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And it is not hard to understand why that attitude is so common. There is something uncomfortably close to the enjoyment of violent pornography in finding the depiction of sexual violence pleasurable, even when the medium is 16th-century bronze and the artist’s work is as elegant and graceful as is Giambologna’s. Pornography, of course, does not aim to be beautiful: its sole and only point is to generate sexual arousal in the viewer. I think we can be sure that Giambologna was not aiming at that, and that his bronze sculpture does not have that effect (although perhaps it could, given the extremely wide range of possible human sexual responses). Which should be enough at least to distinguish Giambologna’s statue from a piece of pornography. But is it enough to eliminate the sense that there is something less than wholesome in the contemplation of an image depicting such an unsavoury subject? And that it is utterly wrong to turn an event as ghastly as abduction for the purpose of rape into something beautiful?

Today’s anxiety about our reactions to art which, by being graceful, elegant and beautiful, can make us overlook or forget that what is being depicted is abhorrent, is very closely paralleled by the nervousness of the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church when confronting beauty in art. The Catholic Church wasn’t bothered by the depiction of violence. In fact, Catholic churchmen were sometimes concerned that artists’ representations of the Crucifixion were insufficiently bloody. Giambologna’s stunning bronze of Christ crucified is another highlight of the Strozzi show. It is notable that there is no sign of suffering in Christ’s expression. His arms, though outstretched, are not nailed to a cross, and his body is not bruised, cut or wounded: it is in magnificent shape. This is not the sort of image that would, in the words of one critic echoing the rules laid down by the Catholic Church, “inspire devotion in the faithful by drawing them in emotionally” — which  is why it did not find favour with many at the top of the Catholic Church (although a cast of Giambologna’s bronze would eventually be placed in Pisa Cathedral). To them, it would have been far better if Giambologna had forced anyone who looked at his Crucifixion to confront the terrible agony and suffering of Christ.

The Catholic hierarchy was deeply disturbed by the depiction of the human form in an excessively beautiful, or sensual, way. Pious churchmen were worried that the most religious of subjects — the Crucifixion, the Deposition, the Entombment, the Resurrection or even the Last Judgment — could generate impure thoughts in their viewers if they contained beautiful naked figures. Those pictures were meant to illustrate points of Catholic dogma such as the real presence of Christ’s blood and body during the celebration of the eucharist. But, thought many priests, the eucharist would be the last thing on the congregation’s mind if they were confronted by images of beautiful naked women and beautiful naked men.

That anxiety reached its highest pitch after the Council of Trent in northern Italy, which had been convened to determine Catholic dogma, practice and teaching in a way which would mean that Lutheran doctrines could be effectively dismantled. The Council spent much of nearly two decades between 1545 and 1563 deciding how Protestants should be opposed. In addition to determining the precise nature of Catholic doctrine, it laid down rules for art, architecture and music. As far as painting and sculpture were concerned, the Council ruled that “all lasciviousness is to be avoided, in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust”.
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