Biography of Flemish Mannerist Sculptor: Rape of the Sabine Women.

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Rape of the Sabine Women (1581-3)
Loggia dei Lanzi, Pizza della Signoria
in Florence. One of the most powerful
works in the history of sculpture.
Note its famous figura serpentina, an
upward snakelike spiral movement.

Giambologna (1529-1608)


Early Training
Settles in Florence
Medici Court Sculptor
Fountain of Neptune
Florence Triumphant Over Pisa
Rape of a Sabine
Statue of Appennino
Cosimo I on Horseback

Samson Slaying a Philistine (1562)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Strongly influenced by Italian Renaissance sculpture as well as the 16th century style of Mannerism, the Flemish-born artist Giambologna was one the greatest sculptors of the cinquecento, and for two centuries after his death his reputation ran a close second to that of Michelangelo. The court sculptor to three successive Medici Grand Dukes, his influence on European sculpture was immense. His marble sculpture The Rape of the Sabine Women (1581-3) surely ranks among the greatest sculptures of all time. It contrasts with the earlier statue of David by Michelangelo (1501-4, Academy Gallery, Florence) in the same way that the writhing Hellenistic group Laocoon and His Sons (150-40 BCE) contrasts with the serenity of Polykleitos's High Classical statue Doryphorus (440). He remains one of the great sculptors in the history of art.

Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570)
Juan de Juni (1506-1577)
Germain Pilon (1529-1590)
Jean Goujon (Active 1540-1563)
Barthelemy Prieur (1536-1611)
Adriaen de Vries (1560-1626)
Stefano Maderno (1576-1636)
Giovanni Bernini (1598-1680)

Stone Sculpture
From igneous, sedimentary,
and metamorphic rocks.


Early Training, Study Trip to Rome

Giovanni Bologna (or Giambologna) was born in Douai, Flanders, as Jean Boulogne. From the age of 14 he trained in the atelier of the Italianate Flemish sculptor, Jacques Du Broeucq (1505-84), where he mastered the techniques of modelling and carving, and absorbed the Classical style which Dubroeucq had evolved after studying Greek sculpture in Rome.

Giambologna himself took a study trip to Rome around the age of 21 and made models of Greco-Roman and Renaissance sculpture. When he met the aging Michelangelo, the latter critized one of Giambologna's works for displaying too high a finish, before the basic pose had been fully established. This was a characteristic fault of Northern Renaissance sculpture as a whole. The young sculptor never forgot this lesson and became a convinced maker of sketch-models in wax or clay while preparing his sculptures. Several of these models have survived such as those in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. During his stay in the Italian capital, Giambologna was impressed above all by the technical and anatomical skill of Hellenistic sculptors, especially their ambitious groups of people in action - such as, The Farnese Bull, excavated in 1546.



Settles in Florence

On his way home to Flanders, Giambologna visited Florence to study the Renaissance art of the great Florentine sculptors Donatello and Michelangelo. While there, he was offered accommodation and financial support by Bernado Vecchietti, a rich patron of the arts, who introduced him to Francesco De' Medici, son of Cosimo di Giovanni delle Bande Nere de' Medici, the ruler of the city and scion of the famous Florentine Medici dynasty, who had largely bankrolled the Renaissance in Florence. Such contacts persuaded Giambologna to settle in Florence, and by 1560 he was competing for a commission to produce a statue of Neptune for the fountain in the Piazza della Signoria.

Medici Court Sculptor

As it happened, he lost out to the Tuscan Mannerist sculptor Bartolomeo Ammanati (1511-92), but his full-scale clay model won him several admirers, and he joined the payroll of Francesco De' Medici who became his principal patron. During this time he created numerous 3-D works for public spectacles, bronzes and marbles for Medicean gardens, and explored the medium of the small bronze statuette, a form which would become popular with collectors throughout Europe.

Taking inspiration from the earlier work of Michelangelo and his followers like, Tribolo and Pierino da Vinci (1520-1554), Giambologna developed a style of composing figures using a contrapposto stance exaggerated far beyond the Classical norm, with a serpentine axis and a flame-like contour. This breathed new life into Florentine sculpture, which had become somewhat stilted and academic in the middle of the 16th century, in the hands of the neurotic Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560) and his arch rival and critic Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71).

Thus in 1561-2, he completed his first significant work for Francesco De' Medici - a marble group depicting Samson slaying a Philistine (1561-2, Victoria and Albert Museum, London), as the centrepiece for a large fountain. Both subject and treatment recall a project of Michelangelo's from the 1520s, which is known only from a number of casts in bronze from a lost original wax model.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to judge artists like the great Mannerist sculptor Giambologna, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

Fountain of Neptune

The following year, in 1563, Pope Pius IV awarded Giambologna a major commission for a bronze sculpture to decorate a Fountain of Neptune in Bologna (1563-6). The fountain is pyramidal in design, with a host of lively and sensuous subsidiary figures below. These lead the eye up to the mighty Neptune, who has an energetic spiral pose, momentarily arrested by the gesture of the arm and sharp turn of the head. Hellenistic and Michelangelesque motifs are combined into a brilliant, original composition.


Possibly during his stay in Bologna, Giambologna produced the earliest of several versions of a "flying" figure of Mercury. This was to become his most celebrated composition: a statuette initialed "I.B." (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) was sent as a diplomatic gift from the Medici to the Holy Roman Emperor in 1565; a larger bronze version in the Museo Nazionale, Florence was cast later. The vigorous but beautifully balanced pose owes much to earlier bronzes, such as Boy With A Dolphin by Andrea del Verrocchio, and Mercury by Rustici, both of which were in the Medici collections. The subject may have been inspired by the Mercury statuette on the base of Cellini's Perseus with the head of Medusa (1554).

Florence Triumphant over Pisa

On Giambologna's return to Florence, Francesco De'Medici gave him another important commission - a major sculpture in marble, not so subtly entitled Florence Triumphant over Pisa (completed 1575, Bargello, Florence). This political allegory was intended as a pendant to Michelangelo's Victory, which had been released from the studio after the Master's death in 1564. The young Giambologna was forced to seek a means of uniting two figures into a satisfying action group. The problem had been first posed by Michelangelo in his designs for The tomb of Pope Julius II, and it was later attempted by most of the sculptors in Florence during the 16th century. Giambologna resolved it with the help of preliminary models in wax and plaster; the final composition is an amalgamation of spiraling curves and zigzag lines, working within a conical volume.


Rape of a Sabine

Giambologna's third major work was the Rape of a Sabine (1579-82, Loggia Dei Lanzi, Piazza della Signoria, Florence). One of the greatest sculptures ever, it represented the climax of his career as a figure sculptor, uniting three figures into a single spiral composition. This was an idea that had obsessed Michelangelo without his ever having brought himself to realize it in marble. Giambologna's first thoughts are embodied in a bronze group with a standing man and a woman raised in his arms, which he produced in 1579 for Ottavio Farnese. The work, he wrote to his patron, was created in response to the sculptural problem itself (the quest to unite 3 figures in a single sculpture), rather than as a particular narrative composition; and in fact he was subsequently compelled to identify the particular episode shown in the full-scale marble version by adding a bronze relief below, showing the Romans and Sabines fighting over the Sabine women.

The development from a group of two, to one with three figures, is plotted in preliminary wax models (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). The three figures are linked psychologically, by the directions of their glances as well as formally, by the arrangement of their limbs and bodies. The spiral composition means that the group cannot be fully comprehended from any single viewpoint. In technical terms, this sculpture is a masterpiece of virtuosity, carrying to the furthest limits the technique of undercutting which Giambologna had observed in Hellenestic Greek sculpture and which distinguishes his work so sharply from Michelangelo's.

Statue of Appennino

It was during this period that Giambologna also created his largest work - the 33-feet high figure of the mountain god Appennino (1577-81) - sited in the gardens of the Medici villa at Pratolino. Made from brick and stone, the god crouches above a pond and appears to have emerged from the earth.

Cosimo I on Horseback

In momentual sculpture, his other major achievement was the equestrian statue in bronze of Cosimo I (Cosimo I on Horseback, 1587-95, Piazzo dela Signoria, Florence). This was the first equestrian statue in Florence, and was the fruit of several studies which Giambologna had made during the course of his career, to depict a prancing horse and rider. The design was rapidly copied throughout the Royal Courts of Europe where it became an archetypal symbol of monarchic authority.

Bronze Statuettes

There are few points of reference in the enormous production of bronze statuettes by Giambologna: most were original, small compositions rather than reductions from full-scale statuettes. Apart from the Mercury of 1565 mentioned above, the gilt-bronze female allegory of astronomy (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), also signed, is probably an early masterpiece. The closed composition of spiral axis given to the figure is quite typical of Giambologna, appearing, for example, in the larger statuette of Apollo that he contributed to the Studiolo of Francesco De'Medici (Palazzo Vecchio, Florence). Apart from the human figure, his repertoire included animals, particularly horses, bulls, and groups showing animals attacked by lions.

He also sculpted life-size bronzes of birds, which were used to decorate garden grottoes and fountains in the Boboli Gardens of Florence and at Pratolino, and the bronze doors of the cathedral of Pisa (examples include the Turkey, Owl and Peacock in the Museo Nazionale, Florence). For his bird sculptures he invented an "impressionistic" rendering in wax of their plummage which was faithfully translated by skillful casting into the final bronze versions. His animals pointed the way for the 19th century French School of Animaliers.


Giambologna's Florentine workshop was manned by a number of devoted assistants, and pupils, notably Pietro Tacca (1577-1640) (who succeeded his master as Medici court sculptor), and Pietro Francavilla (1548-1615). See also Renaissance Sculptors.


Giambologna exerted huge influence during his lifetime and on later styles - notably Baroque sculpture - for some years afterwards, both in Italy and in the North. His statuttes made handsome gifts and were rapidly distributed through the Courts and Studios of Europe, disseminating an enthusism for his elegant style far beyond Italy: they were continuously reproduced until almost the 20th century. Later, his many pupils, often Flemings or Germans, were in demand to serve these very courts, thus reinforcing his signature methods, though with personal variations on his basic style (for example, the sculptors Adrian De Vries, Hubert Gerhard, Pierre Puget, and Hans Reichle).

Giambologna occupies a crucial position in the history of sculpture in between the better known figures of Michelangelo and Bernini (1598-1680): his energetic style paved the way for Baroque art in Rome.

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