Italian Art 101 – The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna

Carved from a single block of imperfect marble, the torturously twisting Rape of the Sabine Women in Florence’s Loggia dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria, is one of the finest and most technically difficult sculptures in the world. Three intertwined bodies, two men and a woman, spiral upwards as the woman tries to escape the clutches of the younger man standing over the older one. It is an absolute masterpiece by the Flemish sculptor Giambologna, and totally captivating, but just who were the Sabine women and what is their story?

The Rape of the Sabine Women, Piazza della Signoria, Florence

The Rape of the Sabine Women, Piazza della Signoria, Florence

To understand the statue we need to go back to the legendary founding of the ancient city of Rome by Romulus in 753 BC. Romulus and his founders, who were mostly men, quickly realized that if they were to ensure the future of the new Roman nation they would need to have children. And plenty of them. There was, however, a small yet fundamental flaw in their plan. The city had very few women citizens!

Roman historian Titus Livius Patavinus, known as Livy, takes up the story in his monumental history of the Roman people written in the late 1st century BC.

Titus Liviticus

Titus Livius Patavinus

According to Livy, Romulus and his men decided to talk to their neighbours, the Sabines, to see if they could encourage some of the women to marry into the Roman nation. The Sabines were suspicious, however, fearing that the Romans would become too powerful if the city grew too much and, therefore, refused to let any women leave.

Having tried the softly softly approach, the Romans decided that if the Sabine women wouldn’t come of their own volition, they would abduct brides for themselves instead. Not exactly good neighbours eh?!

The crafty Romulus invited the Sabines, along with a few other tribes, over for a feast to honour the sea-god Neptune but it was all a ruse. On Romulus’s signal his men snatched the Sabine women, leaving the Sabine men furious but powerless to retrieve their families.

Bronze plaque around the base of the statue

Bronze plaque around the base of the statue

And it is this crucial moment in Roman mythology which Flemish sculptor Giambologna, born Jean or Johannes of Boulogne, has captured.

Giambologna's masterpiece

Giambologna’s masterpiece

Giambologna was one of a group of official sculptors to the Medici family’s court and was commissioned to create a piece for the Loggia, or open-air gallery, by the Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici in 1574.

The genius Giambologna

The genius Giambologna

Giambologna’s three figures represent a Sabine woman reaching heavenward for salvation from the young Roman kidnapper who stands astride a cowering, helpless older Sabine man, possibly the father of the woman.

Giambologna's fleshy Sabine woman

Giambologna’s fleshy Sabine woman

And the statue is unusual for the fact that it can be viewed from any side. From one angle you see the Roman’s hand sink into the soft fleshy behind of the woman as he grapples with her. From another you see the anguish and panic on the woman’s face as she tries to wriggle free. And from yet another you see all three as their bodies knot and tangle together. There isn’t a boring angle. This piece is totally engrossing.

Panic and anguish

Panic and anguish

Previously, sculptures as complex as this had been carved in separate pieces and then connected together. That Giambologna used a single piece of marble to create the dynamic, complicated, intertwined spiral of bodies in different, almost unbalanced, positions was ground-breaking.

A Sabine father cowering under the Roman

A Sabine father cowering under the Roman

In truth, however, the sculpture wasn’t intended to represent the Roman-Sabine conflict and it doesn’t represent the rape of the women either.

Giambologna was originally just showing off his skill and dexterity by carving the sculpturally intricate and anatomically perfect piece. It wasn’t until his master, Grand Duke Francesco decided to display the 4m high masterpiece in the Piazza della Signoria, close to Michelangelo’s similarly glorious David finished 80 years earlier, that Giambologna hurriedly named it after another moment from mythology.

Michelangelo's David

Michelangelo’s David

But Giambologna didn’t use the word rape. The original title was the Ratto delle Sabine, meaning the abduction of the Sabine. No sexual overtones were intended. Over time, however, the Italian name has been misinterpreted to mean rape as the words, ratto and rape, sounded similar. And so Giambologna’s audacity and ambition coupled with some quick-thinking naming has given us a statue depicting male aggression that still resonates today.

But this exquisite statue only represents a moment in history. So how did the story end?

Livy, our Roman historian friend, probably has a slightly rose-tinted view of the Roman-Sabine conflict but according to him no women were forced to marry Romans or raped. Livy claims that Romulus personally pleaded with each of the women to join them in creating the Roman nation giving them free choice of a husband, something not often afforded to women of the day.

Lifelike detail

Lifelike detail

The Sabine men still weren’t happy, however, and continued to fight with the Romans until finally the women decided they’d had enough. The women ran out onto the battlefield in between the two sides and called for them to stop the bloodshed of son-in-laws pitched against father-in-laws. It was a daring stroke, but thankfully it worked. The Sabine fathers and Roman husbands finally laid down their weapons and declared peace.

So when you’re next in Florence, drooling over Michelangelo’s full frontal David, turn around to face the Loggia and there on the right hand side is the uncompromising, violently twisting beauty of Giambologna’s Abduction of the Sabine Women. The flesh of the figures, especially the woman, looks soft, smooth and lifelike in a way that David’s taut musculature does not. This is clearly an extremely skilled piece of artistry and unquestionably Giambologna’s best work, both technically and creatively. Personally I would even argue that Giambologna knocks Michelangelo’s David out of the piazza but what do you think? Leave me a comment and let me know!

Another of Giambologna's statues in the Loggia

Another of Giambologna’s beautiful statues in the Loggia – Hercules beating the Centaur Nessus

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17 Responses to Italian Art 101 – The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna

  1. suggs69 says:

    Well if the artistry wasn’t skillful enough, to find out it was shaped from one block is astounding

    • lizbert1 says:

      I know! It blows my mind every time I see it!! Its most definitely my favourite renaissance sculpture by a long way and I prefer it to the overhyped David! Controversial!! ;o)

  2. Yvonne says:

    It’s like Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa”; do I dare come out and say I don’t see what all the fuss is about?

    Just imagine carving such a masterpiece from one block of marble. Go, Flemish sculptor!

  3. Sharon Childs says:

    Thank you for that insightful information. Loved the statue before I knew all the background & now appreciate it even more!!!

    • lizbert1 says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting Sharon and I know what you mean – I loved the statue immediately and the more I’ve researched it the more wonder-struck I am! Its a masterpiece and I can gaze at it for ages as there are so many different aspects! Clever Giambologna eh!

  4. This was a wonderful article. I enjoyed the background information of the famous sculpture by Giambologna very much.I am linking to it in my next blog post!

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  6. natalietanner says:

    I love the story behind the art and so do kids. Telling stories like this one is how you get kids engaged in art museum! Loved this so much!! I have not been to Florence in many years, but need to go back to see this piece. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you so much for your lovely comments Natalie! I’ve never thought to get children involved in this way but I can see how it would work! Its why art interests me too – not necessarily just for the art but because of the tale behind it! I hope you get back to Florence one day and can check this statue out for yourself and in the meantime keep the travelling with kids posts coming!! :o)

  7. Annie Life says:

    I have been to Florence and I have to admit…I could hardly pull myself away from this sculpture. I was more drawn to the (Abduction) Rape of the Sabine Women than to the Statue of David. Amazing detail…breathtaking. I must have 100 pictures from every angle. I wish I could have found a small replica for sale because it would be the focal point of the room.

    • Me too Annie, I’m glad I’m not the only one!! I’ve been to Florence about 5 times now and the first thing I want to see each time is always this statue and I always take a load of photos again! It is just phenomenal!! And to think that it was all done by hand without power tools or computers is mind-blowing!! My favourite bits are the feet and the woman’s pillowy bum(!) – which bits are yours?? And can you recommend any other fabulous sculptures for us to check out…..?!

  8. Cori says:

    I’m looking for a estimated value of a small but heavy statue of the rape of the Sabine women ” thank you

  9. I have always been intrigued by this story since my name originates from this tribe. I saw an exhibit at The Frick in NYC and am currently in Cincinnati where they have a small bronze of this as well. Much smaller of course, I can’t wait to see the larger, original marble statue. I so appreciate your post about this moment in history. I am researching all I can in order to possibly form a theatrical piece. As for those looking for reproductions for their own collection, I found this: http://www.rubylane.com/item/6041-PS10-04-06-04/Bronze-Sculpture-Rape-Sabine-Woman

    • Wow, how fascinating Sabina! I never made the connection between the tribe and the name but it makes perfect sense and is a wonderful link to history! Keep me informed of your studies and if you find out more I’ll add it into the post with a link back to you!! Happy researching!!

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