Scaffolding in a niche of Vatican Hidden in the museum’s round room is the work of restorers removing centuries-old dirt from the largest known bronze statue of antiquity: the gilded one Hercules Mastai Righetti.
The four meter tall figure of the demi-human has been around for more than 150 years Roman In this niche stood the god of strength, little noticed among other antiquities due to the dark coating he had received.
But it was only after a layer of wax and other material was removed from a 19th-century restoration that Vatican experts realized the statue’s true splendor as one of the most important gilded statues of its time. Museum visitors can appreciate its splendor once the restoration work is complete, which is expected in December.
“The original gilding is exceptionally well preserved, particularly for its consistency and homogeneity,” said Alice Baltera, Vatican Museum conservator.
The discovery of the colossal bronze statue in 1864 while working on a banker’s villa near Campo dei Fiori in Rome made headlines around the world.
Among the visitors drawn to the ancient wonder at the time was Pope Pius IX, who later added the work to the papal collection. In recognition of its non-ancient origins, the surnames of the Pope – Mastai – and the banker Pietro Righetti were added to the statue depicting Hercules after the completion of his work.
The statue has been variously dated from the end of the first to the beginning of the third century. Even in his day, mighty Hercules was treated with reverence.
The inscription FCS, which accompanies the statue on a slab of travertine marble, indicates that it was struck by lightning, according to Claudia Valeri, curator of the Vatican Museums Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities. Therefore, it was buried in a marble shrine, according to Roman rites, which saw lightning as an expression of divine powers.
FCS stands for “fulgur conditum summanium”, a Latin phrase meaning “Here is buried a summanic lightning”. Summanus was the ancient Roman god of night thunder. The ancient Romans believed that not only was every object struck imbued with divinity, but also the spot where it was struck and buried.
“It is said that a lightning strike sometimes creates love but also eternity,” said Giandomenico Spinola, archaeologist at the Vatican Museums. The Hercules Mastai Righetti “gained its eternity … because it was struck by lightning and was considered a sacred object that preserved it until about 150 years ago.”
The burial protected the gilding, but also caused a buildup of dirt on the statue, which Baltera said was very delicate and difficult to remove. “The only way is to be precise with special magnifying glasses and gradually remove all the small crusts,” she said.
Work to remove the wax and other materials applied during the 19th-century restoration is complete. In the future, conservators plan to make new resin casts to replace the plaster patches that covered missing parts, including part of the nape and pubic bone.
The most amazing discovery made in the pre-restoration phase was the skill with which the smelters fused mercury with gold, making the gilded surface more durable.
“The story of this work is told through its gilding. … It is one of the most compact and solid gilding found so far,” said Ulderico Santamaria, professor at the University of Tuscia and director of the Scientific Research Laboratory of the Vatican Museums.