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A delicate depiction of brutal violence: “The Rape of a Sabine Woman”, c.1579, by Giambologna (Naples, Museo di Capodimonte, inv. AM 10524)


Can the depiction of rape, torture and murder be beautiful? Should it be? The Cinquecento in Florence, the exhibition now on at the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence until January 21, contains some works of art that raise those questions in a particularly disturbing way.

There is, for example, an exquisite bronze statue by Giambologna. He came originally from the area that is now Belgium. He moved to Italy in 1550 when he was 20, and settled in Florence permanently three years later. The two human figures that comprise his bronze statue are wonderfully finished. They are elegant and graceful: the human body has seldom been made to look more beautiful. And yet one of those figures is depicted as being on the verge of raping the other.

Giambologna hesitated as to what to call his bronze ensemble: it could, he wrote in a letter to the Duke of Parma, represent the rape of a Sabine woman by one of the Romans; it could be Paris carrying off Helen in order to rape her; or it could even be the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto. But whatever he called the work, Giambologna was in no doubt that its subject was sexual violence of an extreme kind.

Giambologna's delicate depiction of brutal violence is one of the highlights of The Cinquecento in Florence. The show is the third in a series of exhibitions at the Palazzo Strozzi devoted to rehabilitating what has come to be called “Mannerism”. The first one centred on the painter Bronzino (1503-72); the second on his older predecessors, Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540) and Pontormo (1494-1557). The Cinquecento in Florence collects paintings and sculptures from a wide variety of 16th-century artists who have been labelled “Mannerist” and who also worked mainly in Florence.

When the pioneering historian of art Giorgio Vasari used the phrase maniera moderna, from which the word “Mannerism” ultimately derives, he only meant to refer to the best work by his contemporaries. He opposed the maniera moderna to what he considered to be the incompetent, medieval, Byzantine style of the maniera Greca. It was not until the 19th century that “Mannerism” first started to be used to pick out a particular style of 16th-century painting, and then it was used primarily as a term of abuse: art in Italy in the 16th century was thought to have been elegant and graceful, but also artificial, superficial, laboured, and untruthful — in short, mannered.

Some of the many wonderful works by “Mannerists” on show at the Palazzo Strozzi are by familiar names such as Andrea del Sarto, Rosso Fiorentino, Benvenuto Cellini, Baccio Bandinelli and Giambologna. But others were created by artists who are almost unknown today, such as Santi di Tito and Lodovico Cigoli. Santi di Tito in particular was an authentic genius — a discovery, at least for me, unearthed by the curators of this exhibition.
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