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Massive Hercules Statue Restored by Vatican After Lightning Strike

Gilded bronze Hercules statue
Another example of a gilded bronze statue of Hercules. Credit: Mary Harrsch / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Experts at the Vatican are busy with restoration work on a massive gilded statue of Hercules that was struck by lighting thousands of years ago.

For over 150 years, the statue, which stands four meters tall (13 foot), remained neglected in a niche of the Vatican Museums’ Round Hall. Covered in grime and wax, the largest known surviving bronze statue of the ancient world was overlooked until recently, when restoration work began to reveal the golden glory of the gilded Hercules Mastai Righetti.

The statue of Hercules was discovered in 1864 in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori square during work on a banker’s villa before becoming a part of the Vatican’s collection. The exact age of the statue remains unclear. It is estimated to date to any period between the end of the first and the beginning of the third centuries BC.

Struck by lightning

More than simply an impressive work of ancient craftsmanship and aesthetic beauty, the gilded statue of Hercules, known to the Greeks as Heracles, this particular statue has a fascinating story.

According to Claudia Valeri, the curator of the Vatican Museums Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, a slab of travertine marble accompanying the gilded statues bears the inscription “FCS”.

In Latin, FCS stood for “fulgur conditum summanium, a phrase meaning “Here is buried a Summanian thunderbolt.” The Romans believed that Summanus was the god of nocturnal thunder, juxtaposed to the more well-known god of daylight thunder Jupiter (Greek: Zeus).

The Romans believed that any object struck by lighting, as well as the spot in which it resided, was embued with divine energy. Consequently, the Romans believed that the gilded statue of Hercules was of a divine nature. The statue was buried in a marble shrine, according to Roman religious rites.

“It is said that sometimes being struck by lightning generates love but also eternity,” said Vatican Museums archaeologist Giandomenico Spinola. He added that the statue of Hercules “got his eternity … because having been struck by lightning, it was considered a sacred object, which preserved it until about 150 years ago.”

Hercules of Forum Boarium Vatican
Hercules of Forum Boarium. Credit: Mary Harrsch / Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Restoration work by Vatican experts on the gilded Hercules statue

The burial of the statue was perhaps a mixed blessing. It helped to preserve this impressive example of ancient sculpture, but the removal of the dirt and grime posed a significant challenge for the restoration team.

“The only way is to work precisely with special magnifying glasses, removing all the small encrustations one by one,” said Vatican Museum restorer Alice Baltera.

Ultimately though, the experts are thrilled that the statue survived in such good condition. “The original gilding is exceptionally well-preserved, especially for the consistency and homogeneity,” Baltera added.

The process of eliminating the wax and other substances that were utilized during the 19th-century renovation is now finished. Going forward, the restorers intend to generate new casts utilizing resin to substitute the plaster patches that concealed the absent fragments, such as on a section of the back of the neck and the pubic area.

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