A muscular figure sits on a rock, headless and limbless. The upper torso bends forward and to the right, where perhaps a right arm was leaning on the thigh, while the rest of the body turns vigorously on the left.
This powerful piece of sculpture is an eighteenth-century cast of the Belvedere Torso, which is now in the Vatican. The torso is believed to be copy by Apollonius of a Greek bronze original dating from the 2nd century BC. The subject is indecipherable due to its fragmentary state, but it has uncertainly been identified as Hercules, owing to the massiveness of the figure. The animal skin on the stone seat could belong to a lion, which could recall Hercules’s first task in the ancient Greek myth: freeing the people of a Grecian city from a vicious lion.
The torso was highly admired in the Renaissance period for its powerful modelling, becoming an object of artists’ inspiration and veneration. It served as a model for many of Michelangelo’s figures in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, including the Sibyls and Prophets bordering the ceiling and the risen Christ in the Last Judgment section. Michelangelo was fascinated by the torso’s fragmentary state, which he famously refused to restore, and which supposedly informed his own unfinished aesthetic. His admiration for the work considerably increased its fame, and it continued to serve as an icon of artistic achievement for centuries afterwards.
The great German scholar Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) discussed the torso in his History of the Art of Antiquity, published in 1764. He wrote that ‘abused and mutilated in the extreme, deprived as it is of head, arms, and legs, this statue still appears, to those capable of looking into the mysteries of art, in a blaze of its former beauty. In this Herakles, the artist has figured in a high ideal of beauty raised above its nature, and a nature of virile maturity elevated to a state of divine contentment.’
British artists and scholars in the eighteenth century could have appreciated the Belvedere Torso through reproductive prints or plaster casts such as that in the RA Collection. The RA’s President Joshua Reynolds, in his ‘Tenth Discourse’ to the Academy’s students, stated of the work: 'A MIND elevated to the contemplation of excellence perceives in this defaced and shattered fragment, ... the traces of superlative genius, the reliques of a work on which succeeding ages can only gaze with inadequate admiration.' Its symbolic power was demonstrated in a Benjamin West self-portrait in which the artist painted himself besides the torso. In another work by Angelica Kauffman, meanwhile, the allegorical figure of Design sketched from the Torso.