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Vatican Experts Uncover Golden Glory of Lightning-Struck Statue of Hercules


VATICAN CITY — Scaffolding in a niche in the Round Hall of the Vatican Museums conceals the work of restorers removing centuries of grime from the largest known bronze statue of the ancient world: the gilded Hercules Mastai Righetti.

For more than 150 years, the four-meter-tall (13-foot-tall) figure of the half-human Roman god of strength stood in this niche, barely attracting attention among other antiquities due to the dark coating she had acquired.

But it was only after removing a layer of wax and other materials from a 19th-century restoration that Vatican experts realized the statue’s true splendor as one of the most important gilded statues in history. his time. Visitors to the museum will be able to see for themselves its grandeur once the restoration is complete, scheduled for December.

“The original gilding is exceptionally well preserved, particularly for consistency and homogeneity,” said Vatican Museum conservator Alice Baltera.

The discovery of the colossal bronze statue in 1864 during work on a banker’s villa near Campo dei Fiori square in Rome made global headlines.

Visitors drawn to the ancient marvel at the time included Pope Pius IX, who later added the work to the papal collection. In recognition of its non-ancient roots, the statue depicting Hercules after completing his labors had the surnames of the pope – Mastai – and the banker Pietro Righetti added to its title.

The statue has been variously dated to the end of the 1st to the beginning of the 3rd century. Even in his time, the imposing Hercules was treated with respect.

The FCS inscription accompanying the statue on a travertine marble slab indicates that it was struck by lightning, according to Claudia Valeri, curator of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the Vatican Museums. Accordingly, he was buried in a marble sanctuary according to Roman rites which considered lightning to be an expression of divine forces.

FCS stands for “fulgur conditum summanium”, a Latin phrase meaning “Here is buried a Summanian thunderbolt”. Summanus was the ancient Roman god of night thunder. The ancient Romans believed that not only was any struck object imbued with divinity, but also the place where it was struck and buried.

“It is said that sometimes being struck by lightning generates love but also eternity,” said Vatican Museums archaeologist Giandomenico Spinola. The Hercules Mastai Righetti “acquired its eternity…because having been struck by lightning, it was considered a sacred object until about 150 years ago.

The burial protected the gilding, but also caused dirt to accumulate on the statue, which Baltera says is very tricky and laborious to remove. “The only way is to work precisely with special magnifying glasses, removing all the small encrustations one by one,” she said.

The work to remove the wax and other materials applied during the 19th century restoration has been completed. In the future, the restorers plan to make new resin casts to replace the plasterboard that covered the missing parts, especially on part of the neck and pubis.

The most amazing discovery to emerge during the preliminary phase of the restoration was the skill with which the smelters fused mercury to gold, making the golden surface more durable.

“The story of this work is told by its gilding. … It is one of the most compact and solid gilding found to date,” said Ulderico Santamaria, professor at the University of Tuscia and head of the Vatican Museums scientific research laboratory.

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