“La gloria dell'intera arte divina
Espressa nel triforme simulacro
Idea, e norma a tutti i grandi artisti
È, Gian Bologna mio la tua Sabina.”
“The glory of all divine art embodied in a triform statue, an ideal and paradigm for all great artists, my Giambologna, is your Sabine.” – Bernardo Davanzati, 1583 (Sermartelli, op. cit., p. 7)
Such was the poetic praise bestowed upon the sculptor to the Florentine Medici court following the unveiling of his phenomenal feat in marble, the three-figure group representing The Rape of a Sabine. Completed at the height of his career, the statue would not only prove Giambologna’s most successful composition, but also set a precedent for a novel way of conceiving sculpture in the round.
By the 1570s the Fleming’s coolly elegant interpretation of the Mannerist style had established him as the principal sculptor in Florence. Giambologna enjoyed the patronage of the city’s most illustrious noblemen, above all the Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany, who held an almost exclusive sway over his activity. In 1579 Giambologna completed a bronze for Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma, showing the struggle of a young woman being seized and suspended in mid-air by a virile abductor (now in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples). The finely balanced group served as a study for the artist’s desire to create a complex composition which experimented with the intertwining of bodies in an upwards motion. By the following year, Francesco I de’Medici’s demand for a monumental public sculpture had motivated the sculptor to adapt the composition for the medium of marble. Due to the necessity of supporting the group in stone, a third figure was added, that of the crouching older man at the bottom of the group. By balancing the three figures in a balletic upwards spiral, Giambologna ingeniously achieved what his great predecessor, Michelangelo, had merely preached: that sculpture should be “pyramidal, serpentine, or flame-like” (Avery, op. cit., p. 109). Giambologna had created the first sculptural group in Western art that had no dominant viewpoint but, instead, invited the viewer to observe the full extent of the action by circling it from all angles. Upon its completion the marble was given pride of place in the prestigious Loggia dei Lanzi on the Florentine Piazza della Signoria, replacing Donatello’s Judith, and was finally unveiled on 14 January 1583.
The reception of the work was rapturous and raised Giambologna’s reputation to new heights. It is said that the group had been conceived with no particular subject in mind but simply as an opportunity for the sculptor to experiment with the combination of figures while demonstrating his exceptional skills as a marble carver. It was not until after its completion that the subject of the marble came to be determined. Tantalisingly left without a title, perhaps to inspire humanist debate, the group was soon associated with the classical legend of the Rape of the Sabine Women. Recounted by Livy in his History of Rome, the episode tells of the scarcity of women in the newly-founded Eternal City. After failed negotiations with neighbouring tribes, Rome’s founders invited the Sabine people to a festival, during which they violently seized their maidens and claimed them as wives. The women are said to have pleaded with their families not to reclaim them through battle in a bid to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, bringing about eventual peace. Renaissance Florence held a fascination with classical antiquity, and the legend’s connotations of power and diplomacy would no doubt have appealed to the rulers of the city.
It appears that identifying the group with a well-known subject also heightened its emotional intensity. Remarkably, the ‘Ritratto della Sabina’ inspired the first collection of laudatory poems for a sculpture, published by Bartolomeo Sermartelli in October 1583 – only a few months after its unveiling. As well as exalting the sculptor’s technical excellence, many of the distinguished contributors to this publication explored the poignancy of a young woman being snatched from her helpless father by a man in the prime of his life. Visually, Giambologna conveyed this emotional drama through the anguished facial expressions of father and daughter, as well as his masterful characterisation in stone of three contrasting human conditions: weak old age, rugged youth, and female delicacy. The innovative feature of carving naturalistic dimples where the Roman’s fingers dig into his victim’s yielding flesh proved so successful in this regard that it was appropriated in the work of later sculptors, notably Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina. Visitors to the Tuscan capital continued to marvel at Giambologna’s tour de force of Mannerist sculpture well into the 17th century. A prominent admirer was John Evelyn, whose Diary records it as the “most stupendious” of compositions in marble (Avery, op. cit., p. 114).
Its princely owners
The universal acclaim for Giambologna’s revolutionary model was not confined to its first incarnation in marble but extended to the numerous reductions in bronze that were produced during and after the master’s lifetime. It has been observed that the marble’s position in the Loggia dei Lanzi is rather unsuited to the work, as its spatial constraints and visual obstructions discourage the viewer from walking around the statue and absorbing all its views. By contrast, being particularly apt for private study and handling, small bronze casts of the model enabled collectors to contemplate the composition from every possible angle. The Medici family recognised the appeal of Giambologna’s models in bronze and regularly sent the finest examples as diplomatic gifts to courts throughout Europe. Important recipients included the Holy Roman Emperors in Vienna and Prague, the Elector Christian I of Saxony in Dresden, and the King of France (see Avery, op. cit., p. 235). From the 1580s, Giambologna delegated the official production of his bronzes to his principal assistant, Antonio Susini, whose family continued to cast after his models until the 1660s. Giambologna’s own workshop passed into the hands of Pietro Tacca and later his son Ferdinando, who still used Giambologna’s moulds by the second half of the 17th century and produced casts on behalf of the Florentine sovereign (see Zikos, op. cit., p. 89). The Medici were thus able to meet demand for more or less ‘autograph’ Giambologna bronzes even after the master’s death in 1608.
Although Giambologna’s grand-ducal patrons appear to have held a possessive claim over models produced specifically for their court, and 16th-century casts of The Rape of a Sabine are consequently rare if not non-existent, a number of bronze versions are recorded in the inventories of early modern European royalty. As early as the beginning of the 17th century, between 1607 and 1611, the three-figure group appears in the inventory of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II. The Habsburg ruler, who had moved his court from Vienna to Prague, was among the greatest collectors and patrons of the arts Europe had ever seen, and as such clearly did not miss the opportunity to inspect Giambologna’s artistic master stroke at first hand. By 1626 another cast belonged to King Vladislaus IV of Poland, while an inventory from 1658 records the same model in the collection of Prince Karl Eusebius of Liechtenstein. Even more than 100 years after the original statue’s completion, The Rape of a Sabine appears to have been an invaluable asset to a monarch’s collection; a cast was recorded in King Louis XIV’s Versailles in 1693 (see Hill Collection, op. cit., p. 148).
An anecdote elucidating the reception of Giambologna bronzes as diplomatic gifts is provided by the well-documented marriage negotiations between Henry Prince of Wales, son of King James I, and Caterina de’ Medici. Cosimo II de’Medici was intensely keen to bring about the alliance, prompting him to promise the Prince a collection of his favourite models by the Florentine court sculptor in bronze. The Prince was flattered when offered the gift by the Florentine ambassador in 1609 and, testifying to the international fame the model had achieved, demanded above all a reduction of The Rape of a Sabine. When at least some of the models he had requested finally arrived in 1612, Henry is said to have been enchanted by their appearance: “He handled each one repeatedly, studying, admiring and praising every part, every detail” (Watson and Avery, op. cit., p. 501). Accounts such as this illustrate the vital role these bronze reductions played in the dissemination of enthusiasm for Giambologna’s work outside Italy. This existed not only among the nobility but pertained to all intellectual and connoisseurial circles. The prominent appearance of The Rape of a Sabine alongside other models by Giambologna in an allegorical painting by Jan Brueghel the Younger gives an unmistakeable impression of the European veneration for the sculptor. The Sabine, his most successful model, continued to be copied widely in bronze and other media until the 19th century. Evidence for its enduring appeal to the princely courts of Europe is the acquisition of a prime cast of the group in 1980 by Prince Franz Josef I von und zu Liechtenstein. It was considered a replacement for the cast recorded in 1658, which had been sold in the early 20th century (Liechtenstein, op. cit., p. 177).
The present cast of The Rape of a Sabine may be counted among the rare examples of exceptional quality that are likely to originate from Giambologna’s immediate artistic following. The cast is distinguished from lesser versions through the high level of detail in the anatomy of the figures. Note the veins showing clearly in the men’s arms and hands, the naturalistically modelled recesses in the ribcages, back musculature, and sinews of the legs, and the finely cast feet and fingers, including those digging into the Sabine’s flesh. Like all bronze reductions of the model, the present version differs in some aspects from the marble prototype. The marble is composed in a narrower upwards stream, the older man’s knee is bent at a higher angle, and his and the woman’s bodies are more erect than in the present bronze, making the arrangement of the figures appear more vertical. While the emotional facial expressions of Giambologna’s original figures are largely retained, the woman’s hair accessory has been changed from a simple fillet to a coronet. The latter is a common feature of the bronze versions thought to have been cast by Antonio Susini, and therefore either during Giambologna’s lifetime or soon after the master’s death. One such cast is in the Hill Collection (Wengraf, op. cit., pp. 148-157), which is not far removed from ours with regard to the appearance of the figures’ anatomy and the carefully stippled base in the form of a rock. However, differences such as the sharply incised pupils and the highly refined chasing of the hair, which is characteristic of Antonio Susini’s work, indicate a later facture for the present bronze. Another variation is found in the positioning of the figures; although the Roman stands higher on the base, the overall height of the present group is shorter by around 4 centimetres due to its more horizontal structure.
The height of the present bronze does, however, correspond to that of two casts of The Rape of a Sabine that have been attributed respectively to Antonio’s son, Gianfrancesco Susini (Richmond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, inv. no. 97.126) and Ferdinando Tacca (formerly collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, sold Christie’s Paris, 25 February 2009, lot 567). Both casts also parallel the present version’s more horizontal arrangement of the figures. A possible authorship by either of these 17th-century inheritors of Giambologna’s models is therefore worth exploring. A punched base similar to that of our group is present in many of Gianfrancesco Susini’s works, including a bronze variant of Giambologna’s Hercules Slaying the Centaur group in the Quentin Collection (Leithe-Jasper, op. cit., no. 15). Another bronze by Gianfrancesco that may be compared to the present cast is The Abduction of Helen in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (inv. no. 90.SB.32). Note, in particular, Helen’s hairstyle which, like that of the present Sabine, covers her ears, and the closely comparable treatment of the hair of the woman at the bottom of Susini’s group. However, a contrast is found in the incised pupils and the shape of the base which, as in most of Gianfrancesco’s bronzes, is wavy rather than rocky in shape. Even more exciting but similarly inconclusive comparisons may be made with casts by Ferdinando Tacca, the second successor of Giambologna’s own studio. Like those in the present cast, Ferdinando’s figures tend to have unincised pupils, which is also the case with the above-mentioned Sabine cast attributed to him. The sharp but comparatively summary treatment of the hair and the woman’s softly rounded facial features in that version compare well to the present cast, in addition to the closely similar arrangement of the figures that has already been noted. The facial type of the Roman, with his prominent but rather short nose, too, is typical of Ferdinando’s figures, such as those attributed to the artist by Anthony Radcliffe (see Radcliffe, op. cit.). However, a feature which these bronzes and Tacca’s Sabine cast have in common is a very fine wavy pattern in the stippling of the naturalistic bases, which differs from the broader and more angular pattern on the present base. The generally soft and wavy hair of most of Tacca’s figures is another indication that the present bronze is unlikely to be an autograph work by this master.
Although the present cast of The Rape of a Sabine cannot be attributed with certainty to a member of the Susini or Tacca family, it displays striking similarities with the works discussed above, and the unusually high quality of its casting is characteristic of these direct successors of Giambologna’s workshop. It is therefore possible to associate the present cast with their immediate milieu in mid-17th-century Florence, which continued to venerate the Flemish master’s work as the epitome of sculptural ideals. As we have seen, reductions of this quality were produced for the most discerning of collectors, and the genius of Giambologna’s most iconic model is conveyed to full effect in this remarkable cast.
B. Sermartelli, Alcune Composizioni di diversi autori in lode del ritratto della Sabina, Florence, 1583; K. Watson and C. Avery, ‘Medici and Stuart: a Grand Ducal Gift of ‘Giovanni Bologna’ Bronzes for Henry, Prince of Wales (1612)’, The Burlington Magazine, 115, 1973, pp. 493-507; A. Radcliffe, ‘Ferdinando Tacca, The Missing Link in Florentine Baroque Bronzes’, Kunst des Barock in der Toskana, Munich, 1976, pp. 14-23; Die Bronzen der Fürstlichen Sammlung Liechtenstein, exh. cat. Museum Alter Plastik, Frankfurt, 1986, pp. 176f., no. 16; C. Avery, Giambologna. The Complete Sculpture, Oxford, 1987; M. Leithe-Jasper and P. Wengraf (eds.), European Bronzes from the Quentin Collection, exh. cat. Frick Collection, New York, 2004, pp. 166-173; W. Seipel (ed.), Giambologna. Triumph des Körpers, exh. cat. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 2006, pp. 120f., pp. 273-275; D. Zikos, ‘Die Dresdner Giambolognas. Apologie ihrer Eigenhändigkeit’, Giambologna in Dresden. Die Geschenke der Medici, exh. cat. Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden, Munich, 2006, pp. 89-94; P. Wengraf (ed.), Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes from the Hill Collection, London, 2014, pp. 148-155, pp. 194-199
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