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Secrets of the Wallace: Hercules with the Bull by Ferdinando Tacca (c.1640)

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Published on Nov 8, 2013

In this video from the podcast series 'Secrets of the Wallace', Sergi Fiddes and Robert McCombie discuss one sculpture from a pair of 60cm bronzes made in the 1640s by Medici court sculptor and architect, Ferdinando Tacca. It shows Hercules wrestling the river god, Achelous, in the form of a bull. Its fine detailing of one of Hercules' main attributes, his lion cape, along with the hair and rippling muscles are produced using the so-called 'Lost-Wax Technique'. They interview Curatorial Assistant Carmen Holdsworth-Delgado to understand more about the sculpture's history.

This podcast also can be downloaded from iTunes.

Hi, I'm Robert and I'm Sergi and today we'll be asking a few questions to Carmen Holdsworth-Delgado about Ferdinando Tacca's two bronze sculptures of Hercules, fighting Achelous and a centaur.

What is the significance of Hercules' cape?

Hercules' cape, which is represented so well in this sculpture by Ferdinando Tacca in full fluid movement, is actually a lion's skin. So if you come round and have a look at the front of Hercules, you can see the paws of the lion crossed over round his neck. Hercules was given 12 labours to complete, and the first one was to defeat the Nemean lion, which no mortal could kill. Hercules was a demi-god, his father was Zeus and his mother was a mortal, and he was the strongest human available to kill this lion. He wears it as a trophy of having accomplished that labour, and also in art it has become one of his attributes, so you can tell who he is. He is well known for his strength so he is often depicted naked and very muscular. He has his cape but he is sometimes depicted with a club.

How did the sculptor pick up so many details, such as the hair and the cape?

These sculptures were probably done in many parts. You can actually see on some of these sculptures that the different parts that have been cast have been screwed together, so it wasn't done in one big go. It was a process called Lost-Wax Technique. In this, the model is made out of clay, it is then encased in a layer of wax and the detail goes in on the wax. So the hair, the bull's rippling muscles, the hooves would have all been done on the wax. It then would have been covered again in clay and fired, this meant that the wax melted but by that time the impression of the detail has been passed onto the clay. That creates a hollow, onto which you pour the molten bronze, passing the detail onto the bronze. By the end you should have a hollow, and fairly light, sculpture.

You can then assemble all your parts together to create one big sculpture. You can see the base has been cast as one. If you look closely you can see that the feet have been added on later, also the arms and the cape have been screwed in later too. The gilding then masks any joins.

So why were they fighting?

The bull is actually in disguise, he is a god called Achelous. He has carried off Hercules' beloved, Deïanira, in order to marry her. Hercules is not very happy about this and he wrestles the bull in order to win back Deïanira. They are shown in mid-struggle and I think that the sculpture here really shows the effort Hercules is using to wrestle this bull, with the rippling muscles and even the veins on the hands, where Hercules has taken the bull by the horns.

You can watch more videos from this series on our YouTube channel or you can see them for free at the Wallace Collection!

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