The largest surviving bronze statue of antiquity undergoing a comprehensive recovery program on public display in the Vatican Museums in Rome. The Hercules Mastai Righetti stands over 13 feet tall and is gilded from head to toe, an incredibly rare relic of colossal bronze and an even more incredibly rare relic of full gilding. However, its otherworldly luster has faded over the years due to wax coatings applied in the initial restoration following its discovery in the 19th century.
The statue was first discovered in 1864 while working on the foundations of Palazzo Pio Righetti, a 15th-century palace on Campo dei Fiori that had recently been acquired by wealthy banker Pietro Righetti. Beneath the palace courtyard, the workers came across an ancient wall and a bronze finger. The finger was so large that the statue to which it was attached must have been monumental in size.
Subsequent excavations dug 15 feet to find a wall of peperino (grey volcanic tuff) surrounded by columns believed to have been part of the foundations of the Temple of Venus the Victorious, built by Pompey as a religious pretext for building the first permanent theater in which Rome joined.
(Today the remains of the Theater of Pompei under the Palazzo Pio Righetti were included in the restaurant which offers traditional Roman food in what is basically an underground archaeological park. I recommend oxtail.)
Inside the moat, surrounded by travertine slabs, a colossal statue of gilded bronze lay on its side. His legs were broken and the back of his head was missing, as was his genitals. It probably dates from the end of the 1st century and the beginning of the 3rd century and is believed to be a copy of a Greek original from the end of the 4th century BC.
Under the statue, the diggers found a fragment of the skin of the Nemean lion, a broken right leg, fragments of the club that Hercules used to kill the lion, and a triangular travertine slab with the inscription “FC S”. The initials stand for “fulgor conditum summanium”, which means “here lies lightning from Summanus”. These three small letters are the key to the fate of the statue: it was struck by lightning at night (Summanus was the god of night thunder), which, according to ancient Roman belief, originating from the Etruscans, made the place of the strike sacred. a place where any electrically shocked items were to be immediately buried.
Three months after the discovery, the bronze was bought by Pope Pius IX for the collection of the Vatican Museums. In 1866 Righetti’s Hercules Mastai was installed in the Round Room of the Pio Clementino Museum and has been there ever since. Museum visitors now have the opportunity to see the restored radiance of Hercules before their eyes.
“The original gilding is exceptionally well preserved, especially in consistency and uniformity,” said Vatican Museum restorer Alice Baltera. (…)
The burial protected the gilding, but also resulted in a buildup of dirt on the statue, which Balter says must be removed very delicately and painstakingly. “The only way is to work with special magnifying glasses, removing all the small growths one by one,” she said.
The work of removing wax and other materials that were used during the restoration of the 19th century has been completed. In the future, the restorers plan to make fresh resin casts to replace the plaster patches covering the missing parts, including parts of the back of the head and pubis.
The most surprising discovery made during the preliminary phase of the restoration was the skill with which the smelters fused mercury with gold, which made the gilded surface more durable.
“The history of this work is told by its gilding. … This is one of the most compact and durable gildings found to date,” said Ulderico Santamaria, a Tuscia University professor who heads the research laboratory of the Vatican Museums.