To atone for the murder of his six sons, instigated by Juno, and achieve immortality, the demigod Hercules (son of Jupiter) was ordered to perform twelve labors. These splendid roundels depict the first two. The region of Nemea was terrorized by a lion that could not be killed because of its impenetrable golden fur and bladelike claws. Hercules, however, managed to strangle it, depicted here by breaking the lion’s jaw. In this relief Antico has visually emphasized the hero’s success by giving him a resplendent fluttering cloak, which outshines the lion’s invincible golden fur. In the second labor Hercules faced a water monster, a hydra. It lived in Lake Lerna and had heads that multiplied as they were cut off. In the ancient myth Hercules killed the hydra with the help of his nephew Iolaus, who cauterized the snaky stumps as Hercules cut off the heads. For this roundel Antico based his composition on the reverse of a Roman bronze coin of Bithynia in which Hercules subdues the monster with his club.
While the sculptor relied on antique models for his compositions, he was a master of nuance in creating details and subtle effects. Two silver tassels add an elegant note to Hercules’ radiant cloak, for example, and the fantastic beasts are depicted with pathos and sympathy: the lion’s claws desperately clutch the ground line, while the pained melancholy visible in the face of the hydra indicates that she is contemplating her imminent fate in human terms.
The roundels are made as a pair, with the two Hercules figures facing each other. They are likely not part of a larger series of the labors; other instances in the late fifteenth century show these two labors depicted alone, without the remaining ten. Two mentions in the 1496 inventory of Gianfrancesco Gonzaga may relate to the roundels, which were probably modeled in wax on a wooden board and then cast using a variation of direct lost-wax casting.
References: Hermann 1909/1910, 271–276; Chambers and Martineau 1981, 139–140, cats. 60C, 61D (entries by Anthony Radcliffe); Allison 1993/1994, 99–105, cats. 12B(1), 12C(1); Trevisani and Gasparotto 2008, 146, cats. II.2, 3 (entries by Walter Cupperi)
Reverse of Roman provincial coin of Bithynia
Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra
Gianfrancesco Gonzaga (1446–1496)
was Antico’s first patron. A younger son of the Marchese of Mantua, Ludovico Gonzaga, he inherited lands to the west and south of Mantua on his father’s death in 1478 and set up a small but elegant court at Bozzolo. The 1496 inventory produced at Gianfrancesco’s death is a key documentary source for Antico’s life and art.
Gianfrancesco Gonzaga di Ròdigo, c. 1486-1490, bronze, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection
Direct lost-wax casting (roundel)
A casting method that produces a single bronze cast from a single wax model. On a wooden board (A), the design was sketched (B) and a temporary core of clay (C) was applied to areas to be depicted in high relief. A separating layer of cloth (D) was then laid over the entire surface. The cloth was coated with wax (E), which was sculpted into the finished design. The front was then invested in clay or plaster (F), inverted to remove the temporary core (G), and the back invested (H). After the model was prepared, the remaining steps to produce the bronze were similar to those described for indirect lost-wax casting.