Bandinelli and Michelangelo: Hercules and Cacus

Michelangelo ‘David’ (left) and Baccio Bandinelli ‘Hercules and Cacus’ (right)

Palazzo Vecchio entrance David Hercules Cacus
photo: Hannah’s Banana Pants

In 1504, the David was placed to the left of the entrance against the high facade wall of the Palazzo Vecchio. Soon it was decided that a second statue should be placed next to the David. In 1508, Soderini ordered a marble block of 9.5 braccia (554 cm) high and 5 braccia (291 cm) deep. However, this block was only delivered in 1525. At the insistence of Medici Pope Clemens VII, Michelangelo did not get the marble block, but Baccio Bandinelli. According to Vasari the evil genius Domenico Boninsegni was behind this. Domenico and Michelangelo were not at great terms. Vasari describes in ‘The Life of Bandinelli’ among other things why His Holiness, the Pope, decided to assign Baccio the block:

Baccio Bandinelli ‘Hercules and Cacus’ wax model, c. 1525

“He [Boninsegni] claimed that His Holiness would benefit from the competition of two such great personalities and would be served with more diligence and drive by stimulating competition for his work. Domenico’s advice pleased the Pope, and he acted accordingly. When Baccio was assigned the marble, he made a large model of wax. It represented Hercules holding the head of Cacus between two stones with a knee; with his left arm he held him firmly; while he held him between his legs in a bent and painful position; and Cacus was clearly suffering by the violence and weight of Hercules on top of him, while every muscle was tense. Similar with Hercules, who turned his head towards his troubled enemy, and biting his teeth, he raises his right arm to hit his opponent’s skull with another blow of his club.” Thus Vasari in his Life of Baccio Bandinelli, quoted and translated from: Kieft, G., ‘Het brein van Michelangelo Kunst, Kunsttheorie en de constructie van het beeld in de Italiaanse Renaissance’, Proefschrift (dissertation) Utrecht 1994 37

The strange fate of a large block of marble

Vasari writes the following about the large marble block used for the Hercules and Cacus:

‘Baccio was sent to Carrara to see the block of marble, and he ordered the overseers of the Works of Santa Maria del Fiore to transport the marble over water to Signa across the river Arno. When the marble arrived near Florence, eight miles away, they began to take [the block] from the water and put it on land, because the river from Signa to Florence was too shallow, but [the block] fell into the river and, because of its size, it was so fixed in the mud that the overseers were unable to pull it out. Because the Pope wanted the marble back by the river and, because of its size, it was so fixed in the mud that the overseers were unable to pull it out. Because the Pope wanted the marble back by any means, Piero Rosselli, a experienced, smart engineer, was commissioned by the Works to divert the course of the river and drain the bank. Using winches and hoists he takes [the block] out of the Arno and brought it to land. He was highly praised for this […] As the marble was pulled out of the river and the completion any means, Piero Rosselli, a experienced, smart engineer, was commissioned by the Works to divert the course of the river and drain the bank. Using winches and hoists he takes [the block] out of the Arno and brought it to land. He was highly praised for this […] As the marble was pulled out of the river and the completion was delayed due to difficulties, Baccio noticed that this block was not suitable for carving the figures of the first model, either in height or width. He therefore went to Rome with his measurements, and let the pope know that he was forced to abandon the first design and make another one.’ Thus Vasari in his Life of Baccio Bandinelli, quoted and translated from: Kieft, G., ‘Het brein van Michelangelo Kunst, Kunsttheorie en de constructie van het beeld in de Italiaanse Renaissance’, Proefschrift (dissertation) Utrecht 1994 38

Bandinelli and his Hercules and Cacus

If you take a closer look at the wax model, which Baccio says was not ‘suitable for carving the figures’, there is an unprecedented difficultà.

We have already looked at and discussed such a difficulty in the strongly protruding arm of the Bacchus of Sansovino. Hercules’ arm not only protrudes far, but he also has a club in his hands at an angle of ninety degrees to his hand. This is technically an almost impossible task for a sculptor. According to Kieft, the assumption seems justified that Bandinelli has bluffed and that ‘at the last hour, he backed away from the task he set himself.’ (Kieft 40) Bandinelli starts designing again and makes a drawing which he also shows in his self-portrait.

Baccio Bandinelli ‘Self-portrait’ c. 1545

Baccio Bandinelli 'Self-portrait' c. 1545
Isabella StewartGardner Museum

Finally, he makes two models of which the Pope chooses one: ‘one in which Hercules clamps Cacus between his legs and holds him like a prisoner by grabbing him by his hair’. And they agreed to implement and make this model.’

In 1527, after the Sacco di Rome, Pope Clemens VII had to flee. In Florence, the Medici immediately lost their power and this not without consequences for Baccio and his statue. Bandinelli fled to Lucca. Buonarroti took an active part in the new republican regime, among other things by designing defensive works. One of his remarkable drawings (bastion) we have already seen and discussed on the days of architecture. On August 22, 1528, a contract was signed in which Michelangelo received the order for the pendant. Vasari recounts what happened after the block of marble was shown to Buonarroti:

‘[…] Baccio had worked with the model of Hercules and Cacus, with the intention of assigning Michelangelo to carve two figures from it, if the marble had not been worked too much. Michelangelo, however, while looking at the stone, thought of a different subject. He left Hercules and Cacus for what it was, and took Samson as his subject, who held two defeated Philistines beneath him, one completely dead and the other barely alive, while Samson is about to kill him with a donkey’s jawbone.’Thus Vasari in his Life of Baccio Bandinelli, quoted and translated from: Kieft, G., ‘Het brein van Michelangelo Kunst, Kunsttheorie en de constructie van het beeld in de Italiaanse Renaissance’, Proefschrift (dissertation) Utrecht 1994 41

It will be clear by now that getting three figures out of a single block of marble is considerably more difficult than getting two. If Michelangelo had been able to implement his ideas, he would indeed have surpassed Bandinelli. Unfortunately for Michelangelo, ‘after the return of the Medici the marble block went back to Baccio.’

Baccio Bandinelli ‘Hercules and Cacus’ in situ

Baccio Bandinelli 'Hercules and Cacus' in situ
photo: Rolf Süssbrich

Hercules and Cacus: carved from one block of marble just like the pendant David?

Bandinelli ‘Hercules and Cacus’
Hercules head       Study head

Michelangelo’s David was ex uno lapide just like the best work of art of Antiquity. It was Pliny the Elder who described the Laocoon as: ‘A work better than any other art of painting and sculpture ever made. Created from a single block of stone made by Hagesandros, Athenodoros and Polydoros of Rhodes […]’ Ex uno lapide was not correct: the sculpture turned out to consist of five blocks when it was discovered on 14 January 1506. The question whether Bandinelli used one block of marble for his sculpture must certainly be answered negatively after 1994. A restoration in that year made it clear that the Hercules and Cacus consists of no less than twenty pieces of marble. Michelangelo wanted to fight the antiques, which is why using one block was a must for him. Baccio Bandinelli only kept up the appearance of one block: he used twenty pieces of marble to overcome the physical limitations of the block. He condemned Bandinelli for using multiple marble blocks, although he strongly underestimated the number of marble parts of  Baccio’s Hercules and Cacus (Goffen, R., ‘Renaissance rivals Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian’, Yale University Press, New Haven/ London 2002 360; for the restoration see footnotes 82-84). Baccio’s process of addition was a no-no for Michelangelo: marble was to be carved away, not added.

The story of Cacus and Hercules

The theme of Hercules and Cacus was typically Florentine: male nudes in battle. Pollaiuolo did this with his ‘The battle of ten naked warriors‘.  The young Michelangelo had also carved his battle relief as we have already seen in the Casa Buonarroti. The artist was not so much interested in telling a story as in demonstrating how cleverly you can sculpt, draw or paint. This of course also applies to Leonardo’s ‘Anghiari’ and Michelangelo’s ‘Cascina’ as we will discuss on the days of painting.

The story of Hercules and Cacus is about the hero who frees the city of Rome from a villain. Cacus lived in a cave and constantly attacked travelers in the city of Rome. When Hercules and his herd reach the Tiber and the Aventine, he takes a break. As soon as he has fallen asleep, Cacus sees the chance to steal this herd. He pulls the animals into his cave by their tails, after all, this way there are no traces leading to him. When Hercules wakes up and misses his cattle, he goes in search of his herd. The traces do indeed mislead Hercules, but when he moves away from the cave, he hears the roaring of his cattle from the cave. Of course Hercules turns around and discovers the thief Cacus, who, unsurprisingly, stood no chance against this demigod. The Romans let out a sigh of relief: finally they were freed from this dangerous villain. This theme fits beautifully with the David and the Judit and Holofernes.

Bandinelli The installation of Hercules and Cacus in Piazza della Signoria

Pedestal detail       Pedestal

Unlike Michelangelo, Bandinelli did sign his statue, like this: BACCIVS BANDINELL. FLOR. FACIEBAT. MD XXXIIII The past perfect (faciebat: was [me] making) refers to Pliny’s anecdote about the signature of the great classical artists and goes back to what Pliny writes about the way in which Apelles and Polyclitus signed their work. They signed with a provisional title like Faciebat. Apelles (Polyclitus), as if art is always a moment in a process. At the same time, the word ‘faciebat’ shows a modest attitude, as it is not yet complete.

Bandinelli Hercules and Cacus  pedestal detail
photos: Sailko

Around 1534 this was no longer unusual, in contrast to the time of the Pietà of Michelangelo as described in the story about St. Peter. Critics of Bandinelli made a pun on his signature: ‘O, Baccius faciebat Bandinello’. The signature is prominently present on the coloured marble of the pedestal, something that was highly unusual. Moreover, in the sixteenth century, this place -the pedestal- was predestined for a text about the client, in this case the Medici. By placing his ‘signature’ here, the artist Bandinelli identifies himself with the Medici.

When Bandinelli’s statue is transported from the Opera del Duomo to Piazza della Signoria (Vecchio), it is pelted with stones. The inhabitants of the city did not care about the rule of the Medici. The stoning is reminiscent of what had happened thirty years earlier in Florence during the transport of Michelangelo’s David. When the statue of Hercules and Cacus was installed on 1 March 1534, Bandinelli saw it in situ for the first time: he thought the muscles were too soft. He restored this, but only after a screen was placed around the statue. Again a ‘repetition’ of what Buonarroti did with his David. A few months after Bandinelli adds the finishing touch, Michelangelo leaves Florence for good in September.

Pontormo ‘Alessandro de’ Medici’ before December 1535

The statue made by Baccio, the Hercules and Cacus, has been excommunicated from the beginning, even before completion. A phrase from a poem by Antonfrancesco Grazzini, ‘Il Lasca,’ speaks volumes in this respect: ‘O murderous thief, who kills marble and steals another man’s honor’.’ The destructive criticism that descended on the statue and its maker can be explained, among other things, by republican sentiments. Needless to say, the followers of Michelangelo were not indifferent and strongly rejected Bandinelli’s work. Everyone was very dissatisfied, except the Medici. Duke Alessandro (Pontormo 1534-1535) even wanted some critics to be arrested and put behind bars: he was afraid of a new uprising. There was also fierce artistic criticism. The statue isn’t just made out of multiple blocks, but, as you can see, it’s full of errors that later had to be fixed as well as possible. When you look at the statue, you will be amazed at the pieces of marble used to fix errors. This was necessary despite the fact that Bandinelli, unlike Michelangelo, probably used a measurement model for carving his Hercules and Cacus.

Titian ‘Portrait of Benedetto Varchi’ c. 1540

Benedetto Varchi writes about these carving errors, referring to the Hercules and Cacus in Piazza della Signoria: ‘I will refrain from mentioning that painters can erase everything a thousand times and start over again, where this is not possible for the sculptor. Apart from the fact that for both arts we are talking about full-fledged artists, who can leave out the unnecessary with their skill, and sculptors can do the same, albeit less well and with more time and effort. You can see that in the colossal statues, for example, that they make out of multiple pieces, either because of a lack of material, as is very common, or because of a lack of skill, as you can see from the Hercules in the Piazza, especially when that piece fell off with great injury to the one underneath it.’  As written by Benedetto Varchi (Titian) anno 1549 in his ‘Paragone’, quoted and translated from: G Kieft, G., ‘Het brein van Michelangelo Kunst, Kunsttheorie en de constructie van het beeld in de Italiaanse Renaissance’, Proefschrift (dissertation) Utrecht 1994 67

Continuation Florence day 4: Bandinelli’s Laocoön and Pietà tomb