Hercules and Achelous.
Oil on canvas, 66 1/8 x 88 9/16 in (168 x 225 cm).
. P. Carofano, “Ragioni e limiti della mostra”, in Nella luce di Caravaggio, exhibition catalogue (Montale, Villa Castello La Smilea), ed. P. Carofano, Montale (Pistoia), 2011, pp. 7 and 10.
. P. Carofano andt F. Paliaga, Orazio Riminaldi. L’opera completa, Soncino, Edizioni del Soncino, 2013, p. 92, pl. 28 ; pp. 141-142.
. G. Papi, Bartolomeo Manfredi, Soncino, Edizioni del Soncino, 2013, pp. 46-47, p. 262, fig. 74.
In all likelihood this painting represents the combat between Hercules and Achelous (an episode connected to the hero’s Twelve Labours), even if what the painter has chosen to depict lacks certain elements from the story, and contains others that do not correspond entirely. There should however be little doubt about the iconographical context, since the protagonist is unquestionably Hercules (the lion-skin being one of his obvious attributes), and the contemporaneous presence of a snake and bull (the latter struggling with the hero in the right background) expresses two of the forms adopted by Achelous to fight Hercules; as we know from mythology, Achelous – the son of Oceanus and Thetis – was a river god who could take on any shape. He courted Deianira when she chose Hercules as her spouse, but could not resign himself to being rejected, and challenged the hero to a fight, in which he first assumed the form of a snake, which Hercules succeeded in crushing, and then a bull, which was ultimately subdued by the hero, who snapped off one of its horns. The horn of Achelous, stuffed with flowers and fruit by the Naiad nymphs, later generated the cornucopia – the “horn of plenty”.
As we can see, some of the elements are missing, such as the fluvial identity of Achelous, and the detachment of his horn; the presence of a cornucopia would have further clarified the situation. Exceptionally, the two phases of the combat are shown in reverse order, the foreground being occupied by a giant depiction of the struggle with the Serpent-Achelous (which happens later in the narrative) and the background by the ultimate outcome, the victory of Hercules over the Bull-Achelous. Moreover, the object lying on the hair of the fallen Achelous is not very clearly identifiable: is it a head-covering, perhaps a sort of wreath of long, narrow leaves, or part of a bush bent by the force of Hercules, who has pushed Achelous’ body against it?
After conservation, with the chromatic qualities of the two bodies – reddish for the hero, white and silvery like water for the river god – freed from heavy yellowing of the varnish, it seems to me that the authorship of Orazio Riminaldi is easily recognizable in this grand painting of remarkable quality and visual impact. In both dimensions and scope, this surely corresponds to a significant and prestigious commission, though there is no trace of such a work in the documentary and biographical sources that relate to the Pisan painter’s career.
Given the resemblances in dimension and type of subject, not to mention the compositional approach, the following proposal has a certain appeal: our picture could have been conceived as one of a pair (or as part of a cycle) with the Cain and Abel by Riminaldi now in Pommersfelden (the latter measures 168 x 218 cm), a work also undocumented in known inventories or biographical evidence. Both canvases share the proportional space of the two fighting figures and their relationship to the painted surface, as well as the pyramidal arrangement of bodies; likewise, there is a left-to-right movement, with the defeated figure depicted laid out (or about to be), parallel with the lower margin of the canvas, and the victorious one moving forward (vehemently violent in the German painting, solemnly powerful in the painting considered here), following a dynamic diagonal that crosses the foreground. There is also a similar creative choice in the distinction between the more coloured skin of the victor and the immaculate tint of the weakened, vanquished body; this recurs in another scene painted by Riminaldi which also contains two closely-juxtaposed male figures, though they are not in combat: the Daedalus and Icarus in Hartford, where the pale, almost feminine skin of Icarus contrasts with the ruddy flesh of the more mature Daedalus.
Even the background space and landscape composition of our picture and the Pommersfelden canvas closely resemble one another, with an identical low, luminous horizon; the artist also chose to use the background at right for additional narrative and explanatory elements – the altar with a sacrificial lamb in the Cain and Abel, and the other part of the fight (with the bull) in the Hercules and Achelous.
The re-emergence of these potent images by Riminaldi, which expand his known oeuvre, is significant – and at this point I would have no doubt in also decisively assigning to him the Prometheus in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tours, whose attribution I had doubted in the past, and published in 1995, but with a question mark. Such works, including the Samson and Moses Erecting the Brazen Serpent in the apse of Pisa Cathedral, indicate the importance of this phase of his career, which appears to have been increasingly directed towards subjects steeped in Classicizing taste. However, the painter’s roots in naturalism were never far away, as seen in the verisimilitude of the skin and the sensuous passages of shadow and light enhancing the muscles of his models, who still have a non-idealized aspect. As has been pointed out several times, it was the painter’s interest in Lanfranco that determined this shift in his evolution, and the freedom of handling derived from that experience can be appreciated in the beautiful background scene, with the vigorous nude seen from behind, holding the bull; on the other hand, the experience of Manfredi, which coloured Riminaldi’s language from the end of the 1610s, evolved into an overblown naturalism, strongly marked by a sadistic component that has few parallels – in either persistence or outcome – on the contemporary Roman scene.
The conceptual and stylistic similarities with the paintings in Pisa Cathedral suggest a chronology close to those works, and to the second (the Moses canvas, datable to 1625) in particular.
Riminaldi’s authorship of this work has been recognized – independently of the present writer’s opinion – by Pierluigi Carofano.