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My Museum Favourite: the Farnese Hercules

Josh Pugh Ginn explains why the Farnese Hercules is his Museum Favourite from the Cast Gallery.

When it comes to picking a cast gallery favourite, for me the choice is an obvious one. In fact, it’s my favourite across two museums: the original from which the cast is taken is for me one of the stand-out pieces of the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Naples as well. However, what I particularly enjoy about my museum favourite is the way your response to it is completely different in the two different contexts of Naples and Cambridge.

Farnese & Sons

Pope Paul III (Alessandro Farnese) and his grandsons (Alessandro Farnese Jr, L) by Titian (Source: The Yorck Project/Wikipedia)

The piece is the Farnese Hercules: as with so much of ancient sculpture, the ‘original’ we have is a marble copy of a 4th Century BC Greek bronze probably made by the famous Lysippus, Alexander the Great’s personal image consultant. The marble version (according to its inscription) is by the otherwise unknown Glycon, and once stood in the Baths of Caracalla (completed c.216 AD), a vast leisure complex for all sorts of physical and cultural recreation. It was there that our Hercules was discovered in 1546 and promptly snapped up by wannabe papal dynasty, the Farnese family. Under Alessandro Farnese (Pope Paul III) and then the like-named Cardinal, his grandson, the Palazzo Farnese became host to one of the greatest collections of Classical sculpture in the modern era, most of which eventually found its way to Naples, the capital of the Bourbon kings, and remains in the Museo Nazionale Archeologico there to this day.


A brow so furrowed you could plant corn in it.


Hercules himself is a magnificent specimen: over ten feet tall, he has such a quantity of muscle that it would seem difficult for clothes to stay on him, had he chosen to wear any. We are a long way from the manicured body-beautifuls of the Classical ideal. Our Hercules is a bruiser: his veins are bulging, his beard is tangled, his nose squashed, his forehead positively Neanderthal. But despite this massive and powerful presence, Hercules is not depicted mid-labour, a picture of action and intensity: instead he leans – wearily, bodily – on his club, on which is draped his characteristic lion-skin. His shoulder hunches awkwardly on this crutch and his left arm hangs limply (the hand itself is a Renaissance restoration). His right arm, tucked behind his back, carries his prize: the apples of the Hesperides. Small, inconspicuous, entirely over-lookable: “Was it all worth it?,” Hercules seems to think, “All that effort for these?” Supposedly these golden apples granted immortality to whoever ate them, but it doesn’t seem a prospect Hercules is much taken with. Eleven labours down and the weight of the world seems to lie heavy on Hercules’ shoulders, as indeed it so recently did. For me, this isn’t Hercules the superman, with amazing strength and powers, but Hercules the long-suffering, the much-enduring, the world-weary, who became so popular with the philosophical schools.

Hercules in Naples

Hercules in splendid isolation at the Museo.

It is this philosophical Hercules I see in Naples, standing as he does in splendid isolation under cavernous echoing arches, stoically and serenely contemplating his lot: even when the gallery fills with gawping tourists, he seems calmly above it all. He has found a quiet spot to rest and reflect on the great strains he must nobly endure. Such is the task of the virtuous though, and he will go on. Amidst the clutter and the noise of the Cast Gallery collection, I see it differently: hedged and hemmed on all sides, here Hercules is still fighting other distractions and annoyances to find peace and quiet. He cannot withdraw completely from the world of action and noise (to an empty and tranquil gallery of his own), and his moment of reflection is purely internal. In Cambridge, I think he is much more of an everyman, trying to find some calm amid the hustle and bustle of the world. I still don’t know which Hercules I prefer, but I think I have a lot more sympathy for the Cambridge one.

Hercules among the casts, Cambridge.


3 thoughts on “My Museum Favourite: the Farnese Hercules

  1. Pingback: GIS Reports: 1/5/2015 and 8/5/2015 | res gerendae

  2. Pingback: My Museum Favourite: The Venice Tetrarchs | res gerendae

  3. Pingback: My Museum (of Classical Archaeology) Favourite | University of Cambridge Museums

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