Hercules in Italian Renaissance art: masculine labour and homoerotic libido

Hercules in Italian Renaissance art: masculine labour and homoerotic libido

By Patricia Simons

Art History, Vol. 31 (2008)

Introduction: Christian fortitude and civic heroism blend in the Renaissance figure of a muscular, idealized, nude Hercules overcoming his foes and performing mythic labours or resting in glorious victory. By the time Cesare Ripa’s iconographic guide was first published in 1593, Hercules canonically embodied Virtu Heroica, able to moderate anger, temper avarice and subordinate pleasure under the rule of reason. Writers like the late fourteenth-century Chancellor of Florence Coluccio Salutati, or the early sixteenth-century Dutch priest Desiderius Erasmus held Hercules up as an exemplar of tireless effort and moral strength. Allegorically, he was regarded as the vanquisher of passion and vice, politically, as the potent foe of rebellion or tyranny.

Hercules’s visual and textual representations have been naturalized as a selfevident case of classical revival and celebration of virtuous citizenry or exemplary rulership. Instead, this study takes neither classically informed political values nor the spectacle of masculinity for granted, and it considers personal as well as public resonances of the popular imagery. The Renaissance Hercules is an insistent, assertive statement of particular kinds of masculine identity, ones, furthermore, laden with the burdens of masculine ideals beyond attainment. Yvonne Tasker has observed of Hollywood action movies that ‘The body of the male hero . . . provides the space in which a tension between restraint and excess is articulated.’ The same can be said of Hercules, for the strain of forging masculinity is worked out in very physical, laboured ways. Furthermore, the kind of masculinity on display was often sensual and sometimes conveyed homoerotic appeal.

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