'Samson Slaying a Philistine', by Giambologna, 1560-2

Marble statue of Samson slaying a Philistine, by Giambologna, Florence, Italy, about 1562. Museum no. A.7-1954, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Purchased with the assistance of The Art Fund

Marble statue of Samson slaying a Philistine, by Giambologna, Florence, Italy, about 1562. Museum no. A.7-1954, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Purchased with the assistance of The Art Fund

The only monumental marble sculpture by Giambologna ever to have left Florence was acquired by the Museum in 1953 with the assistance of the Art Fund. It is a group nearly seven feet high (210 centimetres) showing two nude men in combat, and representing Samson slaying a Philistine, an episode from the Old Testament 'Book of Judges': 

'And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand and took it and slew a thousand men therewith.'

The group bears the weathered remains of the sculptor's usual signature on the strap across Samson's chest: 'I ... BELGAE ... '. The statue has been in England for over 300 years and accordingly, despite its Italian origin, is an integral part of our national artistic heritage. Ever since the 17th century it has set a standard of aesthetic achievement and technical virtuosity that has challenged and inspired artists and patrons in this country. This is attested by full-scale casts in lead by Nost and Cheere in the gardens of country houses and lively sketches and paintings by, for example, Sir John Baptist Medina (1659–1710).

How the statue came to England

'Samson and a Philistine' originally formed the apex of an ornamental fountain made for the Medici in Florence about 1560, but has twice since served as a diplomatic gift. In 1601 the whole fountain was given by the Grand-Duke Ferdinando I to the Duke of Lerma, chief minister of King Philip III of Spain, and shipped to Valladolid. A document describes the despatch by sea from Leghorn of the marble basin, sawn into four, and the other structural components.

Only 20 years later, in 1623, the crowning statue was given by King Philip IV to the Prince of Wales (later King Charles I), when he was visiting Spain to investigate the possibility of a Spanish marriage. Charles later passed it to his travelling companion and favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, who had it shipped to England via Santander (Privy Purse account, 1623:

'Given by his Lordship's orders at Valladolid to Mr. Gerbier towards the charge of bringing the great stone statue from thence to St. Andrews £40.').

Regrettably, the basin and pedestal were not included and at the time when this sheet was written could be found in the royal gardens at Aranjuez, crowned by a different statue ('Bacchus'). The group was promptly installed at York House, for by 17 June 1624 Sir Thomas Wentworth mentioned in a letter:

'... York House ... goes on, passing fast, another Corner symmetrical now appearing answerable to that other raised before you went thence, besides a goodly Statue of Stone set up in the Garden before the new Building, bigger than the Life, of a Sampson with a Philistine betwixt his Legs, knocking his Brains out with the Jawbone of an Ass.'

A decade later Henry Peacham in his 'Compleat Gentleman' referred to the statue, with a changed identity which persisted until recently, perhaps owing to the loss of the jawbone from the hand of the standing figure (now restored). The garden of York House, 'will bee renowned so long as John de Bologna's Cain and Abel stand erected there, a peece of wondrous Art and Workmanship. The King of Spaine gave it his Majestie at his being there, who bestowed it on the late Duke of Buckingham'. In the schedule to an indenture dated 11 May 1635, made on the marriage of Buckingham's widow to Lord Dunluce, occurs the entry: 'On the mount in the garden: a rare piece of white marble of Cain and Abell'.

The group also figures in a manuscript catalogue of Buckingham's collection made about 1650: 'No. 8. Cain and Abel in marble, by John of Bologna, now in York-house garden, or at Chelsea'. It was then moved from York House to Buckingham House, apparently between 1703, when the house was rebuilt by John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, and 1714, when it is mentioned there in Macky's 'Journey through England':

'The staircase is large and nobly painted; in the hall before you ascend the stairs is a very fine statue of Cain slaying Abel in Marble'.

Buckingham House was acquired by George III as a palace in 1762, and at some time after this date the group was presented by the King to Thomas Worsley, Surveyor General of His Majesty's Works. The first record of the presence of the group at Hovingham occurs in a manuscript catalogue of 1778:

'The Vestibule. Samson slaying a Philistine, given as a parting gift by Philip King of Spain to our King Charles I, who gave it to Villiers Duke of Buckingham, was purchased with Buckingham House, and by the favour and grace of George III was sent to Hovingham'.

The group remained at Hovingham Hall until its acquisition by the Museum.

Giambologna (Jean Boulogne), 1529–1608

Marble statue of Samson slaying a Philistine, by Giambologna, Florence, Italy, about 1562. Museum no. A.7-1954, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Purchased with the assistance of The Art Fund

Marble statue of Samson slaying a Philistine, by Giambologna, Florence, Italy, about 1562. Museum no. A.7-1954, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Purchased with the assistance of The Art Fund

The name of Giambologna is unfamiliar to many: yet he occupied a vital position in the development of Italian sculpture between Michelangelo and Bernini. Just as their styles determined the direction of sculpture throughout Europe in their own day and for long afterwards, so Giambologna imposed his distinctive style on the half-century between the death of Michelangelo (1564) and the emergence of Bernini (about 1614).

Of Flemish origin and training, Jean Boulogne travelled to Rome about 1550 to study the masterpieces of classical and renaissance sculpture. On his homeward journey (about 1555) he visited Florence, probably to study the sculpture of Michelangelo, and was persuaded to settle there and work for the Medici Dukes. He became a favourite of the heir-apparent, Francesco, and by the middle of the 1560s was firmly established as court sculptor.

Giovanni Bologna (or Giambologna), as the Italians called him, made his name with a full-scale model of 'Neptune' (lost) for a competition to determine who should carve the monumental centrepiece for a fountain in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. While he was not destined to win this commission, the success of his entry may have encouraged the Medici to employ him to make the first of his great series of group sculptures in marble, 'Samson and a Philistine' (about 1560–62).

Immediately afterwards he was invited to Bologna to produce in bronze the sculptural components of a Fountain of Neptune for the city centre (1563–67), probably on the strength of his model for the earlier Florentine project. Returning to Florence in 1565 he produced a composition called 'Florence Triumphant over Pisa', as a pair to Michelangelo's 'Victory'. A decade later, his last statement in this series was the 'Rape of a Sabine' (1579–83).

Most famous of his bronzes, after the 'Neptune' in Bologna, are an early 'Bacchus', the 'Mercury' in the Bargello, and the equestrian monument to Dine Cosimo I de'Medici (1587–95). He also established himself as a master of the small bronze statuette early in his career, with the 'Mercury' sent to Vienna (1565) and the Apollo for the Studiolo in the Palazzo Vecchio (1573–75).

Numerous other compositions were reproduced in bronze and sold to clients all over Europe. His last great marble carving, 'Hercules and the Centaur' (1594–99), forms a prelude to the Baroque style that was to be pioneered at Rome within a decade of his death by Bernini.

Style

Giambologna grafted an understanding of the formal aspect of Michelangelo's sculpture on to a thorough re-appraisal of Graeco-Roman statuary, as it was daily being revealed in new excavations. Particularly influential were the ambitious representations of violent movement and the technical finesse of late Hellenistic work, most of which had not been available to earlier generations of sculptors in the Renaissance.

Unlike the intense Michelangelo, Giambologna was not deeply involved with the spiritual content of his work, nor (to the dismay of his more literal-minded contemporaries) with its narrative aspect. He concentrated instead (and this was completely novel at the time) on perfecting certain distinct types of composition, for instance the single figure and the two-or three-figure group, in an almost 'abstract' way.

The ingenuity of his solution to a complex problem of design and the technical accomplishment of carving it in marble or casting it in bronze are the two considerations that were paramount in his aesthetic. Fortunately, this attitude coincided perfectly with the expectations of his patrons (the Medici Dukes of Florence and other distinguished heads of state all over Italy and Europe), for their taste had been formed by the Mannerist style that had prevailed ever since the days of the High Renaissance.

The production of the fountain

Marble statue of Samson slaying a Philistine, by Giambologna, Florence, Italy, about 1562. Museum no. A.7-1954, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Purchased with the assistance of The Art Fund

Marble statue of Samson slaying a Philistine, by Giambologna, Florence, Italy, about 1562. Museum no. A.7-1954, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Purchased with the assistance of The Art Fund

Precise details about the origins of the 'Samson and a Philistine' are not known, but a letter recently discovered by Professor Keutner and Mr Pollard proves that it was commissioned some years earlier than previously had been thought. The statue was described on 15 January 1562 as 'finished to the surface of the skin', and requiring only the final polishing.

Such a complex group would take at least a year to carve, and therefore it must have been ordered by 1560 at the latest. It is probably no coincidence that this was the year when Giambologna had produced his full-scale clay model for the 'Neptune' for the projected fountain in the Piazza della Signoria, which received praise from no less an authority than Leone Leoni in a letter addressed to Michelangelo on 14 October 1560: possibly Francesco de' Medici commissioned the 'Samson' from the young sculptor by way of a consolation prize, after Ammanati had won the competition.

The earliest literary reference is contemporary, for Vasari wrote in a brief account of the sculptor's career which he included in the second edition of his 'Lives' (1568):

'This artist, apart from countless works in clay and terracotta, wax and other mediums, has made in marble a Venus of great beauty, and has almost completed for his lordship the Prince a life-size Samson, who fights on his feet with two Philistines'.

Vasari's inaccurate reference to two Philistines is suggestive: perhaps he had in mind the similarity of the sculpture to Michelangelo's model of the same subject, which includes two victims, one a corpse slumped on the ground.

Two letters of May and August 1569 to Francesco de' Medici seem to refer to the execution of the basin and pedestal: this may mean that the installation of the statue over a fountain was an afterthought. Two drawings in the Uffizi confirm its appearance: one is strictly frontal and measured to scale. It also has the different components identified by letters of the alphabet, which suggests that it may have been made in connection with the erection of the fountain or its subsequent dismemberment, prior to export to Spain.

The other, more attractive, drawing is an artist's impression of the fountain, indicating the play of water. It also provides the only evidence that the little niches on the four sides of the lower pedestal contained statuettes of seated monkeys, whose spreading limbs and dark colour suggest that they were made of bronze. The monkeys are no longer attached to the pedestal at Aranjuez (and may never have left Italy), but a lively bronze statuette recently acquired by the Staatliche Museen, Berlin-Dahlem and a broken fragment in the Victoria and Albert Museum may have once decorated the fountain. Their original significance is uncertain, though they may have personified evil, as manifest in the Philistine above.

As mentioned in Borghini's Il Riposo (1583), the original location of the fountain in Florence was the Casino Mediceo, a palace built for Francesco de' Medici by Buontalenti in a garden opposite the monastery of San Marco.

No sketch-models for the project survive, but when in 1576 Federico Zuccaro sketched Giambologna for inclusion in his fresco on the inside of the dome of Florence Cathedral, a model was shown in the sculptor's hands. A terracotta was still treasured in a Florentine private collection when Baldinucci wrote his Notizie dei Professori del Disegno (1688):

'Giovanni Bologna had a commission to carve, for the Casino of the Grand-Duke Francesco, the group of Samson with a Philistine beneath him. This was placed on the fountain in the Cortile de' Semplici, where, in addition, he made a beautiful fantasy of sea monsters who supported the basin... A beautiful clay model of this work came into the hands of Giovanni Francesco Grazini, who was much interested in these arts. This fountain was later despatched by the Grand-Duke Francesco as a gift to the Duke of Lerma in Spain'.

It is possibly Grazini's model which was later brought to England by William Locke of Norbury Park and appeared in his posthumous sale at Christie's in 1785. It was bought by the sculptor Joseph Nollekens, but has since disappeared.

Michelangelo's influence

In their choice of subject and treatment both Francesco de' Medici and Giambologna patently had in mind the incomplete projects of Michelangelo for groups of two figures struggling with one another. The idea had originated with the commission for the tomb of Pope Julius II, in which several such groups were to be set in niches, flanked by the statues of 'Slaves'. Only one, the 'Victory', was actually carved. When Michelangelo left Florence in 1534, never to return, the statue was locked away secretly in his studio and released only after his death in 1564.

His nephew gave it to the Medici as a decoration for the Hall of the Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, which was being prepared for the wedding celebrations of Francesco. Giambologna was commissioned to produce a companion group showing a political allegory of 'Florence triumphant over Pisa'. He met the supreme challenge of a confrontation with Michelangelo successfully.

The specific title of 'Samson and a Philistine' was derived from an abandoned commission of Michelangelo from the 1520's, a project to create a pair to his famous statue of David in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. The subject was originally to have been 'Hercules slaying Cacus' and this stage is recorded in a vigorous clay model now in Casa Buonarotti. Michelangelo subsequently developed the theme into a group involving three figures, changing the subject to 'Samson slaying two Philistines'.

The third figure is a corpse lying curled up beneath the other two, and Samson's right foot rests on the side of its head. This composition is known from a number of bronzes probably cast from an original wax model. Largely for political reasons Michelangelo was not able to carry out either scheme, and his rival Bandinelli, a supporter of the Medici, carved the statue of 'Hercules and Cacus' (1534) which now forms a pair with Michelangelo's 'David' (a copy) flanking the main portal of the Palazzo Vecchio.

The pose of Giambologna's Samson is closely based on that of the standing victor in Michelangelo's alternative projects, while that of the Philistine is broadly similar to its prototypes. It is interesting to left to note that Giambologna chose to revert to the original concept of a two-figure group, even though the subject of Samson implied more than one victim. He omitted the recumbent corpse, which Michelangelo had introduced to fill up the natural spaces between the limbs and bodies of the protagonists, and thus to preserve the integrity of the original block of marble.

Giambologna decided to accentuate the interstices and the great weight of marble in the two bodies is supported by only five points of contact with the rocky base. The effect is radically different from that sought by Michelangelo. Giambologna's source of inspiration was Hellenistic sculpture showing figures in combat and a work such as 'the Wrestlers' (Uffizi) provides a close analogy for the careful calculation of stresses and physical balance that permit the group to stand up as well as for the . daring undercutting with which the sculptor achieved his end.

Appreciation

Baldinucci's assessment of the group is extremely perceptive: 'Giovanni Bologna surpassed himself in this statue of Samson, in that he succeeded in avoiding a certain mannerism which many of his sculptures have, and, as a result, made it much more natural and life-like'.

The group is indeed far less mannered than much of his sculpture, particularly pieces on a small scale, for its proportions are natural and not elongated while the pose, though daringly active, is not forced beyond the bounds of possibility. This constitutes a reversion to the classic canons of Graeco-Roman and High Renaissance sculpture.

While the composition is carefully calculated to provide a clear front view and three hardly less important side or back views, which were emphasized by the square ground plan of the pedestal and basin, there is no feeling of interruption as one walks round the group to explore its intricate action and enjoy the relationship of bodies and limbs with each other or with the interpenetrating space.

Written by Charles Avery, 1978, and published in the V&A Masterpieces series.
Revised 2006.

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