Narrative Violence in Italian Renaissance Sculpture

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The Italian Renaissance is often praised for being the period where humanity returned to reason and ideals from classical antiquity. However, there was a dark underbelly that threaded its way into the images that artists’ created: violence. This violence, when depicted in sculpture, used a familiar narrative often depicting the climax of the story, either biblical or mythological. These usually were public art pieces that were influenced by both antiquity and the society that these sculpture were born in. Often they were used to communicate messages to those who viewed them.

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The Italian Renaissance was society that fostered war, death, political machinations. Violence was an everyday occurance. It did not only take on the form of war and murder. Smaller acts of violence like revenge, execution, and conflict between families were also quite common. Soon, it became another way for political ideals to be expressed. Thus those in power sought to squash the ability for their opponents to commit violent acts by using tactics such as punishment and incarceration. They also sought to keep their power through the use of violence. The images that wealthy and powerful patrons commissioned contributed to this use violence as away of political and ideological communication.

The Church was not above using this way of communicating to their followers. This can be seen in Jacopo della Quercia’s Murder of Abel (1425-38) [figure one], which depicts the biblical myth of the first murder, when Cain kills his brother Abel. In the early Renaissance ideals from the Middle Ages still were still very fresh in the minds of those living. One of these ideas was that hell was a very real place where one could be sent. The other idea was to remind the participants of the Church that they were still mortal. Della Quercia depicting the first murder would be one of the ideal subjects to remind everyone who saw it about sin and about the idea that sin leads to hell. The depiction of murder also serves the purpose of reminding the viewers that they were indeed mortal and that that event could happen to them at anytime, given the society that they lived in. Violence was used to communicate political ideology quite often and the conversation between Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes (1455-1460) [figure two] and Cellini’s Perseus (1540-1545) [figure three] is a perfect example of this. Judith and Holofernes first represented the Medici’s power over Florence after their return from exile by the Albizzi.

The beheading was meant to represent Cosimo’s political leadership. It also associated them with St. John the Baptist, a saint who was very important to Florence. It harkens back to the Renaissance’s return to antiquity; calling to mind ancient Roman statues termed tyrannicides, which encouraged resistance against invaders and tyranny. Eventually the statue was appropriated by the Florentine Republic, who overthrew the Medici control of Florence and placed in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. In a sense, when the Republic appropriated the statue, it gained the political meaning of the Republic cutting off the head of the Medici’s. When the Medici’s regained power in Florence, Duke Cosimo I commissioned Cellini to create Perseus. The optics of Judith and Holofernes did not look good for the Medici’s but they also could not hide it away from the city, as those optics would be even worse. Instead Cellini created Perseus, a statue of a powerful male figure cutting off the head of a, formerly, powerful woman. It cannot have been lost on the people of Florence that Perseus represents the Medici clan and that Medusa represented the Republic. These sculptures sit in a political conversation, using violence as their medium. This coded political language depicts a woman, triumphant against tyrants and the other depicts a male triumphant over a once powerful and feared woman. Each topic is a deliberate dig at their opponents. Samson Slaying a Philistine (1562) [figure four] and Heracles and Nessus (1599) [figure five] by Giambologna, both represented the Medicis’ using art to, once again, telegraph their power to anyone who viewed these sculptures.

Samson Slaying a Philistine uses this visual language to communicate the idea of Florence being victorious over Pisa. Samson, in this piece, represents Florence and through Florence, essentially the Medicis. Pisa is represented in the prone Philistine. The whole message of the piece is, essentially, that the Medicis’ will protect Florence from all threats. Heracles and Nessus utilizes the classical myth of a hero defeating a villain to show off the financial and political power of the Medicis’. The Medicis’ are portrayed by Heracles and their enemies are portrayed by Nessus, the centaur who tried to make off with Heracles’ wife. Through this allegory, the Medicis’ portray themselves as the noble protectors of Florence, while their detractors are wild and illogical enemies. They also remind the people of Florence just how wealthy they are through the magnificence of the statue. Much of the public art in the Italian Renaissance was allegorical in nature. This allegory was used to communicate both political and ideological beliefs to the citizens who saw this art in their everyday lives.

Violence was often chosen to be portrayed because of the power dynamic between the subjects in the piece. One portrayed the victor and the other the loser. This turned public art into propaganda for the wealthy patrons that commissioned it. This worked both in their favor and against them at times, as depending on who is in power, the propaganda could change from its original meaning to being against the very patron who originally commissioned the work. The Murder of Abel (1425-38), Jacopo della Quercia, figure one The Murder of Abel was created for the Porta Magna of San Petronio in Bologna. It is one relief panel in a series of relief panels that depict the stories of the book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible. Louis Aleman, a papal official, commissioned della Quercia likely after seeing his Fonte Gaia (1419). The first murder was committed Cain was overwhelmed with jealousy of his brother Abel, because God favored him. Cain bludgeoned his brother to his death, causing God to punish him by making his land infertile. When When those entering the church would see this they would be reminded of their mortality and the origin of sin, found in the book of Genesis. Judith and Holofernes (1455-1460), Donatello, figure two Judith and Holofernes is a bronze statue by Donatello in Florence. This sculpture was a possession of the Medicis’. It’s location has changed many times, residing in the Medici Palace, taken to the Piazza della Signoria in 1495, and also residing in the Loggia dei Lanzi for a time. It is now located in Palazzo Vecchio Museum.

The story of Judith and Holofernes is that of a woman resisting invaders. She lures the general Holofernes into inviting her into his tent, later getting him drunk and beheading him. This statue is one half of the political posturing between the Medicis’ and the Republic of Florence. Perseus (1540-1545), Benvenuto Cellini, figure three Perseus is a bronze statue commissioned by Cosimo I. In the process of making this statue, Cellini attempted something completely new, fusing the bronze of the body together all in one go. It was successful for all except for some of the detail on the right ankle. The other elements of the bronze, such as the sword and the blood that drips from Medusa’s head, were fused separately. It is located in the Loggia dei Lanzi, under its left arch. It is considered to be one of the more famous statues in this location. It is located very close to Judith and Holofernes. This statue is the other half of the political posturing between the Medicis’ and the Republic of Florence. Samson Slaying a Philistine (1562), Giambologna, figure four Samson Slaying a Philistine is a marble statue that was commissioned by Francesco de’ Medici to commemorate the victory of Florence over Pisa.

Some speculate that it was commissioned from Giambologna specifically because he did not win the Neptune Fountain commission, a second prize of sorts. This sculpture is the only large marble sculpture by Giambologna to leave Florence. First it was used as a diplomatic gift to Duke of Lerma, chief minister to King Philip III of Spain in 1601. Then in 1623, King Philip gave it to King Charles I, who was then the Prince of Wales. Charles I then gave it to the Duke of Buckingham. The statue now resides in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Heracles and Nessus (1599), Giambologna, figure five Heracles and Nessus is a marble statue that epitomizes the elements of sculpture that Giambologna is famous for. This includes the sense of tension in the sculpture and the lifelike anatomy. The strength of Heracles depicted in this sculpture was meant to communicate the spiritual strength of a moral man. This sculpture also shows how Giambologna was influenced by Michelangelo but also how he developed his own style, which was much more Mannerist. The story that is depicted in the sculpture is that of Heracles and Nessus. Nessus is a centaur that tried to kidnap Heracles’ wife. Heracles saves his wife, but is eventually killed by the centaur’s poison.

Works Cited

Avery, Charles. “”‘Samson Slaying a Philistine’, by Giambologna, 1560-2.”” Victoria and Albert Museum. August 29, 2013. Accessed November 28, 2018.

Bardi, Ugo. “”Cellini’s Medusa.”” Chimeras. November 02, 2014. Accessed November 12, 2018.

Beck, James H. “”Jacopo Della Quercia’s Design for the Porta Magna of San Petronio in Bologna.”” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 24, no. 2 (1965): 115-26. doi:10.2307/988295. “”Cain and Abel – Bible Story Verses & Meaning.”” Bible Study Tools. Accessed December 12, 2018.

Cohn, Samuel Kline, and Fabrizio Ricciardelli. The Culture of Violence in Renaissance Italy: Proceedings of the International Conference: Georgetown University at Villa Le Balze, 3-4 May, 2010. Firenze: Le Lettere, 2012, 55 Empagano. “”Hercules Slaying a Centaur, Giambologna.”” Power and Politics. November 02, 2013. Accessed November 28, 2018.

“”Judith: A Remarkable Heroine.”” Biblical Archaeology Society. September 25, 2018. Accessed December 12, 2018.

“”Judith and Holofernes by Donatello.”” Piazza Della Signoria. Accessed December 10, 2018.

Michel, Kathryn. “”Images of Death and Violence in Renaissance and Medieval Art.”” – Share Research. Accessed November 09, 2018.

Morris, Nigel. “”Hercules Slaying the Centaur Nessus.”” Wood Carving. Accessed December 10, 2018.

Ramerini, Marco. “”Statue of Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini: One of the Most Famous Statues of Piazza Della Signoria in Florence.”” Borghi Di Toscana. Accessed December 10, 2018.

Proppe, Rebecca. “”Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes: A Symbol of Tyranny and Virtue in Renaissance Florence.”” – Share Research. Accessed November 12, 2018. Terry, Allie. “”Donatellos Decapitations and the Rhetoric of Beheading in Medicean Florence*.”” Renaissance Studies23, no. 5 (2009): 609-38. doi:10.1111/j.1477-4658.2009.00593.x.

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Narrative Violence in Italian Renaissance Sculpture. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from