A special loan with a fascinating history has recently arrived at the Wallace Collection. Thanks to the generosity of a private collector, visitors to the Collection can over the coming months admire a masterpiece of Baroque sculpture with a distinguished royal provenance.
The powerful composition in bronze, by the seventeenth-century Florentine sculptors Pietro and Ferdinando Tacca, shows the classical hero Hercules grappling with the river god Acheloüs, transformed into the form of a bull. It is one of a series of large bronzes depicting stories from the legend of Hercules: two of which, Hercules with the Centaur and Hercules with the Bull, are in the permanent collection of works of art at the Wallace Collection. Ferdinando Tacca (1619-1686) was a multi-talented figure who as well as being a successful sculptor was also an architect, engineer and a stage designer for the theatre. His extraordinary sense of Baroque theatricality can be felt too in his bronze sculpture, which is full of drama and exciting and complex interplay between figures.
The Classical myth inspiring this sculpture is one of love, violence and metamorphosis. One of Hercules’ rivals for the hand of his beloved Deianeira was the river god Acheloüs. During a tremendous wrestling match with Hercules, Acheloüs was able to transform himself into the forms of other monstrous creatures, a bull-headed man, a serpent and a bull. Hercules defeated the bull by pulling off one of its horns, which then became transformed into the well-known symbol of the cornucopia, or horn of plenty. A magnificent cornucopia can be seen in the Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens’ newly conserved Allegory of Fruitfulness in the Wallace Collection.
This model originated as one of a set of large bronzes depicting scenes from the life of Hercules, originally part of an abortive commission for King James I of England. Pietro Tacca’s original models seem only to have been cast after his death, by his son Ferdinando.
The Wallace Collection also possesses two fine bronze candlesticks from a Calvary Group, made by Ferdinando Tacca for the Chapel of the Ducal palace in Massa, near Carrara in Tuscany, and inventoried in 1662. The group included a second pair of angels as well as a large Cross with the Crucified Christ. It was broken up in 1796, when the palace was pillaged by French troops, following Napoleon’s invasion of Italy and on the Emperor’s orders. Both figures are, exceptionally, signed by Ferdinando Tacca in monogram on the drapery around their waist. As well as visiting Hercules with the Bull in the Large Drawing Room, visitors can venture to the Sixteenth-Century Gallery where they will find these two Tacca works of art.
Not only can visitors enjoy seeing this special loan in the context of other works by Pietro and Ferdinando Tacca, but they can also see this unique bronze alongside many other works of art that were once part of the French Royal Collection. The cast of Hercules with the Bull was first recorded in 1689 in the collection of the Grand Dauphin, son of King Louis XIV of France, and carries on the rump of the bull the royal collection inventory number ’302′. All objects in the collection were numbered, and visitors can find numbers 297 and 298 in the Billiard Room, inscribed on two bronze fire-dogs on marble pedestals, cast c. 1655-1680 from models by the Italian bronze sculptor Alessandro Algardi. Algardi, like Pietro and Ferdinando Tacca, takes inspiration from Classical mythology, and the two, impressive fire-dogs represent Jupiter victorious over the Titans: ‘Fire’ and Juno Controlling the Winds: ‘Air’.
Tacca’s Hercules with the Bull left the Royal Collection during the French Revolution and has now been generously lent by a private collector, to allow it to be appreciated and studied in the fascinating new contexts afforded by the Wallace Collection. Eagle-eyed visitors might also recognize the sculpture from last year’s acclaimed exhibition at the Royal Academy, Bronze, where it was on show until December.
Hercules with the Bull is on display in the Large Drawing Room until September.