They were sculpted by Vincenzo de’ Rossi (Fiesole, 1525 – Florence, 1587), a contemporary of Giambologna, between 1562 and 1584. It is believed that the statues were meant to decorate a fountain located in the Boboli Gardens.
Unfortunately, de’ Rossi managed to complete only seven of the twelve series of statues. They were placed in the Hall of the Five Hundred in 1592 at the behest of the Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici in celebration of the baptism of his eldest son, Cosimo.
The statues placed on the wall of the main entrance depict, from the south to the Audience, Hercules and Cacus, Hercules and the Centaur Nessus, and Hercules and Antaeus; on the opposite side of the room, in the same order, Hercules and Diomedes, Hercules and the Erymanthian boar, and Hercules and Hippolyta.
The seventh group, which depicts Hercules and the sphere of Atlas, has been located in the entrance of the Villa di Poggio Imperiale since 1620. Our previous post, entitled Hercules and Diomedes, dealt with the mythological figure of Hercules. To recapitulate, the twelve Labours of Hercules consisted of the following:
- Slay the Nemean Lion
- Slay the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra
- Capture the Golden Hind of Artemis
- Capture the Erymanthian Boar
- Clean the Augean stables in a single day
- Slay the Stymphalian Birds
- Capture the Cretan Bull
- Steal the Mares of Diomedes
- Obtain the girdle of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons
- Obtain the cattle of the monster Geryon
- Steal the apples of the Hesperides
- Capture and bring back Cerberus
Many Renaissance works of art centered on the demigod Hercules. In fact, it was commonplace for Renaissance Humanists to reinterpret Greek myths as symbols of human virtue. The Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent in particular, strongly advocated the mythological figure of Hercules.
For instance, around 1460, they commissioned Pollaiolo to decorate the palace in Via Larga with frescoes depicting scenes of the Labours of Hercules (now lost).
Lorenzo even commissioned Pollaiolo to build him a table for his studio portraying the second labour of Hercules (Hercules and the Hydra), presently situated in the Uffizi Museum.
An interesting aspect of the mythological figure of Hercules is that of “Hercules the Fouder”, the demigod who, throughout his labours, founded many cities. This idea spread across Europe and was even adopted by the illustrious citizens of Florence.
According to certain historical sources, Hercules founded that city, citing as evidence an ancient seal of Florence imprinted with the image of the demigod. This seal was used by the Florentines to authenticate the letters they sent into territories outside their jurisdiction.
As such, it symbolized the entire city rather than a single government entity. While some sources date this seal to 1282, it is certain that it was in use between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The myth of Hercules was so deeply entrenched by the fifteenth century that a poem on Hercules falsely attributed to Dante Alighieri survives today. Vincenzo de’ Rossi was inspired by the sculpture Hercules and Cacus,created by his master Baccio Bandinelli.
The sculpture was placed in the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio next to Michelangelo’s David in 1508. It was later appropriated by the Medici as a symbol of victory over their enemies.
Hercules symbolized reason and human virtue that exceeds the limits imposed by nature, and was able to put his strength in doing good and serving the community.
Pictures by casalgrandepadana and The Nino