Hercules and the Hydra

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Antonio di Jacopo Benci (Il Pollaiolo)

Hercules and the Hydra

Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy
Artwork's Details

The painting represents the second labor of the twelve labors of Hercules. Hercules fights against the Lernaean Hydra, monster with nine snake heads, although in the painting there are only two heads. The monster has wrapped a tentacle around Hercules’ leg, while Hercules is holding one of the heads and is about to hit it with a cudgel.

Hercules has covered his head with the skin of the Nemean lion and his athletic figure is enhanced by his tense pose, typical for a hero who is gathering his strength before attacking the enemy. The lines of his anatomy are well investigated. There’s a lot of tension in the scene which is evident even in the contorted face of Hercules.

The landscape is harsh and disappears in distance.

The Hercules theme is linked to the Medici family’s interest on ancient and classical myths, which were studied in the Neoplatonic Academy of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The labors of Hercules were seen as a symbol of the struggle between the good and the bad.

The work is a part of two-piece panel with Hercules and Antaeus and it is linked to a cycle of other works representing the labors of Hercules that Piero de’ Medici, father of Lorenzo, had commissioned from Antonio del Pollaiolo. In a letter of 13 July 1494 Gentile Virgilio Orsini Antonio mentioned these works from thirty years before, consisting of three square canvases. The canvases were mentioned in the inventory of Palazzo Medici (nowadays Palazzo Medici Riccardi) of 1494-1495 and in Raffaello Borghini’s Riposo in 1584. After this date the destiny of the canvases is unknown.

It has been thought that the two panels of Uffizi Gallery are preparatory sketches or copies, while some have speculated that they are independent works, commissioned by the Medici family and perhaps related to the famous bronze statue of Hercules and Antaeus in Bargello Museum. The statue was commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent or by his brother Giuliano, and it was completed around 1475.

The panels were registered in the inventory of Gondi in Florence in 1609 and they were described as a diptych. They entered the Guardaroba of Palazzo Pitti in 1784 and from there they were moved to Uffizi on August 21 1798. During the 2nd World War the panels were stolen. Rodolfo Siviero found them in Los Angeles in 1963.

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Author's Details

Antonio di Jacopo Benci was born in Florence in 1431 or 1432. He owes his nickname to his father Jacopo, who sold poultry for living.

He started as a goldsmith probably in the workshop of Piero Sali or Maso Finiguerra and gained soon a great success.

Lorenzo the Magnificent described him in his letter to Giovanni Lanfredini in 1489 as the greatest artist of Florence stressing the fact that it was the common opinion in the city. In 1457 Antonio was working with the silver reliquary for the altar of St. John and in 1460 he painted the three celebrated canvases of Hercules’ labors for Piero de’ Medici (Lorenzo’s father) in Palazzo Medici.

Antonio wasn’t just a goldsmith. He made many shrines and reliquaries and was very active in the Opera del Duomo in Florence. After working for the altar of St. John he drew the cartoons with the Stories of St. John the Baptist for the embroidered vestments.

He was also an engraver, illustrator and sculptor of bronze statues. The most famous statue represents Hercules and Antaeus (Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello). In these works you can see Pollaiolo’s subtle and energetic design, able to express movement and strong emotions. His style was admired by young Botticelli, who took a great influence from him.

Antonio was also a restorer and he decorated the chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal (Jacopo di Lusitania) in San Miniato Al Monte (1467) with his brother Piero. They painted the altarpiece with the figures of Saints James, Vincent and Eustace (Florence, Uffizi Gallery) and the two curtain-bearing angels on the arch of the fresco.

From the 1480s’ he worked permanently in Rome, occasionally vising Florence where he sent his works. Together with his brother, he concentrated to decorate the tomb of Sixtus IV, which he signed and dated in 1493 as well as the tomb of Innocent VIII (1492). He also worked with the design of the dome for the sacristy of Santo Spirito and the façade of the Florence cathedral Santa Maria Del Fiore.

He died in Rome in 1498.

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Museum's Details

The Uffizi gallery was established in 1560 when Cosimo I Medici, the Duke of Tuscany, wanted to put together the Florentine offices and magistrates (hence the name uffici, offices) in a single building, to have a better control over them. The work was entrusted to Giorgio Vasari and the construction started the following year. The building was designed in U-shape, consisting of a long east wing, a short corridor overlooking the Arno river and a short west wing, forming classic pattern of a Tuscan loggia. The entrance of the gallery is situated right next to Palazzo Vecchio, the house of the dukes. The first museological exhibition was organized by Francesco I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1574 to 1587. Thanks to the architect Buontalenti and the initiative of Ferdinand II, the gallery became a representation site, decorated by Antonio Tempesta, where the artworks were conserved as well as the series of the portraits of the Illustrious Men which were placed next to the portraits of the Medici family. The overall space consists of 8000 square meters and forty-five rooms, all in the third floor, where the art collection includes some of the greatest masterpieces of Italian and European art, such as Giotto’s Maestà di Ognissanti, Simone Martini’s Trinity, the altarpieces of Duccio, Gentile da Fabriano and Mantegna, the Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo Da Vinci, many works of Botticelli, among them the Venus and the Spring, Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola and Madonna of the Goldfinch, Tiitan’s Venus of Urbino, Caravaggio’s Bacchus and Rubens’s Triumph of Henry IV.

Ferdinand II wanted to add other rooms in the gallery: the room of Mathematics, a terrace and the armory. Between 1696 and 1699 the Grand Duke Cosimo III ordered the decoration of the corridor overlooking the Arno river with frescoes of religious subjects and he sent to Florence some of the most famous examples of ancient statues conserved in Villa Medici of Rome. In this occasion was built the Sala della Niobe, where the ancient sculptures were placed. Other self-portraits of ancient and contemporary painters were acquired and placed in the Vasari Corridor. Cardinal Leopoldo de Medici added to Uffizi his collection of graphic art and created the cabinet nowadays known as the department of drawings and prints.

After the extinction of the house of Medici due to lack of heirs, in 1737 Anna Maria Luisa de Medici donated the treasures of the Uffizi gallery to the city of Florence, so that the collection would always stay where it was created. In 1769 the Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo opens the gallery to the public. In the 1770s’ Uffizi was seen as a advantaged laboratory for the studies of art history and for preparation of art, thanks to the work of Luigi di Lanzi and Giuseppe Pelli Bencivenni.

During the Kingdom of Italy, the renaissance statues were moved to the new museum of Bargello and the gallery was gradually taking the function of Pinacoteca. More and more visitors came, and the magistrates were transformed to public archives. In 1900 the gallery acquired the painting collection of the Arcispedale of Santa Maria Nuova, including artworks such as the Portinari Triptych of Hugo van der Goes, from the church of Sant’Edigio. In the beginning of the 20th century the gallery reinforced the collection by acquiring many works of the 14th and 15th centuries from churches and other religious institutes, which were still absent in the museums historical framework.

The first renovation of Uffizi’s rooms dates back to 1956, when the architects Giovanni Michelucci, Carlo Scarpa and Ignazio Gardella renewed the rooms with light tones of colors that highlight the wooden ceiling. In 1969 the gallery purchased the collection of Contini Bonacossi including Giovanni Bellini’s St. Jerome, Cima da Conegliano’s St. Jerome, Francesco Francia’s St. Francis, Savoldo’s Mary Magdalene, Tintoretto’s canvases and Velazquez’s Waterseller of Seville and Portrait of Philip IV of Spain.

In 2006 the Uffizi galleries started the architectural restoration work, adjustments of the implantation and new layouts for the rooms. The museum remained always open and with the reform of the Italian museum system in 2014 the museums of Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens were joined to the Uffizi.

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