Italian, second half of the 18th century

Bust of Hercules After the Antique Bronze

41.5 cm (16 ¼ in.) high
58 cm. (22 ¾ in.) high, including the socle

An image of arresting beauty, this impressively refined head was cast in the late eighteenth century in Italy. As prescribed by Grand Tour taste, its likeness is drawn from an ancient prototype, a Roman bronze bust of a male youth preserved today in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples (fig. 1; see Moesch 2009, p. 62, no. 25). This in turn derives from a late fifth-century B.C. Greek type, attributed to the famed sculptor Polycleitus, representing the hero Hercules, son of the god Zeus/Jupiter and the mortal Alcmene, which is known today through Roman marble copies (for example Musei Capitolini, Rome, inv. no. MC1877). The Roman bronze Hercules was unearthed in 1759 at the site of the monumental Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum. A unique find in the history of western archaeology, this patrician residence revealed almost a hundred exquisitely fine sculptures and more than a thousand papyrus scrolls, the vestiges of an incredibly rich library. Its discovery was fundamental to the study of classical antiquity and to the development of eighteenth-century aesthetic theory. Famously, it more recently constituted the foundation for the design of the great collector J. Paul Getty’s Villa at Pacific Palisades, California, begun in the mid-1950s.

Elegantly poised, this youthful Hercules turns his head slightly to one side, his countenance seemingly pensive. The eyebrows are finely outlined, the nose straight and the mouth small and half-open. The hair is quite short at the back, but curlier and denser on the forehead. The bust is cut just below the neck. Curiously, upon its discovery at Herculaneum the Roman bronze was believed to be a portrait of Lucius Caesar (17 B.C.–2 A.D.) son of the influential Roman statesman and general Agrippa (64/62–12 B.C.) and maternal grandson of Octavian Augustus (63 B.C.–19 A.D.), the first Roman Emperor (see Le Antichità di Ercolano, vol. V, p. 183).
Polycleitus’s primary composition portrays the legendary Hercules, traditionally a paragon of valour and ingenuity, in the prime of his youth, his exquisite beauty functioning as a mirror of his intellectual and moral virtue. This notion – encapsulated in the Greek expression καλὸς κἀγαθός, a combination of the adjectives “beautiful” and “virtuous” – was central to classical aesthetic theory, and underpins the process of idealisation of the human form closely associated with Polycleitus’s work. Indeed the artist is famed for having created a method, called “the canon”, relating each part of the body to the whole through mathematically calculated proportions. This endeavour is typified by Polycleitus’s most renowned statue, the Doryphoros, or spear-bearer, also known to us solely through Roman versions (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, inv. no. 6011), which bears a close resemblance to the Hercules composition.

This search for a perfect harmony within the human figure, evident in the present head’s features, would certainly have resonated with the aesthetic principles of the Neoclassical period, and would as such have formed part of this bronze’s appeal to a learned eighteenth-century audience. The high level of finish of its surface and the beautiful uniformity of its patina indicate that our Hercules must have originated in an important commission, presumably for one of the wealthy ‘milordi’ who would have visited the historic sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum as part of their Grand Tour. Remarkably, this composition is rare and to scale with the Roman original, which, together with its outstanding quality, suggest it was cast shortly after the discovery of the Villa dei Papiri, when bronzes after the Antique were the prerogative of a restricted number of patrons and the serialization of models had not yet taken hold in the foundries of the peninsula.

Like its ancestor centuries earlier at the Villa dei Papiri, in the eighteenth century the present bronze would have adorned the stately home of a cultured, well-travelled member of the aristocracy, acting as a signifier of his prestige. In addition, a model after the Antique such as our Hercules would have established a direct correlation between its owner and the Roman patriciate. As Ruth Guilding writes, through the assembly of formidable collections of antiquities, the British effectively presented themselves as ‘new Romans’, as the heirs of those great statesmen and military men who had been the glory of the Roman Empire (Guilding 2014, p. 6). The parallel was certainly not an accidental one, given that the British were at the time in process of building the most formidable empire of the early modern age.

Provenance: Private collection, United Kingdom

Literature: Related Literature
Le Antichità di Ercolano, I Busti, Naples, 1767, vol. V
V. Moesch ed., La Villa dei Papiri, Milan, 2009
R. Guilding, Owning the Past, New Haven and London, 2014