The Bandinelli Hercules was erected in 1534 by order of Duke Alessandro de’ Medici, the first Duke of Florence, who was murdered by his cousin and replaced as Duke by the young Cosimo. As Ercole tells us, it was a symbol of the power and authority of the Medici family. That power is present in the very stone itself: the block of marble from which it was carved was confiscated from the famous Michelangelo, who helped resist the Medici siege of Florence in 1530, and given to Baccio Bandinelli, a loyal client of the new regime. When it was unveiled, it was widely criticized by a series of satiric poems, not only because it is not a very good sculpture, but also as a critique of the new political order it represented. Indeed, Alessandro imprisoned several of the poets, and Bandinelli, disgusted by the harsh reception of his work, left Florence for Rome. That reception was definitely harsh: Cellini claims in his autobiography that over 100 mocking poems were attached to the statue’s base in the weeks after its unveiling.
Regardless of the artistic merit of the statue, its message was loud and clear: the Medici were here to stay, and intended to bring Florence to order under their terms. In a tradition familiar to Renaissance piazza-goers, statues were often imagined with voices, statue parlanti. In effect the statue “spoke”. Two of the poems written about Hercules give him a voice to respond to his critics, mocking the Florentine mob with words later attributed to Bandinelli himself. Though ridiculous and ultimately in mockery of the statue, these criticisms served as reflections on the Medici regime and its ambitions for Florentine power.
The statue stands to this day, and the Medici ruled Florence until 1737. They did so through shrewd political manipulation, a light hand on elite corruption, and a heavy hand of justice: Cacus, the “crook” that Hercules apprehends in this statue, was a cattle-thief, clubbed to death by the world’s strongest man. Hercules, in one poem, commands the Florentines to bring him their cattle – and the Medici regime melted down the majestic bell known as La Vacca, the cow, a cherished symbol of Florentine liberty.
Hercules represents the new order of the Medici duchy, which Ercole manifests in his work as a birro. Beginning his tour here is an apt way to tell us that law and order in Florence were deeply intertwined with politics and the strength of the Medici regime. At our next stop, we’ll see how that law worked to strengthen Medici interests in more physical ways.
An innovative set of interactive visits led by historical guides can be booked at the Palazzo Vecchio, organised by Mus.E.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Colin Rose, ‘The speaking statue’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/ercole-crime-and-punishment/ercole1_statue/
Waldman, Louis. “‘Miracol’’ Novo et Raro”: Two Unpublished Contemporary Satires on Bandinelli’s “Hercules.”’” Mitteilungen Des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 38, no. 2/3 (1994): 419–27.
Bush, Virginia L. “Bandinelli’s ‘Hercules and Cacus’ and Florentine Traditions.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 35 (1980): 163–206.