The Farnese Hercules is an ancient sculpture, probably an enlarged copy made in the early third century AD by Glykon of an original of Lysippos or one of his circle, of the fourth century BC., made for the Baths of Caracalla in Rome (dedicated in 216 AD), where it was recovered in 1546.
The heroically-scaled Hercules is one of the most famous sculptures of Antiquity, and has fixed the image of the mythic hero in the European imagination. It quickly made its way into the collection of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, grandson of Pope Paul III. Alessandro Farnese was well placed to form one of the greatest collections of classical sculpture that has been assembled since Antiquity.
It stood for generations in its own room at Palazzo Farnese, Rome, where the hero was surrounded by frescoed depictions of his feats by Annibale Carracci and his studio, executed in the 1590s. The Farnese statue was moved to Naples in 1787 and is now displayed in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale.
The type was well known in Antiquity: a Hellenistic or Roman bronze reduction, found at Foligno is conserved in the Musée du Louvre; a small marble, probably Greek of the Roman period, is to be seen in the Museum of the Ancient Agora, Athens (AGMA Héraclès Farnèse.jpg).
The Farnese Hercules is a massive and muscular marble statue, following a lost original cast in bronze through a method called lost wax casting. It depicts a weary Hercules leaning on his club, which has his lion-skin draped over it. He is performing one of the last of The Twelve Labours, which is suggested by the apples of the Hesperides he holds behind his back. This prominently-sited statue was well liked by the Romans, and copies have been found in Roman palaces and gymnasiums: another, coarser, stood in the courtyard of Palazzo Farnese; one with the feigned (but probably ancient) inscription "Lykippos" has stood in the court of Palazzo Pitti, Florence, since the sixteenth century.
The sculpture has been reassembled and restored by degrees. According to a letter of Guglielmo della Porta, the head had been recovered separately, from a well in Trastevere, and was bought for Farnese through the agency of della Porta, whose legs made to complete the figure were so well regarded that when the original legs were recovered from ongoing excavations in the Baths of Caracalla, della Porta's were retained, on Michelangelo's advice, in part to demonstrate that modern sculptors could bear direct comparison with the ancients. The original legs, from the Borghese collection, were not reunited with the sculpture until 1787. Goethe, in his Italian Journey, recounts his differing impressions upon seeing the Hercules with each set of legs, marvelling at the clear superiority of the original ones.
Hercules is caught in a rare moment of repose. Leaning on his knobby club which is draped with the pelt of the Nemean Lion, he holds the apples of the Hesperides in his right hand, but conceals them behind his back like a baseball pitcher with a knuckleball. Many engravings and woodcuts spread the fame of the Farnese's Hercules. By 1562 the find was already included in the set of engravings for Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae ("Mirror of Rome's Magnificence") and connoisseurs, artists and tourists gaped at the original, which stood in the courtyard of the Palazzo Farnese, protected under the arcade. In 1590-91, during his trip to Rome, Hendrik Goltzius sketched the statue in the palazzo courtyard. Later (in 1591) Goltzius recorded the less-common rear view, in a bravura engraving (illustration, right), which emphasizes the already exaggerated muscular form with swelling and tapering lines that flow over the contours. The young Rubens made quick sketches of the Hercules' planes and massing. Before photography, prints were the only way to put the image into many hands.
The sculpture was admired from the start, reservations about its exaggerated musculature only surfacing in the later eighteenth century.. Napoleon remarked to Antonio Canova that its lack in the museum he accumulated in Paris was the most important gap in the collection, and the sculpture was more than once crated ready for shipment to Paris before the Napoleonic regime fled Naples.
Wealthy collectors could afford one of the numerous bronze replicas in sizes for table-top display. A full-size marble copy that belonged to the Bourbons of Naples is at the National Museum, Naples. Copies of the Farnese Hercules appeared in 17th- and 18th-century gardens throughout Europe. At Wilhelmshöhe, near Kassel, a colossal version 8.5 m high produced by Johann Jacob Anthoni, 1713–1717, has become the city's mascot. André Le Nôtre placed a full-size gilded version against the skyline at the far end of the main vista at Vaux-le-Vicomte. That at Palace of Versailles is a copy by Jean Cornu, 1684–1686. In Scotland, a rare copy in lead, of the first half of the 18th century, overlooks the recently restored Hercules Garden at Blair Castle.