Helen and Theseus
Vincenzo de' Rossi (Fiesole, 1525 - Florence, 1587)
“VINCENTIVS DE RVBEIS CIVIS FLOREN. OPVS” (band on Theseus' chest)
The group was sculpted by Vincenzo de' Rossi, a pupil and collaborator of Baccio Bandinelli.
The subject, taken from Greek mythology, refers to the childhood of Helen of Troy, who was born from the union between Leda, the queen of Sparta, and Zeus transformed into a swan, and was adopted by Tyndareus, king of Sparta and Leda's husband.
The statue depicts the moment of Helen's abduction by Theseus, the hero-king of Athens. In a letter to Cosimo I dated 24 February 1561, Vincenzo de' Rossi indicated the identity of the two figures represented. At Theseus' feet lies the sow Phaia, that was killed by the hero near Krommyon on his way to Athens.
In 1587, the work was installed in the Buontalenti Grotto of the Boboli Gardens, where Michelangelo's Prigioni had already been placed, and later substituted by the copies still visible today, while Giambologna's Venus found its place a few years later (1593).
Cosimo I de' Medici, Duke of Tuscany, had the occasion to admire Theseus and Helen while he was in Rome at de' Rossi's studio; the sculptor wanted to offer it as a gift, hoping to ingratiate himself with the sovereign and thus join the circle of Medicean artists. The duke had the group taken to Palazzo Pitti, and rewarded de' Rossi “at fair value”, as recalled by Giorgio Vasari, by calling him back to Florence to complete an important monumental commission: the marble series of the twelve Labours of Hercules, that was meant to decorate a fountain with octagonal base actually located in the Salone dei Cinquecento at Palazzo Vecchio. With Theseus and Helen, therefore, the artist's Roman period came to an end. The work was highly appreciated for being carved from a single piece of marble, an element that distinguished de' Rossi from his master Bandinelli, who on the contrary made his sculptural groups by assembling several pieces. The sculpture proves the virtuosity of the sculptor who managed to represent the two figures larger than life-size and in a non-static pose. The parts providing stability to the pair of figures are the sow, which is in all respects the third element of the sculptural group, and the trunk on which the two figures sit and to which the animal is tied by the paw. On that trunk also rests Theseus' sword, which according to the myth was hidden by his father Aegeus under a boulder to be removed only when Theseus' strength had developed enough to be able to wield it.
R. Schallert, Studien zu Vincenzo de’ Rossi, Hildesheim-Zürich-New York 1998, pp. 201-223 (con bibliografia precedente);B. Castro, Vincenzo de’ Rossi: uno scultore tra Roma e Firenze, in Scultori del Cinquecento, Roma 1998. pp. 110-128; D. Heikamp, L’interno della Grotta Grande del Giardino di Boboli, in D. Heikamp, A. Fara, V. Saladino, Palazzo Pitti. La reggia rivelata, Catalogo della mostra (Firenze, Palazzo Pitti, 7 dicembre 2003-31 maggio 2004), Firenze 2003, pp. 446-475; D. Heikamp, Vincenzo de’Rossi. Teseo ed Elena, in D. Heikamp, A. Fara, V. Saladino, Palazzo Pitti. La reggia rivelata, Catalogo della mostra (Firenze, Palazzo Pitti, 7 dicembre 2003-31 maggio 2004), Firenze 2003, p. 654