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