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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.
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