Herakles and the Bull
Bronze, red-golden lacquer patina
French, late 18th century
Model by Giambologna (1529 – 1608) or Pietro Tacca (1577 – 1640)
Provenance: Collection of Alberto Altieri, Zion, (IL)
H 56 x W 61 x D 39 cm
(22 x 24 x 15? in.)
This powerful large bronze group represents the overcoming of the Acheloüs by Hercules. In masterful execution, it depicts their legendary, ferocious battle for the hand of Deianira at the moment in which the river god Acheloüs, after having transformed into a bull, is firmly taken by the horns and wrestled to the ground by the divine hero. Bending forward beside the bull, the grappling Hercules is wearing only the Nemean lion’s pelt around his shoulders. The musculature of both subjects, meticulously portrayed with utmost realism, renders the tension of the fight almost palpable.
Some uncertainty exists concerning both the precise origins, as well as the depicted subject matter of this group.
The original composition of Hercules and the Bull was possibly conceived and executed by Giambologna (1529-1608), court sculptor to the Florentine Medici. Between 1576 and 1589 Giambologna cast a set of six Labours of Hercules in silver as part of a commission from Francesco I de Medici in order the embellish the Tribuna of the Uffizi in Florence. Although the statues are all lost now, they have been well documented and several bronzes relating to the style of Giambologna remain.
The number of Labours of Hercules created by Giambologna and his assistants was not confined to the six statues intended for the Tribuna, and bronzes, in style related to that of Giambologna, of other Labours of Hercules as well as of some of the parerga and uncanonical labours can be found in numerous renowned public as well as private collections to this day.
Sources from the time mention that from around 1612 onwards Pietro Tacca (1577-1640), who inherited Giambologna's workshop and had assisted Giambologna in the execution of the original series of Labours of Hercules, produced a series of Labours himself, that intended to be cast in bronze. Some of the models by Tacca are believed to have been based upon those created by Giambologna, but it is assumed original compositions, created by Tacca, were added in order to complete the series. At least a number of these bronzes were part of a series commissioned from Pietro Tacca by the Grand Duke Cosimo III de Medici, as part of a gift to King James I of England. However, the project never materialized and it wasn’t until after Pietro Tacca’s death that most of the models he created for this project, were to be executed by his talented son Ferdinando Tacca (1619-1686).
The Labours of Hercules by Giambologna and his pupils instantly gained enormous popularity among the elite of the time and thus many casts found their way into some of the most prestigious collections in Europe. The inventory of King Louis XIV’s collection, for example, listed fifteen bronzes of the Labours of Hercules.
The present group was closely modelled after a composition created by Pietro Tacca and executed by his son Ferdinando, a cast of which, dating to the 1650s, was part of the French Royal Collection, marked with the number “302”. It represents a high point of 17th century Florentine bronze casting and is documented to have been offered as a present by Louis XIV to his son, the Grand Dauphin, in 1681, and it remained in the Royal Collection until the French revolution. Another, gilded cast of Hercules and the Bull can be found in the Wallace Collection in London. However, the cast, upon which this group was based, is considered to be a technically more advanced and improved version compared to the Wallace cast, displaying higher quality and a more harmonious composition. The group was highly sought after and consequently recast by various Italian and French artists during the 17th and 18th centuries. One of these casts found its way in the exquisite Yves Saint Laurent collection.
The subject of the present group is generally believed to be Hercules wrestling with Achelous in the form of a bull, which wasn’t part of the true Labours of Hercules. Since not all of the canonical Labours were susceptible to sculptural representation, some other mythological stories from the life of Hercules were used to complete the traditional number of twelve labours.
This story, tells how Deianira, daughter of Althaea and King Oeneus of Calydon, was courted among others by the river god Acheloüs but eventually saved from having to marry him by Heracles, who defeated the shape-shifting god in a wrestling contest for her hand in marriage. Hercules defeated Acheloüs by wrenching off one of his horns, and thus creating the cornucopia, the classical symbol of abundance.
According to others, however, the bronze group portrays the battle of Hercules, with the Cretan Bull, one of the classical Twelve Labours.
Giambologna was born as Jean de Boulogne in Douai, Flanders, in 1529. After a training as an apprentice to Jacques Dubroeucq, he travelled to Italy in 1550 to study the masterpieces of Classical and Renaissance sculpture. On his way home, he visited Florence (c.1552) and was persuaded to settle there under the patronage of the Medici Dukes and eventually became their court sculptor.
He grafted an understanding of the formal aspect of Michelangelo's statuary on to a thorough reappraisal of Greco-Roman sculpture, as it was being daily revealed in new excavations at the time. Particularly influential were the ambitious representations of figures and groups in violent movement and the technical finesse of late Hellenistic work, most of which had not been available to earlier generations (e.g. Farnese Bull, excavated in 1546).
For over half a century Giambologna dominated Florentine sculpture, carving an ever more impressive series of statue groups in marble: Samson Slaying a Philistine (1560-62), Florence Triumphant over Pisa, the Rape of a Sabine, Hercules Slaying a Centaur. In addition, Giambologna produced numerous extraordinary bronze statues, such as Bacchus, Mercury, and Neptune, culminating in his equestrian monument to Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The last was copied shortly afterwards for the kings of France and Spain.
By c. 1570 Giambologna had become the most influential sculptor in Europe. Apart from the fame that his monumental statues in Florence inevitably brought, his style was disseminated in the form of small bronze reproductions of his masterworks, or statuettes, which he composed independently as elegant ornaments for the interior. These were used by the Medici as diplomatic gifts for friendly heads of state and were also eagerly purchased by European collectors as examples of sophisticated Florentine design. They were especially favoured in Germany and the Low Countries and were prominently illustrated in paintings of fashionable gallery interiors there.
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