Powerful and dynamic, this pen and brown ink drawing pulsates with a palpable energy, captivating the viewer, despite its somewhat gruesome subject. The sheet, one of the finest by Bandinelli to have come to auction in recent years, perfectly displays his artistic personality, in which his immense skill as both draughtsman and sculptor come together to create a narrative full of pictorial impact.
The composition depicts the story of the Nemean Lion, which is the first labour in the series of The Twelve Labours of Hercules. Bandinelli also alludes here to the eleventh labour, in which Hercules steals the Apple of Hesperides. In each of the twelve labours, performed over a period of twelve years, Hercules, by order of King Eurystheus, had to execute a different near-impossible task. The story of the Nemean lion unfolds from the far right of the composition where Hercules is seen wrestling and killing the lion. In the centre, Hercules is standing and flaying the beast he has just defeated and at the far left, Bandinelli represents the eleventh labour, where Hercules is standing tall, holding his club in one hand and the apple of Hesperides in the other. Bandinelli expertly unites these three different episodes by composing his drawing like a sculptural relief. Roger Ward aptly comments on the artist’s ability to deliver believable space describing his ‘instinct to depict the illusion of recession into shallow space by means of precisely overlapped and layered planes.’1
The existence of the engraving (fig. 1), which is in reverse to the present sheet, may suggest that Bandinelli was working on a much larger project, possibly for the full series of labours. Within the artist’s surviving oeuvre we know of a number of drawings where he has studied the figure of Hercules, most notably, in terms of comparison with the present drawing, three sheets that each portray a standing figure of Hercules not dissimilar to the figure at the far left of this composition. Two of these are in the Louvre, and one, which passed through both Sotheby’s (1982) and Christie’s (1999), is now in a private collection.2 The two drawings in the Louvre both depict Hercules with his club; in one of the drawings he holds the apple of Hesperides and in the other he holds the head of the Nemean lion. The drawing in a private collection also portrays the robust figure of Hercules with his club standing in front of an architectural setting, not dissimilar to the architectural backdrop that runs across the present elaborate composition. Roger Ward dates the private collection drawing of Hercules to circa 1548, by comparison with two other drawings of Old Testament subjects that can be connected with works datable to 1547-8.3 It is highly likely that all the aforementioned studies, the present sheet included, date from much the same moment and clearly relate to one another in terms of subject matter.
The allure and importance of this exceptional drawing is reflected in its illustrious provenance. Its earlier history is slightly unclear due to the ambiguity surrounding the collector’s mark in the lower right corner of the sheet. The ‘C’ mark has, in the past, been interpreted as that of both Pierre Crozat and Queen Christina of Sweden but there is no solid evidence linking the mark to either of these renowned collectors. However, due to auction records and the inscription on the engraving ‘In the Collection of Ed.d Knight Esq.r,’ it has been possible to identify the names of other important collectors who once owned this drawing, beginning with the distinguished French connoisseur, Charles Paul Jean Baptiste de Bourgevin Viarlet, comte de Saint-Morys (1743-1795), and continuing until the drawing was in the collection of the Canton Museum, Cleveland, Ohio.
1. R. Ward, 'New Drawings by Bandinelli and Cellini', Master Drawings, vol. XXXI, 1993, p. 395
2. Baccio Bandinelli. Drawings from British Collections selected and catalogued by Roger Ward, exhib. cat., Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, 1988, figs 30 and 31 (Louvre drawings) and cat no. 42, reproduced p. 127 (Private Collection)
3. Exhib. cat., op. cit., nos 39 and 41
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