Saturday, December 22, 2012

Michelangelo's Lost Hercules

In 1492, at the age of seventeen, Michelangelo carved the first free-standing over-life-size statue to be created in 1500 years. He had been living in the Medici palace as a guest of Lorenzo de Medici, and this experience brought him into contact with ideas, scholars, artists, and philosophers that awakened his mind and shaped the man he would become. It was an idyllic time of over three years that came to an abrupt end when Lorenzo died.
Paul Joannides, professor of art history at University of Cambridge, has suggested that a small bronze figure of Hercules in the Victorian and Albert Museum may be a miniature of Michelangelo’s eight-foot-tall Hercules, carved when he was seventeen, immediately after the death of Lorenzo and Michelangelo’s return to his father’s home.

<!--[if !vml]-->Such small bronzes, made for wealthy patrons and travelers, were based on extant sculpture, similar to the plaster copies of David that can be found for sale everywhere in Florence today.  Very small bronze Davids were being produced within a few years of the statue's completion.
If the small bronze does reflect a larger sculpture, what sculpture would that be?  We have no large sculpture that conforms to this small bronze, so the small bronze may represent a now lost life-size or larger figure important enough to be desirable to patrons in the form of small reproductions.
What, if anything, makes us think this small bronze may be a copy, or an iffy or weak copy, or even a bastardization of the lost Michelangelo?  Joannides points out that the small bronze figure’s legs are crossed, fine enough in a small sculpture, but a dangerous engineering practice when designing a large free-standing figure, especially in stone.  Supporting all that weight on the strength of a crossed-legged pose would require an audaciousness we have come to understand was characteristic of Michelangelo.  
When we look at the David we see that Michelangelo supported six tons of stone on two thin ankles, the bulk of the weight falling on the figure’s right leg, which Michelangelo helped support with the addition of a small stump.  Other artists would have supported such a figure with a tree, a pillar, or some other very large structure to help carry the weight.

But, apart from sheer audaciousness, is there any possible symbolic significance to crossed legs that add to the suggestion that the small statue may indeed represent a lost Hercules?
The myth of Leda and the Swan tells the story of Zeus appearing before the mortal Leda, impregnating her with the demigod twins, Castor and Pollux.  These sons came (thru the narrative of a larger myth) to represent the spring and the fall equinoxes, respectively.  Castor can be found, especially in Mithraic statuary, raising a torch above his head, thereby signifying the rising sun of spring renewal, whereas his twin, Pollux, is illustrated with his torch aimed down at the ground, head bent down, representing fall; together the two may represent life and death. We might also note that the figure rests on his club, much as Pollux does, and looks downward. 

The small bronze Hercules rests on his club, again much as Pollux does, as he looks downward toward the earth.  While Hercules’ club represents the sun, the symbolic interpolation from torch--a symbol of life-giving power--it is also a symbol of political or corporeal power.
It is worth noting that the marble Hercules was created immediately after the death of Lorenzo de Medici and Michelangelo’s return to his father’s home.  It was a hard period of time for the young Michelangelo.  Lorenzo had become a surrogate father to him, one of several he would adopt throughout his life.  His own father had little use for or understanding of art, and had wanted the young Michelangelo to drop all this artist nonsense and go into banking.So the Hercules was, we know, created during the year immediately after the death of Lorenzo (and Michelangelo’s metaphorical expulsion from the Medici circle, even if self-imposed) and a period of time in which he was in mourning.
Michelangelo would return to the subject of the loss of Lorenzo later in life with a fragment of a poem beginning:  “Broken are the high column and the green laurel that gave shade to my weary care,” and it is reasonable to think that during the year-long Hercules project, Lorenzo was on Michelangelo’s mind, and that the untimely death of the Florentine patron, a herculean figure in Michelangelo’s life if ever there was one before the Pope, clouded his emotions, disturbed what had been an easy and optimistic life.   
In his later poem, “high column”may remind Michelangelo of the column of marble from which he carved his statue.  He might well have intended a play on words with “green laurel”:  laurel = Laurus, and Laurus (Lorenzo) is gone, broken.  (See: Barkan, “Michelangelo, a Life on Paper.”)
It is also reasonable to suggest that after the death of Lorenzo, Michelangelo’s first thought would have been to create some work of art to commemorate the great man.  The choice of Hercules, in itself, is enough to link the figure to Lorenzo. 
Until a better counter-argument is made, we can draw a reasonable inference that the small bronze does reflect Michelangelo’s lost Hercules.
One other element may support this claim as well. While most images of Hercules are massive-bodied sculptures, even hypertrophied giants, the small bronze depicts Hercules as a much more slim, although muscled, figure.  Michelangelo would not create massive-bodied sculptures for many years, and the drawings we have from this period of time leading up to the tight, hard-bodied David, demonstrate an aesthetic approach to the body that was anything other than gigantic.

We might now turn to a drawing by Rubens, said to be of the lost Hercules of Michelangelo.  This drawing diverges in important ways from the figure we have been developing up until now.  The legs are not crossed, most specifically. 

But the Rubens figure does show a non-standard slimness, and Rubens' Hercules wears a kind of head scarf or turban.  If a turban, this could suggest a self-reference; self-portraits often used a turban to indicate the subject as painter. (Cezanne, Rembrandt, Jan Van Eyck.)

If Michelangelo’s lost Hercules was based on the idea of Pollux (also known as Cautopates), a figure in Mithraic imagery always wearing a loose cloth Phrygian Cap, designating a status as slave, this could explain the head-scarf/turban of the Rubens drawing.  Whether or not we need to—or can—take the next step and attribute to the pseudo-Phrygian cap the symbolism of “slave” or “freed slave” as found in Roman relief sculpture, we are free in, but not entirely uncautioned against, attaching slave symbolism to the image of Hercules. As with the David, there is close self-identification of Hercules with Michelangelo himself. Hercules becomes both Lorenzo and Michelangelo; the self-reference of slave cap could indicate his being forever bound to Lorenzo, or perhaps finally freed (albeit with the attendant terrors of a newly freed slave) to wander the world.  (The degree to which Lorenzo shaped Michelangelo’s idea of himself is impossible to fully fathom.)
Michelangelo’s self-identification with David was strong. We see this in his own writing, but also from obvious comparisons between the two figures and their confrontations with seemingly insurmountable tasks, and (I believe) from the proportions of the David. We know that Michelangelo was of medium build with broad shoulders, not particularly heavily built, but with immense strength and endurance This is a fair description of the marble David as well.  (See Charles Seymour, Michelangelo’s David, a  Search for Identity,” 1974.)
Why then does the Rubens drawing diverge from the lost Hercules, if Rubens was working directly from it?  It’s possible that he could have been drawing from a written description, a memory of a brief encounter (see Leo Steinberg on Goethe about Leonardo’s “Last Supper”), or this drawing may be an invention of Rubens' own, loosely based on the lost Hercules. Or indeed the suppositions behind the Rubens' attribution may be wrong, and the drawing may have nothing to do with the actual work by Michelangelo.
Setting aside the issue of the Rubens (especially in the light of work done by Weinberg on the identification in French etchings of Fontainebleau), we return to the idea that the small bronze was certainly based on something.  There’s no known work, lost or not, that compares to the small bronze; the audacious design suggests an audacious sculptor, and the possible identification with Pollux, mythical personification of fall, may reasonably be attached to Michelangelo’s grief over the recent death of his friend and mentor, a man he certainly remembered as mythic throughout his long life.


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