The bronze statue under discussion in this paper, depicting a mature, bearded, nude and powerfully muscled Hercules, has been given a greenish patina in imitation of ancient bronze works. The chasing is extremely energetic, particularly in the locks of hair, the curls of the beard and the skin of the Nemean Lion.
The club with the lionskin draped over it, upright on a rock, supports the figure under his left armpit.
The bronze rests on a precious coeval base: the base is faced in red Levanto marble on which there rests a concave statuary marble cornice carved with leaf motifs. Small circular medallions in the classical style are set into the pattern between one leaf and the next, while lanceolate leaves adorn its four corners; the medallions and lanceolate leaves are in embossed and gilt copper. A torchon encircles the bottom of the cornice while a perlé motif decorates the top; both are in gilt bronze.
The central part of the base is framed by a torchon and contains a frieze in the centre depicting a vase of flowers and acanthus leaves on front and back, while a lion's head adorns the sides; all of this trim is in gilt bronze. The upper part of the base is in statuary marble carved with broadly protruding and finely detailed acanthus leaves and is enriched with stylised flowers and leaves in gilt copper.
The large 3rd century AD marble statue known as the Farnese Hercules, now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, was discovered in the Baths of Caracalla. It is recorded with certainty for the first time in Palazzo Farnese in Rome in 1556. The Farnese Hercules, a gigantic figure measuring 3.17 metres in height and engraved with the name of Glycon, was much admired and much reproduced from the moment of its discovery. On 5 February 1787 (shortly before the date of the bronze under discussion here) the statue was removed to the workshop of sculptor Carlo Albacini for restoration before making its way to the Bourbon court in Naples.
Francesco Righetti was born in Rome on 11 June 1749 to a family originally hailing from Rimini. He was a silversmith, one of Italy's leading bronzesmiths in his day and a major figure in the Neoclassical world inspired by the antiquities so beloved of gentlemen conducting the Grand Tour. We know from the archives that he was apprenticed to Giuseppe Valadier (Rome, 1762 – 1839) and that he began to acquire a certain renown as a foundryman in 1781, when he was commissioned to cast a number of life-size lead copies of ancient statues which would then be painted white to simulate marble, for the residence of the banker Henry Hope in Holland. Pope Pius VI paid Righetti's workshop a first visit on 19 October 1782 and saw two of the lead statues, St. Susannah after Duquesnoy and the Florence Bacchus (the original, not the copy by Sansovino which is occasionally reproduced) ready for shipping to Holland. On that occasion the pope also admired "a plentiful collection of small Statues, copied from the Antique, of the most celebrated things in the Galleries of Rome and of Florence". Vincenzo Pacetti tells us in his diary that the year before (after March 1781) his brother Camillo was "loaned to the metalworker Righetti" for nine days and that he returned to work with him on 30 April 1785: "Camillo has been working outside the workshop, on two copies cast by Righetti the metalworker, for two full weeks" and again on 18 June of the same year. This remark begs the question of the identity of the artist who modelled Righetti's casts.
A number of important commissions for foreign patrons, produced in conjunction with sculptor and stonemason Francesco Antonio Franzoni, his lifetime friend and neighbour, are recorded for 1789. They include a scaled-down copy of the fountain in Villa Albani and herms with metal heads and feet.
Given that models were intended to be used more than once in various casts over a number of years, one is naturally prompted to speculate on the relationship between the bronze under discussion here with its marble base and these two artists, given that the date corresponds to the shipment abroad of the works which Righetti produced with Franzoni, namely 1789, while the sculptor Camillo Pacetti was working in Righetti's workshop only a few years earlier.
This is, of course, nothing more than an interesting hypothesis.
On 10 May of that same year, Righetti was admitted to the inner circle of the Pantheon. In 1794 he addressed the printed catalogue of his works, which he had published in French, "Aux Amateurs de l'Antiquitè et de Beaux Arts". Thereafter he soon began to work with his son Luigi, with whom he was to complete two major casts for models by Antonio Canova which Canova himself commissioned from him: Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (he only succeeded in perfecting the cast on his second attempt due to the difficulties inherent in the design) now in the courtyard of the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, and the crowning achievement of his career, the horse for an equestrian monument to Carlo III, which he completed only a few months before his death in November 1819.
Antonio Despiug y Dameto was born in Palma de Mallorca on 30 March 1745 to Ramon Despuig, Count of Montenegro and Montoro, and Mary Dameto y Sureda, the daughter of the Marquis of Bellpuig. Antonio studied the humanities at the Jesuit College of Monte Simon in Palma de Mallorca before enrolling at the local university, where he graduated in 1779 In utroque iure. He entered the Church and was ordained to the priesthood on 3 July 1774. Pope Pius VI appointed him Bishop of Orihuela on 26 September 1791 and Pope Pius VII raised him to the rank of Cardinal on 11 July 1803. A lover and patron of the arts, he made his first trip to Italy in 1782, conducting a kind of Grand Tour and visiting several Italian cities. He was appointed Auditor of the Sacra Rota for the Crown of Aragon in 1785, the prestigious appointment permitting him to settle in Rome and providing him with the opportunity to join the city's extremely lively, cosmopolitan community of excavators and collectors of antiquities.
His reputation as a lover and patron of the arts spread rapidly and on 12 June 1786 he was acclaimed an honorary member of the Academy of St. Luke, using the privilege to forge close ties with the leading players in the city's artistic circles.
Vincenzo Pacetti mentioned Despuig in his diaries on fully seven different occasions in the course of his visits to Rome. In 1788–9 he was granted a licence to dig in the excavations in Ariccia, where the celebrated artist, excavator and dealer Gavin Hamilton, dissatisfied with the paltry results of a number of digs in various parts of the Ariccia area, had abandoned his search and allowed Despuig to take his place in the venture.
Lady luck smiled on Despuig and his digs were enormously productive.
In this context, the bronze under discussion here perfectly reflects Despuig's interest in antiquities. Given that the Farnese Hercules was one of the most important and best-loved classical statues and that it was highly unlikely that he would ever be able to own it, Despuig purchased (or possibly commissioned) from Righetti a scaled-down version with a base reflecting the erudite archaeological taste so fashionable at the time.
The Cardinal's new duties within the Church, followed by the French occupation of the Papal States and the ensuing exile and death of Pope Pius VI – who died in Valence in the south of France on 28 August 1799 – caused him to leave Rome on several occasions, and in fact he did not return to the city until 26 May 1807. The following year he was appointed Pro-Vicar of Rome, replacing Cardinal Somaglia. The Papal States were now at peace but the situation was still precarious, and indeed the drums of war and of tribulation were drawing close to the papacy once again. The new Pope, Pius VII, was arrested afresh and, on this occasion too, Despuig chose to remain with the pontiff, accompanying him on every stage of his exile. Despuig himself was also interned in France, but on pleading ill health Napoleon allowed him to return to Italy and to retire to his beloved Lucca, where he died on 2 May 1813.
All we have left of this erudite man of letters and collector is a part of his imposing art collection, which is now on display in the Museo de Bellas Arts in the Castle of Bellver following the dispersal of one of the best-known and best-loved art museums in Spain which Cardinal Despuig had put together in Villa Raxa at Palma de Mallorca. Today the villa continues to house his fine collection of epigraphic inscriptions.
A. Cipriani,G. Fusconi, C. Gasparri, M.G. Picozzi, L. Pirzio Biroli Stefanelli, Roma 1771-1819. I Giornali di Vincenzo Pacetti, Naples 2011; A. D'Agliano, L. Melegati, Ricordi dall'Antico. Sculture, porcellane e arredi all'epoca del Grand Tour, Milan 2008; A. González-Palacios, Ristudiando i Righetti, in "Antologia di Belle Arti", 39-42 (1991-1992), pp. 17-46; F. Haskell, N. Penny, L'antico nella storia del gusto. La seduzione della scultura classica, Turin 1984; A. Lo Bianco, A. Negro, ed., Il Settecento a Roma, exhibition catalogue, Milan 2005; D. G. Murray, A. Pascual, La casa y el tiempo. Interiores señoriales de Palma, Palma de Mallorca 1999; A. Pasqualini, Interessi eruditi e collezionismo epigrafico del cardinale Antonio Despuig y Dameto, in J. Beltrán Fortes, Illuminismo e Ilustración. Le antichità e i suoi protagonisti in Spagna e in Italia nel XVIII secolo, Rome 2003, pp. 295-309.