Since antiquity, the image of Hercules embodied the virtues of courage and strength, and as a prominent classical figure he was worshipped as the protector of people and guardian of cities. Thus, in the same way that Hercules achieved immortality through his wondrous deeds, so did the myths become immortalized - the most famous series of them being the Twelve Labours. One of the most popular labours relates to an iconographical cannon established in the old Babylonian poem Gilgamesh where the hero wrestles a lion in an epic battle between good and evil just as Hercules does in his Labour. This image was so potent that it was later recycled by Christian storytellers who replaced the mythological heroes with Samson and David. Hercules here is depicted naked, standing astride and forcing open the jaws of the creature. In the subsequent Labours, Hercules is therefore depicted wearing the lion's skin as a symbol of his fortitude.
Compositionally, the present lot relates most clearly to a small bronze group of the same subject that Bode ascribed to a Roman artist from around 1600 (Bode, loc. cit.). Although smaller in size, and sufficiently different in detail from the terracotta for the two not to be by the same hand, it is clear that both groups have the same sense of vigour and ease of view, and that they essentially share the same composition.
In considering the authorship of the present lot one also needs to look at a series of terracotta groups, predominantly representing Hercules, by Stefano Maderno (1575-1636) in the Ca' d'Oro, Venice. Maderno was a native of Rome who was a contemporary of artists such as Pietro Bernini and Francesco Mochi. As a result of his association with these major figures of Roman art, he found himself at the epicentre of the stylistic movement from Mannerist to Baroque art. Although not conceived by Maderno himself, the present lot exhibits many of the same characteristics of this work. Here, Hercules is depicted with tall, elegant proportions. He is not as robust as some of the Renaissance, or even antique, comparables, but is muscular, dynamic and full of expression. One need only look at two of Maderno's documented terracotta groups of Hercules and the Nemean lion and Hercules and Cacus, both dating from 1621 and housed in the Ca'd'Oro (comparative illustrations 1 and 2 respectively) to see their relation to the present lot - consider the similar treatment of the proportions, the definition of the musculature and the intensity of the facial expressions. Although such similarities are an indication that the artist was looking at Maderno for inspiration in creating this piece one sees that there are some marked differences that make the present lot worthy of study. Firstly, the composition is considerably more compressed than the Ca'd'Oro Hercules and the Nemean lion, which alters the way that the group can be looked at. When viewed from straight on, it is obvious that Hercules is in a slightly awkward fighting position, but his straddling the lion and resultant posture creates a composition that is easily viewable and interesting from practically every other angle. This is in sharp contrast to Maderno's model, which is best viewed from the side.
The fact that both the bronze group and the terracotta by Maderno are Roman in origin suggests that the author of the present lot also worked in Rome or had Roman training, even if he was subsequently to move elsewhere. What one can be certain of, however, is that secular sculptures of this high quality and of appealing subject matter were objects of desire to a wide number of collectors.