The Rape of the Sabine Woman, created by Giambologna, a Flemish sculptor based in Italy, is one of the most recognised works of sixteenth-century Italian art. As his fame and workshop flourished, Giambologna wanted to prove himself as a sculptor of monumental works. He undertook the Sabine project without any specific subject in mind, he just wanted to create complex multi-figural group. When the work was almost finished and placed in the Loggia dei Lanzi in August of 1582, it was referred to as a ‘group of three statues,’ as no one had any idea about the subject. However, when Giambologna produced a bronze narrative relief to be inserted at the base of the sculpture to clarify the content of the three figures, the project was identified as a well-known event of ancient Rome.
According to the accounts of Livy and Plutarch, the Rape of the Sabine Women is an incident that took place soon after the foundation of the city of Rome by Romulus in 750 BC. During that time, the Roman settlers badly needed women to establish their families in the new city and propagate the Roman lineage. As there was no woman in Rome, they tried to negotiate with the neighbouring towns of Sabine for establishing marital relationship with their women. However, as the negotiation failed, the Romans planned a scheme to abduct the Sabine women, which they did during a summer festival.
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Giambologna’s sculpture, known as the ‘Rape of the Sabine Woman’, depicts the moment when a Roman successfully captures and raises a Sabine woman in his arms as he marches over a Sabine man who crouches down in defeat.
However, though the English word ‘rape’ is casually used for the Latin word ‘raptio’, the word actually stands for ‘abduction’. Nevertheless, the 13.12 feet (4 m) tall sculpture was carved by Giambologna from a single block of marble in 1583. He carved the figures up from the bottom, beginning with the cowering Sabine male, whose body is twisted in reaction to what is happening above him. He represents the elderly husband of the young Sabine woman who is being abducted by the young Roman. His straining muscles are evident as he is raising his left hand up in despair as the triumphant Roman literally straddles his body. The Roman grabs the left hip of the woman and his fingers are deeply pressed into her flesh.
The woman, with her arms outstretched, twists back and over the Roman’s shoulder as she is hoisted into the air. The figures convey movement, aggression, fear, and struggle, as they move upward in a flame-like twisting pattern. All the three figures are interwoven into the group, through physical contact and through eye contact with each other. The impression of writhing movement is depicted 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 helpless husband.
The dynamic figurative composition spirals upward in a twisting way, with no frontal view. It offers multiple viewpoints and its impact changes with the viewer's position.