Struck by Lightning, Ancient Hercules Is Reborn

Vatican experts are restoring this statue to its former glory
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 15, 2023 10:55 AM CDT
Ancient Hercules Statue Is Reborn at Vatican
A Vatican Museums restorer works on the bronze Hercules statue, in the Round Hall of the Vatican Museums, on Thursday. Work will continue until December to reveal the 13-foot-tall Hercules.   (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Scaffolding in a niche of the Vatican Museums' Round Hall conceals from view the work of restorers who are removing centuries of grime from the largest known bronze statue of the ancient world: the gilded Hercules Mastai Righetti. For more than 150 years, the 13-foot-tall figure of the half-human Roman god of strength has stood in that niche, barely garnering notice among other antiquities because of the dark coating it had acquired. But it was only after removing a layer of wax and other material from a 19th-century restoration that Vatican experts understood the statue's true splendor as one of the most significant gilded statues of its time. Museumgoers will be able to see its grandeur for themselves once the restoration is finished, which the AP reports is expected in December.

"The original gilding is exceptionally well-preserved, especially for the consistency and homogeneity," Vatican Museums restorer Alice Baltera says. The discovery of the colossal bronze statue in 1864 during work on a banker's villa near Rome's Campo de' Fiori square made global headlines. Visitors drawn to the ancient wonder at the time included Pope Pius IX, who later added the work to the papal collection. The statue depicting Hercules after he finished his labors had the last names of the pope—Mastai—and of the banker, Pietro Righetti, added to its title. The statue has been variously dated from the end of the first to the beginning of the third centuries. Even in its day, the towering Hercules was treated with reverence.

The inscription "FCS" accompanying the statue on a slab of travertine marble indicates it was struck by lightning, per Claudia Valeri, curator of the Vatican Museums' Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities. It was buried in a marble shrine according to Roman rites that saw lightning as an expression of divine forces. "FCS" stands for "fulgur conditum summanium," a Latin phrase meaning "Here is buried a Summanian thunderbolt"; Summanus was the ancient Roman god of nocturnal thunder. Ancient Romans believed that not only was an object stricken imbued with divinity, but also the spot where it was hit and buried. "It is said that sometimes being struck by lightning generates love but also eternity," Vatican Museums archaeologist Giandomenico Spinola says. The Hercules statue "got his eternity ... because having been struck by lightning, it was considered a sacred object."

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The burial protected the gilding, but it also caused dirt to build up, which Baltera says is very painstaking to remove. "The only way is to work precisely with special magnifying glasses, removing all the small encrustations one by one," she says. The work to remove the wax and other materials applied during the 19th-century restoration is complete. Going forward, restorers plan to make fresh casts out of resin to replace the plaster patches that covered missing pieces, including on part of the nape of the neck and the pubis. The most astonishing finding to emerge was the skill with which the smelters fused mercury to gold, making the gilded surface more enduring. "The history of this work is told by its gilding. ... It is one of the most compact and solid gildings found to date," says Ulderico Santamaria, a University of Tuscia professor who's head of the Vatican Museums' scientific research lab.

(More Hercules stories.)

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