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Statue of the Farnese Hercules

Roman art

This statue, which was unearthed on the Quirinal Hill, is documented in the collection of Cardinal Piccolomini at the end of the fifteenth century and in that of Cardinal Carpi in 1550. It was on view in Room II in the Palazzina Borghese in 1832 and in Room XX, on the upper floor, in 1891. It was moved to a niche on the terrace in the 1930s and then the portico in 2020, after it was meticulously restored.

The sculpture portrays Hercules at rest and is an example of the Seleucia-Borghese type, deriving from Hellenistic models from the fourth century BCE inspired in turn by the famous statue by the bronze sculptor Lysippus. The Borghese exemplar is an elegant copy dating to between the first and second centuries CE.

The powerful figure is leaning with his left arm on a club, which is placed on the ground and partially covered by the leonté. He is holding the apples of the Hesperides in his right hand, hidden behind his back.

Object details

I-II century A.D.
Pentelic marble
height with plinth 168 cm; without plinth 158 cm; head 27 cm

Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini, unearthed on the Quirinal Hill in about 1480 (Moreno 1975-1976, p. 131); Cardinal Rodolfo Pio da Carpi, documented in 1550 (Canedy 1976, p. 68, R138 (above); p. 98, T92 (below); p. 112, T149 (above); Borghese Collection, mentioned for the first time in 1832 in Room II (Nibby, p. 66). Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • End of the 15th century (?) ​reconstruction of some components and fill
  • 1915 ​Cesare Fossi
  • 1965 ​Tito Minguzzi
  • 1993 ​Liana Persichelli
  • 2019 ​Enea - diagnostic analyses
  • 2019 ​Maria Grazia Chilosi (C.B.C.) with Martina Tosoni


This sculpture is documented in a drawing from the late fifteenth century, attributed to the school of Ghirlandaio and preserved in the Escurialense Codex in Madrid. The annotation accompanying the drawing provides important information: ‘del chardinale di Siena/ trovatoin Monte Chavallo/ nela chapella derchole’ (‘of the Cardinal of Siena / found on Monte Chavallo / in the Chapel of Hercules’; 28-II-12, Fol. 37r: Moreno 1975-1976, p. 131). It was therefore originally a votive statue – Moreno goes so far as to call it a cult statue – displayed on the Quirinal Hill and in the collection of Francesco Piccolomini, Cardinal of Siena, who became Pope Pius III in 1503 and whose palazzo was in Piazza di Siena in Rome (Moreno 1982, p. 464). According to Egger, the discovery was made on land belonging to the Colonna family, whose garden extended across the north-west slope of Monte Cavallo, identifying the Chapel of Hercules – the name of which would derive from the Belvedere Torso now in the Vatican Museum – as a little temple in the Colonna garden. The author also holds that Cardinal Giovanni Colonna had given the Borghese Hercules to Cardinal Piccolomini to decorate his palazzo in Piazza di Siena in about 1480. According to Egger, when the palazzo was demolished to make way for the church of S. Andrea della Valle, the sculpture passed to Cardinal Rodolfo Pio di Carpi, who owned a vineyard on the Quirinal Hill (1905 pp. 106–107, fol. 37). The dating of this passage of ownership cannot be accepted however, considering that the church was built in 1590, whereas the sculpture was already documented in the Carpi vineyard in 1550 in a sketch by Girolamo da Carpi and one by the Flemish artist Giambologna (Canedy 1976, p. 68, R138 (above); p. 98, T92 (below); p. 112, T149 (above); Fileri 1985, p. 16, nos. 9–10). Aldrovandi also provided a detailed description of it in 1556: ‘un Hercole ignudo intero, poggiato col braccio manco sulla clava sua; la quale viene da la pelle del leone coverta e sta sopra un tronco; l’Hercole tiene la sua mano dritta à dietro’ (‘a nude, full-length Hercules, his left arm resting on his club, which is covered with the lion skin and is on a trunk. The Hercules is holding his right hand behind his back’; Aldrovandi 1556, pp. 295–296). Giambologna’s drawings, which are in the Codex Cantabrigiensis, have an annotation at upper left: ‘Al Cardenale de Carpe 76’ (‘To Cardinal Da Carpi 76’). Moreno imagined that it came to the Palazzina Borghese in the seventeenth century, although he does not provide documentation (1975-1976, p. 131).

In 1832, Nibby mentioned it in Room II of the Palazzina Borghese along with two others of the same subject, in the three main niches, and considered all three to be of mediocre quality. The room, which was initially called the Room of the Sun for the radiated colossus, was later called the Room of Hercules on the suggestion of Nibby, who noted that ‘la molteplicità de’ monumenti che oggi racchiude si riferisce ad Ercole’ (‘the many monuments in it today refer to Hercules’; p. 66). In 1891, the sculpture was moved to Room IV on the second floor, what is now Room XX, where it was reported in Venturi’s guide (1893, p. 101). In about 1935, the small statue of Geta was brought to the room and the Borghese Hercules was moved to the terrace, where it was placed in correspondence with a splayed window that was turned into an aedicule, decorated at the top with a motif similar to a coffered ceiling. In 2020, after it was restored to remedy to deterioration caused by its outdoor location, the sculpture was displayed in the portico as a pendant to the Hercules of the Copenhagen-Dresden type (inv. CXXII) and replaced by a modern replica.

Moreno, who describes it as having been found in the Horti Bellaiani, between the Quirinal and Viminal Hills, details the work that was done. The statue was reconstructed from multiple fragments. The restored parts seem to be: the front part of the plinth, the little toe on the right foot, the big toe and two others on the left foot, two fragments in the thighs, the fingers on the left hand, the right hand with the apples of the Hesperides, the upper part of the abdomen and the pectorals, the tip of the nose. And the dangling parts and lower half of the jaws of the leonté. The weight of the standing figure is supported by the right leg, which is moved to the back, while the left leg is advanced and moved to the side. The left arm rests on the club, which is set on a rock on the ground. The leontè, which covers the club, shows the head of the lion in a three-quarter view with two bipartite, dangling pieces of its skin hanging down symmetrically to the sides. The right arm, which is bent at the elbow, is hidden behind the figure’s back and he holds the tree apples of the Hesperides in his right hand. The figure’s head is turned to the left and his thick curly hair is carved to create strong contrasts of dark and light, like the beard, which frames the partially open mouth with small full lips. A long furrow that extends horizontally across his forehead and two vertical ones between his eyebrows emphasise the figure’s thoughtful, dark expression.

The sculpture portrays Hercules at rest and is an example of the Seleucia-Borghese type, the earliest exemplar of which is a terracotta from Seleucia, on the Tigris, and preserved in Detroit, datable between 290 and 141 BCE. The iconographic type privileges a three-quarter view from the left, supported by Hercules’s left foot and head, the slight inclination of the club and the lion’s muzzle.

The equilibrium of the body, leaning on the club, placed vertically on the ground next to the figure’s left foot, shares similarities with the Anticitera-Sulmona type, which is characterised by a view in the round. The doubling of the leontè, placed under the hero’s arm, however, seems to recall the Farnese-Pitti type.

Vermeule, who published a long article on the iconographic subject, identified four typological groups tracing back to an archetype by Lysippus datable to 320 BCE. He included the Borghese sculpture in the second group, deriving from a Hellenistic variant from the area of Pergamon and dated to 200 BCE (1975, p. 325, no. 4). This derivation had already been proposed by Johnson, who included it in a long series of copies (1927, p. 198, no. 5, pl. 38b, 39). Lippold, comparing it with the exemplar in the Uffizi, which is the same size, considers the Borghese sculpture to be of higher quality (1926, p. 19, no. 2775–2777).

Among the vast number of other sculptures of this type, the one in the Uffizi in Florence, dated to the second century CE, is the most similar to the Borghese exemplar (Ensoli 1995, p. 295, fig. 15). It is difficult to propose a precise date for the sculpture which, although it was made from Pentelic marble, from Greece, would seem to be from between the first and second centuries CE.

Giulia Ciccarello

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  • A. Nibby, Monumenti scelti della Villa Borghese, Roma 1832, p. 66.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano del Palazzo della Villa Borghese, Roma 1840, p. 12.
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno 1838, Roma 1841, p. 915.
  • C. de Clarac, A. Maury, Musée de sculpture antique et moderne, Catalogo del Musée du Louvre, Parigi 1850-1851, voll. 4-5, p. 17, n. 1982.
  • Indicazione delle opere antiche di scultura esistenti nel primo piano del Palazzo della Villa Borghese, Roma 1854, p. 14.
  • A. Michaelis, Römische Skizzenbücher nordischer Künstler des XVI Jahrhunderts, III, in “Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts“, VII, 1892, pp. 83-105, in part. p. 95, n. 8.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 101.
  • W. Amelung, Führer durch die Antiken in Florenz, 1897, pp. 31-32, n. 40. Photographische Einzelaufnahmen antiker Skulpturen, V, München 1902, pp. 117-118, n. 1489 (A. Michaelis).
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  • Photographische Einzelaufnahmen antiker Skulpturen, X, 1 München 1926, p. 19, n. 2775-2777 (G. Lippold).
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  • E. Dhanens, Jean Boulogne, Giovanni Bologna Flammingo, Brussels 1956, pp. 179-180, n. 9.
  • E. Dhanens, De Romeinse ervaring van Giovanni Bologna, in Bulletin de l’Institut Historique Belge de Rome, XXXV, 1963, p. 179.
  • C. C. Vermeule, The Weary Herakles of Lysippos, in “American Journal of Archaeology“, vol. 79, n. 4, 1975, pp. 323-332, in part. p. 325, n. 4.
  • N. W. Canedy, The Roman Sketchbook of Girolamo da Carpi, in “Studies of the Warburg Institute“, 35, Londra 1976, p. 68, R138 (in alto); p. 98, T92 (in basso); p. 112, T149 (in alto).
  • P. Moreno, Formazione della raccolta di antichità nel Museo e Galleria Borghese, in Colloqui del Sodalizio tra gli Studiosi d'Arte, 5, II serie, 1975-76, Roma 1977, pp. 125-143, in part. p. 131, tav. XXI.
  • P. Moreno, Il Farnese ritrovato ed altri tipi di Eracle in riposo, in “Mélanges de l'école française de Rome”, 94, 1982, pp. 379-526, in part. pp. 464, 510, n. B. 4. 4, figg. 84, 85, 134.
  • E. Fileri, Giovanni Bologna e il taccuino di Cambridge, in “Xenia”, X, Roma 1985, pp. 5-54, in part. p. 16, nn. 9-10.
  • P. Moreno, s.v. Ercoli Farnese, in Enciclopedia dell’Arte Antica, Milano 1994.
  • S. Ensoli, Fortuna di Lisippo, in Lisippo. L’arte e la fortuna, a cura di P. Moreno, Monza 1995, p. 295, figg. 13, 15.
  • R. Leone, Girolamo Selleri detto Girolamo da Carpi, in Lisippo. L’arte e la fortuna, a cura di P. Moreno, Monza 1995, p. 464, n. 9.1.
  • I. Petrucci, La decorazione scultorea della facciata principale del casino Borghese dall'epoca del principe Camillo ai giorni nostri. Nuove ricerche per la collezione di antichità, in “Archeologia Classica”, 65, 2014, pp. 181-216, in part. pp. 182, nota 4, p. 189, fig. 4.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008378, P. Moreno 1976; aggiornamento G. Ciccarello 2020.