Samson Slaying a Philistine was carved by Giambologna (Jean Boulogne, 1529 – 1608), a Flemish sculptor who worked for the Medici family in Florence. Since it was imported to the UK from Italy as a diplomatic gift in the early 17th century, this monumental piece has helped set the bar for aesthetic achievement and technical skill, and both inspired and challenged many generations of British sculptors.
Standing just over two metres high, this imposing marble sculpture depicts two naked men locked in combat. The motif of the piece, 'Samson Slaying a Philistine', is taken from an episode described in the Bible, in the Old Testament's Book of Judges: 'And he (Samson) found a new jawbone of an ass, and put his hand and took it and slew a thousand men therewith'. Carved in Florence, probably between 1560 and 1562, it was the work of an artist known by the name of Giambologna. 'Giambologna' was a contraction of 'Giovanni of Bologna', a title that came from the artist's actual name: Jean Boulogne. Giambologna had come from Flanders to Italy in around 1550 to study the masterpieces of classical and Renaissance sculpture. On his homeward journey he was persuaded to stay in Florence by the Medici family, the dynasty that controlled the Republic of Florence, and by the middle of the 1560s he was firmly established as a court sculptor.
Giambologna was commissioned by Prince Francesco de' Medici (1541 – 87), the second Grand Duke of Tuscany, to make this larger-than-life-size piece. The earliest of the great marble groups by Giambologna, Samson Slaying a Philistine originally formed the top element of a fountain for the Giardino dei Semplici, the Medicis' botanical gardens. The sculpure first left Florence in 1601, becoming the only substantial work by Giambologna to do so. The fountain had been cut into pieces and shipped to Spain as a diplomatic gift for Duke of Lerma, the influential chief minister of King Philip III. Samson Slaying a Philistine was later presented to England's Charles, Prince of Wales (later to be Charles I) on a visit he made to Spain in 1623 to investigate the possibility of marrying a Spanish bride. On its arrival in England, the sculpture was given to the Duke of Buckingham, Charles's travelling companion and an enthusiastic patron of the arts.
The subject and treatment of the group in Giambologna's sculpture was derived from a project by Michelanglo from the 1520s that featured Samson in combat with two Philistines (known only from a series of bronze casts of the original model). The idea had been to create a sculpture to accompany the artist's famous statue of David in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (Florence's town hall). The direct intention of Giambologna's work, both for the artist and Francesco de' Medici, was to realise a version of Michelangelo's piece – one that could well have been his most impressive sculptural composition. Samson Slaying the Philistine certainly embodies three of Michelangelo's aesthetic ideals: a pyramidal or conical volume, a flame-like contour to suggest movement, and three figures unified in action. But the piece is also distinctively Giambologna's, offering a clear example of the multiple viewpoints characteristic of his work: the spiralling movement of the two bodies means that there is no main position from which to look at the piece.
In terms of composition, Giambologna also put his own stamp on Michelangelo's original idea by choosing to eliminate the third figure, of the dead Philistine, from its base. Doing so meant he had to create a series of spaces between the lower elements of the two remaining figures that necessitated cuts into and even all the way through the lower part of the marble block. Excavating the marble to this extent presented huge technical challenges – the great weight of marble in the two bodies is supported by only five narrow points of contact with the base. But Giambologna obviously welcomed the opportunity to demonstrate his skill, and to imitate the virtuoso classical sculptures from the Ancient Greek Hellenistic period (approx. 323 BC – 31 BC) that he would have seen in Rome. Many of these classical sculptures featured figures in combat, as well as daring undercuts and energetic compositions that relied on the careful calculation of physical stress on the material used. In doing so, Giambologna played a vital role in the development of Italian sculpture between Michelangelo and Bernini.
Once it arrived in the UK, Samson Slaying a Philistine soon became established as an influential piece that was often copied. Full-scale versions in marble and lead adorned the gardens of a number of English country houses. The original sculpture returned to royal ownership in 1762, when George III acquired it as part of the purchase of the London mansion that was to become Buckingham Palace. The King gave Giambologna's sculpture to his friend and courtier Thomas Worsley, who had it moved to his house, Hovingham Hall in North Yorkshire. Samson Slaying a Philistine remained in Yorkshire until 1953, the year it was acquired by the V&A.