Rape of the Sabine Women
Marble Sculpture by Giambologna.

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The Rape of the Sabine Women
(153) By Giambologna.
Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence.

Rape of the Sabine Women (1583)
By Giambologna


Giambologna's Greatest Marble Sculpture
Narrative Theme
Composition of the Statue
Giambologna's Legacy
Other Famous Sculptures

Further Resources

How to Appreciate Sculpture
How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture

A close-up view.

Giambologna's Greatest Marble Sculpture

Carved from a single block of stone, this powerful marble sculpture by the Flemish artist Giambologna (1579–1583) (Johannes of Boulogne), is surely one of the finest works in the history of sculpture. Regarded as a technical as well as a creative masterpiece, the statue combines the classical nude forms of Greek sculpture with the dynamism of Mannerism. Although, being a work of Roman mythology, it was not part of the campaign of religious art used by the Counter-Reformation, The Rape of the Sabine Women perfectly expresses the deep uncertainties of the late 16th century, in complete contrast to the calm confidence exuded by the High Renaissance statue of David (1501-4) carved by the great Michelangelo (1475-1564). In their different ways, these two works represent the very best of Renaissance sculpture of the cinquecento. The same contrast between emotion and serenity is visible in The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1642-52) by Bernini, and Cupid and Psyche (1792) by Antonio Canova, respectively. In any event, Giambologna's carving made him the uncontested master of large scale plastic art in Italy, and remains one of the greatest sculptures ever made. Fittingly, it stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi, on the Piazza della Signoria, in Florence - the city from which the Medici family never allowed him to leave, in case the Austrian or Spanish Habsburgs enticed him to practice his unique art of sculpture in Vienna or Madrid.




In 1563 Giambologna was elected a member of the prestigious Academy of Art, Florence, where he became the most important court sculptor of the Medici family under the Duke Cosimo I de' Medici (1519-74) and Francesco I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany (1541-87). However, he created his first masterpiece for the city of Bologna, after Pope Pius IV awarded him the commission for the huge bronze sculpture of Neptune, for the Fountain of Neptune (1563-66). He went on to create several marble groups - including: Samson Slaying a Philistine (1561-2, V&A Museum, London), and Florence Triumphant over Pisa (1575, Bargello, Florence) - all of which demonstrated his growing virtuosity in the carving of complex twisted poses. The series reached a highpoint in 1583, in The Rape of the Sabine Women, and later in Heracles beating the Centaur Nessus (1599, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence).

The project for the Sabine sculpture began in 1579 when the Medicis offered Giambologna a huge block of marble from which to sculpt another complex group of figures. Initially, the artist planned to carve only two figures - as can be seen from his preparatory bronze in the Capodimonte Museum, Naples - but then added a third figure to the group, as illustrated by the two wax models in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The full-scale plaster model for the completed work can be seen at the Academy Gallery in Florence.


Narrative Theme

The actual theme of the finished statue was not determined until shortly before its installation in the Loggia dei Lanzi, in the centre of Florence. It was then that Giambologna finally decided that it should illustrate the legendary "Rape of the Sabines", an event from early Roman mythology, when Romulus and his male followers were anxiously seeking wives with whom to start families. The local Sabine tribe refused to permit their women to marry anyone from Rome, so the Romans staged a festival of Neptune Equester, invited their Sabine neighbours, and on a given signal snatched numerous Sabine women, whilst fighting off their men. Note that, in this context, the translation of the Latin word raptio as "rape" is misleading, as no physical violation was involved. A more accurate translation is "The Abduction of the Sabine Women".

Composition of the Statue

The actual statue, 13 feet 5 inches tall (4.1 metres), is made from a single block of marble. It depicts three figures: at the base of the statue, an older bearded nude man kneels on the ground, his left arm raise in self-defence; a second younger nude male, who stands astride the kneeling man, holds a struggling nude woman in his strong arms. The kneeling man represents the weak elderly husband of the young Sabine woman who is being abducted by the young Roman. All three are interwoven into the group, through physical contact and through eye contact with each other. The impression of writhing movement is initiated by the woman's outstretched arms, continues through the muscular figure of the young abductor, clasping the body of his prey, and ends in the raised arm of the dominated husband. The artist's use of exaggerated gestures, along with his ability to convey a sense of intense energy, characterize his style of Mannerism. To see how Giambologna's dynamic movement contrasts with the serenity of the Renaissance, see both David by Donatello (1440s, Florence) and David by Michelangelo (1501-4, Florence).

The dynamic figurative composition spirals upward in a twisting figura serpentinata, with no frontal view. This is one of the unique attributes of the statue - it offers multiple viewpoints, and its impact changes with the viewer's position. Some art critics are uncomfortable with the tight verticality of the composition: our Editor is not one of them. In his opinion, this only adds to the physical drama of the event being illustrated.


Regarded today as one of the best sculptors the world has ever seen, Giambologna achieved widespread fame in his own lifetime for his dynamic bronze and stone sculpture in the Mannerist style. He was an important influence on later Baroque sculpture through his pupils Adriaen de Vries (1560-1626) and Pietro Francavilla (1548-1615), as well as the Frenchman Pierre Puget (1622-1694) - all of whom promoted Giambologna's style throughout Northern Europe - and in Italy, he influenced both Bernini (1598-1680) and his rival Alessandro Algardi (1598-1654), as well as the Florentine bronze sculptor Pietro Tacca (1577-1640), who continued Giambologna's workshop in Florence.

Other Famous Sculptures

To read about other celebrated examples of statuary and relief sculpture, which can be seen in the world's best art museums, see the following reviews:

- Thinker of Cernavoda (c.5,000 BCE) Neolithic terracotta figure.
- Parthenon Sculptures (c.447-422 BCE) Reliefs and longest ever frieze.
- Altar of Zeus at Pergamon (c.166-156 BCE) Famous mythological reliefs.
- Venus de Milo (c.100 BCE) Hellenistic Greek statue.
- Laocoon and His Sons (c.42-20 BCE) Hellenistic group sculpture.
- Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BCE) Altar with processional marble frieze.
- Trajan's Column (106-113 CE) Doric-style monument with spiral frieze.

• For more about Italian Mannerist sculpture, see: Homepage.

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