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Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo, Altarpiece of the Saints Vincent, James and Eustace, 1468,
tempera on panel, 172 x 179 cm, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

Travel guide for Tuscany

Antonio del Pollaiuolo


Antonio del Pollaiolo (January 17, 1429/1433 – February 4, 1498), also known as Antonio di Jacopo Pollaiuolo or Antonio Pollaiolo, was an Italian painter, sculptor, engraver and goldsmith during the Renaissance.
He was born in Florence.
His main contribution to Florentine painting lay in his analysis of the human body in movement or under conditions of strain, but he is also important for his pioneering interest in landscape. His students included Sandro Botticelli.

His brother, Piero, was also an artist, and the two frequently worked together. Their work shows both classical influences and an interest in human anatomy; reportedly, the brothers carried out dissections to improve their knowledge of the subject. They took their nickname from the trade of their father, who in fact sold poultry (pollaio meaning "hen coop" in Italian). Antonio's first studies of goldsmithing and metalworking were under either his father or Andrea del Castagno: the latter probably taught him also in painting.
Tomb of Pope Innocent VIII, Pollaiolo's second papal tomb

Some of Pollaiolo's painting exhibits strong brutality, of which the characteristics can be studied in the Saint Sebastian, painted in 1473-1475 for the Pucci Chapel of the SS. Annunziata of Florence. However, in contrast, his female portraits exhibit a calmness and a meticulous attention to detail of fashion, as was the norm in late 15th century portraiture.

He achieved his greatest successes as a sculptor and metal-worker. The exact ascription of his works is doubtful, as his brother Piero did much in collaboration with him.
He only produced one surviving engraving, the Battle of the Nude Men, but both in its size and sophistication this took the Italian print to new levels, and remains one of the most famous prints of the Renaissance.

In 1484 Antonio took up his residence in Rome, where he executed the tomb of Pope Sixtus IV, now in the Museum of St. Peter's (finished in 1493), a composition in which he again manifested the quality of exaggeration in the anatomical features of the figures. In 1496 he went to Florence in order to put the finishing touches to the work already begun in the sacristy of Santo Spirito.
He died in Rome as a rich man, having just finished his mausoleum of Pope Innocent VIII, also in St. Peter's, and was buried in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, where a monument was raised to him near that of his brother.


Angel, fresco in San Miniato al Monte


Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Angel (detail), 1467, fresco, San Miniato al Monte, Florenc

This angel is on the altar wall of the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal in the San Miniato al Monte, Florence.



Today, however, a relatively small number of his works survive, and he is perhaps best known for his magnificent engraving, Battle of the Nudes. The Battle of the Nudes is reproduced in nearly all major art history and Renaissance art survey texts. The print is one of the earliest works of Renaissance art to convincingly portray the figure in motion and to suggest how muscles behave under the stress and strain of violent or vigorous activity.

Battle of the Nudes

Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, 1465–1475. Engraving 42.4 x 60.9 cm. Second-state impression at the British Museum

Perhaps the single best-known work by Pollaiuolo is the engraving Battle of the Nudes. Its status as a monument of fifteenth-century Italian art, however, has not provided certainty about any of its various aspects. The print depicts ten men, silhouetted with little overlapping, on a shallow stage created by a dense background of plants, including a kind of corn, and a vine bearing grapes. Most of the ten men can be roughly paired, as mirror images of each other, a feature relatively common in works by Pollaiuolo, as in the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.

This large engraving of ten fighting men was the most influential print produced in Renaissance Florence. The subject was inspired by Greek and Roman sculpture. Most scholars suggest that these nudes were intended to be models for artists to copy, rather than to be depictions of a literary subject. However, paintings by Pollaiuolo of similar nudes show episodes from the life of Hercules. One ancient myth known to Pollaiuolo's patrons tells of the Greek hero Jason, who sowed a ploughed field with dragon's teeth, from which sprang armed men who promptly slaughtered each other. It is possible that Pollaiuolo's engraving illustrates this story. With The Battle of the Nudes, Pollaiuolo engraved deep outlines round his figures, then scratched fine drypoint lines inside these contours to model the muscles. Only one impression from the plate in that state survives. Another artist then reworked the anatomy with a V-shaped burin, leaving a deeper pattern of zigzag lines that could survive the pressure of printing.

Monumental in size as well as concept, Battle of the Nudes is among the largest Florentine engravings of the 15th century and the first print to bear the artist's full name. Battle of the Nudes belongs to the very inception of the Renaissance portrayal of the blatantly nude adult male, a motif inspired by classical art sources. The study of antique representations of the anatomy as well as mastering a repertory of harmonious and natural movements goes back to the early decades of the 15th century. Pollaiuolo showed exceptional skill in his imaginative adaptations of poses derived from antique sarcophagi and other ancient sculpture.
The sixteenth-century artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari described the print, and Pollaiuolo ’s skill:

"...he engraved on copper a battle of nude figures all girt round with a chain;and after this one he made other engravings,with much better workmanship than had been shown by the other masters who had lived before him."


Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Dancing Nudes in
Villa La Gallina in Arcetri

The engraving was widely circulated and is often credited with the dissemination of Italian Renaissance ideals - particularly the modeling of the human form. German artists such as Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and Jorg Breu (c. 1480-1573) are known to have used the engraving as a model for their own compositions. Its impact on other artists work is evident in their references to the dynamic poses, anatomical explicitness and expressive character of Pollaiuolo's figures.

A considerable part of Pollaiuolo's intention was to demonstrate his capacities as a master draftsman of the figure, while exploring the potential of the new printmaking medium - a medium well suited to his skills as a metalworker and goldsmith.[1]

The subject of the work has never been completely explained. Some scholars have argued that the print was meant to illustrate a mythological episode, while others have viewed it as a pattern piece, intended to demonstrate a range of poses and viewpoints for the benefit of other artists. According to yet another interpretation, the ten nude figures locked in combat may be gladiators fighting in funeral games, and the print itself may have commemorated the death of a prominent Florentine.

Pollaiuolo's apparent interest is to describe the human body in a state of urgent action, in varied poses, and from many perspectives. The figures' muscles are flexed and exaggerated beyond naturalism but nevertheless demonstrate the artist's keen understanding of anatomy. The careful pairing of fighters in complementary poses injects the violent battle with a dancelike order.

Gardens in Tuscany | Villa La Gallina in Arcetri


Hercules and Antaeus

Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Hercules and Antaeus (detail), c. 1478, tempera on wood, 16 x 9 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Although Hercules is a mythological figure, not a religious one, in Florence he was regarded as emblematic, indeed almost as a patron saint. He was both strong and virtuous, and he performed extraordinary deeds. Numerous Florentine paintings depicted Hercules, including a number by Pollaiuolo, several (now lost) done for the Palazzo Vecchio. Smaller replicas of these are in the Uffizi, exemplifying his style, characterized by figures with strong and well-defined contours, in vehement action, with expressive limbs.

The small panel illustrates one of the labours of Hercules, deriving from the myth. The hero can be recognised by the attributes of the pelt of the Nemean lion (which he had defeated) and the knotty club.
Hercules is crushing the giant Antaeus, holding him off the ground. The hero, clenching his jaws in the effort, crushes his enemy, who is struggling and yelling, against his own stomach. The figures stand out impressive against a landscape framed from a ‘bird’s eye’ view. For the episode of Hercules and Antaeus, cf. see description in the record on the small bronze on the same subject, also by Pollaiolo.

The subject is taken from Apollodorus (2.5:11). On his way back from the Hesperides, Hercules engaged in a wrestling match with the giant Antaeus who was invincible as long as some part of him touched the earth, from which he drew his strength. Hercules held him in the air in a vice-like grip, until he weakened and died. Hercules is depicted with his arms locked round the waist of Antaeus, crushing the giant's body to his own.

In pendant with the Hercules and the Hydra this little wood was maybe a decorative panel of furnishing: it had probably to reproduce the subject painted on large canvas in a room of the Florentine Medici palace at the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent. The struggle of Hercules against the giant Antaeus was an iconographical theme proper for Antonio del Pollaiuolo's style, suitable to express dynamic tension of limbs and muscles, as well as the anatomical study of human body.

Hercules, the tutelary deity of Florence, the symbol of supreme civil virtues, the typical Florentine hero, is represented here in a fierce struggle which captures not only the movement of the bodies, but also the nervous tension of every muscle and the faces twisted into expressions of fatigue and horror.
The subject was particularly popular with Pollaiuolo, given that this is the fourth or fifth version. The artist realized in fact the same subject again for Medici family, as the famous bronzetto now at the National Museum of Bargello in Florence.[2]


Hercules and Antaeus, c. 1478, tempera on wood, 16 x 9 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence


Hercules and the Hydra

Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Hercules and the Hydra, c. 1475, tempera on wood, 17 x 12 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florenc

This small panel, the companion-piece to "Hercules and Antaeus", refers to three panels representing the Labours of Hercules which Antonio del Pollaiuolo painted for Lorenzo de' Medici around 1460, lost works we know about only from later versions.

Here too is represented a ferocious fight between the hero, his body tensed into an agile, muscular mass and the legendary multi-headed monster. The outlines are very sharply defined, and the movement of nerves and tendons observed down to the last detail. Antonio del Pollaiuolo worked at time when thorough studies of anatomy were being made, and he therefore renders the human body realistically in its moments of greatest emotional excitement.

The dramatic force of the episode is expressed in the hero's grimace of fatigue and horror, but also his certainty of victory. Behind the proudly barbaric figure blue rivers meander through a broad landscape of green and brown fields, the sky above an enamel blue.

The two small panels by Pollaiuolo, Hercules and Antaeus and Hercules and the Hydra, were lent by the Republic of Italy. The panels had been in the Medici collection at the Uffizi since 1789. They were taken during the German army's retreat from the villa near Florence where much of the Uffizi collection had been stored during the war. After 18 years they were found in the possession of a German waiter in Pasadena. [3]


Hercules and the Hydra, c. 1475, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Yale's painting depicts the centaur Nessus trying to abscond with Deianira, the wife of Hercules. Because the waters of the river were swollen, Nessus offered to carry Deianira across, but she realized he was trying to flee with her and shouted for help. Hercules shot at Nessus with a poisoned arrow, killing him. Before he died, however, Nessus persuaded Deianira that his blood was a love potion, and that she should smear a tunic with the blood and give it to Hercules. When Hercules put on the tunic, he was consumed with agony, and Deianira killed herself. The painting was given to Yale in 1871. It was originally on panel, probably part of a piece of furniture, perhaps something given to celebrate a marriage. In 1867, the painting had been removed from its panel support and transferred to canvas. When the painting was conserved in 1998, a sliver of wood, which was analyzed as cherry, a kind of wood often used for furniture, was found in the lining. Nothing about the commissioning of this painting is known. The mythological scene is shown not in an ancient setting but in the Arno valley, above the walled city of Florence. The course of the river Arno is discernible, leading down into the city. Just beyond the left hand of Deianira is Brunelleschi's famous dome of the Cathedral of Florence--finished just about the time Pollaiuolo was born--which is both exactly in the middle of the city and in the center of the composition. This is not the only painting by Pollaiuolo that shows Florence in the background--one of the best known of the others is the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (National Gallery, London)--manifesting the pride that he and others took in being Florentine.

Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo (?), Hercules and Deianira, about 1470, New Haven, Yale University Gallery

The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

Antonio del Pollaiuolo and Piero del Pollaiuolo, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (detail), completed 1475, London, National Galler

This painting was made for the Pucci Chapel in the Santissima Annunziata in Florence. It is approximately contemporary with Verrocchio's Baptism of Christ, with which it shares stylistic features. It is among the outstanding paintings of the entire Quattrocento. The physically convincing foreground figures, the decisive fashion in which they plant their feet on the ground, their sturdy bodies, massive forearms and hands, and the muscles under energetic stress are typical of Antonio, as is the carefully studied anatomical structure with the bodies shown in frozen action. Antonio is an enthusiastic observer of ancient art, as evidenced by his frequent utilization of figural poses and types borrowed from classical sculpture.

Although the painting is often attributed solely to Antonio, there is reason to believe that his brother Piero played a role in its execution. (The archers who shoot at the saint from behind and large portions of the landscape probably belong to Piero.)[4]

Art in Tuscany | Antonio del Pollaiuolo and Piero del Pollaiuolo | Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

Martyrdom of St Sebastian, 1473-75, National Gallery, London


St Michael and the Dragon

Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo, St Michael and the Dragon (detail), Florence, Museo Bardini

Uffizi Gallery and Vasari Corridor, Florence
Vasari Corridor, Florence

Florence, Duomo


[1] Langdale, Shelley, Battle of the Nudes: Pollaiuolo's Renaissance Masterpiece, The Cleveland Museum of Art, 2002.
The Cleveland Museum of Art is committed to providing visitor access to in-depth research on its Web site when possible. This research was conducted by Moyna Stanton, CMA Conservator of Works of Art on Paper.
Discover the Battle of the Nudes | From the
introduction by Shelley Langdale.

[2] 'The small panels, unanimously referred to Antonio Pollaiolo, are cited for the first time in the documents in 1609 in an inventory of the assets of Benedetto di Bartolomeo Gondi in his own Florentinepalazzo (Corti 1976). The manuscript describes the panels arranged as a diptych inside a single ‘book’ type frame (“with ornament, in the form of a book that can be closed”), however in view of the late date it cannot be assumed that this was the original location of the two paintings.
The two small paintings can certainly be set in relation with the large canvases portraying the Labours of Hercules painted by Piero del Pollaiolo with the assistance of his brother Antonio for the large salon of Palazzo Medici around 1460, which have unfortunately been lost. It is in any case widely believed that the two small panels were a sort of new edition on small scale of two of the canvases in the Medici residence, and hence that they postdate the same, being datable around 1470.
The relation with the model in the Medici residence, the reduced dimensions and the elegance of the painting – featuring the characteristics proper to the miniature combined with a monumental layout and the vital energy of the bodies – generally lead to the commission being referred to Lorenzo il Magnifico, who was also probably, although not certainly, the commissioner of the small bronze also by Antonio, again showing Hercules and Antaeus.
The two panels were probably destined to a small-sized domestic area, such as a study.
Having entered the Medici Guardaroba, the two Labours of Hercules by Antonio del Pollaiolo then passed to the Uffizi Gallery in 1789.'
Mediateca di Palazzo Medici Riccardi | Hercules and Antaeus, by Antonio del Pollaiolo
Provenance: Florence, Palazzo Gondi (at least from 1609); Palazzo Pitti, guardaroba; Uffizi Gallery (from 1789); lost during the last war (1943); recovered in Los Angeles (1963); Uffizi Gallery (from 1975).
[3] The Italian government immediately sent a delegation headed by Minister Rudolfo Siviero, the art sleuth who dedicated his life to the discovery of stolen Italian works of art, and Luisa Becherucci, director of the Uffizi, to recover them. At the request of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and the Department of Justice, Frank Sullivan, resident restorer at the National Gallery, flew to Los Angeles to report on the condition of the paintings.
The panels were first exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for 6 days, then came to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and were shown as a special installation in a glass case for one week before their return to Florence.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC | Hercules and the Hydra and Hercules and Antaeus by Antonio del Pollaiuolo
[4] Sebastian was the son of a wealthy Roman family. Educated in Milan. Officer of the Imperial Roman army, and captain of the guard. Favorite of Diocletian. During Diocletian‘s persecution of the Christians, Sebastian visited them in prison, bringing supplies and comfort. Reported to have healed the wife of a brother soldier by making the Sign of the Cross over her. Converted soldiers and a governor to Christianity.
Charged as a Christian, Sebastian was tied to a tree, shot with arrows, and left for dead. He survived, and with the help of Saint Irene, recovered, and returned to preach to Diocletian. The emperor then had him beaten to death.
During the 14th century, the random nature of infection with the Black Death caused people to liken the plague to their villages being shot by an army of nature’s archers. In desperation, they prayed for the intercession of a saint associated with archers, and Saint Sebastian became associated with the plague.

Mediateca di Palazzo Medici Riccardi | Hercules and Antaeus, by Antonio del Pollaiolo
The Mediateca Medicea is a digital archive relating to Palazzo Medici Riccardi, one of the most important buildings in Florence, which now belongs to the Provincial Authority and houses the administrative offices.
The database is made up of different types of interrelated materials: texts, images, graphic reconstructions, and anything else which may contribute to a knowledge of the building in historic, architectural, artistic and cultural terms. The Mediateca extends and elaborates the subjects dealt with in the website, with which it is connected.

This article incorporates material from the Wikipedia article Antonio del Pollaiolo published under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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