Restoring the Majesty of the Hercules Mastai Righetti: Uncovering the Largest Known Bronze Statue of the Ancient World


Hercules Mastai is an Ancient Greek bronze sculpture. The statue has been variously dated from the end of the first to the beginning of the third centuries.

Key Highlights :

1. The statue of Hercules Mastai Righetti was covered in a layer of wax and other material from a 19th-century restoration.

2. After removing this layer, Vatican experts were able to see the statue's true splendor, which is one of the most significant gilded statues of its time.

3. The restoration is expected to be completed in December.

The Vatican Museums’ Round Hall is home to a number of ancient artifacts, but one in particular is currently undergoing a transformation. The largest known bronze statue of the ancient world, the gilded Hercules Mastai Righetti, is being restored to its former glory.

For more than 150 years, the four-meter-tall (13-foot-tall) figure of the half-human Roman god of strength has stood in the niche, barely garnering notice among other antiquities due to the dark coating it had acquired. But it was only after removing a layer of wax and other material from a 19th-century restoration that Vatican experts understood the statue's true splendor as one of the most significant gilded statues of its time.

The Hercules Mastai Righetti was discovered in 1864 during work on a banker’s villa near Rome's Campo dei Fiori square, and the news made global headlines. Visitors drawn to the ancient wonder 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 he finished his labors had the surnames of the pope — Mastai — and of the banker, Pietro Righetti, added to its title. The statue has been variously dated from the end of the first to the beginning of the third centuries.


Even in its day, the towering Hercules was treated with reverence. The inscription FCS accompanying the statue on a slab of travertine marble indicates it was struck by lightning, according to Claudia Valeri, curator of the Vatican Museums department of Greek and Roman antiquities.

As a result, it was buried in a marble shrine according to Roman rites that saw lightning as 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 nocturnal thunder. The ancient Romans believed that not only was any object stricken imbued with divinity, but also the spot where it was hit and buried.

The burial protected the gilding, but also caused dirt to build up on the statue, which restorer Alice Baltera said is very delicate and painstaking 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 that were applied during the 19th-century restoration is complete. Going forward, restorers plan to make fresh casts out of resin to replace the plaster patches that covered missing pieces, including on part of the nape of the neck and the pubis.


The most astonishing finding to emerge during the preliminary phase of the restoration was the skill with which the smelters fused mercury to gold, making the gilded surface more enduring. “The history of this work is told by its gilding. … It is one of the most compact and solid gildings found to date,’’ said Ulderico Santamaria, a University of Tuscia professor who is head of the Vatican Museums' scientific research laboratory.
Once the restoration is finished, which is expected in December, museum-goers will be able to appreciate the Hercules Mastai Righetti in all its glory. “The original gilding is exceptionally well-preserved, especially for the consistency and homogeneity,” Baltera said. Vatican Museums archaeologist Giandomenico Spinola added, “It is said that sometimes being struck by lightning generates love but also eternity. The Hercules Mastai Righetti “got his eternity … because having been struck by lightning, it was considered a sacred object, which preserved it until about 150 years ago.”

The Hercules Mastai Righetti is a testament to the skill of ancient smelters and the reverence of the Romans for divine forces. Thanks to the careful work of the restorers, soon visitors to the Vatican Museums will be able to appreciate the grandeur of the largest known bronze statue of the ancient world.