THE tireless examination of the human body as a living organism and the
search for realistic action, which distinguished Andrea del Castagno, were
expedited by another intrepid Florentine, Antonio Pollaiuolo. Son of a poul
terer, as his name indicates, Antonio became one of the most influential men
of his time, uniting and practicing all the arts, or as Michelangelo expressed
it, “the one and all-embracing art of design.”
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He was a goldsmith, engraver,
sculptor, anatomist, and painter; his knowledge of the nude was enormous,
but it was an artist’s knowledge acquired to exhibit bodily tension, flexi
bility, and movement in relation to themes designed to stimulate the spirit
of man to deeds of arduous and incorrigible valor.
Antonio’s passion for the figure led him, naturally, to subjects-mytho
logical, for the most part-allowing him to revel to his heart’s content in
To him the wildest postures bringing into prominence complex
muscular articulations were as child’s play, and it cannot be gainsaid that in
some of his paintings he was overmastered by his frenetic zeal for experi
He was a pathfinder, probably the first painter to dissect corpses,
and to give attention to the esthetic potentialities of anatomy; he was a great
teacher as well as a great artist, and his work is the expression of the athletic
paganism and the exaggerated energy of the Renaissance.
About 1460, Antonio was commissioned to adorn the grand salon of the
Medici Palace with representations of the labors of Hercules.
The large com
positions have disappeared, but the small copies executed by the artist him
self bear witness to the nervous vitality and anatomical exuberance of the
In the New Haven panel, the mythological strong man of the
Greeks is portrayed in the act of slaying the centaur Nessus who had per
fidiously carried off Deianira, the jealous bride of Hercules, after persuad
ing her that his blood was a love charm.
The picture also contains Antonio’s
finest landscape, which he constructed with as much patience and research
as he bestowed on his nudes.
The scene is a truthful portrait of the Arnoval
ley, with the city of Florence in the distance. The centaur and the figure of
Deianira are sometimes ascribed to Piero Pollaiuolo, the brother and assistant
of the great Antonio.