Rome Travel Guide

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Exclusive: Sabine Women Live Happily Ever After

For millennia, disgust was the only reasonable emotion to have for what happened about 2700 years ago to the women of the Sabine, a people that occupied an area centered to the northeast of Rome, from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic. Their story of Il Ratto delle Sabine (The Rape of the Sabines) was told and retold, by Plutarch and Ovid, by Renaissance painters Bartolome di Giovanni, Ludovico Caracci, Pietro da Cortona, Tiepolo, and many others--all featuring Roman soldiers struggling and tussling with the young ladies of the Sabina, often in sexually provocative positions. Later work--Primo Conti's 1925 depiction of the event--was more explicitly sexual, with the Romans presented as dark-skinned predators. Franco Gentilini's 1934 version resembles a Victorian picnic gone bad.

Forget all that, or most it, anyway. The "true" story--in any event, another story, another "myth" one might say--was told recently in an exhibit (now closed) at the Vittoriano. This narrative, with elements of the old one, but with more historical context, begins with the founding of Rome by Romolo (Romulus), and with Romolo's plan to increase the population of his new city by scouring the countryside for brides for the oversupply of Roman men. A not unreasonable goal, and for a while the thoughtful Romolo pursued it through diplomacy; he negotiated with surrounding territories, urging them to send their young women to the big city. When that didn't work, the clever Romolo gave a huge party, big enough to attract the Sabine women (and their escorts). At a prearranged signal, the Roman soldiers pounced on the Sabine entourage, scaring the men off and taking the women--only the unmarried ones, of course, so no families were split up, and everything should have been fine. Not so. Inexplicably, the Sabine men were furious, and they made war on Rome. BUT--and here we get another twist to the new story--the war was ended by the Sabine women themselves, who brought the two sides to the bargaining table. Perhaps they realized that despite that inauspicious beginning, life with the boys of Rome wasn't so bad after all.

More recently, we learned from the exhibit, the story of the Sabine women has found its way onto the silver screen. An early effort was Il Ratto delle Sabine (1945), dir. Mario Bonnard, then, by the same title, a 1961 film directed by Richard Poitier, featuring a young Roger Moore as Romolo. The Taviani Brothers took up theme in 1969 with Sotto Il Segno delle Scorpione (Under the Sign of the Scorpion).

But the real gem, from which we offer you a brief excerpt, is Stanley's Donen's frantic musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), starring Jane Powell, Russ Tamblyn, and Howard Keel. The film was influenced by a 1938 Stephen Vincent Benet novel, The Sobbin' Women, and it is set in Oregon Territory in 1850, with the Romans transposed into a family of horny but genial mountain men. Bill

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