Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Medieval & Renaissance, Room 64, The Wolfson Gallery

This object consists of 2 parts, some of which may be located elsewhere.

The Rape of Europa

ca. 1495 (made)
Place of origin

The composition of this relief derives from ancient Roman gems. It shows the Greek god Zeus, who turned himself into a beautiful white bull so as to abduct (‘rape’) Europa and carry her off to Crete. In this frank representation, the bull turns to lick Europa’s breast.

Object details

Object type
This object consists of 2 parts.

  • Relief
  • Frame
TitleThe Rape of Europa (generic title)
Materials and techniques
Glazed terracotta
Brief description
Relief depicting The Rape of Europa, glazed terracotta, Italian, Rustici, ca. 1495
Physical description
A rectangular glazed teracotta relief, depicting The Rape of Europa. The abducted Europa rides on the bull's back, her hair and drapery billowing out behind her. The bull has turned his head to face her and her left hand holds one of his horns, while her right appears to caress the bull's ear. Executed in varying degrees of relief with a white tin glaze (a delicate violet glaze on Europa's eyebrows and eyes).
  • Height: 32.7cm
  • Width: 40.3cm
  • Measured from bottom of relief, at greatest depth depth: 5cm
Measured for the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries
Gallery label
  • THE RAPE OF EUROPA Glazed Terracotta Probably by Giovanni Francesco Rustici (1474-1554) and glazed in the workshop of the Della Robbia. Florentine; about 1495 A.8-1971 In classical mythology Jupiter fell in love with Europa the daughter of Agenor, King of Tyre, and disguising himself as a white bull beguiled her as she played by the seashore and carried her off acros the sea to Crete. This is probably the relief of Europa mentioned in Vasari as having been made by Rustici and given to Ruberto di Fillippo Lippi, the son of Fillippino Lippi. This view is supported by the existence of two drawings ascribed to the workshop of Fillippino and apparently based on the relief. The composition derives from antique gems such as those in the Medici collection which included an alabaster intaglio of Europa and the Bull similar to the present releif.(1997)
  • Above THE RAPE OF EUROPA About 1495 Giovanni Francesco Rustici (1474-1554) The composition of this relief probably derives from ancient Roman gems. It shows the god Jupiter who fell in love with the beautiful princess Europa and disguised himself as a white bull. Winning her trust as she played by the seashore, he then carried her off across the sea to Crete. Italy, Florence; glazed in the della Robbia workshop Glazed terracotta Museum no. A.8-1971(2008)
Object history
Lanckoronski collection Vienna : Purchased by the museum at Christie's in 1971.

Historical significance: The work was attributed to Agostino di Duccio by Bode and was only fully reassesed by Pope-Hennessy, who placed it in the circle of Verrocchio either as a product of the della Robbia workshop after a prototype by Verrocchio or as an autograph work by the master himself. Davis first proposed an atribution to the Florentine sculptor Rustici in 1988 (in letter to Anthony Radclffe; see Museum files). He based his argument both on stylistic analysis and on a passage in Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Artists... which refers to Rustici's gift of many of his bas relief sculptures to Ruberto di Filippo Lippi 1500-1574 - (son of Filippino Lippi), including one of 'Europa'. [Vasari writes: 'A Ruberto di Filippo Lippi pittore, il quale fu suo discepolo, diede Giovanfrancesco [ie Rustici] molte opere di sua mano di bassi rilievi, e modelli e disegni, e fra l'altre in piu quadri una Leda, un' Europa, un Nettunno et un bellissimo Vulcano [...]'.] The Leda and the Swan is now in Frankfurt am Main, Liebieghaus.

Meanwhile, the glazing of reliefs in the della Robbia workshop by non-workshop artists is documented.
Historical context
The Europa relief is very close in composition to two drawings generally attributed to Filippino Lippi and his workshop. The composition and subject probably derives from antique gems such as those in the Medici collection, which included an alabaster intaglio of Europa and the bull. Such mythological and allegorical representation enjoyed great popularity with Lorenzo de' Medici and his circle. The representation here recalls, but does not exactly reproduce, the published image of Europa and the Bull in late fifteenth-century editions of Ovid's Metamorphoses. As in Ovid's poem, Europa clutches the bull's horn and draws her feet up high to prevent them getting wet. The white glaze of the relief also reflects a detail in Ovid's text: Jupiter had turned himself into a white bull. However, in depicting the bull licking Europa's breast, Rustici draws on contemporary retellings of the myth, which emphasise the mutual sexual attraction between the girl and the god-beast.

Gentilini has convincingly suggested a late fifteenth century date for the work which would make it a particularly early work by the artist, while Davis places it in the 1520's paring it with the Noli Me Tangere which he considers Rustici to have executed before leaving florence. The deep undercutting of Europa's robe, the voluminous mantle and her facial features, however all recall late fifteenth century prototypes.

According to Vasari, Rustici was also a painter, although the only painting currently attributed to him is the Conversion of St Paul in the Victoria & Albert Museum 1562-1904. The subtle modeling of this relief provides further testimony to his painterly skills and perhaps represents Rustici's three-dimensional response to a theme more usually associated with painting.

Rustici was born in Florence in 1474 and died in Tours in 1554. A sculptor and painter, he was also active in France. He was of noble birth, and his artistic activities were those of a dilettante. Vasari described Rustici as "very courteous , not like most men of his class". No formal apprenticeship is recorded: although Vasari called him a pupil of Verrocchio, this can only have been indirectly, for Verrocchio died in Venice in 1488, when Rustici was 14. His later collaboration with Leonardo da Vinci does suggest a mutual familiarity with Verrocchio’s workshop, which continued after the master’s death. Certainly, Pomponius Gauricus, in De sculptura (Padua, 1504), named him as one of the principal sculptors of Tuscany, with Benedetto da Maiano, Andrea Sansovino and Michelangelo. Rustici also studied the Medici sculpture collection in the garden at S. Marco in Florence, where, as an aristocrat, he would have been particularly welcome.

Probably because his social position made him more independent than the average artist, few of Rustici’s works are documented, although many have been identified from descriptions by Vasari, corroborated by stylistic comparisons. He worked in marble, clay and bronze. His early work is only partially known and his first identified work is a marble bust of the the poet Giovanni Boccacio. His most important work is the bronze group of the Preaching Baptist for the baptistry in Florence, which he executed with the assistance of Leonardo da Vinci in 1506-1511.

Rustici stayed in France after the expulsion of the Medici from Florence in 1528. He arrived at the court of Francis I with an introduction from the diplomat and art dealer Giambattista della Palla, and was given a salary. He succeded Leonardo, who had died in 1519. He spent much time on a major project, a twice life-size equestrian monument to Francis I: the horse was cast in 1529–31, but the rider had not been executed by the time of the King’s death in 1547. There is no visual record of Rustici’s design, but almost certainly it reflected Leonardo’s plans for monuments for Francesco Sforza and Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, which were known to the French, from their invasions of Milan earlier in the century, and also to Rustici. The new king, Henry II, cancelled Rustici’s salary and gave his residence to Piero Strozzi, who looked after the sculptor until his death.
glazed in the della Robbia workshop
Subjects depicted
Literary referenceOvid Metamorphosis 2:836-875
The composition of this relief derives from ancient Roman gems. It shows the Greek god Zeus, who turned himself into a beautiful white bull so as to abduct (‘rape’) Europa and carry her off to Crete. In this frank representation, the bull turns to lick Europa’s breast.
Bibliographic references
  • Boucher, Bruce, (ed.), Earth and Fire, Italian Sculpture from Donatello to Canova New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2001 p.156
  • Vasari Lives of the Artists (1568) chpt. IV; for a modern edition, see Vasari, Le Vite de' Piu Eccelenti Pittori Scultori ed Architettori, vol. IV (Florence 1906; repr. 1973), p.608.
  • Bode. W Die Italienischen Skulpturen der renaissance in der koniglichen Museen (Berlin 1883)
  • Christie's Sale catalogue (1971) Lot.191
  • 'Some Recent Acquisitions Made by Museums and Galleries in Great Britain', The Burlington Magazine 114 (June 1972), p.439.
  • John Pope-Hennessy, 'A Relief of The Rape of Europa', Victoria and Albert Museum Yearbook 4 (1974), 11-19.
  • Giancarlo Gentilini, I Della Robbia e l'arte nuova della scultura invetriata (Fiesole 1998)
  • Charles Davis, 'I Bassorilievi fiorentini di Francesco Rustici. Esercizi di lettura', Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, 39.1 (1995), 93-133.
  • Malcolm Bull, The Mirror of the Gods: How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods (Oxford, 2005), esp. pp.160-165.
  • Die Verführung der Europa, Berlin : Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Kunstgewerbemuseum : Propyläen, 1988 no. 52
  • Barocchi, Paola (ed.), Il Giardino di San Marco. Maestri e compagni del Giovane Michelangelo, Firenze : Silvana Editoriale, 1992 no.34
Accession number
A.8:1, 2-1971

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Record createdMarch 20, 2006
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