Travels in Italy, Part 1: La Galleria

Today, stylish readers, I’m dropping the editorial “we” (and the royal one) to share a few personal reflections on my first visit to the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. Any discussion of the Galleria’s collection should start, of course, with Michelangelo’s David. But mine’s not going to. Why? Because even an Arbiter of Style has his limits, and knowing them is part of what makes him an Arbiter. (That, and cheerful self-delusion.) The statue and its place in art history are much too distinguished for me to say anything worthwhile about them in a brief entry, so I’ll just toss out a superfluous recommendation: if you haven’t already, go see the David. In Florence, not in a book. Not even in an Abbeville book. Go.

You’re back? Fantastic. Let’s move on to Giambologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, the full-scale gesso of which dominates the room next to Michelangelo’s masterpiece (the final marble version is in the Piazza della Signoria, where the original David once stood). This statue was my favorite piece in the collection, and although I’ve linked to it, still images can’t do it justice; it truly needs to be seen in person. Unlike classical statues intended to be viewed from a single perspective, Giambologna’s sculpture makes brilliant use of the three-dimensionality of the medium, creating a spiral structure of three human figures that demands, and repays, viewing from every possible angle.

The piece depicts a brutal, frightening scene—one man trampling a rival as he abducts a terrified woman—but the viewer’s immediate impression is of dance, particularly ballet (I also thought of the ice skaters Torville and Dean, though as far as I know they never trampled anyone in their routines). As well as being both beautiful and technically extraordinary—the work was carved from a single block of marble—the helical structure has a figurative element, suggesting a vortex of chaos into which the three figures have been drawn. In life, the scene would be terribly ugly just before and after the moment at which it’s frozen, but that single moment is one of incredible harmony and balance.

The best part about Rape of the Sabine Women, though, is that the title and the classical precedent weren’t Giambologna’s idea; they were grafted on afterward at someone else’s suggestion because, well, precedents were big in those days. According to the Galleria’s caption, Giambologna created the work purely as an example of “excellence in art”—as art for art’s sake, in the best sense of that phrase. I think he succeeded pretty admirably, and I can’t help wondering what the master would have titled it in this day and age. Something peppier, like Ravishment Dance? Something mysterious and oblique, like Spiral No. 9? Anyone have other ideas? Maybe we should hold a contest.

Easily my next favorite part of the Galleria was its collection of antique musical instruments, or Dipartimento degli Strumenti Musicali. Along with all the pianoforti and Stradivarius violins you might expect are some instruments so esoteric and cool they’re just begging to be revived: the serpentone, the jingle, the hurdy-gurdy, and most amazing of all, the piano-guitar. Let me say that again: the piano-guitar—a guitar with piano keys built into it. Presumably this little marvel allowed Renaissance musicians to be Ray Charles and Jimi Hendrix all at once, attracting nubile damsels from miles around with their supreme maiden-wooing powers. If we ever start a jam band here at Abbeville Press, I’ve got dibs on the piano-guitar. I hope that’s OK with the other Arbiters, because I’m going to need a little backup on the jingle.

So much for the Galleria; next week I’ll share thoughts on the Uffizi, the Vatican Museum, and Florence and Rome more generally. We—the editorial “we”—will also mix in some non-Italy-related content, including the much-anticipated Abbeville Manual vs. Chicago Manual Hyphenation Showdown. See you on Monday!

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