Baccio Bandinelli and Michelangelo Buonarroti: the Hercules and Cacus, David, the copy of the Laocoon and two Pietà’s for a tomb

Palazzo Vecchio David left and right Hercules and Cacus

picture: Tri Valley Photography

In 1504, the David was placed to the left of the entrance against the high facade wall of the Palazzo Vecchio. Soon it was decided that a second statue should be placed next to the David.255 In 1508, Soderini ordered a marble block of 9.5 braccia (554 cm) high and 5 braccia (291 cm) deep. However, this block was only delivered in 1525. At the insistence of Medici Pope Clemens VII, Michelangelo did not get the marble block, but Baccio Bandinelli. According to Vasari the evil genius Domenico Boninsegni was behind this. Domenico and Michelangelo were not at great terms. Vasari describes in ‘The Life of Bandinelli’ among other things why His Holiness, the Pope, decided to assign Baccio the block:

‘He [Boninsegni] claimed that His Holiness would benefit from the competition of two such great personalities and would be served with more diligence and drive by stimulating competition for his work. Domenico’s advice pleased the Pope, and he acted accordingly. When Baccio was assigned the marble, he made a large model of wax. It represented Hercules holding the head of Cacus between two stones with a knee; with his left arm he held him firmly; while he held him between his legs in a bent and painful position; and Cacus was clearly suffering by the violence and weight of Hercules on top of him, while every muscle was tense. Similar with Hercules, who turned his head towards his troubled enemy, and biting his teeth, he raises his right arm to hit his opponent’s skull with another blow of his club.’256

The strange fate of a large block of marble

Vasari writes the following about the large marble block used for the Hercules and Cacus:

‘Baccio was sent to Carrara to see the block of marble, and he ordered the overseers of the Works of Santa Maria del Fiore to transport the marble over water to Signa across the river Arno. When the marble arrived near Florence, eight miles away, they began to take [the block] from the water and put it on land, because the river from Signa to Florence was too shallow, but [the block] fell into the river and, because of its size, it was so fixed in the mud that the overseers were unable to pull it out. Because the Pope wanted the marble back by any means, Piero Rosselli, a experienced, smart engineer, was commissioned by the Works to divert the course of the river and drain the bank. Using winches and hoists he takes [the block] out of the Arno and brought it to land. He was highly praised for this […] As the marble was pulled out of the river and the completion was delayed due to difficulties, Baccio noticed that this block was not suitable for carving the figures of the first model, either in height or width. He therefore went to Rome with his measurements, and let the pope know that he was forced to abandon the first design and make another one.’

Thus Vasari in his Life about Bandinelli, quoted from Ghislain Kieft, ‘The brain of Michelangelo Art, Art Theory and the Construction of the Image in the Italian Renaissance’, Thesis Utrecht 1994 p. 38

Bandinelli and his Hercules and Cacus

If you take a closer look at the wax model, which Baccio says was not ‘suitable for carving the figures’, there is an unprecedented difficultà. Although, after 1991 there are different opinions about the attribution of the wax model to Bandinelli.257

Bandinelli ? Wax model

We have already looked at and discussed such a difficulty in the strongly protruding arm of the Bacchus of Sansovino. Hercules’ arm not only protrudes far, but he also has a club in his hands at an angle of ninety degrees to his hand. This is technically an almost impossible task for a sculptor. According to Kieft, the assumption seems justified that Bandinelli has bluffed and that ‘at the last hour, he backed away from the task he set himself.’258 Bandinelli starts designing again and makes a drawing which he also shows in his self-portrait.

Baccio Bandinelli self-portrait large size

Finally, he makes two models of which the Pope chooses one: ‘one in which Hercules clamps Cacus between his legs and holds him like a prisoner by grabbing him by his hair’. And they agreed to implement and make this model’259

In 1527, after the Sacco di Rome, Pope Clemens VII had to flee. In Florence, the Medici immediately lost their power and this not without consequences for Baccio and his statue. Bandinelli fled to Lucca. Buonarroti took an active part in the new republican regime, among other things by designing defensive works. One of his remarkable drawings (bastion) we have already seen and discussed on the days of architecture. On August 22, 1528, a contract was signed in which Michelangelo received the order for the pendant. Vasari recounts what happened after the block of marble was shown to Buonarroti:

‘[…] Baccio had worked with the model of Hercules and Cacus, with the intention of assigning Michelangelo to carve two figures from it, if the marble had not been worked too much. Michelangelo, however, while looking at the stone, thought of a different subject. He left Hercules and Cacus for what it was, and took Samson as his subject, who held two defeated Philistines beneath him, one completely dead and the other barely alive, while Samson is about to kill him with a donkey’s jawbone.’

Thus Vasari, quoted from: Ghislain Kieft, ‘The brain of Michelangelo Art, Art Theory and the Construction of the statue in the Italian Renaissance’, Thesis Utrecht 1994 p. 41

It will be clear by now that getting three figures out of a single block of marble is considerably more difficult than getting two. If Michelangelo had been able to implement his ideas, he would indeed have surpassed Bandinelli. Unfortunately for Michelangelo, ‘after the return of the Medici the marble block went back to Baccio.’260

Bandinelli ‘Hercules and Cacus’ large size


Bandinelli ‘Head of Hercules’ pen and brown ink 21.4 x 17 cm 1525-1534 Musée du Louvre Paris statue

Hercules and Cacus: carved from one block of marble just like the pendant David?

Michelangelo’s David was ex uno lapide just like the best work of art of Antiquity. It was Pliny the Elder who described the Laocoon as: ‘A work better than any other art of painting and sculpture ever made. Created from a single block of stone made by Hagesandros, Athenodoros and Polydoros of Rhodes […]’ Ex uno lapide was not correct: the sculpture turned out to consist of five blocks when it was discovered on 14 January 1506. The question whether Bandinelli used one block of marble for his sculpture must certainly be answered negatively after 1994. A restoration in that year made it clear that the Hercules and Cacus consists of no less than twenty pieces of marble. Michelangelo wanted to fight the antiques, which is why using one block was a must for him. Baccio Bandinelli only kept up the appearance of one block: he used twenty pieces of marble to overcome the physical limitations of the block.261 He condemned Bandinelli for using multiple marble blocks, although he strongly underestimated the number of marble parts of  Baccio’s Hercules and Cacus. Baccio’s process of addition was a no-no for Michelangelo:marble was to be carved away, not added.

The story of Cacus and Hercules

The theme of Hercules and Cacus was typically Florentine: male nudes in battle. Pollaiuolo did this with his ‘battle of ten naked warriors‘ and the young Michelangelo had also carved his battle relief as we have already seen in the Casa Buonarroti. The artist was not so much interested in telling a story as in demonstrating how cleverly you can sculpt, draw or paint. This of course also applies to Leonardo’s ‘Anghiari’ and Michelangelo’s ‘Cascina’ as we will discuss on the days of painting.

The story of Hercules and Cacus is about the hero who frees the city of Rome from a villain. Cacus lived in a cave and constantly attacked travelers in the city of Rome. When Hercules and his herd reach the Tiber and the Aventine, he takes a break. As soon as he has fallen asleep, Cacus sees the chance to steal this herd. He pulls the animals into his cave by their tails, after all, this way there are no traces leading to him. When Hercules wakes up and misses his cattle, he goes in search of his herd. The traces do indeed mislead Hercules, but when he moves away from the cave, he hears the roaring of his cattle from the cave. Of course Hercules turns around and discovers the thief Cacus, who, unsurprisingly, stood no chance against this demigod. The Romans let out a sigh of relief: finally they were freed from this dangerous villain. This theme fits beautifully with the David and the Judit and Holofernes.

The installation of Hercules and Cacus in Piazza della Signoria

Unlike Michelangelo, Bandinelli did sign his statue, like this: BACCIVS BANDINELL. FLOR. FACIEBAT. MD XXXIIII The past perfect (faciebat: was [me] making) refers to Pliny’s anecdote about the signature of the great classical artists and goes back to what Pliny writes about the way in which Apelles and Polyclitus signed their work. They signed with a provisional title like Faciebat. Apelles (Polyclitus), as if art is always a moment in a process. At the same time, the word ‘faciebat’ shows a modest attitude, as it is not yet complete.

Pedestal large size

Around 1534 this was no longer unusual, in contrast to the time of the Pietà of Michelangelo as described in the story about St. Peter. Critics of Bandinelli made a pun on his signature: ‘O, Baccius faciebat Bandinello’. The signature is prominently present on the coloured marble of the pedestal, something that was highly unusual.263 Moreover, in the sixteenth century, this place -the pedestal- was predestined for a text about the client, in this case the Medici. By placing his ‘signature’ here, the artist Bandinelli identifies himself with the Medici.

When Bandinelli’s statue is transported from the Opera del Duomo to Piazza della Signoria (Vecchio), it is pelted with stones. The inhabitants of the city did not care about the rule of the Medici. The stoning is reminiscent of what had happened thirty years earlier in Florence during the transport of Michelangelo’s David. When the statue of Hercules and Cacus was installed on 1 March 1534, Bandinelli saw it in situ for the first time: he thought the muscles were too soft. He restored this, but only after a screen was placed around the statue. Again a ‘repetition’ of what Buonarroti did with his David. A few months after Bandinelli adds the finishing touch, Michelangelo leaves Florence for good in September.

The criticism of the Hercules and Cacus

The statue made by Baccio, the Hercules and Cacus, has been excommunicated from the beginning, even before completion. A phrase from a poem by Antonfrancesco Grazzini, ‘Il Lasca,’ speaks volumes in this respect: ‘O murderous thief, who kills marble and steals another man’s honor’.’264 The destructive criticism that descended on the statue and its maker can be explained, among other things, by republican sentiments. Needless to say, the followers of Michelangelo were not indifferent and strongly rejected Bandinelli’s work. Everyone was very dissatisfied, except the Medici. Duke Alessandro even wanted some critics to be arrested and put behind bars: he was afraid of a new uprising. There was also fierce artistic criticism. The statue isn’t just made out of multiple blocks, but, as you can see, it’s full of errors that later had to be fixed as well as possible. When you look at the statue, you will be amazed at the pieces of marble used to fix errors. This was necessary despite the fact that Bandinelli, unlike Michelangelo, probably used a measurement model for carving his Hercules and Cacus.265 Benedetto Varchi writes about these carving errors, referring to the Hercules and Cacus in Piazza della Signoria:

‘I will refrain from mentioning that painters can erase everything a thousand times and start over again, where this is not possible for the sculptor. Apart from the fact that for both arts we are talking about full-fledged artists, who can leave out the unnecessary with their skill, and sculptors can do the same, albeit less well and with more time and effort.

You can see that in the colossal statues, for example, that they make out of multiple pieces, either because of a lack of material, as is very common, or because of a lack of skill, as you can see from the Hercules in the Piazza, especially when that piece fell off with great injury to the one underneath it.’

As written by Benedetto Varchi (Titian) anno 1549 in his ‘Paragone’, quoted from: Ghislain Kieft, ‘The brain of Michelangelo Art, Art Theory and the Construction of the Statue in the Italian Renaissance’, Thesis Utrecht 1994 p. 67

The copy of the Laocoon

Baccio owes the commission for the Hercules and Cacus in part to the copy of the Laocoon he had made for them.266 This true scale copy of Baccio was intended for King Francis I of France. The famous statue of the Laocoon, as mentioned earlier, was described by Pliny the Elder in his ‘Natural History’ (XXXVI.iv.37), as: ‘A work better than any other art of painting and sculpture ever made. Sculpted from one block of stone by Hagesandros, Athenodoros and Polydoros of Rhodes […]’267 This true scale copy of Baccio was intended for King Francis I of France. The famous statue of the Laocoon, as mentioned earlier, was described by Pliny the Elder in his ‘Natural History’ (XXXVI.iv.37), as: ‘A work better than any other art of painting and sculpture ever made. Sculpted from one block of stone by Hagesandros, Athenodoros and Polydoros of Rhodes […]’.268 The copy of Bandinelli was made in Rome, but is now in Uffizi.

Bandinelli Laocoon copy   Hagesandros, Athenodoros, Polydoros of Rhodos Laocoon original

One problem was that at that time, the right arm of the priest, Laocoon, was missing. The arm, or at least a large part of it, was not found until the beginning of the twentieth century. Baccio made a wax arm at Giulio’s request. Copies of the Laocoon had already been made before, including by Jacopo Sansovino: a large wax model that was later cast in bronze. Bramante commissioned three other sculptors to make copies. However, these copies were not made to scale. According to Raphael, Jacopo Sansovino had won the battle, but his wax model and his bronze statue have unfortunately disappeared. Sansovino’s copy was about three times smaller than the original. Jacopo made a specialty of copying and also made versions in stucco, but all were relatively small.

Nowadays, copies of an original are certainly not seen as art, on the contrary. In the sixteenth century this was looked at very differently, because people were used to imitatio. Unlike other artists, Baccio used the same material and an identical format.

Bandinelli first made a wax model before he started the actual work. Vasari praises the copy of Baccio as follows:

‘When the marbles had come and Baccio had a fence with a roof built in Belvedere to be able to work, he started with one of the children of Laocoon, the biggest of the two, and he did this in a way that satisfied the Pope and all those who knew about it, because there was almost no difference between the antique statue and his copy.’

According to Vasari in his Life of Baccio Bandinelli’, cited from: Ghislain Kieft, ‘The brain of Michelangelo Art, Art Theory and the Construction of the Statue in the Italian Renaissance’, Thesis Utrecht 1994 p. 68

The three sculptors of the Laocoon from Rhodes had used five pieces of marble. Bandinelli used three. Michelangelo, who was keeping a close eye on competition, was informed of this remarkable fact in a letter: ‘and he [Baccio] does it in pieces,’ and this reassured Buonarroti.269

When Cardinal Giulio calls Baccio to him and asks if he wants to make another copy, he answers that he might even be able to make one that surpasses the original. The Laocoon of Bandinelli never went to France. Clemens VII thought the statue itself was far too beautiful: he sent it to the Medici palace where it was installed.

Bandinelli’s Pietà in front of his grave: a completely different composition of a Pietà than the Duomo Pietà by Michelangelo

Baccio followed Michelangelo’s example.270 He also made a self-portrait of the Nicodemus in the Pietà. The statue was made for his grave in the Santissima Annunziata, where it can still be seen today.

Baccio Bandinelli tomb of Bandinelli large size
Santissima Annunziata
Baccio Bandinelli graftombe van Bandinelli Santissima Annunziata

picture: bentzkate

Of course Baccio Bandinelli tried to surpass Michelangelo’s Pietà (Opera del Duomo) with his work, as Vasari writes: ‘To measure himself with this, [Michelangelo’s Duomo Pietà] Baccio went about making his own [grave statue] with great accuracy, and with helpers, and he did it. And for this he went looking for a place in the most important churches of Florence, where he could place it, and create a grave.’271 His Pietà is also carved ex uno lapido, but the composition is very different. In addition to the two figures, Bandinelli wanted to add a third freestanding figure: John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence.272 However, this figure was lost.

Burial tomb Baccio Bandinelli
Graftombe Baccio Bandinelli Santissima Annunziata

The way in which Bandinelli portrays himself in his tomb is quite different from Buonarroti’s self-portrait.273 Michelangelo, as Nicodemus, is completely absorbed in the suffering of Christ and does not look at you. Baccio looks directly at the spectator in front of the tomb. Michelangelo suppresses his specific features in order to accentuate devotion. Baccio, on the other hand, idealises his face and looks at you self-confidently, with hardly any sorrow. Baccio is more of an intermediary between Christ and the viewer.

The ‘signature’ can be found on the block that carries the body of Christ. Baccio was afraid that he would die before the statue was completed. He instructed his son, Clemente, about what exactly should be on the block: his name as a donor, but also as a maker. DIVINIAE PIET[ATI] B. BANDINELLI H[OC]

SIBI SEPUL[CHRUM] FABREF [ACIEBAT] Dedicated to the Pietà and in the hope of divine compassion with the donor, a handmade grave with skilled art. Then there is another text: Knight in the order of Saint James, rests here with his wife Jacoba Doni under the statue of the Redeemer that he made himself

At the back of the monument Baccio and his wife are depicted again in relief. Bandinelli always used the word: faciebat. But not here: fabrefaciebat or fabrefecit. The heading is posthumous. Clemente made it to his father’s strict directions. However, the involvement of the bastard son in this work is not mentioned.

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