‘The French royal collection version is a cast of superb quality...’
The present group by Ferdinando Tacca represents a high point of Florentine seventeenth century bronze casting. Hercules is depicted in a ferocious battle against the god Acheloüs, who has transformed himself into a bull. The result is a superb feat of compositional bravado, technical brilliance and overpowering force. Given by King Louis XIV of France to his son in 1681, the present bronze repeatedly appears in the inventories of the French Royal Collection until it was sold or dispersed during the Revolution.
The bronze depicts Hercules’ struggle with the river god, Acheloüs, one of Hercules’ rivals for the hand of the beautiful Deianira. Faced with an array of suitors for his daughter, Deianira’s father, King Oeneus of Calydon, announced a contest in which the strongest would win her hand. Acheloüs was by far the strongest in the region, but because of Deianira’s great beauty Hercules travelled far to Calydon for the contest. It was well-known that Hercules was the strongest mortal in the world and the other suitors withdrew, leaving Hercules to wrestle Acheloüs. The river god was able to transform himself at will; he could become a snake, a bull-headed man or a bull, and did so during his wrestling match with Hercules. Hercules defeated Acheloüs, ripping off one of his horns, which became the ubiquitous classical symbol of abundance, the cornucopia. The bronze follows the story of the contest as outlined in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (IX, 94-103, London, 1567).
A GIFT OF THE MEDICI
The model of the present group is from a series of five bronzes of Hercules commissioned from Pietro Tacca, Ferdinando’s father, by Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany around 1614, as part of a gift for King James I of England. This project never came to fruition and it does not appear that any of these models were cast during Pietro Tacca’s own lifetime (Warren, 2016, op. cit., no. 116). The impetus for their creation seems to have come from a request by Prince Henry of England for the Medici to send him some more bronzes, after the success of a royal gift in 1612. The Prince died in 1614, but soon after Cosimo ordered a set of the Twelve Labours of Hercules from Tacca and two others, as a gift to Henry’s father King James I. Tacca made five models for the series but they were never cast, and in 1633 he is recorded still seeking payment for the models from the Grand Duke (ibid, p. 536). The five models in the series are of Hercules and the Centaur, Hercules overcoming Acheloüs, Hercules and the Erymanthian Boar, Hercules and the Arcadian Stag and Hercules supporting the Heavens.
A source for the models may have been a series of prints by Antonio Tempesta published in 1608, which shows similarities with the compositions of Hercules and the Stag, Hercules and the Boar (in the background) and Hercules overcoming Acheloüs. An alternative source for the present group may be an engraving of the same subject by Gian Giacomo Caraglio, published in 1524, after a drawing by Rosso Fiorentino, in which the pose and type of bull are almost identical to the animal in the present bronze. The closest possible source is from a series of prints by Cornelis Cort after Frans Floris I that were published by Hendrick Goltzius in 1563. This engraving is also thought to have inspired Cornelis van Haarlem’s great painting of the same subject (sold at Christie's, New York, 15 April 2008, lot 25).
Ferdinando Tacca was one of the leading sculptor’s working under the Medici in Florence in the seventeenth century. Inheriting his father’s studio which he in turn had inherited from Giambologna, Tacca continued their great legacy in creating exquisite bronze casts for the Medici family and noble patrons throughout the courts of Europe. Ferdinando improved on the technical capabilities of Pietro Tacca, Antonio Susini and Giambologna by casting superb bronzes in ever increasing scale.
Ferdinando Tacca was born in Florence in October 1619. His father, Pietro, had inherited Giambologna’s studio in Borgo Pinti on his death in 1608 and was recognised as the official court sculptor to Cosimo II de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. It is likely that Ferdinando assisted his father in his workshop growing up. When Pietro himself died in 1640, Ferdinando immediately took over the running of the large studio and succeeded his father as court sculptor to Ferdinand II, who had succeeded his father.
FATHER AND SON IN THE WORKSHOP
Pietro had been trained by Giambologna to work in marble and bronze, but the latter became his favourite material and his marble statues were usually handed over to his assistants. Pietro built on Giambologna’s sophisticated Mannerist style, but was able to achieve a greater technical mastery which in term influenced his own stylistic development.
Pietro’s last important commission was an equestrian monument to Philip IV, King of Spain. Philip requested from Tacca that he be depicted on a rearing horse; this difficult feat had never before been achieved on a monumental scale. Tacca’s lifelong study of casting helped him to resolve, with advice from Galileo Galilei, the immense challenge. This was ‘one of the greatest achievements in the history of Western sculpture’ (Watson and Brook, loc. cit.). Ferdinando must have been closely involved in the commission, and after Pietro’s death he carried it to its completion, travelling to Madrid to unite and erect the sculpture in the garden of Buen Retiro in 1642.
Both Pietro and Ferdinando were mindful not to abandon the celebrated style of Giambologna that had proved immensely popular with patrons Europe-wide. And yet the bronzes of both Pietro and Ferdinando are distinct from Giambologna and each other. Their works tended ‘towards naturalism more marked than that displayed in Giambologna’s sculpture’. Both father and son developed a style of their own, which can be seen most tellingly in their small-scale bronze sculptures. In the tradition of Giambologna’s other major assistant, Antonio Susini, Pietro and Ferdinando concentrated huge resources in creating exquisite surface finishes and the result was that they ‘could make bronze resemble skin or hair, hide or cloth, rock or plant’ (ibid).
SEEKING NEW PATRONAGE
After completing work on the equestrian statue of Philip IV, Ferdinando returned to Florence. From 1642 to 1649 he worked on two monumental bronze statues of Grand Dukes Ferdinand I and Cosimo II, which his father had begun for the Cappella dei Principi in San Lorenzo, Florence. But following this Ferdinando had to seek patronage outside the Medici court, which was by this date in decline. His most important works in the following period were a life-size Crucifix and four infant angels in bronze for the palace chapel of Prince Carlo I Cybo Malaspina of Massa–Carrara (1647–9), an antependium relief of the Stoning of St Stephen (1656), kneeling infant angels in bronze executed for the Bartolommei family (1650-5, Getty Museum), the bronze Fountain of Bacchus (1658–65, Prato, Palazzo Pretorio), and private commissions such as a bronze figure of Apollo (Los Angeles County Art Museum).
Alongside this Ferdinando also worked on independent bronze groups. The most impressive of these were the five re-worked casts of the Labours of Hercules after models created by Pietro, that include the bronze of Hercules overcoming Acheloüs discussed above. It is not known who commissioned Ferdinando to cast such expensively assembled large-scale bronze sculptures, but it was unlikely to have been done from his own reserves. The theatricality of the models would have appealed to Ferdinando, who was known to have pursued a second vocation as a stage designer, and they inspired in him some of his greatest achievements in bronze. Their richly defined surfaces are an enormous achievement in themselves, and give evidence that his engineering and casting skills were just as important as his artistic vision.
ESTABLISHING FERDINANDO'S OEUVRE
In 1976 Anthony Radcliffe published a paper 'Ferdinando Tacca, the missing link in Florentine Baroque bronzes' (Radcliffe, 1976, loc. cit.) that first established Ferdinando’s authorship of a group of high-quality bronze mythological sculptures. Because of the reduced patronage provided by the Medici Grand Dukes in the mid-seventeenth century, there is remarkably little documented work by Ferdinando, considering his status and the length of time he was running the most important bronze workshop in Florence. Radcliffe convincingly linked these previously mis-attributed bronzes to Ferdinando by comparing them stylistically to the relief of the Stoning of St Stephen. Each of these bronzes consists of two-figures, set apart from each other on a thin base, ‘in such a way as to emphasize a single, frontal view—a kind of miniature theatre. He thus provides a link between Giambologna and Giovanni Battista Foggini’ (Watson and Brook, 2003). This series is now known to include ten models – often in variant versions – representing the following pairs: Medoro and Angelica, Apollo and Daphne, Bireno and Olimpia, Hercules and Iole, Mercury and Juno, Pan and Diana, Roger and Angelica, Ceres and Bacchus and Venus and Adonis (Wengraf, loc. cit.).
Wengraf argues that these two-figures groups were conceived earlier than previously thought, possibly even as early as 1635-40, when Ferdinando was still in the workshop of his father Pietro. Between nine and eleven groups by Ferdinando are noted in the inventory of the commissaire des guerres Jean-Baptiste de Bretagne drawn up after his death in October 1650 (see Warren, 2010, op. cit., p. 94), which would give a terminus ante quem to the conception and casting of the models.
Radcliffe noted the individual way that Ferdinando modelled his bases, which was quite unlike the bronzes of Giambologna or Antonio Susini. His bases are all modelled in the same ‘quasi-naturalistic way and worked with sinuous convoluted tracks of unusually heavy punching’ (Radcliffe, op. cit., p. 18). This can be seen in his two-figure groups but also in his casts of Pietro’s models of the Hercules series; most evidently in the superb rendition of the bases of Hercules overcoming Acheloüs and Hercules overcoming the Centaur Eurytion, which show an obsessive attention to work every surface, a hallmark of Ferdinando’s work which made him one of the greatest sculptors working in bronze in the seventeenth century.
COMPARISON WITH THE WALLACE VERSION
The present bronze is one of two known casts; the other cast was probably acquired by the 3rd Marquess of Hertford in 1842 and is in the Wallace Collection, London. In his exhaustive study of the Italian sculpture in the Wallace Collection, Jeremy Warren compares the two bronzes, commenting that the ‘outstanding version numbered 302 in the French royal collection, now in private hands…is of higher quality’ than the version in the Wallace (Warren, 2016, loc. cit.).
Warren notes that the two bronzes have a few small variations; in the present cast Hercules is positioned slightly further back and his head is lowered, which helps to increase the psychological tension within the composition. The lion skin that Hercules wears as a cloak is pushed further into the air in the present version, which increases the sense of Hercules’ forward movement. Technically the present cast is an advancement on the Wallace cast; the finishing is of a higher quality and the weight is more evenly distributed so that fewer extra sections were needed to be inserted after casting. Warren argues that this evidence suggests that the Wallace example may precede the present bronze, as the latter appears to improve on the design of the Wallace cast.
TACCA: HIS TECHNICAL EVOLUTION
The close similarity of the two known casts of Tacca’s Hercules Overcoming the Bull Achelöus suggests that they were also cast by the indirect lost wax process. Jeremy Warren was able to examine the two groups simultaneously and make extensive notes. Both groups have been cast in a number of separate pieces and then joined after casting. Partly because of the gilding, the joints of the Wallace bronze are relatively easy to detect. However, in the case of the present bronze Warren writes, ‘the French royal collection version is a cast of superb quality, in which it is virtually impossible through normal visual examination to determine the seams joining the different parts’ (Warren, 2016, loc. cit., p. 546). Notwithstanding, a few joins are visible, including to Hercules’ right arm below the elbow, to his right thigh and at two points of the lion skin close to Hercules’ back. This latter element of the lion skin flying out dramatically behind the hero as he lunges forward is a particularly virtuoso piece of casting and finishing. The pelt ripples in the air with a seeming life of its own, supported only by two narrow ‘arms’ that are then tied across Hercules’ chest.
Despite the many similarities of the casting process between the two bronzes, one area where they differ is the manner in which each is attached to its separately cast base. In both cases there are holes in the base into which the bronze elements are inserted. However, the method of attaching the bronze elements is quite different. In the case of the Wallace example, most of the holes are covered underneath with a metal plate before a screw is inserted through the plate and screwed into the bottom of the bronze element above. In the case of the French royal bronze, the process was more laborious and costly, but ultimately ensured that the overall group remained more stable. In this latter case, once the bronze element had been inserted into the hole a second pouring of bronze was added from beneath, thus securing the bronze element permanently. Several of these second pourings were too deep for the recessed base and would have prevented the bronze from resting flat on a given surface. One can clearly see the chisel marks where these excess pieces of bronze were removed.
One further feature worth noting is the distinctive and unusual presence of neatly paired plugs on either side of several of the second pourings. It is unclear what their function might have been but their placement is too regular for them to be casting flaws that have been repaired. It may be that bands of some sort held the elements in place during the process of the second bronze pourings and that once these elements were secure the bands were removed and the holes were filled. It would be interesting to know if this feature has parallels in other bronzes of the period.
One of the glories of the French royal bronze is its patination which, unlike the gilded example in the Wallace Collection has a rich warm brown surface. The alloy of the Wallace bronze was analysed and was shown to have a particularly high copper content (92.2%) even by the standards of Italian foundries, which tend to use more copper than their northern counterparts. Although it hasn’t been formally analysed, the alloy of the present group is clearly also high in copper, as is obvious when one examines the raw bronze on the underside which has a clear pink tinge. This distinctive alloy contributes to the depth of colour achieved. The surface is further enlivened overall by directional wire brushing which is visible under the translucent lacquers and gives greater texture to the surface.
ENTRY INTO THE FRENCH ROYAL COLLECTION
The present bronze was one of nine given by Louis XIV to his twenty-year-old son, the Grand Dauphin, in 1681. For reasons of rank, it was considered necessary for the Grand Dauphin to own a collection of bronzes, as proof of his interest in the humanist achievements of the Renaissance. At the Grand Dauphin's early death in 1711, these bronzes were incorporated into the royal collection by Louis XIV, where they remained until the Revolution. Three other bronzes by Tacca from the Hercules series also formed part of this gift from Louis XIV to his son. Today, two are in the Louvre and the third is in the collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein.