Plate with Hercules and Nemean Lion

Francesco Xanto Avelli

Rovigo, c.1486 – Urbino, 1542


Polychrome maiolica istoriato, 5.3 x 27.7cm

Hercules is portrayed battling the Nemean Lion in the foreground with no apparent link to the enigmatic, haloed figure of Veronica holding up the Holy Shroud in the sky. On the column where Hercules’ club rests there is a coat of arms that seems to pertain to a family House, presumably indicating the physical or moral qualities of the patron. A reference to the hero is painted on the back of the plate in vernacular Italian: ‘Hercole che la pelle al leo(ne) toglie/ p(er) fare aglihumer’ sui sup(er)be spoglie’. And at the bottom in the centre: ‘sola vir:(tus)’

Though part of the Este family’s maiolica collection, the absence of information about the commissioning of this plate is matched by the impenetrability of the symbols displayed. On the basis of a  comparison with a plate at the Louvre Museum showing Hercules  and Cacus and the House of Este’s coat of arms,  Campori associated this piece with the series depicting the Twelve Labours of Hercules commissioned by Ercole II (1534-59). However, later scholars, including Venturi have pointed out that the heraldic emblem on the Estense plate does not relate to the House of Este but to another, unidentified family.