Tommaso della Porta il Giovane (Porlezza 1546 - Roma 1606)

Terracotta, 96 cm. high


The Greek mythological hero, the demigod Hercules, son of Zeus and Alcmene, is representred in one of his most common iconographic variants, with his naked body partially enveloped in the skin of the ferocious Nemean Lion, the beast confronted in the first of the celebrated Twelve Labours, and slain by blows from his club, before being skinned so that he could wear its impenetrable skin, identified from then onwards as a symbol of prowess and invulnerability.
The hero, with his impressive musculature, is represented in an audacious twist, implied by the powerful contrapposto between his left limb, reaching back to grasp the lionskin, and the head sharply turned to scrutinize with proud and portentuous gaze a future enemy, perhaps the Hydra, the untamed beast tackled in the second Labour. The legs, with their tendinous and contracted muscles, meticulously described, still firmly planted on the ground, confer on the figure a remarkable latent power that is about to be unleashed in a duel, as also indicated by the position of the shoulder, now damaged, but whose articulation clearly implies that the Greek hero originally had his right hand raised and was wielding the mighty club.
The work is modelled in high relief but not worked on its back, which is partially hollowed out in accordance with the usual procedure of thinning the clay before firing. The sculpture was thus conceived as an iconographically autonomous group of statuary intended for a niche, probably in a courtyard or for the grotto of a nymphaeum, in keeping with the symbolic significance acquired by the figure of Hercules in the decorative schemes for the residences of the nobility during the sixteenth century.
The present work was first published in 2014, on the occasion of the exhibition on the legacy of Michelangelo in the context of Florentine art, from the Cinquecento to the present day, with an attribution to the Florentine sculptor Domenico Pieratti (Florence 1600 - Rome 1656) and with a dating to the fifth decade of the Seicento (S. Bellesi, in L┤immortalitÓ di un mito 2014, pp. 225-226, n. II.12).
However, in the light of the its strong links to the sculpture of Michelangelo, as well as to the monumental figures in the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, with its powerful and mechanical twisting, but also to the imposing, frowning and twisting images of Tusco-Roman Mannerism promoted in sculpture between the fifth and seventh decades of the sixteenth century by Baccio Bandinelli, Bartolomeo Ammannati, Vincenzo de┤ Rossi and Guglielmo della Porta, we are more inclined to re-assign its execution to the final quarter of the Cinquecento with reference to the circle of the sculptor originating from Lombardy but living in Rome, Tommaso della Porta the Younger, second cousin of the celebrated Guglielmo mentioned earlier and brother of Giovanni Battista.
The career of Tommaso della Porta, which from 1574 was for over three decades spent entirely in Rome (Brentano 1989), was mainly focused on the collecting of antique sculpture, and the buying and restoration of classical statues, as explicitly mentioned by the biographer Giovanni Baglione. Despite the fact that Tommaso della Porta┤s activity was principally devoted to archeological restoration and the art market, amounting to a modest number of works, the ability he displayed in the carving of marble and in clay earned him an excellent reputation in the Eternal City, particularly in the context of papal commissions, as testified by the two statues of Sybils and the great Deposition from the Cross for the church of Sant┤Ambrogio, the Angels carved towards the end of the 1580s for the Gregorian chapel in Saint Peter┤s for the Pope, but above all the clay models, subsequently cast in bronze by Bastiano Torrigiani, for the two monumental works representing Saint Peter for Trajan┤s Column (together with Leonardo Sormani) and Saint Paul (alongside Costantino De Servi) for the Antonine Column (Baglione [1642] ed. 1995, p. 153).
His activity as a sculptor of figures was mainly concentrated in Loreto in the workshop for the external fašade of the architectural complex for the Santa Casa (Weil Garris 1977; Grimaldi 199). This took place in an initial phase between 1571 and 1574, when, together with his brother Giovanni Battista, he was responsible for the execution of ten Sybils for the external niches of the marble complex, while in a second phase, between 1576 and 1578, he was involved in the execution of some statues of Prophets and perhaps during the same period, again with his brother, also in the execution of the Tomb of Cardinal Niccol˛ Caetani in the Basilica in Loreto (Ioele 2012; 2016).
Scholars are now unanimous in attributing to Tommaso the Younger the figure of the prophet Balaam (fig. 1), for which a smaller version in terracotta (22.5 cm) survives, acquired in 2010 by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and thought to be a preliminary bozzetto for the prophet in Loreto (fig. 2) (Retondi 1941, pp. 17-21; 1100 - 1600 Rijksmusem 2015, cat. 103).
It is in these two works that the most striking stylistic comparisons are to be found with the present Hercules, who is shown in a similar pose in the upper part of the figure, with the head emphatically turned to the side and the body and arms in a dynamic twist that enables an intense latent force to emerge. Compared to the figure of Balaam, in Hercules, who is standing, we can appreciate the anatomy of the powerful legs, with their taut and well-defined musculature, although now fragmentary in the feet, the remarkable rendering of the skin has been recovered during the recent restoration which removed a dark, waxy varnish from the sculpture.
Like Balaam who appears to have a voluptuous mantle covering his head, the Greek hero wears on his head like a helmet the skin of the lion whose fur unfolds across the entire back of the figure, exactly like Balaam┤s robe, and unfurls between the legs in a heavy and linear cascade. Here, too, the postural licence of the Loreto prophet, who with his raised right hand grasps a bunch of fabric in an unnatural position, is similarly repeated in reverse by Hercules who with his left hand pulls towards him the edge of the lion skin placed in an entirely implausible position.
The facial features, taking into account the sizes and the different naturalistic mimesis dictated by the materials, are also very similar in the two figures (figs. 3-4). The profile of Hercules┤ face is the same, with the taut and straight nasal septum, the proud and introspective gaze, characterised by the poweful jutting of the arched eyebrows, the identical way in which the the outline of the eyes and the incisiveness of the irises are rendered, the shape of the mouths with fleshy lower lips, curved and only slightly protruding, while the upper lips are completely hidden by the flowing moustache. The beards in particular stand out for the identical rendering of the locks, airy and almost floating, which suddenly erupt onto the smooth surface of the face, modulated by emphatically swirling locks, clustered and marked by peculiar semicircular incisions.


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