Florence day 4 (continuation 13)

Giambologna or Giovanni Bologna and his ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’

H. Goltzius ‘Giambologna’ and a self-portrait
Giambologna self-portrait

Hendrik Goltzius ‘Portrait of Giambologna’ 1591, black and red chalk, 37 x 30 cm. Haarlem, Teylers Museum

When Giambologna (Self-portrait) was commissioned to carve a statue from a single large block of marble, his aim was to surpass the classical sculptors.286 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.

Hagesandros, Athenodoros, Polydoros of Rhodos ‘Laocoön’
Hagesandros, Athenodoros, Polydoros of Rhodos 'Laocoön'

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, at Jacopo Sansovino’s Bacchus in Bargello.

Giambologna ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’
Giambologna 'Rape of the Sabine Women' detail

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.’287 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
Giambologna 'Rape of the Sabine Women' relief pedestal

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 ‘Hercules beats Antaeus’
Giambologna 'Hercules beats Antaeus'51cm 22.5 cm bronze Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

Giambologna ‘Hercules beats Antaeus’ 51cm 22.5 cm bronze Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

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.

Giambologna ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’
Giambologna 'Rape of the Sabine Women' 47.2 cm h. Victoria and Albert Museum

Giambologna ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’47.2 cm h. Victoria and Albert Museum London


Andreani ‘Rape Sabine women’ large size
Andrea Andreani (print maker) ‘Rape Sabine women’ 1584 after Giambologna. Woodcut h, 431 mm x w. 194 mm Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Andrea Andreani (print maker) ‘Rape Sabine women’ 1584 after Giambologna. Woodcut h, 431 mm x w. 194 mm Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

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.

Giambologna plaster measuring model
Giambologna plaster measuring model Accademia

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.288 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.

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 ‘Florence Triumphant over Pisa’   Giambologna ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’
Giambologna 'Florence Triumphant over Pisa' Bargello   Giambologna 'Rape of the Sabine Women'

The last 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 ‘Pluto and Proserpina’
Bernini 'Pluto and Proserpina'

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.

Giambologna ‘Rape of Sabine women’ and three sides
The other side      Signature
Giambologna 'Rape of Sabine women'

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.289

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.’290

Video Urs Fischer and Giambolgna 2011 (1.47 minutes)

Rape of the Sabine Women zoom in and the third figure
Giambologna' Rape of the Sabine Women'

photo (mouseover): jnelas

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 model Rape of the Sabine woman bronze

Piazza della Signoria

Just a stone’s throw from the Loggia dei Lanzi, Giambologna created another equestrian statue for Duke Cosimo I. When Florence became a Duchy under Cosimo I in 1540, the ‘lion’ is removed from the clocktower. The largest clock is destroyed. This was to set an example, so the citizens knew who ruled the city from now on. The Roman emperor Domitianus had already erected a statue of himself on the Roman Forum, also a traditional republican square. After his death, he was murdered, this statue was smashed to pieces by the citizens of Rome. The Roman Senate pronounced a damnatio memoria. This meant that all inscriptions and statues of the Domitian were destroyed. As you can see, the equestrian statue on this republican square, the pride of the citizens of Florence, has survived. We will still be looking at the fountain of Neptune.

 Giambologna Equestrian statue of Cosimo I and a detail and its entirety       Front
 Giambologna 'Equestrian statue of Cosimo I' Piazza della Signoria Florence


Carlo Canella ‘Rape of Sabine women and  Neptune fountain’ 1830 large size
Carlo Canella 'Rape of Sabine women and  Neptune fountain' 1830

The Neptune Fountain in Piazza della Signoria (Vecchio)

The Neptune Fountain in Piazza della Signoria (Vecchio) by Bartolommeo Ammanati. In the sixteenth century, large fountains were built in many Italian cities. The Orion fountain at Messina, built in 1550, was the largest in Italy. There is a clear link between the fountain in Messina by Montorsoli and the fountain of Neptune. This is shown by a letter from Bandinelli in which he mentions that he had studied the fountain in Messina well and ‘I will make for him [Cosimo] a fountain that will not only be better than any other that exists on earth, but I pledge that the Greeks and Romans never had such a fountain.’291

Seven years later Montorsoli made a second fountain with a large marble statue in the middle: Neptune with two small figures. Bandinelli must have heard this. He also considered himself a sculptor who was ideally suited for large figures. The piece of marble that Cosimo had mined in 1558 was more than ten braccia (580 centimeters) high. In the sixteenth century, such exceptionally large blocks of marble were very popular among sculptors. When it became known that Cosimo had bought such a fantastic large block of marble, the trouble started.

Cellini and Ammanati demanded an open competition for such a block and of course Bandinelli was also allowed to participate. Cosimo agreed to this because he expected the strong competition would lead to a better result. Bandinelli was old and irritable. Although he had a great career behind him, he had not received recognition from the people, let alone from colleagues. On the contrary, his ‘Hercules and Cacus’ was subject to ridicule. Angry over the competition, Bandinelli went to Carrara and damaged the big marble block. This considerably restricted possible designs for a Neptune.292 Borghini writes in 1584 in his ‘Il Ripose’: ‘As the block of marble was narrow at the shoulders, he could not, as he wanted, give the figure a posture with his arm raised.’293 Although Bandinelli should actually be disqualified, he could still participate, but it was no longer possible, because he died before the competition.

In 1565, part of the ringhiera was demolished to create space for the new fountain. For the water supply, quite a few pipes had to be laid from Porta San Niccolò to Piazza della Signoria. In October of the same year, the foundations were laid and due to the marriage between Francesco de’Medici and Johanna of Austria, the Neptune was temporarily put on the square.

For the competition in 1560, models were made and the best was chosen: the model of Ammanati. Ammanati was supported by Michelangelo. The contest was only for the central figure of Neptune. For the water basin it was presumably already decided to use the old model of Bandinelli.

Ammanati and Bandinelli Neptune fountain and the other side
Ammanati and Bandinelli Neptune fountain Piazza della Signoria Florence


“The Neptune here in Florence was hewn from one of the largest blocks of Carrare marble ever used and was soon dubbed ‘Il Biancone’ (the White Giant).  The fountain was inaugurated on December 10, 1564, but was already the subject of a satirical verse in the sixteenth century: ‘Ammannato, Ammannato, che bel marmo hai rovinato’ (what beautiful marble you have ruined). When Johanna of Austria, who was going to marry Cosimo’s son and heir Francesco, moved to Florence in 1565, the Neptune received a temporary touch-up with stucco and papier-mâché to make it look better. The bronze nymphs and satyrs, which were originally in plaster, were only placed on the fountain in 1572 by artists including Giambologna.  In 1575, the fountain was finished and a fence was placed in 1592 to keep horses from drinking from the reservoir. By the end of his life, Ammannati [or Ammanati] admitted that the statue, which was to be an allegoric depiction of Cosimo I, wasn’t entirely a success. According to popular belief at the time, the small figures of the fountain started haunting whenever there was a clear night at full moon.”

Cited and translated from: Luc Verhuyck ‘Firenze Een Anekdotische reisgids’ Athenaeum-Polak&van Gennep Amsterdam 2006 pp. 228-229

Ammanati pondered the basic shape of a twelve-sided corner. Moreover, the block of marble was actually too large in relation to the size of the water basin. The Neptune is carved in such a way that the front and back are fairly flat. Neptune stands with his weapon in his right hand and calms the waves. The god of the sea was chosen because Cosimo was not only Duke of Florence, but of all of Tuscany. He protects the port cities against maritime piracy. The Neptune is a single piece of marble, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s David and Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women.

Bandinelli ‘Neptune’ front and back and the horses
Bandinelli 'Neptune' Piazza della Signoria

Photos: Linda De Volder and mouseover fronie51

Ammanati was trained in the studio of Jacopo Sansovino. After an argument with Michelangelo, this Florentine sculptor received very few commissions. He worked in Rome for some time, but in 1527, after the Sacco di Roma, he left for Venice. This is where he worked for the remainder of his life. The Neptune of Ammanati resembles the colossal statues of the Scala dei Giganti in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice.

The meaning of all figures has not yet been deciphered, save for two nymphs: Thetis and Doris and two gods of the navy. The bronze figures were made between 1571 and 1575. Several artists have worked on the fountain, including some assistants of Ammanati Vincenzo de’Rosso and Guglielmo Fiammingo

Ammanati Neptune fountain detail: SatyrAmmanati Neptune fountain detail: Satyr

The use of bronze was not really convenient, because the material makes the statues visually smaller, even though the Neptune is already too large anyway. The sea god with the beard is definitely by Ammanati’s hand. If you look at the bronze woman, you can clearly see that Mannerism is already in fashion. Her unnaturally elongated body parts, and especially the neck, can be seen with a painter like Parmigianino. We will see his painting of the Madonna with the long neck in Uffizi.

Parmigianino ‘Madonna with the long neck’ c. 1535-40 large 
Video Madonna with the long neck Khan  Academy (4.43 minutes)
Ammanati Neptunes fontein vrouw met lange hals

End of  day 4

Click here for day 5 (painting)