The choice-making Hercules as an exemplary model for Alessandro and Federico Gonzaga and the fifteenth-century Latin translation of Prodikos’ tale of Herakles by Sassolo da Prato
The Latin translation of Prodikos’ tale of Herakles, as attested in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and versed into Latin by Sassolo da Prato in the fourth decade of the fifteenth century, is preceded by Sassolo’s dedicatory epistle to Alessandro Gonzaga, the youngest son of Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. The image of the young Hercules conversing with Virtue and Pleasure dominates and defines the content of the epistle. Yet Sassolo’s focal point is not Hercules himself, but the comparison between Virtue and Pleasure. Sassolo uses the proximity of Hercules’ age to Alessandro’s as a pretext to build around it a strongly persuasive protreptic in favour of Virtue and against Pleasure. He makes subtle insinuations about the domestic events that troubled the House of Gonzaga between 1436 and 1441. Although Sassolo’s translation was originally dedicated to Alessandro Gonzaga, in an effort to deter him from abandoning his intellectual education and focusing on military glory, and was apparently meant to be Sassolo’s attempt at finding patronage under Alessandro, two manuscript copies of this very translation made in the early 1460s by the famous calligrapher Felice Feliciano reveal that the choice-making Hercules was used as an exemplary model for Alessandro’s nephew and future heir to the Marquisate of Mantua, Federico Gonzaga. One of these manuscripts (ms. Vat. Reg. Lat. 1388) – but possibly the other too (ms. Padua B.P. 1099), although it is mutilated – contains a miniature depicting a fully operational Hercules, holding his club and wearing his characteristic lion-skin, and at the same time standing between Virtue and Pleasure, looking distrustfully at the latter, while unconsciously leaning towards the former. The chapter studies the way in which Prodikos’ tale of Herakles was used for the exhortative instruction of princes of the ruling house of Mantua of two generations from the 1440s to the early 1460’s. Hercules was not used as a traditional heroic symbol, but it was his encounter with Virtue and Pleasure, the very focal point of Prodikos’ tale itself, that served this kind of instruction.
The Exemplary Hercules – chapter 1