Hercules and the Hydra

Hercules and the Hydra,
Tempera-on-panel copy of lost
10-foot original in Medici Palace
(Uffizi Gallery, Florence)


Past Masters:
Antonio Pollaiuolo of Florence

The following excerpts are from Vasari's Lives of the Artists: Biographies of the Most Eminent Architects, Painters and Sculptors of Italy, first published in 1550, abridged and edited by Betty Burroughs (Simon & Schuster, 1946).

There are many who begin tentatively with unimportant works and then, gathering courage as they grow in facility and power, mount ever higher until their thoughts reach almost to heaven itself. Haply they encounter some liberal prince who, satisfied in all his expectations, is compelled to reward their services most liberally. Such men live out their lives with honor and leave memorials which awaken the admiration of the world. Such were Antonio (1429-1498) and Piero Pollaiuolo (1443-1496), who in their time were highly esteemed for their rare abilities.

These artists were born in Florence within a few years of each other. Their father was a poor man, and humble, but he recognized the clear and just intelligence of his sons. Not being in a position to give them a liberal education, he apprenticed Antonio to Bartoluccio Ghiberti [stepfather of Lorenzo], as a goldsmith, and Piero to Andrea del Castagno as a painter. Antonio set jewels and worked at the preparation of silver to be enameled and was held to be the best who worked with the chisel in that vocation. Lorenzo Ghiberti, then engaged on the Baptistery doors, employed Antonio with many other young men to assist him. He set Antonio to work on one of the festoons, where the youth produced a quail which may still be seen and which is so perfect that it wants nothing but the power of flight. Antonio had not spent many weeks at this occupation before he was known as the best of all the assistants. His ability and reputation increased together, and he left Bartoluccio and Lorenzo and opened his own shop in the Mercato Nuovo [New Market]. Here he worked for several years continually preparing new designs and making chandeliers in relief and other fanciful works which caused him to be known as the best in his craft. . . .

Realizing at last that the art of the goldsmith brought little assurance of immortality, Antonio joined his brother in the career of painting. He found this a very different art and possibly regretted his hasty resolution. But perhaps from a sense of shame, he set himself to master the processes of painting in a few months' time, and did, indeed, become an excellent master. He joined Piero and they collaborated on many paintings. . . . For the Pucci chapel in the church of the Servites Antonio painted the altarpiece. This remarkable work [Saint Sebastian, now in the National Gallery, London] has numerous horses, many undraped figures, and singularly beautiful foreshortenings. . . . Antonio has evidently copied nature to the utmost of his power. One of the archers is bending over and exerts all of the force of his strong arms -- the veins swelling, the muscles taught -- to prepare his weapon. The other figures are as well done. Antonio Pucci paid three hundred scudi and said that he knew he was barely paying for the colors.

Battle of the Nudes

"Battle of the Nudes"

Antonio's courage now rose to new heights, and in San Miniato-fra-le-Torri he painted a Saint Christopher almost twenty feet high and in the modern manner of correct proportion. In the Medici Palace he painted three pictures of Hercules, each almost ten feet high. In the first, Hercules is strangling Antaeus; he uses every muscle and nerve in his body to destroy his opponent. His set teeth are as expressive as the rest of the figure down to the toes, on which he lifts himself in his effort. Antaeus is seen sinking, gasping for breath. In the second picture Hercules kills the lion by pressing his knee against the animal's chest, rending the lion's jaws by main force while the beast claws at him and tears his arm. The third, in which the hero destroys the hydra, is indeed an admirable work. The reptile itself and its fire and ferocity are so effectually displayed that the master merits the highest praise and deserves to be imitated by all good artists. This master treated his nude figures almost in the modern manner. He dissected many human bodies to study anatomy and was the first who investigated the action of the muscles by this means. Antonio engraved on copper a combat of nude figures [see Gallery Walk website] and later produced many other engravings which are a great advance over other works of his time. . . .

Antonio left many disciples. He was a most fortunate man and led a very happy life. He had the patronage of rich pontiffs and lived when his native city was at the summit of its prosperity and remarkable for its love of talent. Had he lived in less favorable times he might not have produced the rich fruits which we derive from his labors, for the cares of life are the deadly enemies of that disinterested study so necessary to those who profess the arts.

Copyright 2005, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont

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