An examination of Bandinelli’s sculptural and graphic oeuvre confirms that the present relief was indeed carved by a sculptor who was well versed in Bandinelli’s style, very possibly one of his students. The marble exhibits the same shallow relief carving seen in Bandinelli’s panels with prophets and saints for the choir-screen in the Duomo, Florence: figures clad in stylised drapes are similarly presented, frieze-like, pressed against the plane, their feet treading along moulded edges. The conception of Hercules in the present relief also corresponds with figures in Bandinelli’s wider oeuvre, broadly following the heavily muscled Farnese type: compare with his crouched Hercules seen in a dynamic wax sketch for the Hercules and Cacus, in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin (Viatte, op. cit., fig. 39). However, it is unlikely that Vincenzo de' Rossi was responsible for the present marble, despite his position as one of Bandinelli's principal students. Whilst the Cooper Union Museum drawing includes a three-dimensional group of a similar (though not identical) composition, the final marble de’ Rossi produced, which is now in the Palazzo Vecchio (see Utz, op. cit., fig. 7), is very different in conception, involving an enormous Antaeus whose left arm is raised above his head, whilst his foot touches the ground. Moreover, the present composition is far from unique, appearing, with various differences, in several sculptural, graphic and numismatic sources (as is explained below). It is also important to note that Vincenzo de’ Rossi was an inventive, often violent sculptor, who dared to depart from his master’s style. De’ Rossi’s groups for his Fountain of the Twelve Labours of Hercules-Sol are more overtly Mannerist in conception, with flowing, elongated forms and dynamic movements. In contrast, the present relief is demonstrably closer to the late works of Baccio Bandinelli, in particular his panels from the Duomo.
A more likely candidate would be Giovanni Bandini (1540-1599), who worked under Bandinelli towards the end of his life, and completed the Duomo choir-screen commission after the latter’s death in 1560. Bandini’s panels, which are more schematic in conception, with broader swags of drapery, are arguably closer to the present relief than his master’s. Compare also with Bandini’s Presentazione di Maria al tempio and his Sposalizio, both in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, which similarly exhibit fine low relief carving, in which figures tread across an outer ledge, like actors on a stage. It is also interesting to note that Bandini was himself responsible for a monumental statue of Hercules (slaying the Hydra of Lerna), which he created for Giovanni Niccolini (1544-1611), one of his most important patrons, in the 1570’s (Heikamp, op. cit.). The group was originally installed in the family palazzo in the Via dei Servi in Florence, and was eventually removed to the Villa Niccolini at Camugliano in circa 1824, where it remains to this day. No mention is made of a base in the family records, but it seems just as possible that the present relief could have been made for the base of this statue as for Vincenzo de’ Rossi’s fountain.
Hercules was an important and prominent symbol in 16th-century Florence, linking both the Republican city and, later, its Medici dukes, with the strength and virtues of Imperial Rome. The degree to which the Medici associated themselves with the demi-god is underscored by the appearance of a representation of Hercules and Antaeus, which follows a very similar composition to that seen on the present relief, on a medal celebrating Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence (1510-1537) by Domenico di Polo, dating to circa 1537-8 (see the example in the British Museum, inv. no. G3,TuscM.196). Note, in particular, Antaeus’ head, which is thrown back, and the almost identical billowing drape flowing behind Hercules. This composition is likely to derive from an engraving by Heinrich Aldegrever dated 1529 (see the example in the British Museum, inv. no. 1859,0709.174). The key difference with the present arrangement is that Antaeus is no longer struggling against Hercules; his arms are relaxed. However, given the over similarities of composition, and Hercules’ billowing drape, it seems likely that the carver was referencing at least one of these sources. The closest sculptural comparison for the present marble is Bartolomeo Ammannati’s large bronze Hercules and Anteus designed for the fountain of the Villa Medici at Castello (Strozzi and Zikos, op. cit., no. 8). Note, in particular, Hercules’ very similar facial type, with squat nose, pressed against Antaeus’ sternum. All of these compositions are essentially derived from Pollaiuolo’s painting of the same subject in the Uffizi, Florence, dating to around 1478.
Given the correspondences between the present marble and Ammannati’s bronze, and the overall stylistic parallels with works by Bandinelli and his pupils, it is likely that the relief was carved between 1560 and 1590.
U. Middeldorf, 'Giovanni Bandini, detto Giovanni dell'Opera,' Rivista d'arte, ix, 1929, pp. 77-92; U. Middeldorf, 'Drawings by Giovanni dell'Opera, Art Quarterly, ii, 1939, pp. 7-10; D. Heikamp, 'Hercules slaying the Hydra of Lerna: A forgotten statue by Giovanni Bandini, detto Giovanni dell'Opera,' S. Bertelli and G. Ramakus (eds.), Essays presented to Myron P. Gilmore, Florence, 1978, vol. ii, pp. 239-244; R. Ward, Baccio Bandinelli 1493-1560. Drawings from British Collections, exh. cat. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 1988, figs. 25, 37-38; C. Avery, 'Giovanni Bandini (1540-1599) Reconsidered,' Antologia di belle arti, new ser., 48-51, 1994, pp. 16-27; H. Utz, 'The Labors of Hercules and Other Works by Vincenzo de' Rossi,' Art Bulletin, vol. 53, no. 3, Sept. 1971, pp. 344-366, 1981; N. Hegener, Divi Iacobi Eqves. Selbstdarstellung im Werk des Florentiner Bildhauers Baccio Bandinelli, Munich and Berlin, 2008, pp. 354-363; F. Viatte, M. Bormand and V. Delieuvin, Baccio Bandinelli. Dessins, sculptures, peinture, cat. Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2011, pp. 153, 156-158, 211-212, nos. 45, 47, 100, fig. 39; B. Paolozzi Strozzi and D. Zikos, L'acqua, la pietra, il fuoco. Bartolomeo Ammannati scultore, exh. cat. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, 2011, pp. 382-387, no. 8
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