Hercules and the lion

The life-and-death struggle between man and beast

Deirdre Pirro
February 28, 2013

Situated on the right bank of the Arno river is one of the most elegant squares in Florence: piazza Ognissanti. It is home to two of the city’s finest hotels, the St. Regis and the Excelsior, and Palazzo Lenzi, now home to the Honorary French Consulate and the Institut Français de Florence. At its far end, facing the river, is the thirteenth-century church of San Salvatore in Ognissanti, with its Florentine baroque façade and, inside, a trove of Renaissance art, including such treasures as Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper, which covers an entire wall of the refectory, as well as frescoes by Sandro Botticelli, who is buried in the second chapel of the right transept. The monument in the piazza not only continues the theme of Hercules one sees in Palazzo Vecchio but it represents the work a member of a Florentine family of sculptors still active today.

 

 

In 1860, to honour the Venetian patriot of Italian unification Daniele Manin, the piazza was named after him and his full-length statue placed in its midst. However, when, in 1930, the statue was moved to piazzale Galilei, the piazza reclaimed its former name of Ognissanti. In 1935, Florentine poet and intellectual Angiolo Orvieto commissioned a new statue, which he donated to the city. Sculpted by Romano Romanelli and representing Hercules slaying the Nemean lion, it was installed in 1937, in a position closer to the river than where Manin once stood. It has been there ever since.

 

Eliminating this ferocious feline was the first of 12 labours the half-god, half strong-man of Greek mythology, Hercules, was condemned to perform as punishment for murdering his children in a fit of madness provoked by his jealous stepmother. Indeed, Hercules was forced to kill the lion with his bare hands, as its skin was so thick no weapon could penetrate it. For the sheer force and grace of its contours, this bronze statue is evocative of The Wrestlers, the classical Roman marble copy of the lost Greek original from the third century BCE, which is now part of the Uffizi collection.

 

Born in Florence in 1882, Romano Romanelli was the grandson of Pasquale Romanelli (1812–1897) who, as assistant to the great Tuscan sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini on his mentor’s death, completed many of his works and acquired his studio. Likewise, his father, Raffaello Romanelli (1856–1928), who established an international reputation as a sculptor, created another familiar landmark in Florence, the bust of Benvenuto Cellini on the Ponte Vecchio.

 

Still uncertain whether to join the family business or go to sea (he had studied at the Naval Academy in Livorno), in 1906, Romano Romanelli made the original plaster cast of Hercules and the Lion (which differs in many respects from the piece we see today in the piazza). Opting for an artistic career, Romano showed the work at the Venice Biennale in 1910 and the International Exhibition in Rome in 1911, the same year he went to Paris and where he met artists of the Auguste Rodin school and even shared one of the maestro’s models.

 

In 1914, according to her memoirs confirmed by letters written by Eleonora Duse, the celebrated dancer Isadora Duncan, while in Viareggio, met Romanelli. Frantic following the drowning of her two children in the Seine in 1913, she describes how, desperate to become pregnant again, she seduced the tall, handsome Italian. Sadly, their baby boy is said to have died just a few days after he was born. Members of the Romanelli family say this claim is without foundation which leaves us to wonder why Duncan would fabricate such a thing.

 

 

In 1925, Romanelli married Dorothea Hayter. They had become acquainted eight years before, when her father, William Thomas Baring Hayter, then Anglican dean of Gibraltar, commissioned Romanelli to do a seated bronze of her. They had three children: a son and two daughters.

 

Other works by Romano Romanelli include the statue La Giustizia di Traiano (1933–1934) in the Palazzo di Giustizia, near the piazza Cinque Giornate in Milan; the equestrian monument to the Albanian national hero Skanderberg (1938) in piazza Albania in Rome and the Monumento al Legionario (1938–1939) in Siracusa, Sicily. The Romanelli workshop also carved the Carrara marble of the friezes for the Voortrekker Monument (1928) in South Africa.

 

Not a 'fascist' but an 'Hellenic' artist, Romanelli is reputed to have been a favourite sculptor of Benito Mussolini who backed his nomination as a member of the Royal Academy of Italy in 1930.

 

Following World War II, Romanelli farmed in Somalia. Even when he returned to Florence to teach sculpture at the Accademia delle Belle Arti (until 1953), he often returned to Somalia.. He died in 1968 and is buried at the Soffiano cemetery.

 

 

OPEN TO VISITORS

 

For nearly 200 years, Studio Galleria Romanelli has been an internationally acclaimed sculpture atelier, creative home to Lorenzo Bartolini and five generations of sculptors from the Romanelli family, the most recent being Raffaello Romanelli, who currently runs the studio with his sister Rubina and is a specialist in the sculpture of portrait busts. At the atelier, you can view and purchase original sculptures and reproductions of hundreds of models from the gallery collection in plaster, bronze and marble. The Studio Galleria also has a long-standing tradition of executing public and private commissions, from portraits to monuments, and offers individual and group sculpture classes in the ancient techniques of modelling in clay from life. To see a brief film of Romano Romanelli made in the 1930s, go to http://tinyurl.com/bcj8spk.

 

Studio Galleria Romanelli

Borgo San Frediano 70,

Florence

Tel. 055/2396047

www.raffaelloromanelli.com

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