UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Renaissance patronage of Hercules imagery Wilson, Shirley Conroy


This thesis examines the patronage and interpretation of Hercules imagery in Italy during the thirteenth through early sixteenth centuries. The impact literature had on contemporary images of the hero, and the significance of Hercules imagery for Italian society is discussed. Chapter One deals with the history and transmission of mythology in general and the Hercules legend in particular from Greek Antiquity until the thirteenth century. The means of transmission was Greek and Roman literature and its commentaries, and the treatises of early Christian and Medieval authors. The Greeks and Romans primarily viewed Hercules as a beneficial, civilizing figure, noted as an averter of evil, an exemplar of virtus, and as a mortal who was made immortal. Early Christian authors, threatened by the similarities between Hercules and Christ, denied Hercules' immortality and denounced the hero as a libertine, an adulterer and a lecher. Medieval writers, through their use of allegorical interpretation, again perceived Hercules as an exemplar of virtue and an averter of the evils which threaten Mankind. Chapter Two discusses Hercules imagery in Italian art and literature of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Thirteenth century images depict Hercules as a virtuous, wise hero who conquers the evils which threaten society. Despite the numerous positive characteristics associated with Hercules in fourteenth century literature, only one was developed in the art: Hercules was portrayed as the wise hero who embodied the virtues of an ideal leader. Artistic representations of Hercules in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were restricted to either a solitary Hercules or to Hercules and the Nemean Lion, Hercules and Antaeus, and Hercules and the Hydra of Lerna. These images were located primarily in the ambient of Church structures. The only exceptions were portrayals of the hero within "uomini famosi" cycles and on the seal of Florence. Chapter Three examines the patronage of Hercules imagery by four leading fifteenth century patrons: Lorenzo de'Medici of Florence, Ercole I d'Este of Ferrara, Ludovico Gonzaga of Mantua, and Federigo da Montefeltro of Urbino. The commissions of these individuals indicates the shift of patronage from public institutions to private patrons which occurred in the fifteenth century. Hercules imagery was no longer commissioned for didactic purposes, but rather because the patron wished to be identified with the virtues or political implications associated with the hero. Chapter Four discusses the patronage of Hercules imagery in Rome and Mantua during the last quarter of the fifteenth century and the first quarter of the sixteenth. Once other mythological themes were portrayed, beginning in 1470, representations of Hercules were no longer restricted to the commonly depicted labours, but enlarged to include all twelve. Expanded programs of Hercules' labours were portrayed in the Sala dei Paramenti, Palazzo Venezia, commissioned by the Venetian cardinal (later Pope Paul II) Pietro Barbo, and in the Sala del Fregio, Villa Farnesina, comissioned by the Sienese Banker, Agostino Chigi. The patronage of Hercules imagery originated by Ludovico Gonzaga in Mantua was continued by Isabella d'Este and her son Federigo Gonzaga. Their commissions of Hercules imagery show the hero as a symbol of virtue and immortality. Chapter Five contains a summary of the conclusions drawn throughout the thesis.

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