Hercules in Florence
by Thomas J. Sienkewicz
Monmouth College

Note: A version of this essay, based on my experiences as a visiting professor in the ACM Florence Programs in 1992-1993 and in 2011, was written as a contribution to the Festschrift in Honor of Janet Smith, to be published in 2012.

My intention here is not to offer new theories or interpretations regarding Hercules in Florence. Rather I provide some resources understanding Hercules in Florence. First, I provide a chronological overview of selected literary texts from Late Antiquity and the Renaissance which helped to mould or to articulate Renaissance attitudes towards the hero. Since many of these are currently not available in English, I include my own translations for cited passages. I then discuss some specific public representations of the hero in Florentine art. These art objects are also discussed chronologically. Attached at the end of the study is a fairly comprehensive list of art in Florence in which Hercules appears, organized by location, as well as bibliographies of primary and secondary resources on the hero.

Hercules in Literary Texts

            The late fourth century AD grammarian and Neoplatonic philosopher Macrobius (Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius) was widely read during the medieval period and Renaissance. Hercules is mentioned by Macrobius especially in the context of the cardinal virtue of fortitude. In his Commentary on the Dream of Scipio (especially Book 1, section eight) Macrobius provides the following description of fortitude:

[est politici] fortitudinis animum supra periculi metum agere nihilque nisi turpia timere,   tolerare fortiter uel aduersa uel prospera: fortitudo praestat magnanimitatem fiduciam      securitatem magnificentiam constantiam tolerantiam firmitatem.

[It is a characteristic of political] fortitude to keep the mind above fear of danger except             for the fear of base things and the brave endurance of either adverse or favorable situations: fortitude displays confidence, freedom from care, nobleness, steadfastness,  endurance and strength.

It is no surprise that Macrobius defines fortitude here especially in the context of the good statesman since he is commenting on Cicero’s so-called Dream of Scipio, from the sixth book of a philosophical dialogue (mostly lost) entitled De Re Publica (On the Republic, 54-51 B.C.). Macrobius’ focus on political fortitude will prove to have significant influence on political thinking during the Italian Renaissance, when rulers like the Medici sought to be associated with this virtue, and, implicitly, with Hercules.

Macrobius was interested especially in the astronomical features of the Dream of Scipio in which Cicero describes his philosophical views in terms of a cosmic vision. Indeed, astronomy influences Macrobius’ view of the hero Hercules, whom he associated with the sun in his Saturnalia, a literary conversation on a variety of topics during the Roman feast of Saturnalia. Macrobius specifically links the sun with the virtue of fortitude in this reference to Hercules at Saturnalia 1.20.6:

Sed nec Hercules a substantia solis alienus est: quippe Hercules ea est solis potestas quae humano generi virtutem ad similitudinem praestat deorum. Nec aestimes Alcmena apud Thebas Boeotias natum solum vel primum Herculem nuncupatum: immo post multos atque postremus ille hac appellatione dignatus est honoratusque hoc nomine, quia nimia fortitudine meruit nomen dei virtutem regentis.


But Hercules is not foreign to the substance of the sun: certainly Hercules is that power of the sun which offers to the human race a virtue similar to that of the gods. You should not think that the child born of Alcmena in Boeotian Thebes was the first or only one called Hercules: indeed after many, and last of all, he is worthy of this appellation and honored by this name since, because of his excessive fortitude, he deserves the name of the god who rules over virtue.

Here Macrobius makes reference to the ancient belief that the Greco-Roman hero called Hercules was only the last of a long series of ancient heroes by the same name. His association of nimia fortitudine (“excessive fortitude”) with the hero is significant. By combining Macrobius’ description of this virtue in his Commentary on the Dream of Scipio with his description of Hercules in the Saturnalia, we get a picture of the hero as a strong, noble and confident hero who steadfastly endures hardships in his pursuit of virtue, a portrait which will be associated with Hercules into the Renaissance and beyond.

While Macrobius’ statement about Hercules is based entirely on Greek and Roman philosophy and values, Dante (Durante degli Alighieri, c.1265–1321) specifically identifies the Greco-Roman hero with Jesus Christ (Miller, 1982). In particular, in the Inferno the Italian poet makes frequent reference to the hero and, especially to the monsters he encountered, including Cerberus (Inferno 6), Geryon (Inferno 17), Cacus (Inferno 25) and Antaeus  (Inferno 31), all of whom are represented by Dante as violent monsters defeated by a powerful and just hero.

In Inferno 9 Dante has a divine messenger link divine punishment of the demons with Hercules’ treatment of Cerberus:

                    “O cacciati del ciel, gente dispetta,”

                    comincio` elli in su l'orribil soglia,

90               “ond'esta oltracotanza in voi s'alletta?

                      Perche' recalcitrate a quella voglia

                     a cui non puote il fin mai esser mozzo,

                     e che piu` volte v'ha cresciuta doglia?

                    “ Che giova ne le fata dar di cozzo?

95                 Cerbero vostro, se ben vi ricorda,

                     ne porta ancor pelato il mento e 'l gozzo.”

                      “O you hunted out of heaven, a despised race,”

                      he began at the horrible threshold,

                      “From where comes this arrogance imbedded in you?

                       “Why are you recalcitrant against that will

                      From which an end can never be severed

                      And which has increased your pain many times?

                       “What good is it to butt against fate?

                      Your Cerberus, if you recall well,

                      For that reason bears a peeled chin and neck.”

Just as Hercules leashed Cerberus and thus peeled the fur from the beast’s chin and neck, so the devils should fear similar treatment from God. While Christ and his harrowing of hell following his death on Good Friday are not mentioned directly in the Inferno, Hercules, in a very real sense, serves here as a type of Christ and takes up a similar role, journeying to the Underworld to capture Cerberus.

            Dante’s association of Hercules with Christ is not original, but goes back to early Christian identifications of the hero with the Christian savior. One example of such an association is a 4th-century painting of Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides found in the Christian Catacomb of the Via Latina in Rome. (To see this image, see http://www.mcah.columbia.edu/roman/htm/lecture/kampen_l26_100.htm.)
            The hero also appears prominently in the De Genealogia deorum gentilium (“On the Genealogy of the pagan gods”) by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 –1375). Here, once again, the hero’s fortitude is highlighted.

Omerus vero in Odissea dicit eum ab Ulixe apud Inferos conventum et locutum. Dicit        tamen non eum quem videbat Ulixes Herculem verum esse, sed eius ydolum. Hic insuper         quantum vivens mortales fortitudine sua fecit attonitos, tantum vel amplius mortuus decepit insanos. 13.1 

Homer truly says in the Odyssey that [Hercules] was met and talked to by Ulysses in the             Underworld. He says, nevertheless, that he whom Ulysses saw was not the real Hercules           but his idol. As much as he, while he was alive above, made mortals astonished by his          fortitude, so much more did he, in death, deceive insane mortals.

Boccacio thus depicts a hero whose fortitude is so remarkable that no mortals, either living or dead, are able to comprehend it.

            In De praeclaris mulieribus (On Famous Women), a collection of 106 biographies, Boccaccio also provides lives of two women important in the life of Hercules, Iole and Deinanira. Iole (#23) was so beautiful that Hercules was completely infatuated with her, killed her father to obtain her, and then found himself enslaved to her by his passion to the point that the hero was completely emasculated and wore women’s clothes.

 . . . quasi horreret tam hispidum habitu amantem, acri viro ante alia ponere clavam, qua monstra domuerat, imperavit; ponere leonis nemei spolium, suae fortitudinis insigne; ponere populeum sertum, pharetras sagittasque fecit.


. . . Pretending that she was afraid of a lover so roughly dressed, she ordered this once-fierce man to put aside his club by which he had tamed monsters; she made him put aside the skin of the Nemean lion, the insignia of his fortitude, and put aside his poplar wreath, his quiver and his arrows.

Boccaccio’s description of Hercules’ lion skin as suae fortitudinis insigne (“an insignia of his fortitude”) echoes Macrobius’ emphasis on the hero’s virtue.

Boccaccio’s life of Hercules’ wife, Deinanira (#24), is based on a story well-known from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, IX. While taking home his new bride Deinanira, Hercules has to cross a river. The centaur Nessus volunteers to transport Deinanira on his shoulders, but takes liberties with her during the passage. When his bride cries out, Hercules rushes the centaur and kills him with one of his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Hydra he had killed earlier in his labors. In his death agony Nessus suggests to Deinanira that she save some of his own blood as a love charm against the day that Hercules falls in love with another woman (sometimes called Iole). The ingenuous Deinanira does this, not realizing that the centaur is seeking vengeance and that his blood is contaminated with the Hydra’s blood. So, later, when Deinanira does persuade Hercules to put on a cloak dipped in the centaur’s blood, Hercules’ body is consumed with such terrible burning pain that he arranges his own death on a funeral pyre.

The biographies of both Iole and Deinanira thus demonstrate the danger of the feminine in the life of the hero and in Genealogia (13.1) Boccaccio sums up Hercules’ relationship with women this way: nam cum cetera superasset monstra, amori muliebri succubuit (“For although he had conquered other monsters, he succumbed to the love of a woman.”). Hercules’ weakness for women is part of the hero’s intense lifelong struggle between virtue and vice first described by the fifth-century Greek philosopher and historian Xenophon in his Memorabilia (2.1.21 ff). While Boccaccio does not specifically mention this episode in the life of the hero, this struggle, often called Hercules at the Crossroads, becomes a major literary and artistic theme in the Renaissance.

Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304–1374), the father of Humanism, planned to bring Hercules into the Renaissance with his unfinished portrait of the hero in De Viris Illustribus (On Famous Men), a collection of moral biographies modeled on both Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of famous Greeks and Romans and St. Jerome’s De Viris Illustribus on the lives of early Church Fathers. The first book of Petrarch’s biographies focused entirely on famous Romans, while the second, beginning with Adam, moved through various biblical figures down to Moses and then on to the Greek heroes Jason and Hercules. In his inclusion of two Greek heroes, Petrarch was following Plutarch, who included both the extant biography of Theseus as well as a lost biography of Hercules in his Lives. Here is how Petrarch introduces the hero’s accomplishments:

 [2] Igitur Hercules ille famosior philosophus, ut quidam putant, ut alii vir bello incomparabilis et plus quam humanarum virium, quamvis utrumque simul in uno homine reperiri potuisse aliorum exempla testentur, qui excellentem rei bellicae pariter et ingenii gloriam meruerunt. Sane huic viro ingenii felicitas tribuit ut humero caelum sustinuisse fingatur, singulari peritia caelestium in illum incumbente, cui sarcinae post Athlantem, huius quoque rei peritissimum, successisse dicitur; vires vero corpore monstrorum omnium domitorem, sospitatorem gentium multarum ac velut commune orbis auxilium, usque ad opinionem divinitatis per cuiusdam singularis famae praeconium extulerunt.

Therefore Hercules is (as certain people think) that rather famous philosopher, (as others think), a man incomparable in war and of more than human strength, although [these sources] testify whether it was possible to find, at the same time in a single person examples of others who merited equally excellence in warfare and the glory of innate intelligence. Certainly the good fortune of innate intelligence was bestowed on this man so that he is reputed to have held the sky on his shoulders, with the unique knowledge of having heavenly matters leaning on him, to which burden he is said to have succeeded   following Atlas, who was also very knowledgeable of this matter; truly Hercules’ strength in body raised him, as the conqueror of all monsters, the savior of many peoples and as the common aid of the world, to the reputation of divinity through the proclamation of a certain singular fame.

There is no mention here of the hero’s fortitude. Instead Petrarch portrays Hercules as huic viro ingenii (“a man of innate intelligence”) whose encounter with the Titan Atlas enabled him to acquire singulari peritia caelestium (“a unique knowledge of heavenly matters”) as he took on his own shoulders the burden of the sky. Such a deed demonstrated for Petrarch not only Hercules’ intelligence but also his strength and his role as savior of those in need.

Petrarch’s interest in Hercules continues with other Renaissance writers like the Italian humanist Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406). The most influential portion of Salutati’s references to Hercules is probably his direct reference to Xenophon’s story of the choice of Hercules in his unfinished didactic mythographic work De laboribus Herculis (3.7). For Salutati the hero’s choice at the crossroads was clear and deliberate:

 Viam virtutis ergo noster Hercules ingressurus non temere, sed consilio et electione–         sicut asseruit Xenophontes Prodicum dixisse – virtutem aspiciens circa difficile quid      cogitat nisi labores pugnamque cum carne, cum mundo et spiritualibus insidiis ac exemplis pernitiosis?

Therefore about to set out on the road to virtue not recklessly but by plan and choice,    what does our Hercules,  seeing virtue near difficulty, think about, ,—just as Xenophon asserted that Prodicus said—unless about labors and combat with the flesh, with the world, both with spiritual plots and fatal examples?

Salutati presents the labors of Hercules in a philosophical and allegorical context evidently influenced by Macrobius’ interest in astronomy. For example, here Salutati interprets the hero’s encounter with the dragon at the Garden of the Hesperides as an allegory about the mastery of time:

 (17) Et serpens ante litterarum usum caudam suam ore deglutiens in anni figuram  et temporis habitudinem ponebatur, intra cuius ambitum, quicquid illo anno   notabile gestum erat, ad rei memoriam pingebatur. Unde per montes situum diversitates et per draconem vigilem ipsum tempus significatum est. Sic et Saturnus, qui figuram temporis tenet, anguem revolutum in caudam manu gerere fingi solet, et non ob aliam rationem. (18) Hercules autem, vir consumatissime perfectionis, superat muros veros, scilicet astrorum situs, quatenus est possibile, designando vincitque draconem vel sopiendo vel interficiendo, hoc est: deprehendit temporum rationem. Et sic ad astrorum veniens canonem atque noticiam Iunonis sive Athlantis poma rapit, quoniam creditur ab Athlante in illis partibus didicisse astronomiam et ipsam primum in Greciam attulisse doctrinam.                                                                                                                 III.25.17-18


And before the use of letters the serpent swallowing his tail with his mouth was put into the shape of the year and the form of time. Within the circuit of the serpent was depicted for the memory of the thing whatever notable event had happened in that year. Whence time was indicated through mountains as diversity of location and through the dragon as the guardian itself. Thus, and not on account of any other reason, Saturn, who holds the shape of time, is usually also depicted holding in his hand the serpent rolled into its tail. Hercules, however, a man of the most consummate perfection, went over the real walls [of the Garden of the Hesperides], that is, by marking out the situation of the stars, as far as possible; he also defeats the dragon either by putting it to sleep or killing it, that is, he discovers the guiding principle of time. Thus coming to the model and the knowledge of the stars he seizes the apples of Juno or of Atlas, since he is believed to have learned astronomy in those parts from Atlas and to have first brought this very science into Greece.

Here Salviati’s Hercules seems to possess not only the fortitude granted him by Macrobius and Boccacio but also the intelligence attributed to him by Petrarch, for he is described as vir consumatissime perfectionis (“a man of the most consummate perfection”).

The dragon guarding the Garden of the Hesperides, represented in this passage as a serpent swallowing its tail, is linked by Salutati with the cyclical nature of time, especially evident in the succession of the months and seasons in a yearly rotation. By defeating the dragon, Salutati suggests, Hercules can be said to have mastered a knowledge of time and acquired an understanding of astronomy. A similar view of time, it should be noted, is later prominently displayed on Giuliano da Sangallo’s 1487 frieze on the façade of the Medici Villa at Poggio a Caiano (Cox-Rearick: 1982).

A prolific literary correspondent, Salutati also mentions Hercules in a letter to another Renaissance scholar Andreolo Arese (Epistolario VI.5.14-21 in Vol. 2, pg. 151 of Novati’s edition). In this letter Salutati sees Hercules’ labors as part of a divine scheme of justice.

Quid autem, si cuncta Regentis iusticiam contemplemur, occurrere potest iustius, quam crudelium depositio dominorum, quam concedit, cum audit Deus compeditorum gemitus, ut solvat filios interemptorum? hoc opus semper ordinatio divina permisit maxime virtutis viris. hinc Hercules Busiridem Egyptium, Thracem Diomedem, Anteum Libycum, Erycem Siculum, Hiberum Geryona, Cacum Italum, Narbonenses Albìona et Bergionem et innumeras alias feras, quae, cum homines fuerint, a proprietatibus vitiorum fabulose bestiarum nominibus recensentur, tum occidisse creditur, tunc domuisse.


However, if we contemplate the justice of the Ruler in all things, what more just thing can happen than the deposition of cruel rulers, which God allows when He   hears the groans of fettered slaves, so that He releases the sons of those who have been killed? Divine will always leaves this task especially to men of virtue. So Hercules is believed this time to have killed, that time to have subdued, the Egyptian Busiris, the Thracian Diomedes, the Libyan Antaeus, the Sicilian Eryx, the Hiberian Geryon, the Italian Cacus, the Narbonensian Albion and Bergion and innumerable other beasts which, although they were human, were reckoned  fabulously by the names of beasts from the special characteristics of their vices.


While Salutati’s mythography is usually understood in a completely non-Christian context and Hercules is here described primarily as the Greco-Roman hero who defeats monsters from all over the world, it is significant that, in this passage, Salutati associates Hercules not with the ancient gods but with the Christian deity in his use of the following direct quote from scripture: compeditorum gemitus, ut solvat filios interemptorum (“the groans of fettered slaves, so that He release the sons of those who have been killed,” Psalm 101 [102]:21). Such a Christianized hero, based on the early Christian association of Hercules and Christ echoed in Dante’s Inferno, is a fundamental aspect of the hero in the Renaissance.

Hercules in Public Art in Florence

            While these passages on Hercules are by no means comprehensive, they illustrate the continuing interest in the hero by medieval and early Renaissance authors, an interest which is also reflected in Renaissance art, especially in Florence, where the hero was held in special honor and appears prominently in several important works of public art in the city. Hercules also  appeared on the state seal of Florence as early as 1281 (Ettlinger 1972).

            Perhaps the earliest public visual representation of Hercules in Florence can be found on Andrea Pisano’s bronze doors on the south side of the Baptistery. These doors were originally placed, in 1336, on the front doors facing the Duomo, but were moved to their present location when Ghiberti’s so-called “Gates of Paradise” doors were added in 1424. While classical mythology would appear to have no place in such a sacred Christian context, Herculean elements on these doors are another illustration of  the medieval and Renaissance willingness to syncretize the iconography of classical and Christian mythology which was noted above in such literary contexts as Dante’s Inferno.

The eight seated figures in the bottom two rows of the doors represent the Christian virtues. Spes (Hope), the top one on the far left, is an angel. All the rest are female and wear hexagonal halos. Below Spes is Fortitudo (Fortitude), facing right. She holds a shield in her left hand and a club in her right. The club rests on her right shoulder and a lion skin is tied around her shoulders and over her head. The club and the lion skin, of course are attributes of Hercules, and are associated with the hero’s first labor, in which he had to defeat the Nemean Lion, invincible because of its impermeable skin. Hercules defeated the lion by making a club out of a tree truck, dazing the lion with the club, and then flaying the beast with its own claws. Hercules then wore the lion skin and carried the club on his remaining eleven labors. In completing this and his other labors, the hero was using his great strength to improve the lives of those around him. So Fortitude’s use of the hero’s attributes identifies the virtue not only with Hercules’ great strength but with his reputation as a savior of the oppressed, a theme which, as we have seen, runs through medieval and Renaissance references to the hero.

Hercules also appears on the campanile of the Duomo, built between 1334 and 1359 under the direction of three successive architects, Giotto di Buoninsegna, Andrea Pisano and Fr. Talenti. On the lowest story are two rows of bas reliefs, some of which are based upon Greco-Roman mythology. The lower hexagonally-shaped panels are by Andrea Pisano and Luca della Robbia and depict scenes of human history and accomplishments. The upper ones, diamond-shaped with blue-glaze background, are by Alberto Arnoldi and Pisano’s students and portray more cosmic and religious elements. So, on the west side, events from the Book of Genesis are placed below the heavenly bodies. On the south, various human professions are ranged below the cardinal virtues. On the east, human accomplishments are below figures representing the liberal arts. Human accomplishments continue on the north side below the seven sacraments. The upper panels of the planets, the virtues, the liberal arts, and the sacraments thus place in the divine order the earthly events of the lower panels. The originals of all these bas-reliefs have been removed to the Opera del Duomo Museum and have been replaced with copies on the campanile. Hercules is associated with two of these panels.

On the upper diamond-shaped rank of the south side are the seven cardinal Virtues. In these representations Pisano repeats some of the motifs he used on the Baptistery doors. At the far right is Fortitude, again wearing a lion skin. She holds a club in front of her with her right hand and a shield at her side in her left hand.

On the east side of the campanile, the representation of human accomplishments continues with five reliefs representing such concepts as agriculture, navigation, theatre and architecture. The second panel from the left represents Hercules and Cacus. The hero is shown standing in full frontal view on the left side of the relief. His lower torso is naked and his right leg damaged. He wears his lion skin over his shoulders and his hood over his head, with the lion skin knotted over his chest. Hercules holds this knot in his left hand and he rests his club on the ground with his right hand. Cacus’ cave is at the right side of the relief and the naked, bearded body of the monster lies face up at the mouth of the cave. A tree is growing on the hillside above the cave.

Hercules’ adventure with the giant Cacus, is well-known from Vergil’s Aeneid VIII. Cacus was a cannibalistic monster who plagued the region around Rome. While Hercules was passing through Italy with the cattle he had captured from the three-bodied giant Geryon, Cacus stole several of the animals and hid them in his cave. He cunningly walked them backwards so that their tracks led out of instead of into their place of concealment. Unfortunately for Cacus, Hercules heard the lowing of the cattle, found their hiding place and challenged their captor to a grueling wrestling match in which the giant was eventually strangled.

The myth of Cacus fits into this series of panels representing human accomplishments in two ways. First of all, the Cacus story illustrates an important human accomplishment, namely the domestication of animals, animal husbandry, and the art of cowherding, for Hercules encounters Cacus while leading cattle back from Spain into Greece. Furthermore, in punishing Cacus for stealing the cattle Hercules can be seen as a champion of social justice, a code of behavior on which the Florentines prided themselves, particularly during the Republic.

The reliefs on the Campanile blend together Christian and classical themes. The representations of human accomplishment on the lower rows are all incorporated into a larger composition in which the planets, the liberal arts, and human accomplishments are placed in a religious context, bolstered by the presence of the seven sacraments and seven cardinal virtues. In this context the Hercules on the Campanile parallels Salutati’s description in Epistolario VI.5 of the hero as God’s champion of justice.

A blending of classical and Christian iconography is also strongly visible on the Porta della Mandorla on the north side of the Duomo. This doorway, dating from c.1391-1405, was carved by Giovanni d’Ambrogio, Piero di Giovanni Tedesco, Iacopo di Piero Guidi, and Niccolo Lamberti. Dominating the gable is Nanni de Banco’s sculpture of the Assumption (1421), enclosed in a frame shaped like an almond or mandorla which gives the doorway its name.

The doorposts are decorated with a series of friezes, mostly filled with flowers and angels, but, especially on the left side of the door, several mythological figures can be seen. The central frieze panel consists of five tear-shaped lozenges on either side of the doorway. In each lozenge there is an angel holding a scroll, and between the lozenges are figures surrounded by floral designs. At the lower left hand corner of the door, between the first two angel lozenges, is a naked figure of Hercules with his lion skin wrapped over his left shoulder and arm. The lion’s head is visible on the hero’s left shoulder. His right arm is broken off, but it may once have held a club. The hero’s presence on this frieze makes more explicit the association of Hercules with the virtue of fortitude seen on Pisano’s Baptistery doors as well as on the Campanile, and with social justice in the story of Hercules and Cacus on the Campanile. Here the hero’s appearance has an even more religious context linked, perhaps, with Dante’s references to Hercules in the Inferno, namely as a Christ figure who sacrifices himself to aid the oppressed and who from the land of the dead.

The innermost frieze consists of a garland of ivy which runs around the entire doorframe. On the right only flowers are woven within the ivy, but on the left and on top there are human figures, some of which are mythological. Starting from the bottom left-hand corner, the first three figures are angels with animals scattered in the garland. The next four figures all represent Hercules. Unfortunately, the lowest has lost the objects which were in his hands. Were it not for his facial features, which are identical to the other three Hercules figures, there would be no way to identify him.

The next figure represents Hercules with the Hydra, one of the hero’s twelve labors. Hercules had to slay the multi-headed Hydra, but every time he cut off one of the monster’s heads, two grew in its place. In the end Hercules succeeded by cauterizing the wounds so no new heads appeared. The last, immortal, head the hero buried. In the doorframe the bare-chested hero is shown raising an axe in both hands to decapitate the Hydra. The hero does not look at the monster, but stares, instead, straight out at the viewer. Most of the hydra is worn away.

The third scene depicts yet another adventure: here Hercules wrestles with the giant  Antaeus who derived his superhuman strength from the earth itself. In order to defeat him, Hercules raised the figure of Antaeus off the ground, to prevent contact with the soil. On the doorframe Hercules, shown fully frontal, holds the naked figure of Antaeus around the waist. While Antaeus has his arms wrapped around Hercules’ neck, he has already lost the contest, since his feet dangle in midair behind him. Antonio del Pollaiuolo painted this myth on a large canvas for Lorenzo de’ Medici. While the original painting is lost, a small copy on wood, in Pollaiuolo’s own hand, survives in the Uffizi.

The last Hercules is dealing with the Nemean Lion. The naked hero is shown on the doorframe wrestling with the lion. He straddles the beast’s back and has locked his legs around its neck. Hercules holds the lion’s mouth in his hands. As in the other representations of the hero on the door, Hercules is shown facing the viewer and does not look at his opponent.

How can this doorframe be interpreted? While the central figure of Christ the King above the door is appropriately religious, the angels scattered through the rest of the frieze do not sufficiently balance the other figures, some of which are definitely mythological and others unidentifiable. One possible explanation of this door is to be found on the central bronze doors from old St. Peter’s in Rome, decorated by the Florentine Filarete in 1439–1445, and placed at the main entrance to the new basilica. Filarete, certainly familiar with the Porta Della Mandorla on the cathedral in his native city, incorporated around the main religious panels of his doors, a frieze very similar to the one on the Porta della Mandorla. Filarete’s frieze is filled with scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses such as the encounter between Diana and Actaeon, episodes from early Roman history like the Twins Romulus and Remus with the She-Wolf and the Rape of the Sabines, and selections from Aesop’s Fables. Could the animals in the bottom left-hand corner of the Porta Della Mandorla have inspired Filarete’s plan for the doors of St. Peter’s? On both sets of doors the figure of Hercules appears wrestling with Antaeus. While Filarete uses mythological figures on the doors of St. Peter’s to place the stories of Sts Peter and Paul and the Papacy at the center of universal history, the artists of the Porta Della Mandorla may have had a slightly different goal. Perhaps, borrowing the figures of Hercules from their more specific contexts on the Campanile of the Duomo, the artists here use Hercules to link their native city with the glory of Christ the King who reigns at the center of this doorframe frieze.

The influence of this door frame can possibly also be seen in the commission of Donatello in 1415 to create a colossal statue of Hercules for the porch above the south apse of the cathedral. This gigantic statue, to be constructed of gold-gilded bronze plate around a stone core, was never completed but served as a conceptual precursor, at least in its monumentality, for Michelangelo’s David. The prominence of Hercules in the iconography of the cathedral illustrates not only the hero’s special association with Florence but also his identification with virtue and altruism.

The Piazza della Signoria, the civic centre of Florence, is also its mythological heart. Here the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans, mingled with biblical and historical figures, are tightly woven into the history, politics, architecture and culture of this great city. Traditionally the staunch republicans of medieval Florence identified themselves with figures who represented the victory of a weak but determined champion over a cruel oppressor. Hence the Florentine fondness for Biblical characters like David, who defeated the giant Philistine champion Goliath with only a slingshot, or the Hebrew woman Judith who managed to slay the enemy of her people, King Holofernes. Indeed, the two most well-known statues in the piazza, Donatello’s bronze representation of Judith Beheading Holofernes (c.1455) and Michelangelo’s magnificent marble David (1503), were moved to the piazza to celebrate the expulsion of the tyrannical Medicis in 1494. While both of these pieces are now represented in the piazza by copies, two pieces of original sculpture representing Hercules are visible from the square.

The earlier of these is Baccio Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus. This statue, unveiled in 1534, still flanks the entrance to the Signoria today, along with a copy of Michelangelo’s David. The success of the David had encouraged the Republican government of Florence in 1508 to commission from Michelangelo a statue of Hercules to serve as a complement to his David. Political misfortunes and papal commissions, however, kept Michelangelo from completing this project, which eventually fell into the hands of his rival Bandinelli, who finished the statue in 1534 (Bush, 1980).

Hercules can be understood here as a mythological counterpart to the Biblical David. Like David, the Greek hero Hercules was a champion of the oppressed. Just as David saved the Israelites from the Philistines by defeating the giant Goliath, Hercules destroyed many monsters and improved the lives of ordinary people during his twelve labors. His travels brought him to many ancient lands, including Italy, and the Florentines had long claimed that their city rested on swampy land reclaimed by the great hero. For this reason Republican Florentines placed the hero on their governmental seal in the thirteenth-century. At the same time the hero was frequently associated with the Medici (Forster, 1971). For example, Pollaiuolo executed two paintings of Hercules for Lorenzo the Magnificent, and after Lorenzo’s death in 1492 Michelangelo carved a large statue of Hercules in honor of his dead patron.

In this context, it is significant to note Herculean features of Michelangelo’s David which are well described by Paoletti and Radke (2005: 389):


The figure is simultaneously understandable as an ordinary man, essentially free of attributes that would readily identify him (the sling being virtually hidden from sight), and as a hero.  The colossal size of the figure—nearly three times life size—implies a link with colossal sculptures of antiquity; the greatness of Greece and Rome now is equaled by that of Florence.  But concentration on the statue’s formal classical antecedents misses the deliberate tension in the figure between real and ideal, the suggestion that the ordinary can be transformed into the extraordinary by a decisive moment of action.

The nudity of the figure is unusual for a representation of David, Donatello's bronze "David" notwithstanding.  The biblical text (I Samuel 17:38-39) leaves little room for interpreting David as a nude. The pose of the figure and David's mature body, along with the nudity, suggest, instead, a classical statue of Hercules.  Moreover, the rocky terrain on which the figure stands, as well as the blasted tree trunk behind David's right leg, derive from the well-known tale of Hercules at the Crossroads.  Faced with a choice between virtue and vice, allegorically represented as, respectively, a sere and rocky landscape and a lush and flowering landscape, Hercules chose the first. No one entering the Palazzo della Signoria could have missed the moral and political meaning of the statue nor the reference to the classical hero who had appeared on the state seal of Florence since the end of the thirteenth century.

From the moment of its unveiling, Bandinelli’s statue has been unpopular with Florentines. Perhaps the statue was identified too closely with the fall of the Florentine Republic and with papal interference in the city’s affairs. Perhaps the Florentines could not help but look at a work of Bandinelli and wish it were by Michelangelo. Perhaps nothing could ever successfully complement the David. The statue received its most famous and scathing criticisms from Benvenuto Cellini, who recounts in chapter  LXX of his Autobiography the pleasure with which he expressed his opinion to Cosimo de’ Medici in the very presence of the sculptor. Cellini may be right that Hercules’ muscles look like a sack of melons and his loins like a sack of long marrows. He may also be right that, if the hero’s head were shaved, there would not be enough skull left to hold his brains. But lovers of mythology and of the hero Hercules can still view the statue with some pleasure and can enjoy the way that Bandinelli contrasts hero and giant. Cacus cowers at the hero’s feet and grapples futilely for a weapon while Hercules, with club in hand, ignores his opponent and looks fiercely? out towards the Loggia dei Lanzi.

The pedestal of this statue is also worthy of note. Four hermes (male figures on a post) are on each side of the base with the following Latin inscription in two sections on the front:

            BACIUS                                 BANDINELL

FLOREN                                FACIEBAT

                        MD                                         XXXIIII

                        Baccio                                      Bandinelli

                        the Florentine                            made this

                        15                                            34

The corners of the pedestal are decorated with beast heads. To the north are the heads of a lion and a boar. To the south are the heads of a dragon and a dog. Each of these can be associated with a labor of Hercules: the Nemean lion, the Erymanthian boar, the dragon which guarded the Garden of the Hesperides and Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of the Underworld.

The second sculptural group depicting Hercules in the Piazza della Signoria is a representation of Hercules and the centaur Nessus, commissioned from Giambologna by Duke Ferdinand I in 1594. This group was originally placed on a pedestal on the Via Cerretani but was moved under the Loggia dei Lanzi in the nineteenth century. Unlike Boccaccio, who was more interested in that part of the story which led to the hero’s death, Giambologna focuses on the physical contest between the hero and the centaur. Nessus has been forced to the ground. He kneels on his equine forelegs while Hercules pushes the centaur’s human head and throat violently back. With his human arms Nessus struggles vainly against his enraged foe. The naked, bearded figure of Hercules leans against the centaur’s left side. His left hand is at Nessus’ throat and in his right hand he raises his metal club to strike. The hero’s lion skin is draped over the centaur’s back and the lion’s head and paws hang down on Nessus’ left flank, behind the hero’s left thigh. Conspicuously absent in this sculpture is Hercules’ bow, which is traditionally associated with this adventure.

One additional public representation of the hero in the city of Florence is a bronze composition of Hercules and the Nemean Lion signed and dated 1907 by Romano Romanelli in the Piazza Ognissanti. This bronze composition rests on a low plain rectangular stone pedestal and is meant to be viewed from all sides.

Romanelli has depicted Hercules in close physical contact with the lion. The naked hero has wrapped his arms tightly around the beast’s head and is leaning over onto the lion’s back. The lion has been forced to the ground and its claws are extended in a desperate attempt to find a hold for counterattack. Hercules’ face, nestled in the fur on the lion’s back, faces the Arno while the lion, with gaping jaw, faces west towards the Palazzo Lenzi (the French Consulate).

Romanelli’s statue extends the artistic tradition of public sculpture in Florence into the 20th century. It thematically recalls Hercules’ appearance on the Porta della Mandorla of the Duomo, where the hero also wrestles with the Nemean Lion. The visual contrast between these two pieces is striking. While the Mandorla relief is essentially frontal and vertical, with hero and lion positioned side by side, Romanelli has created a 360-degree horizontal composition in which the bodies of human and beast blend in conflict.

While the literary and artistic representations of Hercules discussed in this paper are only a sampling of the hero’s rich presence in Florence, I hope that they are sufficient to illustrate the dynamic portrait of a major ancient hero who has continued to resonate in the intellectual and visual life of the city throughout its history. The following list of artistic representations of Hercules in Florence is intended to provide a more comprehensive overview of the hero’s presence, not only in public art but also in the many museums throughout the city.

Hercules in Florence
A List of Art Objects

Public Sculpture

At the Duomo:

Pisano, Andrea. Doors on the south side of the Baptistery (1336)

Pisano, Andrea, and Luca della Robbia. Hercules and Cacus on the Campanile (1334-1359)

d’Ambrogio, Giovanni, Piero di Giovanni Tedesco, Iacopo di Piero Guidi, and Niccolo             Lamberti. Porta della Mandorla. c.1391-1405

In the Piazza della Signoria:|
Bandinelli, Baccio. Hercules and Cacus in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. 1534
Giambologna.  Hercules and Nessus in the Loggia. 1594

In the Piazza Ognisanti:
Romanelli, Romano. Hercules. 1907


In the Palazzo Vecchio:

Sala del Cinquecento
de Rossi, Vincenzo. Labors of Hercules (Cacus, Nessus, the Amazon, Diomedes, and the         Erymanthian boar.Sculpture.  c.1562-1584.

Studiolo di Francesco Primo
di Tito, Santi. Hercules and Omphale. Painting.1572
Vaiani, Lorenzo (“dello Sciorina”).  Hercules and Ladon at the Hesperides. Painting. 1570-1575

Quartiere degli Elementi, Sala d’Ercole (Hercules Room)
Vasari, Giorgio and Marco Marchetti da Faenza. Baby Hercules and the Snakes. Ceiling           painting. 1556-1557
Vasari, Giorgio. Hercules Slays the Hydra. Ceiling painting. 1556-1558
Machetti, Marco da Faenza. Hercules Slays the Hydra. Painting. 1556-1557
Machetti, Marco da Faenza. Hercules Slays the Nemean Lion. Painting.1556-1557
Machetti, Marco da Faenza. Hercules and Cerberus. Painting.1556-1557
Machetti, Marco da Faenza. Hercules and Cacus. Painting.1556-1557
Machetti, Marco da Faenza. Hercules and Antaeus. Painting.-1557
Machetti, Marco da Faenza. Hercules and Nessus. Painting.1556-1557
Machetti, Marco da Faenza. Hercules and the Cretan Bull. Painting.1556-1557
Machetti, Marco da Faenza. Hercules and Atlas. Painting.1556-1557
Machetti, Marco da Faenza. Hercules and the Golden Apples. Painting.1556-1557

Mezzanino (adjacent to Sala dei Duecento)
Giambologna (1529-1608). Hercules and the Hydra. Painting

In the Archaeological Museum:
Column Krater. Side A: Hercules with the Delphic tripod. Side B: Javelin Thrower. Attic. Mison.           . 3981. 490-480 B.C.
Amphora. Side A: Hercules and Pholus. Side B: Dionysus and Maenads. Attic, Wurtzburg        Painter. Inv. 3812. 520-510 B.C.
Amphora. Side A: Hercules and the Cecropes. Side B: Apollo and Hercules vying over the        Cerynian deer. from Dolciano (Chiusi). Attic. Achelous Painter. Inv. 3871. 510-500 B.C.

In the Bargello:

Sala Donazione Bruzzichelli
Lombardi, Antonio (1548-1516). Labors of Hercules. Relief

Sala Donazione Carand
Limousin, Leonard (1505-1577). Hercules balancing the world on his shoulders. Grisaille plaque

Sala della Sculture del Secondo Quattrocento
Pollaiuolo, Antonio. Hercules and Antaeus. Bronze. c.1475-80

Sala dei Bronzetti
Italian school. Hercules. Small bronze. 16th cent
Bonacolsi, (Pier Jacopo Alari, l’Antico, c.1460-1528). Hercules slaying the Hydra and Hercules           slaying the lion. Small bronze
da Barga, Pietro (fl 1574-88). Hercules and Telephon. Small bronze
Bandinelli, Baccio (1493-1560). Hercules. Small bronze
Giambologna (1529-1608). Labours of Hercules. Small bronze
Pollaiuolo, Antonio del (1429/1433 – 1498). Hercules and Antaeus. Small bronze

Sala del Medagliere
Bonacolsi, (Pier Jacopo Alari, l’Antico, c.1460-1528). Hercules and the Hydra. Hercules and the         Nemean Lion.  Bronze tondi

Palazzo Medici-Riccardi
Foyer to Borgia Gallery

17th century. Labors of Hercules. Bas reliefs

ancient Roman. Calydonian Boar Hunt. sarcophagus

First (East) Corridor. North End
ancient Roman. Hercules and Centaur. Sculpture. c. 200 B.C. restored by G. B. Caccini in 1589.        

Room 9 (The Pollaiuolo Room)
Pollaiuolo, Antonio del. Hercules kills Antaeus. Painting. c.1460.
Pollaiuolo, Antonio del. Hercules kills the Hydra. Painting. c. 1460.

Room 16
ancient Roman. Labors of Hercules. Sarcophagus

Third (West) Corridor: North End
ancient Roman. Hercules. Sculpture

Room 33 (The Cinquecento Corridor)
Allori, Alessandro. Hercules and the Muses. Painting. Pre-1589.

Room 41
van den Hoecke, Jan (1611-1651). Hercules between Vice and Virtue. Painting

In the Palatine Gallery of the Pitti Palace:

Farnese Hercules

Two Hercules (heads modern). 4th cent. A.D.

Mars Room
da Cortona, Pietro. Prince’s Rise to Power with help of Hercules, Castor and Pollux. Ceiling     painting. 1641.

Saturn Room
Ferri, Ciro. Young Prince Received as Hercules on Mt. Olympus. Ceiling painting. 1665.          

Poccetti Gallery
Furini, Francesco (1600/1603-1646). Hylas and the Nymphs. painting

Hercules Room
Benevenuti, Pietro. The Legend of Hercules. Wall paintings depicting the Infant Hercules                      strangling the snakes, Hercules at the Crossroads, Hercules Returns the dead                                     Alcestis to Admetus and Hercules and Nessus. On the ceiling is the apotheosis of                          Hercules. 1811-1812

In the Gallery of Modern Art of the Pitti Palace:

Bastoni, Pompeo. Hercules at the Crossroads. Painting. 1742
Bastoni, Pompeo. Hercules as a Child Strangling the Serpents. Painting. 1743

Museo Delgi Argenti
The Museum collection includes a variety of small gems and treasure pieces with themes                                    from classical mythology, including an elaborate Hercules and the Hydra

Boboli Gardens
2 Hercules

At Porta Romana entrance
Hercules Sarcophagus


Some Primary Resources

Boccaccio, Giovanni. De Genealogia deorum gentilium. http://www.oeaw.ac.at/kal/mythos/


Boccaccio, Giovanni. De praeclaris mulieribus.             http://digidownload.libero.it/il_boccaccio/boccaccio_de_mulieribus_claris

Boccaccio, Giovanni. Famous Women, edited and translated by Virginia Brown. Cambridge,   Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.    http://www.lib.muohio.edu/multifacet/record/mu3ugb2872405

Cellini, Benvenuto. Autobiography. http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext03/7clln10h.htm

Dante. The Divine Comedy http://dante.ilt.columbia.edu/new/comedy/index.html

Macrobius. Commentariorum in Somnium Scipionis (Dream of Scipio),             http://la.wikisource.org/wiki/Commentariorum_in_Somnium_Scipionis

Macrobius. Saturnalia.            http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Macrobius/Saturnalia/home.html

Macrobius, Saturnalia. Edited and translated by Robert A. Kaster. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard           University Press, 2011.               http://books.google.com/books?id=dsfIwajjGaQC&pg=PA273&lpg=PA273&dq=hercule            s+sun+macrobius&source=bl&ots=RNM_gOOIAK&sig=hN44X6UOhU5IdIxADo5CnD            KVas0&hl=en&ei=cE4nTu-            bNqfc0QGpt6HvCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBUQ6AEw            AA#v=onepage&q&f=false

Petrarch. De Viris Illustribus http://petrarca.scarian.net/petrarca_de_viris_illustribus.html

Salutati, Coluccio. De laboribus Herculis


Salutati, Coluccio. De laboribus Herculis. 2 vols., edited by B. L. Ullman. Zurich, 1951

Salutati. Coluccio . Epistulario, edited by Francesco Novati. Rome, 1891        http://books.google.com/ebooks/reader?id=fuhAAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&out                  put=reader
http://www.archive.org/stream/epistolariodico01salugoog/epistolariodico01salugoog_djv                       u.txt


Some Secondary Resources

Bush, Virginia L. (1980) “Bandinelli’s ‘Hercules and Cacus’and Florentine Traditions.”Memoirs            of the American Academy in Rome 35, Studies in Italian Art History 1: Studies in Italian       Art and Architecture 15th through 18th Centuries (1980): 164-206
Cox-Rearick, Janet. (1982). “Themes of Time and Rule at Poggio a Caiano: The Portico Frieze             of Lorenzo il Magnifico.” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz.26.      Bd., H. 2 (1982): 167-210

Ettlinger, Leopold D. “Hercules Florentinus.” Mittelungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz XVI (1972): 119-142

Forster, Kurt W. “Metaphors of Rule. Political Ideology and History in the Portraits of Cosimo I de' Medici.” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, 15 (1971): 65-104

Galinsky, Karl. The Hercules Theme: Adaptations of the hero in literature from Homer to the Twentieth century. Oxford, 1972

Macrobius. Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, translated by W. H. Stahl. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952. http://www.scribd.com/doc/55657510/Macrobius-Commentary-on-the-Dream-of-Scipio

Miller, Clarence H. “Hercules and his Labors as Allegories of Christ and His Victory over Sin in Dante's Inferno.” Quaderni d'italianistica V (1984): 1-17.  http://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/qua/article/viewFile

Mommsen, Theodor E. “Petrarch and the Story of the Choice of Hercules.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 16 (1953): 178-192

Morford, Michael David (2009). Carving for a Future: Baccio Bandinelli Securing Medici  Patronage through his mutually fulfilling and propagandistic “Hercules and Cacus.” Doctoral dissertation. Case Western Reserve. http://etd.ohiolink.edu/send-pdf.cgi/Morford%20Michael%20David.pdf?case1238622957

Panofsky, Edwin (1930). Hercules am Scheiderwege und andere antike Bildstoffe in der neuren Kunst. Leipzig

Paoletti, John T. and Gary M. Radke (2005). “Art in Renaissance Italy.” 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Simons, Patricia (2008). “Hercules in Italian Renaissance Art: Masculine Labour and Homoerotic Libido.” Art History 31: 632–664. http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/2027.42/78012/1/j.1467-8365.2008.00635.x.pdf

Tóth, Orsolya (2011). Macrobius and the Cardinal Virtues. Doctoral dissertation. University of Debrecen. Summary available at http://dea.unideb.hu/dea/bitstream/2437/103326/10/tezisek_angol-t.pdf

Utz, Hildegard (1971). “The Labors of Hercules and Other Works by Vincenzo de’ Rossi.” The Art Bulletin 53 (1971): 344-366

Witt, Ronald G. (1983).  Hercules at the Crossroads: the Life, Works, and Thought of Coluccio Salutati. Durham, N.C.. Duke University Press.