Perhaps even more than Verrocchio, Pollaiuolo embodies what is thought of as the quintessential Florentine Renaissance artist. He was innovative and unsurpassed in any branch of art he chose to practice. His works seem to radiate a positive, energetic attitude, combining with a new mastery of the athletic male nude often dramatic extremes of passion.
This virile bronze figure of Hercules appears tough, confident, and triumphant—a hardy progenitor of Michelangelo's colossal David, icon of the next generation of the Renaissance in Florence. The bronze, too, seems a monument to a hero, however small and roughly finished. As a personification of virtue and fortitude, a warrior who fought against tyranny, and as the legendary founder of Florence, Hercules was a local hero. Not only Florence but also the Medici claimed him as their emblem. Pollaiuolo created numerous images of Hercules, among them a painted series of the Labors of Hercules, now lost, for the Medici Palace. Hercules and Antaeus (Bargello, Florence), a bronze depicting a fierce mortal combat that was revolutionary for its day, probably also was made for the Medici.
Although the provenance of the Frick Hercules has not been traced earlier than the beginning of the twentieth century, the attribution to Pollaiuolo has found almost universal acceptance. The figure is solid-cast in a single piece with the pedestal. Its rough state has prompted speculation that it was cast from a damaged wax model, perhaps one that was left unfinished in the sculptor's studio at his death. The figure, which betrays a strong classical influence, may have been conceived late in Pollaiuolo's career, during the period when he worked on the papal tombs in St. Peter's and could study Rome's antiquities. The horned skull beneath the hero's left foot may signify that he represents Hercules Invictus (Unconquered), to whom a bull was sacrificed annually in ancient Rome.
Freestanding bronze statuettes began to be developed fully as an art form during the second half of the fifteenth century; Pollaiuolo was an early, influential master of the genre. Such small bronzes were often displayed on shelves or mantels above eye level, but many were intended to be picked up and handled, and thus to be seen from all sides. Pollaiuolo's Hercules is one of the first statuettes deliberately designed to be regarded from several specific points of view.
Source: Art in The Frick Collection: Paintings, Sculpture, Decorative Arts, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.