Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Abduction

The Abduction

It wasn't much of an entryway from Via Porta Rossa at all, nondescript really.  In fact it was even tricky to locate this well kept secret.  From the start, we were greeted by a double flight of stairs, all 26 of them, only inches from its doorless street entry. Not too difficult by yourself but somewhat

of a hassle when hauling along a suitcase or two—luggage wheels just don't help in a situation like that.  This is, after all, a walking city.... but the climb?  At the top landing, for the last leg of our assent to Hotel Davanzati, we were greeted by an elevator.  The inconvenience of arriving at Hotel Davanzati has all to do with the restrictions on a hotel located in a historic building—they are basically untouchable—thus no elevator at street level.

Eventually moving aside, the elevator doors opened to the lobby of Hotel Davanzati, our lovely home for a few nights.  This jewel of a place was well worth the effort of the climb.  Family owned and operated, it had 19 rooms and featured a rooftop balcony, and interestingly, something odd by Italian standards, an afternoon aperitivo hour, more familiar to us as 'happy hour', for guests to meet and mingle each afternoon over nibbles and a glass of Prosesso.  At our disposal were grandfather and convivial host, Marcello, and his charming son, Fabrizio.  As to the level of service, they did everything they could to make our stay enjoyable by meeting our needs even before we thought to ask.
In addition to all the touring we did during our brief stay, to include visits to the Pitti Palace, the Bargello Museum, the Duomo (with its accompanying Baptistery and Bell Tower), and dinner at a little place called La Bussola (The Compass), whose waiter had us convinced his twin was the former, comedic, TV-celebrity Father Guido Sarducci, I had a private objective.  It would be found in the Piazza della Signoria.
Since antiquity, Piazza della Signoria has served as the main square and political heart of Florence.  You can't miss it, whether you look at a map of Florence or simply follow a crowd of fellow tourists.  A town's square was and remains a meeting place for Italian townspeople, an extension of home away from home.  They often include the local seat of power surrounded by important centers of commerce, businesses and social venues.  Large piazza or small town piazzetta, it is where the children play, where men gather to discuss politics and sports until it's time to go home for pranzo (lunch) and again for cena (dinner), and where, in addition to the social interaction, important events unfold.
To get to Piazza della Signoria, early one morning, before the crowds formed like thunderclouds, I followed Via dei Calzaiuoli located just a few steps beyond a small market space from where it intersected Via Porta Rossa.  From Via dei Calzaiuoli, it was at best a brief walk to the famous piazza.  I had visited this square before, for it is there, along with Palazzo Vecchio, that the world renowned Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi Museum) can be found.  But on that morning, neither of these were my objective.
Palazzo Vecchio (the Old Palace), Florence's town hall located in the piazza was once known as Palazzo della Signoria until 1565 when the Cosimo Medici family moved across the Arno River to the Pitti Palace.  The Old Palace rises above the piazza reminiscent of a square-sided, three layered cake.  Like frosting across the top edge of its upper story, heraldic symbols are crowned by zipper-tooth crenelated walls giving it a fortress appearance.  At times during its history, this fortress feature proved useful, for this, the city's center of authority, has seen its share of sieges.  Every cake deserves a candle, and here in candle-like fashion a tower of classic Tuscan style rises higher yet above the fortress-palace's rooftop.  Towers like these usually host a bell, sometimes a clock, but here standards are meant to be outdone.  With a clock at its base, it continues its rise to accommodate a bell at its very top, used to warn, summon, and everything in between.
The square itself serves as a sort of outdoor museum.  Arrayed before the Palazzo Vecchio facade, a faux David, signifying divine strength, guards the left side of the door (the real David by Michelangelo resides across town at the Accademia Gallery, close to the Duomo).  Suggestive of the physical power of the ruling Medici family, Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus takes up the right side of the palace's entryway.  Off in the square, you can not but notice the Fountain of Neptune by Ammannati dominated by god of the sea, Neptune himself, surrounded by lesser river gods, satyrs and sea horses, (the original Neptune is in the National Museum), as well as the equestrian statue of Cosimo I de' Medici, Duke of  Florence himself, who united Tuscany.  Yet here again, these were not my goal.
Sharing a wall with the former palace is the world famous Galleria degli Uffizi.  Outside its doors, beneath the shelter of arched porticos in the adjacent horseshoe-shaped Piazzale degli Uffizi courtyard, queues of visitors bide their time for their turn to enter.  On an earlier visit I'd noted students sitting about, their sketch pads busy capturing impressions.  As I'd walked through this courtyard, toward where it butted against a bank of the Arno River, I couldn't help but notice two human mannequins sitting on the curb opposite the museum's entrance.  At first I thought the group of student artists, as an assignment, were using them as models.  Instead, they all appeared to be drawing hands.  The mannequins, statuesque themselves in the panoply of their art-form, may have simply been for the entertainment of the waiting visitors, if not for their own amusement.
Since its establishment over 400 years earlier, the Uffizi continues to draw visitors from across the world, with 1.9 million in 2013 alone.1  As Italy's premier museum, its iconic stature can be attributed to the vast treasure trove it shelters, with masterworks from goliaths like Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Caravaggio, El Greco, and Rubens looking down from its walls onto showroom after showroom cluttered with pieces like the Medici Apollo, The Wrestlers, many by artists whose names are lost in the mist of the centuries.  But this day I sought something else.
Returned to the main square, I came upon the Loggia dei Lanzi, once a terrace for viewing ceremonies in the greater piazza.  It is positioned directly opposite the entry to the former palace.  This covered porch is barely out of reach of the elements—its vaulted space is open to the air and home to pigeons.  It is in this dusty mini-gallery, wider than it is deep, where a dozen or so works of art, each a marvelous piece in itself, reside.  The most famous of these is Benvenuto Cellini's bronze Perseus, with Perseus holding the head of the Medusa aloft in one hand and his sword in the other.  But this was not the focus of my attention on this particular visit.  It was another nearby piece, one begun in 1581, all to prove a point.
I wanted to see it, just as in 1965 I wanted to see the Pietà at the New York World's Fair.  In the Pietà, Michelangelo, a youth of only twenty-four, had created a masterpiece.  Today, even with many Pietàs in the world, when we refer to The Pietà, we are more than likely referring to Michelangelo's.  In 1499, when it was first unveiled to the world in a minor chapel of the old Basilica of St Peter's, Michelangelo craved recognition for what he'd accomplished.  When he learned that visitors were attributing its genius to other artists of his day, he returned under cover of night.  With his chisel, by candlelight, he inscribed his name on the band across Mary's chest.  From that day forward he never had to sign another of his works.  I wanted to read it myself.  I wanted to see where the maestro had chiseled MICHAEL ANGELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTINUS FACIEBAT (Michelangelo Bounarroti of Florence Made This).  In a similar vein, that day in Florence, I'd come to see the work of another artist, someone with his own vendetta.  The particular work I sought is titled, The Rape of the Sabine Women.  There on the Loggia, in the company of Perseus, I'd find my objective.
The Sabines were an early Italic tribe located in central Italy in the Apennine mountains across the Tiber River, north and east of present day Rome.  Unfortunately, they were too close to another tribe, the expansionist Romans.  At some point in their fractured relationship, the Sabines refused to allow their women to marry their rivals, those neighboring but pesky Romans.  Tradition, bordering on legend, as recounted by Greek biographer and essayist, Plutarch, relates that around 750 BC, well before the creation of the Roman Republic, Romulus (of "Romulus, Remus and the Wolf" fame), founder of Rome itself, hosted a feast during the festival to the godly patron of horses, Neptune Equester.  The celebration was held on the flat plane at the base of the Palatine Hill, fittingly with horse races for entertainment.  Time would see this festive ground continue its equestrian identity when later it became known as Circus Maximus.  In addition to his fellow first generation Romans, Romulus invited the neighboring Sabines.  The trap had been set, for in addition to whatever food was served at the feast, by their attendance, the Sabines had unwittingly served up their women.  Apparently by design, at some point, the Sabine women were abducted, with the Romans able to fend off the efforts of the Sabine men to save them.

Their abduction had been political motivated, for following unsuccessful negotiations to remove the marriage restriction then in place, the Romans, setting diplomacy aside, felt the need to resort to force in an effort designed to literally expand the size of their tribe.  Yet, if we believe this proximate mythical tale, if not the first, this had to have been a prototypical use of the term 'sweet talked', for eventually their 'female guests' were convinced or otherwise swayed to agree to wed their needy, bachelor, Roman abductors.  According to the story, the Romans sought families but were thwarted due to the shortage of females among their tribe.  I don't want to make light of what happened.  In this case however, history, if we can go so far as to call it history, has no-doubt toned down the actual events.  To modern ears, the unusual use of the term rape in the title of this work may in fact be too harsh.  Unlike our modern interpretation of the word, with all of its violent sexual connotations, it is derived from the Latin raptio 2, which in the context of what happened, means to kidnap, seize or abduct.  In this early example of nations, or better yet, tribes without borders, these omniscient Romans, knowing what was best, had seized what they wanted.  They continued along this line for the next thousand years.

The Rape of the Sabine Women was carved by Giovanni Giambologna.  In its day it represented a breakthrough in artistic expression, and for Giambologna represents his greatest achievement, a masterwork reaching new heights.  Essentially an immigrant, he was illiterate in the Italian language and remained so.  His work, however, served him well as an excellent translator, speaking volumes, more than enough to elevate him to the status of preeminent sculptor of the Medici court for 50 years.  Driven by his work ethic, as the Urbinate Ambassador Simone Fortuna wrote to the Duke of Urbino in 1580:
"the Flemish sculptor was the best person you could ever meet, not greedy in the least, as his absolute pennilessness shows.  Everything he does is in the pursuit of glory, and he has ambition in the extreme to match Michelangelo." 3

His ambition then, amidst the climate of professional rivalry that defined his world, was for fame and glory.  His driving force, a competitive force, if not to outdo Michelangelo and get out from under of his shadow, was to at least match him in stature.

To demonstrate his artistic abilities, as subjects for his composition, he selected a trinity of life-size nude figures crowded closely together—a subjugated Sabine man crouched in a defensive posture between the legs of the abductor; the triumphal Roman kidnapper at its center clutching his prize held high above him; and to complete the trio, a distraught Sabine woman, caught-up in a twisted, intensely passionate struggle, attempting to escape the clutches of her assailant.

Beyond the consummate and masterful technique involved in its creation, Giambologna went about releasing his subjects from their stone cocoon by way of what in today's parlance we'd call speculation.  This is similar to the situation a home builder might find himself in when he constructs a home with no particular buyer in mind, without a customer per se.  In a similar fashion, Giambologna sculpted this masterpiece without the commission of a patron to compensate for the time he'd expended and the skill employed to set free this trinity of trapped figures tightly encased within the stone.
Though I've been identifying the subjects as Roman and Sabine, I find it interesting that initially this work had no title.  I doubt Giambologna himself thought of them as such.  The free-lance nature of its creation may have had something to do with it.  It would remain nameless until Francesco I de' Medici, Duke of Tuscany, ordered that it be displayed in the Loggia.  In what I can only imagine must have been a scramble of discussion, for its inherent theme could have been adopted to a number of historical events, the title, The Rape of the Sabine Women, was essentially backed-in and remains so to this day, thus accounting for today's references to Romans and Sabines.

 Standing at the base of Giambologna's achievement, I wondered why it had been relegated to the Loggia in the first place.  It makes sense, however, when we realize that at that time there was no Galleria degli Uffizi.  Uffizi, meaning ‘offices’, were the administrative offices of the city.  The private art treasures of the House of Medici, seen only by invitation, accumulated in these offices through the years.  In the meantime, the Loggia functioned as the public’s museum until 1765 when the Galleria degli Uffizi opened.  The pieces in the Loggia could have been handpicked for their message, just as the paintings and symbols in the churches told the message of Christianity.  Was there sub-textural meaning in the subjects and themes presented there, directed toward the citizenry?  The presence of two sculpted Medici lions intimated strength.  Likewise, the nearby Perseus clasping a severed head could have signaled a warning to all who might contemplate opposing the Medici.  Had The Rape of the Sabine Women some additional subliminal message—power, dominance, the strong due their chattel, perhaps strength over weakness?  These thoughts and more swirled through my head as I approached.  Looking at this enormously successful work, it was clear that Giambologna had studied Michelangelo's techniques well.  Michelangelo believed his subjects were already in the stone, only waiting to be released.  If so, Giovanni had his work cut out for him for he had not one, as in Michelangelo's David eighty years earlier to contend with, but three figures to cleave from a single block of stone.  His extraordinary work was carved, one tap of the hammer on chisel after another, from not only the largest block ever transported to Florence, but reportedly a flawed one at that.  While for me it was but hours after sunrise in the Piazza, it was centuries earlier in the Loggia.  Gazing up at it on its pedestal, where it has rested since it first debuted on the world stage in 1582, I was awestruck trying to comprehend that this intimate struggle rising before me was from that single block, regardless of how large and however flawed.
Also, in step with the breakthroughs introduced by Michelangelo, the muscular physiques of the subjects appeared truly lifelike.  Was I looking at stone here or flesh?  I was grounded in the knowledge that this was stone but the detail in their muscle definition—the bulging veins, the cleft of a sinewy chest, the prominence of the leg muscles compressed by a bent knee, the definition in their hands, even the swell of an Adam's apple between tense neck mastoids—all of it made me question my reality.  Farther down the Sabine woman’s exquisitely proportioned torso other fascinating details reinforce the lifelike appearance of these frozen individuals.  One involves the Roman's hand on his captive's buttocks.  As if the stone had the consistency of spongy flesh, the forceful fingers of his hand depress the cheek of her buttocks.  Amazingly caught-up in his forceful grip, the tips of his fingers squeeze her skin in mottled depressions, adding further detail to its mimicry of real life.  Additionally, far removed from his contemporaries, his attention to the physical features of each principal implicitly cried out for movement—a style to be coined, Mannerism.
Keeping to his compositional theme of intertwined subjects—a tangle of figures rising first

from crouched to standing to an arched extension thrust skyward—Giambologna adds to his thesis, positioning the Sabine woman with a leg crossed close to her the opposite ankle.  With this architectural subtlety, he exposes the delicate detail of the cushions beneath her feet, here again appearing astonishingly natural in every respect.  Without question, here was something amazing.
Likewise the expressions and postures captured in the instant of the assault were equally evocative.  I was drawn to the Sabine woman's hand raised high above her.  With fingers splayed, her single extended arm appears reaching for something not there.  Any hope of rescue lay defeated at her feet.  Held low about the waist, entangled in the spiraling grip of her abductor, any remaining energy she had appears spent.  Listen closely and a desperate cry from her open lips may be heard, accenting the expression of terror etched in her face.
Like an alchemist striving to transform lead into gold, he'd achieved the impossible by kindling life from stone.  As a coiled spring waits to unleash its pent-up energy, there is energy imbedded in this trinity—an energy in the early morning hours entombed in the bedlam of its roaring silence.  All may be still before you but you can sense the motion, the unfolding action, and appreciate the movement caught in this single stop-frame in the conflict.
Many of these details are only viewable by walking around this tour-de-force and therein lies the true secret of this masterpiece.  As opposed to earlier, more classical frontal statuary—Greek and Roman forms cloaked in draped garments, the subject restricted to a static pose—his dynamic representation heralded a new breakthrough approach in sculpture.  His was the first grouping in the entire breadth of European sculptural history to represent more than a single figure without relying on a principal viewpoint.  This is worth reiterating—Here for the first time was a work of multiple subjects with no primary viewpoint.  Walking around this groundbreaking rendering, hesitating momentarily at a new vantage point, each new visual presented me with new details I'd not previously noticed.  With no particular front or back, it was as if I was looking at multiple statues with each step I took.  While at the 1965 World's Fair a moving sidewalk was used to whisk visitors across the face of the Pietà, here a carousel would have been in order.
From the beginning, unlike Michelangelo 80 years earlier, Giambologna signed his work—OPVS IOANNIS BOLONII FLANDRI MDLXXXII (The Work of Johannes of Boulogne of Flanders, 1582)—thereby eliminating any doubt as to who had created this masterpiece.  Let others stand in the Galleria degli Uffizi line, only steps away, clutching their tickets.  Possessing simply a desire, with no need of a ticket, I'd played ordinary, preferring instead the almost spiritual subtlety of the Loggia, among the pigeons.  It was transporting.  My quest complete, I'd been to the mountain and seen what I'd come to see.  Once again climbing the stairs of Hotel Davanzati, I began to wonder, however.  Had I really seen what I'd come to see?  With its infinite number of vantage points, each capable of a flood of emotion, I'd but sampled a few.  I wondered, held captive in the clutches, not of a Roman, but of Giambologna, with little hope of rescue, if my visit had simply been flirtation, destined to be repeated.
From That Rogue Tourist

1     The New York Times, 28 July 2014, "Masterworks vs the Masses" by Rachel Donadio
2     Roman Mythology - Crystalinks,
3    From:, Introduction, Princeton University Press