Hercules on Horseback

Bronze sculpture of a man on horseback.

Bertoldo di Giovanni (ca. 1440–1491)
Hercules on Horseback, ca. 1470–75
10 3/4 in. (27.2 cm)
Gallerie Estensi, Modena (2265)
Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali / Archivio fotografico delle Gallerie Estensi / photo Carlo Vannini

Hercules is here identified by a club (his signature weapon), lion-skin cloak, and muscular appearance. He is large in proportion to his horse, emphasizing his physical strength. One of Hercules's best-known labors was his defeat of the Nemean lion. Here he slips his fingers into the mouth of the leonine trophy that he wears, a reference to illustrations of this episode that show Hercules besting his feline foe by prying apart the beast's jaws. Equestrian depictions of Hercules were unique to the Este family — rulers of Ferrara, Modena, and Reggio — and this statuette was likely produced for Duke Ercole I d'Este, who promoted his association with his mythological namesake. The imagery of Hercules on Horseback is connected to Ercole's wedding to the princess of Naples or to a springtime festival during which Ercole rode throughout Ferrara in costume, bringing flowering branches to the city's most beautiful women.

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