ESSAY: On Leonardo da Vinci's "Hercules"

(Author's Note: The following is the final project for the seminar I took on Leonardo da Vinci in the fall.  I have previously shared a paper I wrote for this class about The Philadelphia Crucifixion, linked here. The assignment was to write as if we had discovered a long-lost work by the master, and then perform stylistic analysis of the work to justify it within Leonardo's oeuvre.  I took the story of Leonardo's Hercules sculpture as a jumping-off point, a never-created work commissioned to match Michelangelo's David at the turn of the 16th century in Florence.  This piece was also published in the Fall 2013 issue of the Northwestern Art Review, "Constructing Reality", which can be found here. Enjoy!)

The darkness of the restoration room, with its sole bright spotlight on a table in the center, was a contrast from the soft natural lighting of the rest of the museum.  As one of the leading experts in the field of European Art, I had been called to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery several days prior to lend my expertise in identifying some drawings from the back catalogue.   I sat down at the table, slicked on latex rubber gloves, and turned to the works lying before me in the bin labeled “Unattributed-Drawings-European-13th-16th century”. Around me were shelves and shelves of works that were waiting to be identified or had been long forgotten and were currently gathering years of dust. 

I carefully picked up the first faded drawing and began to examine it.  The drawing was in silverpoint and depicted a muscular nude man holding a club standing, legs apart, over a wrinkled bit of what looked like…fur? My trained eyes took in the detailed yet purposeful strokes, the elegant tufts of hair and beard of the figure.  “Italian,” I remarked to myself.  “Likely late fifteenth, early sixteenth century?”  As I examined the drawing further, I became more and more confident in this assessment.

My eyes lingered on the musculature of the figure, noting the artist’s keen demonstrated knowledge of anatomy.   The vigor in the pen strokes describing the abdomen, the musculature of the thigh muscles, the direction of the shading… this particular touch seemed familiar, somehow.

Suddenly, something clicked in my brain.  This drawing…  Could it be…?  I turned over the drawing and had to catch my breath in surprise.  Glued to the back of the drawing of the man was a paper marked up with faint Italian script.  This sheet was similarly faded like the first.  On it was written in faint ink in a beautiful neat script (translated from the Italian),

“The Overseers have chosen for the magnificent figure of a Hercules,
carved in white Cararra marble to match maestro Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence’s David, to be made by the maestro Leonardo da Vinci, son of Ser Piero da Vinci…”

I nearly dropped the sheet.  Leonardo da Vinci?  Could it be?  “This… this… I’ve seen this before, at the Met,” I remembered aloud, looking again at the fine silverpoint drawing of the man.  Studies for Hercules with a Club.  I knew I had recognized that same strong gesture and noble figure.  I had found the presentation drawing for the never-created Hercules sculpture Leonardo was commissioned by Florence to make, to accompany Michelangelo’s David.  And to have found the contract for the Hercules as well?  I had truly come upon a stroke of luck.  My hands were shaking as I gently placed the contract and drawing back on the table.  What an incredible find.  Now all I needed to do, aside from the research, was have a conservator detach the two pages so I could properly analyze them both at a later date.

I left the museum shortly after filling out the necessary paperwork to handle the drawings the next day.  I retired to a small cafĂ© across the Piazza della Signoria.  Pulling a pen and paper out of my briefcase, cappuccino sitting on the table before me, I began to write. 

Leonardo da Vinci is primarily known as a great painter.  His contributions to the art of sculpture are much less famous, if only because none of his planned sculptural works ever came to completion.  However, scholars do know about his planned sculptures even if none exist today.  The Leonardo da Vinci work I discovered is a presentation drawing in silverpoint of the planned Hercules sculpture, which Leonardo is said to have been commissioned to create in the early sixteenth century by the city of Florence.  I also discovered the accompanying contract for the work as it was drawn up by the city.  I am confident in my attribution of the drawing to the master based on the previously established scholarship of the planned work as outlined by Carmen Bambach; the significance Hercules held for the city of Florence; Leonardo’s own background and training in sculpture; and the characteristics and stylistic idiosyncrasies of the drawing itself.

Leonardo would have learned bronze casting and sculpture as a student of Andrea del Verrocchio in the traditional workshop setting, where young apprentices were often trained in a variety of artistic disciplines.   Leonardo is also believed to have studied in the Medici Gardens under Bertoldo di Giovanni, who “taught Leonardo how to draw inspiration from and expand upon antique models without being bound by them” [1].  Leonardo is in fact known to have done extensive studies for sculptures and a clay model of an equestrian monument for the Sforzas in Milan.  In fact, among the many services he advertised in his letter to Lodovico Sforza, he listed sculpture in both marble and clay as one of them.   Sadly, the finished product never came to fruition due to its over-ambitious size and scale and the scarcity of bronze at the time.  It is quite interesting, then, that in his private writings Leonardo spoke rather harshly of sculpture, comparing it unfavorably to painting: “Painting requires more thought and skill and is a more marvellous [sic] art than sculpture” [2].  He then goes on to describe in his mind all the things painting can accomplish that sculpture cannot, including “all visible things” [3] such as scenery and stars, whereas a sculptor is more limited in what he can represent.

Nonetheless, Leonardo is known to have begun work on designs for a standing Hercules sculpture in 1506-08.  He is known to have left Milan and the Sforza court before 1500, traveling to Mantua and to Venice.  He returned to Florence in 1503 and was known to have resided at the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova and to have completed some anatomical studies during that time.  He is believed to have been extremely productive during the early years of his return to Florence.  Scholars today have found a great many sketches for a wide range of projects both artistic and scientific that date from this time. 

Several drawings for this project exist in collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and depict the muscular, nude hero standing in victory, usually holding a club.  In particular, a two-sided sketch (Figure 1), the Standing Hercules, Holding a Club, Seen from the Front, Male Nude Unsheathing a Sword, and the Movements of Water (recto)and its reverse side, Standing Hercules, Holding a Club, Seen from the Rear (verso) display Leonardo’s “strikingly new […] anticlassical […] conception” of a Hercules figure.  Where earlier depictions of Hercules depicted the hero “in repose” or “passive”, this Hercules would have been “tense and alert” [4].  This sketch contains both a frontal and a rear view of an iteration for the Hercules sculpture.  Hercules is indeed tense and powerfully muscled, with a wide, assertive stance and his head turned sharply to his right.  In both views, he holds a club across his body.  In the frontal view, Hercules appears to be wearing some kind of helmet, which is not present in the rear view.

Figure 1: Standing Hercules, Holding a Club, Seen from the Rear; Standing Hercules, Holding a Club, Seen from the Front, Male Nude Unsheathing a Sword, and the Movements of Water (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Hercules has a long and rich history as a symbol of Florence, as he embodied the treasured civic virtues of strength, courage and honor.  He first appears in context with Florence on a seal from 1281, the reverse of which reads “the club of Hercules subdues the depravity of Florence.”  “His conquests over tyrants and monsters were seen as the reestablishment of civic order that would bring justice and liberty to the populace” [5].  Hercules also has a particular association with the Medici family, who governed Florence for many years.  In fact, Michelangelo is known to have carved a Hercules in memory of Lorenzo de Medici in 1494 after the great patron’s death in 1492. “Michelangelo's choice of the  Hercules image while he was sorrowing over the death of Lorenzo il Magnifico and the Signoria's decision to remove three Hercules pictures from  the Medici Palace to the seat of the republican city government at the moment of the fall of the ruling family can hardly be due to coincidence” [6].  Sadly, this work has been lost. While a Classical, not a Christian, hero, Hercules “had been Christianized as an embodiment of physical and moral fortitude” [7].   

Considering the context of the Hercules commission is also important.  At the turn of the century, Florence was in a state of rebuilding and healing. In the previous few decades, Florence had seen the ousting of the Medici family by the followers of the fanatic monk Girolamo Savonarola and the bloody aftermath.  Savonarola, a former Dominican monk, and his followers espoused a reactionary form of Christianity where they decried the mixing of Christian and Classical culture cultivated by the Medici circle and claimed that Florence was so sinful, that a second flood would soon arrive to deliver God’s justice unto the wretched city.  Savonarola also condemned displays of finery, especially in women’s clothing, and hosted Bonfires of the Vanities, encouraging people to burn works of art and objects of wealth and beauty.  Among the participants in the cult of Savonarola was the artist Sandro Botticelli, who regretted his earlier mythological paintings of gods and goddesses; his later works are more conservative and strictly Christian in nature.  Savonarola challenged the authority of the Pope, whom he claimed was corrupt, and was excommunicated for his efforts.  He also lost authority in Florence as a result, and was soon arrested and hanged.  Because the city was still reeling at the time, Florentine officials likely turned to the mythological figure of Hercules to represent strength for both the city’s inhabitants and to send a message to other city-states that Florence was still strong as ever.

In the sketches as well as the final presentation drawing, Hercules is presented as a figure of strength and power as well as a humanistic endowment of virtue and wisdom.  He is an ideal hero as well as an ideal symbol of a city wishing to tout its own accomplishments both in the humanistic and militaristic realms.  David is a biblical hero, and Hercules is in the Classical tradition, and the planned juxtaposition of the two heroic figures would have demonstrated the cultured aspect of this city that blended and appreciated both the ancient and religious as well been a truly awe-inspiring sight. 

In an interesting historical twist, this sculpture of Hercules, had it indeed been created and brought to completion by Leonardo, would likely have been paired with Michelangelo’s David in the Piazza della Signoria as twin symbols of Florence. “Michelangelo had sought unsuccessfully to receive the commission to complete the pendant to his own David” [8].  After Leonardo failed to complete the commission it was given to Baccio Bandinelli, who completed the work between 1525-34.

Interestingly, this instance of the planned pair of heroic Florentine figures was not the only planned meeting of the masters in Florence.  In the same decade both Leonardo and Michelangelo were commissioned to paint glorious frescoes in the Florentine government building.  These two works, Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari and Michelangelo’s Battle of Cascina, would have competed brilliantly as well as serve the city’s purposes both culturally and militaristically.  Two of the finest artists ever seen, both in the employ of Florence, creating works that glorified her strength in battle and her inner virtue?  It must have been quite the windfall for the officials who commissioned these works.  Alas, the frescoes were abandoned and the cartoons lost to posterity.  These planned masterpieces, however, were quite influential at the time, and thus are known to some degree through bits and pieces of sketches and preparatory drawings by the masters, and of copies of copies of planned sections created by eager young art students.   The planned pair of sculptures likely was meant to serve a similar purpose as the murals, namely to glorify the city.  Sadly, of the four commissioned masterpieces, only Michelangelo’s David lives to tell the tale.

The presentation drawing I discovered was drawn in silverpoint and depicts the planned sculpture from a frontal view.  In the tradition of presentation drawings, the work is highly finished and lacks any kind of pentimenti.  Presentation drawings at the time were usually done in silverpoint, as these drawings were meant to be complete visualizations rather than sketches in easily alterable chalk.  The visual equivalent of a sort of contract, they were taken quite seriously by the patron, once approved, and were expected to be followed closely.  Leonardo would have learned silverpoint as part of his workshop training and is known to have made many drawings in the medium.  This conception was clearly a fully realized idea and it is treated as such.  Compositionally, it appears to be a sort of combination of earlier sketches such as the ones in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as described by Bambach.   It bears a strong resemblance to the frontal view in the museum collection drawing, yet as in the rear view study, Hercules’ head is bare.  Hercules stands, legs spread apart in victory, naked and powerfully muscled, with the skin of the Nemean Lion at his feet, and with a club in his hands in an attitude similar to that depicted in Leonardo’s earlier rough sketches.  His bearded face, turned sharply to his right as in the earlier drawings, bears a noble and courageous expression, one that surely must have pleased Leonardo’s patrons, who were seeking to glorify the city of Florence with such a heroic figure.  Attached to one of his legs is an indication for a tree trunk, much like the one in the David, which would have been used for stability in the marble figure.  The twisting of the shoulders and head, juxtaposed with the stability of the legs, implies a hint of movement in the figure.  The nuance and skillful line work and shading of the figure, including the typically Leonardesque tufts of hair in the hair and beard of the figure, the expert display of anatomical knowledge, as well as the clearly left-handed strokes, which angle from the bottom right to the top left, all provide evidence for the attribution to Leonardo.  In addition, the use of sfumato, or the blurring of the edges of shadows, aid in this attribution.  In contrast to Michelangelo’s toned yet slender David, this Hercules is burly, covered with rippling muscles.  Where David is the epitome of a focused yet relaxed potential energy, his body turning in contrapposto, Hercules is tense and bristling with barely suppressed force as he stands over the lion skin, a symbol of his strength and victory.  His powerful body is filled with energy.  Based on the characteristics of the drawing, I am confident in its attribution to the master himself. 

"Presentation Drawing". 

The accompanying contract that I found is written in ink on parchment in a fine neat script and calls for Leonardo to receive 20 florins a month for two years to complete the work.  In contrast, Michelangelo only received six florins per month to complete the David.  Michelangelo was also paid less to paint his fresco of the Battle of Cascina than Leonardo was for his Battle of Anghiari.  Leonardo was a more established and famous artist at the time, with 53-4 years to Michelangelo’s 30, so his higher salaries in both cases make sense.  The contract also stipulates funding for the necessary additions, such as assistants and scaffolding.  Much of the text is faded but legible to an extent.  The visible part of the contract reads (translated from the Italian):

“The Overseers have chosen for the magnificent figure of a Hercules,
carved in white Cararra marble to match maestro Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence’s David, to be made by the maestro Leonardo da Vinci, son of Ser Piero da Vinci.  The Hercules should be nine braccia in height and finished to the finest detail.

“The work shall be completed within the period of two years from a month from today, with the salary being 20 broad gold florins to be paid to the maestro on the month each month.  The Overseers are thus also bound to supply and provide men and any such tools as needed by the maestro.  And after the period of two years the Overseers shall judge the quality of the figure, though we have little doubt of its promise as the maestro is honored to produce this work.  The Overseers shall judge where the finished work should be placed to match the earlier figure.”

The contract appears to have several faded signatures near the bottom of the sheet, one of which appears to be Leonardo’s.  The other signature belongs to Piero Soderini, who was an influential Italian official at the time and friend to both Michelangelo and Leonardo.  It was Piero Soderini who commissioned the great artists to create the never-finished Battle of Anghiari and Battle of Cascina.  It is also reasonable to expect that he would have played a role in the commissioning of the Hercules.

Together, the Hercules presentation drawing and the work’s official contract fill in the missing gap about this never-realized sculpture; they help paint a fuller picture of Leonardo’s oeuvre.  They help to provide a new dimension to Leonardo as a sculptor, an oft-overlooked aspect of his artistry.  The drawing can confidently be attributed to the hand of the master based upon its merit as well as the context surrounding the commissioned work at the time.  This find helps to establish Leonardo more firmly as a sculptor, even if none of his planned works can be seen today.  This work also demonstrates Leonardo’s understanding and use of Classical mythology in conjunction with the political purpose the Hercules would have served for his city.

[1]: Gary Radke and Martin Kemp, Leonardo da Vinci and the Art of Sculpture.  Exhibition catalogue.   (New Haven: Yale University Press), 2009, 26.
[2/3]: Irma Richter and Thereza Wells ed. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Notebooks.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1952, updated 2008): 194.
[4]: Carmen Bambach, ed.  Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 542.
[5, 7]: Virginia L. Bush, “Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus and Florentine Traditions”, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome (1980).
[6]: Leopold D. Ettlinger, “Hercules Florentinus.” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz (1972): 120.
[8]: Dr. Allen Farber.  “Baccio Bandinelli, Self Portrait, c 1530.” SUNY Oneonta,


  1. I assume this got an A... Quite an outstanding piece of historical and artistic analysis of a fictional piece of artwork :)


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