The Greek Connection

Continuation of: A Procession of One

Each day is a little bit of history – José Saramago

Firenze, the name Florentines love to call their city in Italian is used by us only during our visits and in our writings. Like the ancient Florentines did, between my wife and I, we call it in its older and most beautiful form: FIORENZA, because she flourished exceedingly and was the Flower of all Italian graces. Fiorenza has music to it for those who listen in the pleasantness of old tradition. 

The imposing sculpture of Baccio Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus at Piazza della Signoria depicts Hercules holding the hair of Cacus, the giant kneeling in defeat before him, while he held a club in his right hand, the famous weapon he had cut for himself in the forest of Nemea.

I have always looked at this Renaissance sculpture in a wholesome way – certainly not in awe of it. Short of any pretention as a scientific expert on Arts or scholarly expert of Greek antiquity, I prefer to merit it as nothing less than an admirable work although it can be said that the artist’s projection of strength is mere bulk.

Conversely, in what I have scrutinized and thought of this sculpture aside from the comments and reactions of its onlookers I came across at the Piazza della Signoria, one can hardly disregard the many serious, biased, cultivated kind of art-writings from Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) and Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) down to our modern day scientific art critics which strengthen one’s conviction that the sculpture lacked that exceptional magnetism that could turn the heads of onlookers and fixate their attention on it. 

Although Hercules clad in the skin of the Nemean lion is a popular image; he is often represented naked as he is portrayed here by Bandinelli: a powerful upper body with rigid set of shoulders, short necked, head smaller in proportion to full muscular limbs, a curling beard which does not mar the serious expression from the general area of his face. One could note a similarity of those features on sculptor Giambologna’s (Giovanni da Bologna, ca. 1529-1608) Hercules slaying the Centaur Nessus (1599) displayed few feet away under the right-hand arch of the noble Loggia dei Lanzi (1).

Installed as a pendent to Michelangelo’s biblical hero David (popularly called Il Giganté), the naked Hercules parallels the stark nakedness of David who stood with his body’s weight resting on right leg, his gaze divulging an inner anticipation for the next course of action to take. Taken together, the nudity depicted here bespoke of the period when nude studies of male figures was the norm for gods, heroes and even renowned mortals.

Very early on, nude and partially nude artworks based on antique characters have shown their presence in Italy. It took wider popularity with the rediscovery of art of ancient Greece and Rome. In effect, the Greek sculptors’ main interest was to portray man at his idealized best since man was particularly considered as the noblest measure of all things to them – undifferentiated from the gods they conceived in man’s likeness. The representation of Gods, warriors and mortals in heroic nudity was the sculptors’ open admiration for the perfectly formed male body which is hardly a sensual aspect in the society of a time where athletes openly workout in scant clothes for events like Olympics.

Hercules being a favourite hero and symbol of the Florentine Republic, it’s hardly surprising to come across many such representations in Firenze. One cannot ignore the Trecento Florentine Seal which bore the image of Hercules since about 1281, as a testimony to the familiarity of Hercules in the Florentine culture.

Since we usually rent apartments for our Florentine visits in the vicinity of Piazza del Duomo or in the area between Il Duomo and Piazza S. Marco, we cannot avoid touching upon Piazza del Duomo almost every day of our stay in Firenze.

The group of ecclesiastical buildings which form the center of Firenze comprise of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Il Duomo); the octagonal Baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni) (2) and Campanile di Giotto (belfry tower).

Il Duomo was named Santa Maria del Fiore in reference to the lily (the emblem of Virgin Mary) in the red shield of the Republic, which indicates the tradition that Firenze was founded in a field of flowers. This edifice was built on the site of the cathedral dedicated to S. Reparata who, at the tender age of 12, had undergone martyrdom in Cappadocia during the persecution of Roman Emperor Decius in 3rd century AD. From 680 to 1298, she was the primary patroness of Firenze, following which the city was placed under the tutelage of Virgin Mary and S. John the Baptist. According to a legend, Santa Reparata itself was erected on the ground occupied by the parish church of San Salvador. Subsequently, when Santa Reparata was raised as the parish church, the Baptistery became pro tempore the Cathedral for a few years.

At Piazza di S. Giovanni, it’s delightful to remember Lorenzo Ghiberti’s (1378-1455) artistic works on the gilded doors of the Baptistery situated across from Il Duomo. Ghiberti most likely cast it in a process the French called, encirage, using the same enormous furnace in his workshop in Via Sant’Egidio, nearly opposite Santa Maria Nuova, where he had created the Northern Gates. Taking in the astonishing beauty of these celebrated doors of the Eastern Gates, Michelangelo once praised them as fit to be “the Gates of Paradise.”

On the southern side of the Baptistery was a representation of Hercules amongst the eight depictions of virtues belonging to the 28 gilded bronze reliefs on Andrea Pisano’s (ca. 1270-1348/9) bronze door, probably the earliest in Firenze (3). Another representation from the workshop of Andrea Pisano is the relief of Hercules and Cacus (Lower register No 2: Social Justice) on the eastern side of the Campanile di Giotto which supposedly occupy the site of a small oratory of S. Zenobius, the first bishop of Firenze. 

Follow-on: The Florentine Mystique

Notes:

  1. Loggia de’ Lanzi is so called from the Swiss lancers who were placed here by Grand Duke Cosimo I.
  2. Although the date of Baptistery is lost in uncertainty, legend has it that theedificewas supposedly erected in 589 by German-born Theodelinda (Theudolinde, 570-627), daughter of King Garibald of Bavaria and queen of the Lombards who was devoted to the Christian faith of the Catholics. In about 1229, works under Jacopo de’ Lapi took place to level the ground around Baptistery and replace the old brick pavement with stone. A book relates the occasion as: “At that time the Baptistery stood at a higher elevation than afterwards, and at the base were steps. Around the building were ranged Roman sarcophagi, which were used by Florentine families of distinction for internment, as well as for monuments, when the entire Piazza between the Cathedral and Baptistery constituted the cemetery of Florence.”
  3. Since December 2019, all three sets of bronze and gold doors of the Baptistery are displayed next to one another at the Sala del Paradiso of the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore after completion of the restoration project began in 1978 by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Firenze.

 (© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

7 thoughts on “The Greek Connection

  1. Jo – you always have so much brilliant detail in your posts that I feel that I am back in Fiorenza (I did not know this name until I read your post) with you and Carina. I have Giorgio Vasari’s “The Lives of the Artists” on my “to be read” stack of books for 2021. I did not know that Hercules was a favourite hero and symbol of the Florentine Republic. I continue to learn. I understand that all of Italy is celebrating 700 years of Dante! Italy has so many treasure! Sending hugs along with my thanks to you and Carina.

    • Thank you. Today 24th June is an appropriate day to comment here when Florentines are celebrating the feast day of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Testament and the patron saint of Firenze. I understand this feast is celebrated in certain parts of Canada as well. Good choice to read Giorgio Vasari.

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