Can rape and murder make beautiful art?

An exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, raises the question of depicting violence

Alasdair Palmer

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.

Mannerists strove to create figures of great beauty, and they often succeeded. And herein lies the problem, because they were capable of making acts of hideous violence — abduction, martyrdom, even crucifixion — beautiful. Depictions of violence by artists a generation earlier, or a generation later, are not beautiful. When Donatello in the 15th century depicts Judith beheading Holofernes, it is not beautiful. It is a horrifying image, and it is meant to be. The same is true in the 17th century of, for example, Rubens’s painting The Massacre of the Innocents, or Bernini’s sculpture The Rape of Proserpina, in which Proserpina struggles desperately against an overpoweringly strong, and overpoweringly ugly, Pluto.

But Giambologna’s bronze sculpture of The Rape of a Sabine Woman (as it eventually came to be called) is beautiful rather than horrifying or disgusting. Indeed, if you did not know that a prelude to rape was what Giambologna intended to depict, the sculpture itself would not force the conclusion on you. It could, just about, depict a consensual athletic display, with the man lifting up the woman in a form of dance. But once you know that its creator meant his work to be about abduction and rape, it is impossible not to see it in that way. It is an example of the way that understanding what an artist’s intentions were does not necessarily make it easier to appreciate his work.   (Interestingly, there is no such ambiguity about the huge stone sculpture that Giambologna carved between 1574 and 1582, and which is now in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence: that piece is un-equivocally about abduction and rape. It is also a much less graceful work.)

The knowledge that you are looking at something that depicts the prelude to rape can affect how you respond to Giambologna’s bronze, and in a very negative way. Should it? Should it be impossible, or at least impermissible, to appreciate a work as beautiful once you know that it depicts rape, or indeed any act of violence?

To judge by the reaction to, for instance, jokes made about Harvey Weinstein’s despicable intimidation and harassment of aspiring actresses, an increasingly common answer to that question is: yes, it should. The immorality of the action depicted ought to prevent any decent person from finding it beautiful, just as the awfulness of what Weinstein did should prevent anyone from joking about it. Even if you think that such jokes can be amusing, it is still just about impossible to believe that there could ever be a beautiful painting entitled Harvey Weinstein in the Act of Intimidating and Harassing a Young Actress into Giving him a Massage — and not just because Harvey Weinstein himself is strikingly ugly.

The idea that the immoral cannot be beautiful has a venerable pedigree. It goes back to at least Plato, and the idea that the good and the beautiful cannot conflict with each other because they are both aspects of the same thing. Not many people now believe that goodness and beauty are inseparable: there are too many examples of beautiful people who are not good. But a great many people today are convinced that the depiction of immoral violence cannot be beautiful.

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”.

Sex object? “Night”, 1555-65, by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (©Rome, Galleria Colonna, inv. Salviati 1756, no. 66)

Michelangelo unveiled his Last Judgment on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel in 1543, just before the Council started sitting. It was full of images of naked men and women, some of them very striking, although how anyone could think of them as “exciting lust” is difficult to understand, given that the nudes are mostly in twisted poses of agony as they realise they are going to hell, or attitudes of beatific contemplation as they recognise they are on their way to heaven. Senior Catholic churchmen in Rome were nevertheless deeply shocked by Michelangelo’s use of nudity — not, of course, for the effect it had on them, but for the effect that it might have on others. No one dared touch those frescoes while the great man was alive, but once he was safely dead, Pope Pius V gave orders that the nude bodies in his vast fresco be appropriately veiled. El Greco, who was in Rome at the time, offered to paint over the entire fresco, saying he would produce a version of the same subject that was just as good as Michelangelo’s, and much more decent. But the Pope turned down his offer, and El Greco left Rome for Spain.

As the Palazzo Strozzi show demonstrates, the reaction to nudity in art in Florence was less extreme than in Rome or Trent. The Medici family, installed as rulers in 1531 by Charles V after his army occupied the city and ended its republican government, was eager to comply with Catholic orthodoxy. But as patrons, they were also fond and tolerant of naked figures in art. Surprisingly, it seems that if anyone wanted to cover naked images in Florence, it was not the patrons, but the artists. For instance, the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati included two full-sized naked female figures for his ensemble The Fountain of Juno. It wasn’t destined for a church or religious institution, but Ammannati nevertheless later became very concerned about his statues, which he thought were sinfully “lust-inducing”. When Duke Ferdinando Medici decided to place Ammannati’s sculptures in the courtyard of the Pitti Palace — a place accessible to the public — Ammannati wrote to the Duke begging for permission to cover them up so that they would be “decent”. Duke Ferdinando refused: the nudes had to stay.

In 1552, Pontormo’s pupil Bronzino painted a huge altarpiece, Christ Descends into Limbo, for the Zacchini Chapel in the church of Santa Croce. Christ Descends into Limbo contains many beautiful figures, including several female nudes. Those figures were criticised by contemporaries for “excessive nudity and evident sensuality” which would “distract the faithful” — but not by the Medici. They seem to have approved wholeheartedly of the picture.

No one today is going to worry that the images in Christ Descends into Limbo are impermissibly arousing, or indeed that any of the images of women, or men, in the religious paintings on display in The Cinquecento in Florence might stimulate viewers in the wrong kind of way. But some people might find the images of women painted, not for the religious edification of the Medicis and other aristocratic patrons, but for their amusement and entertainment, unsettlingly close to pornography. Paintings such as Tommaso Manzuoli’s Fortitude, Ridolfo Ghirlandaio’s Night, Alessandro Allori’s Venus and Cupid, and Jacopo Zucchi’s Cupid and Psyche, or Giambologna’s sculpture Fata Morgana and his Venus Fiorenza, are certainly beautiful. But they also certainly turn their female subjects into sex objects. They were not created merely to arouse the male viewer. That was, however, part of their point, regardless of how many allegorical messages about the importance of continence and temperance modern art historians insist are buried in them.

“Portrait of Guido Guardi with his Sons”, by Santi di Tito,  painted in two stages, c.1564-68 and c.1570-80 (©Private collection)

Feminist critics may find these images offensive in their invitation to the male viewer to assess these women, and women in general, entirely according to how sexually attractive they are. If you share their attitude, you will move with relief into the rooms in the exhibition devoted to portraits. There are some stunning paintings here, and they can safely be enjoyed without any anxiety that they might be generating impure or improper thoughts.

One of the most remarkable paintings is Santi di Tito’s triple portrait of Guido Guardi with his sons, where the family resemblance is just discernible in the features of the three men, despite their very different expressions and physiognomies. Santi di Tito apparently added the portraits of the sons a decade after he painted the father. He developed a system for portraiture where his pupils did everything apart from the faces, allowing him to churn out portraits with great rapidity, but making secure attributions today very difficult.

There is also an extraordinary portrait of a young woman — no one has yet succeeded in identifying who she is — by Girolamo Macchietti. Macchietti is now almost unknown, but he was clearly a very gifted artist, as this and the other works by him on show in the exhibition demonstrate. There are also two remarkable portraits in stone by Ridolfo Sirigatti. Sirigatti depicted his parents, and his carving, particularly in the portrait of his mother, is exquisite. What is particularly astonishing about it is that Sirigatti was not a professional sculptor. He was an amateur. His day job was being an official for the Medici government, and when he got time off from that, he was a merchant. How he learned to carve so expertly, and how he managed to maintain his skill at such a high level, is a mystery. But this amateur was thought expert enough to give some instruction in sculpture to a professional: one Pietro Bernini, the great Gianlorenzo Bernini’s father.

As you walk back into the rooms with massive religious paintings, it is hard not to think that with many of them, the parts are greater than the whole. There are some sublime individual figures — Mary in Bronzino’s Deposition, the fainting woman in Allori’s Miracles of St Fiacre, the sleeping guard in Santi di Tito’s Resurrection, for instance — but often the overall compositions are too crowded and too confusing to be comprehensible. In the tangle of legs and arms, of winged putti and smiling angels, you start to understand why the stark, brutal realism of Caravaggio was necessary.

Your eyes, though, will inevitably wander back to Giambologna’s extraordinarily graceful bronze depicting the prelude to rape. And you can’t help wondering: should I be enjoying this work? Should it even be here? It is worth visiting the exhibition just to find out whether you can answer those questions.

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