot where the Judith of Donatello was standing at the time, it is only then that the decision is made to name the statue ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’.

The bronze relief that you will also find on the front of Cellini’s Perseus was also not made until then. The theme of Giambologna’s relief leaves no doubt that we are indeed dealing with the ancient story of the rape of Sabine virgins by the Romans.

Giambologna ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’ relief       In situ

Giambologna ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’ relief bronze
photos: Jebulon

Giambologna ‘Hercules beats Antaeus’ 1578 -1580’

The design for the statue of the Rape of the Sabine Women is not entirely random. Giambologna had already made a bronze statue before, which he sent to Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma, in 1579. Again, this one too showed no attributes or other iconographic clues and no fight or drama. Giambologna had also made other bronze statuettes that strongly resemble the Rape of the Sabine Women in their postures, but they were always two figures.

Giambologna ‘The Rape of the Sabines’ wax model

It is only with the large marble statue that a third figure appears, precisely at the place that gives the heavy figures the necessary support. It is the older man who can be found under and between the legs of the younger man. The last figure is holding the horrified woman who is sticking out above him. Two wax models have been preserved that Giambologna made as a preliminary study for his marble sculpture. The first model (12.1 cm) has two figures, but in a later model that is 47 cm high, the third figure is already visible.

After the preliminary studies, Giambologna, just like for his ‘Florence overcomes Pisa’, made a very detailed life-sized model. This design was used as a measurement model. In order to really go all out in letting this complex statue emerge from the marble, this measurement model stood in the workshop next to the gigantic marble block. With the help of a slat construction with cracks and holes around the model, pins were used to scan the depths of all possible places at all times. This was then compared with the marble block, which also had a slatted construction on one side. This gave the sculptor the opportunity to always check how far he could carve into the block at certain points. This is the only way to carve three figures, which are so intertwined, from one marble block. Something Michelangelo couldn’t do, because he didn’t use a measuring model. After all, Buonarroti carved his sculptures in the medieval way, as described earlier (click here if you want to read this; scroll down).

Giambologna ‘Rape of Sabine Women’        In situ

Giambologna ‘Rape of Sabine Women’
photos: Ricardo André Frantz and situ: Arnold Paul

Giambologna ‘Rape of Sabine Women’ in situ

Giambologna ‘Rape of Sabine Women' in situ
photo: Dimitris Kamaras

The face of Sabine Virgin

The face of the Sabine Virgin is based on a classic statue of a Niobe that can be found in Uffizi today. In addition to this classical sculpture, Buonarroti’s ‘Victory‘ had a major influence on Giambologna. We have already seen the statue of Giambologna from 1570, ‘Florence Triumphant over Pisa’, in Bargello. In his ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’ the spiral effect is much stronger than in Giambologna’s 1570 sculpture and also much more pronounced than in Michelangelo’s prototype: ‘The Victory’.

Giambologna ‘Rape of Sabine Women’  detail face virgin
photo: Mary Harrsch

Michelangelo’s statue, the ‘Victory’, which also rotates around its axis, is meant to be viewed from one point, namely from the front. In the history of sculpture, ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’ is the first sculpture group to have been carved without there being a single side that best does the sculpture justice. In fact, if you really want to see the ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’, then you have to walk around it, seeing a new part of the statue with every step you take and that is the only way to really understand the statue. Here lies also the big difference with the Hellenistic statues, which Giambologna had studied and which influenced him. Famous Hellenistic statues such as the Laocoon or the Farnese Bull are made in such a way that they have to be viewed from one angle, the front.

Bernini is strongly influenced by ‘the Rape of the Sabine Women’ as can be seen in his sculptures in the Villa Borghese (Rome): Pluto and Proserpina or Apollo and Daphne. The raised arm of the Virgin, the terrible and desperate expression on her face, but also the way in which the hand of the kidnapped is pressed into the thighs of his prize, can be seen in Bernini’s above mentioned statues in the Villa Borghese (click here if you want to read about Bernini statues in the Villa Borghese).

Bernini ‘Pluto and Proserpina’       In situ

Bernini 'Pluto and Proserpina'   
Wikipedia and situ: Steven Zucker
Giambologna ‘Rape of Sabine Women' detail in situ

Giambologna       Bernini

Yet there is also a remarkable difference between Giambologna on the one hand and the statues from Hellenism and Bernini on the other. The hand of the young man on the left thigh of the Virgin may well impress her skin convincingly, but no distinction is made between the texture of the male hand and the female thigh, as Hellenistic sculptors and a baroque sculptor like Bernini did in fact do (Pope-Hennessy Volume III 153).

Carlo Canella ‘Piazza della Signoria from the Loggia dei Lanzi’

Carlo Canella ‘Piazza della Signoria from the Loggia dei Lanzi’

Carlo Canella ‘Piazza della Signoria from the Loggia dei Lanzi’

In the diary of a person named Settimani, a Florentine, the following is mentioned about the Rape of the Sabine Women: “On the spot where Judit stood, a wonderful group with three figures was placed by Giovanni Bologna: it represented one of those young Romans who abducted Sabine virgins. The figures were covered with straw as if they had not yet been fully polished, and later a wall was built around them, stone by stone, so that the sculptor could complete the statue without anyone seeing him.” (Pope-Hennessy Volume III 490)

Carlo Canella ‘Piazza della Signoria from the Loggia dei Lanzi’ detail

After Giambologna

Giambologna signed his work with: IOANNIS BOLONI FLANDRI MDLXXXII. The artwork was received enthusiastically. Because of the athletic bodies and the way in which the kidnapping is depicted, this statue has few ‘mannerisms’ as you sometimes see in Mannerism. Something you can’t say about a statue of the same artist that we have already seen in the Palazzo Vecchio: ‘Florence Triumphant over Pisa’. The Rape of the Sabine Women became so famous that there was a huge demand for replicas. Small copies of this statue, in addition to those of the David of course, are available in the souvenir shops or market stalls in present-day Florence.

Giambologna ‘‘Rape of Sabine Women’      Other side

Giambologna '‘Rape of Sabine Women'  in situ
photos: Marie Thérèse Hébert & Jean Robert Thibault

Continuation Florence day 4: Equestrian statue and the Neptune fountain in Piazza della Signoria