Hercules in context

Farnese Hercules

Farnese Hercules

The ancient myth of Hercules has been adopted by art, politicians and bourgeois. Mostly he is claimed for his heroic posture – the Robin Hood of the Greek. His truculent, crude and coarse behavior is overshadowed by the romantic hero he is made into. But his life’s story is one of deceit and destruction, even his birth was cruel.

Good or Bad? Zeus raped his mother (Alcmene), whose husband (Amphitryo) was avenging the slaughter of her family. Amphitryo accepts the faulplay when he is promised a famous son, he immediately has sex with his wife, and twin are born (Hercules & Iphicles). Which of the twins is conceived by Zeus becomes apparent when Hercules kills the snakes that are released in the cradle (by Amphitryo?). Hercules is said to be so strong because Zeus had prolonged (3x) the night of his conception, resulting in more transmission of manhood. The story is not yet ended: Athene knows that Hercules has to drink from Juno’s breast to become immortal. When Juno is asleep she puts Hercules on Juno’s breast. Hercules sucks too hard and bits the nipple, Juno wakes up and throws the baby away (thus making Hercules a half-god) The spilled milk transforms into the Milky-way. (Napoleon used this scene on the porcelain he gave to the Russian tzaar Alexander I.) Hercules is educated in music, literature and physical practice, but his fingers are not suited for musical instruments. When criticised by his teacher, he beats him to death. Hercules is then send to the hills of Thebe to heard cattle.

choosing vice or virtue, annibale carracci

Hercules' choice,Annibale Carracci

 Bomarzo garden bosco sacre

Bomarzo garden


Hercules is visited by Virtue and Vice (though her friends call her Luck). Vice offers food, wine and sleep and looks more lusty than Virtue who offers labour and hard work. In the 18th century a temple of virtue on a hill was often part of garden-architectures. On the way up grottos, ornaments and sculptures distracted the climber. When you made it to the top you were rewarded with the (over)view and smiling statue of Hercules.

Annibale Carracci (baroque painter form Bologna) was asked to paint the study of cardinal Odoardo Farnese in Rome. Fulvio Orsini (scholar and librarian at the Farnese Palace) made the iconographic format for the room. The centerpiece in the study is: Hercules choice.Vice luring him with grapes, Virtue pointing up where at the end you see Pegasus, which refers to Odoardo’s great-uncle. Odoardo’s great-uncle (Alessandro Farnese) who had Italy’s biggest collection of ancients and used Pegasus to show his benefice: literature and a wonderful palace in Caprarola.

Virtue could never herself promise more than work and hard labour, she cannot be her own reward. But luckily a poet joins her and promises everlasting fame. This centerpiece for the study was completed with two pendants: hercules carrying the globe & Hercules resting from hard work, the conquered animals surround him. Two typical icons of virtue: the active and contemplative life. And a kind of warning what will be lost when the wrong choice is made. The other paintings show Circe who seduces Odyssee to a magical-drink and Sirens singing to boatsmen and thus causing shipwrecks. In all an impressive graphical interface for the private study room (camerino) of cardinal Farese. The Choice of Hercules is surrounded by a painted frame, an example of quadro riportato, which gives the illusion of a framed oil painting hung on the ceiling when in reality both the scene and its frame were frescoed.

john Fekner

John Fekner

The art of stoytelling and use of symbols and icons to set a stage in which you can decide for yourself which choices you want to make in life has been used throughout the centuries. The format adjust itself to the contemporary media of that era. How does this translates to our digital era? The URL leads to a body piercing shop, which could be an indication about our individualistic exhibitionism, but doesn’t really count if we look for digital storytelling about our struggle between right and wrong. This video of vice & virtue ministry song from the happy bullets might come close to the voyage storyline but misses guidance by heroic role models. It might be hat the urban artist John Fekner is the new Annibale Carracci? Time will tell which stories of our age will survive, but till then I am looking for 21st century Carracci nominees and recommend a visit to the Carracci museum in Possagno (Italy)

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