bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Hercules in the Vatican

Posted in Art by bonaelitterae on 30 April, 2011

For all the acreage of frescoes on the walls of the Vatican Palace, it is surely the case that what has been lost over time is more substantial than what we can see now. Much of the fifteenth-century art, let alone that of earlier generations, has been destroyed or covered over by later generations. We can reconstruct some of what was there and we know of particular moments of frenetic activity, the pontificate of Nicholas V (1447 – 55) being one.

Yesterday, I came across a reference to decorations in the Vatican during his pontificate; a quick look in the obvious secondary material provides no mention of this passage or corroboration of it. So, loyal reader, this is for you to consider, to research further or to advise me on where it is discussed.

The brief passage comes from an unpublished humanist text, a commentary on Juvenal by Gaspare da Verona, now better known for his later biography of another pope, more controversial but no less corpulent than Nicholas, that is Paul II. Gaspare’s commentary, which must have been written in 1449, was intended for presentation to Nicholas V, and the author makes no secret of his desire for pecuniary recompense for his efforts. It was a hope that seems to have been little rewarded — or maybe not at all — by the learned pope. However that may be, in the commentary, Gaspare takes a mention of Hercules in Juvenal as reason to outline the mythical hero’s twelve labours. At the end of his discussion, he adds a characteristically contemporary comment:

…quae nisi fallor et ficte sunt ab egregio pictore in palatio longe pulcherrime sancti petri iussu quidem glorissimi et maximi pontificis summique domini nicolae quinti qui ita decora palatium curavit ut iam non teneat italia immo nec ulla transaplina regio magnificentius quantum memini me videre in gallia hispania germania…

So, it is Gaspare’s assertion that in some part of the palace, Nicholas had commissioned, early in his pontificate, a set of frescoes of Hercules’ Labours, from a ‘famous’ artist. Who this was and exactly where they were it seems we do not know. And, indeed, it may be that Gaspare himself was not that certain. He crowds his text with repeated praise of the pope but he also says at one point that he sees him rarely; it is likely that he was equally no habitué of the Vatican Palace. Perhaps, then, he was speaking from hearsay, and gives us a sign of what was talked about in Rome in the late 1440s. Of course, we could go further and say that he might have been mistaken and there was no such fresco — at which point the paintings revealed in prose would disappear again, to be as lost as so many others that once adorned the Vatican. Let us hope that we can stop short of that and that some learned scholar can tell us more about them.