Carlo Puccini is an extremely talented wood carver in Florence, and a friend for many years. His workshop is a constantly rotating display of his commissioned work, and work he creates for himself—frames, mostly, but also furniture quite often, light fixtures, signs, and, for lack of another word, sculpture. He is, as they say in Italian, uno scultore in legno, a sculptor in wood: his work is often not only relief, but fully round figurative work.
Well over a year ago, I passed by his shop and saw an unfinished frame on the wall: snakes wove in and out of foliage to emerge in pairs at the corners, looking into the eventual picture. Freely carved in his inimitable hand, it was lively, elegant, and suggestive. I thought to myself, and then said to him, it would be fun to think of the right painting subject for that frame. He was open to me coming up with something that we might display in his shop in the finished frame. So I went away and gave it some thought.
The Israelites in the Desert, with Moses Raising his Staff Entwined with an Image of a Snake? Tiepolo had painted that in a wide canvas now at the Accademia in Venice, Moses and the Bronze Serpent—much damaged, its restoration is in progress. An image about an image had is appeal, but I wondered whether I could shake the Tiepolo model and arrive at my own interpretation.
In the mythological realm, what story could make sense in this case? I came up with Hercules and the Lernian Hydra—his second Labor, after killing the Nemean Lion, it is the story of a multi-headed monster terrifying a marshy land in the Argolid region of the eastern Peleponese. What needed a hero to solve was the fact that every time you cut off one of its heads, two grew back in its place.
What I had created with Carlo in the past were frames that extended the narrative of my paintings—first a frame of the Nemean Lion for The Choice of Hercules, then a frame of Apollo for Diogenes and Alexander. These frames, bridged the world of the viewer and the image. But I’ve lately been developing works that address the viewer directly, and this was a chance for Hercules’s Labor to not only be framed, but involved directly in the narrative. The painting would battle the frame.
In the story Hercules covered his mouth and nose with a cloth to guard against the Hydra’s poisonous
breath. His nephew Iolaus had the brilliant idea to cauterize the decapitated necks to stop the new heads from growing. I worked up sketches, and finally a full-size cartoon, which I brough to Carlo’s shop in mid-June last year as Italy and the world were battling the pandemic. The idea predated the pandemic, but the cloth over Hercules mouth and nose couldn’t help recall our anti-virus masks, and the pandemic really was a multi-headed monster. An added layer of serendipitous meaning.
I’ve just finished a second oil on paper bozzetto, one quarter of full size, which I’ve here scaled up in Photoshop and inserted into the frame. Carlo and I will review it this week, then it’s on to the final canvas.