The mythological subject, one of the principal Labours of Hercules, was a favourite in Florence, for Hercules was regarded as patron of the city, featuring for instance on its seal in the 15th century (see Ettlinger, 1972). The subject was furthermore addressed famously by Antonio del Pollaiuolo in a bronze group made probably for the Medici, now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello. He made the combatants face one another, unlike the standard classical rendering in which, as here, Hercules is lifting and crushing Antaeus from behind.
The best known ancient prototype is a fragmentary group that was recorded in 1509 among the antiquities taken by Pope Julius II to the new statue court in the Vatican, and which was - optimistically - attributed to Polycleitus. Its parlous condition is recorded in a small replica that appears in Lotto's portrait of the Venetian collector Andrea Odoni painted in 1527 (currently on display in The Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace), and in two views by Heemskerck (see Bober & Rubinstein, op. cit., pl. 137a). The Mantuan bronze artist nicknamed L'Antico referred to it in 1518 as 'the most beautiful work of antiquity that ever was', and made a reduction of it in which he completed the missing head and extremities.
This original, given to Duke Cosimo I de' Medici by Pope Pius IV in 1560, reached Florence in 1564. There it was restored and was recorded soon afterwards, standing under the ground floor loggia in Palazzo Pitti, Florence, by Vasari in a list of Cosimo's antiquities (The Lives of the Painters, 1568, vol. III ). It was soon moved into the 'salone grande delle nicchie' constructed as an Antiquarium for the Medici by Ammanati, where it was listed in an inventory of 1597. By 1677 it had reached its present destination in an external niche in the courtyard, facing the back of the palace.
Quite apart from the acquisition and restoration of this antiquity, interest in the particular subject was already high in Florence, for it had been chosen by Niccolò Tribolo as the theme for the terminal group of the most important fountain in the garden of the Medici villa of Il Castello. After Tribolo's premature death in 1550 this major commission was entrusted by Duke Cosimo to Vincenzo Danti, newly-arrived from his native Perugia, where he had successfully produced in 1559 a monumental statue in bronze of Pope Julius III. Accordingly, Vasari tells us, Danti made a very beautiful, over life-size, model in wax. However, as Summers (op. cit.) puts it, 'Opportunity turned to disaster when Danti miscast the group three times'. The commission was taken over by Ammannati, who succeeded in casting the splendid group that has survived to this day. In his, presumably, new and personal composition, he reverted to the arrangement favoured by Pollaiuolo in which the figures wrestle chest to chest, permitting to the victim a dramatic backwards kick of one leg. In this he was later followed by Giambologna, when he came to include this subject among a series of The Labours of Hercules that he designed for production in silver for the Tribuna of the Uffizi and which were later disseminated in bronze statuettes.
The catastrophic and repeated failure of Danti's attempts to cast his full-scale wax model for the fountain at Il Castello into bronze has deflected attention from its possible appearance, of which there is no record. Nevertheless, it must have been preceded - as was normal practice - by small exploratory models also in wax, which can of course equally be cast into bronze for the sake of preservation and, indeed, of exploitation in commercial terms. Of course, the lowered head of the Antaeus here would not permit his mouth to be piped so as to send a jet of water vertically, as it could have in Pollaiuolo's statuette (which has been thought on that account possibly to have been a project for a fountain) and actually does in Ammanati's final solution.
However it is logical to suppose that the sculptor might already have had knowledge of the papal gift to Cosimo I of the prestigious ancient group and wished to try his hand at suggesting how its missing parts might sensibly be restored. He might also have hoped to embody these thoughts into his bronze statue, for the tensile strength of metal would permit him to dispense with the need for an artificial support, such as had to be inserted behind the original to take some of the weight off its ankles.
Vasari claims that, after his failure in casting the wax model in bronze, Danti turned in disgust to learning to carve marble. This is not entirely true, for in the very same year, 1559, he completed his wonderfully dramatic, though sketchy, relief in bronze of Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Museo Nazionale del Bargello); it was finished by November and weighed in March 1560. At 32 x 68 inches (82 x 172 cm.), it is an unusually large narrative panel, in which the many figures, some of which projected strongly, are of a size similar to those of the present statuette. What is more important, the nude parts of their flesh are brought to life - as it were - by hammering, a technique typical of a goldsmith, the art in which Danti had been first trained. Its prevalence in the present bronze is indicative of his probable authorship, for in the middle of the sixteenth century it was most unusual, although it had been used earlier on, by Bertoldo (Bellerophon taming Pegasus, Kunshistorisches Museum, Vienna) and the young Michelangelo in Florence (Hercules Pomarius, Victoria and Albert Museum, London), as well as by Riccio in Padua.
The present unique and unpublished composition may be a study for Danti's important, though failed, monumental fountain project, or simply for the completion of the classical marble group. In either case, it is of particular interest in the history of Italian sculpture during the late Renaissance epoch.