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The Boston Globe

Theater & art

Frame by Frame

Essence and passion of Hercules myth laid bare

Yale University Art Gallery

NEW HAVEN — How many artists can boast that they influenced Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo da Vinci, and Albrecht Durer?

Antonio Pollaiuolo could. He was the masterful Florentine sculptor, painter, and engraver who pioneered depictions of the human nude in poses of vigorous action — usually in battle — subjects Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Durer promptly took up with gusto.

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He is most famous for “Battle of the Ten Nudes,” a large engraving showing choreographed hand-to-hand combat. Depicting the nude at this point was virtually unprecedented in Renaissance art. So it’s no surprise that Pollaiuolo’s virtuosic performance throbs with ulterior motives: He wanted to show off his knowledge of anatomy, for one thing. He also wanted, by means of drawing, to express the passions of the soul.

Hercules and Deianira, by Antonio Pollaiuolo

Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven 203-432-0600. http://artgallery.yale.edu

He was primarily a sculptor, but he painted, too, and he is particularly esteemed for a series of scenes from the life of Hercules that he painted for the Medici family.

This picture, the only Pollaiuolo painting outside Europe, was painted around 1470. One of the star attractions at the Yale University Art Gallery, it shows Hercules, grimly resolved, drawing his bow as he prepares to kill the centaur Nessus.

Naughty Nessus: He had promised to help Hercules’ lover, Deianira, cross the river. But when Hercules made it to the other side, the centaur decided to renege on his promise and make off with her.

The story, like all Greek myths, has a mortal twist. As he died, knowing of Deianira’s jealous nature, Nessus told her that she could ensure Hercules’ fidelity by collecting the dying centaur’s blood, mixing it with olive oil, and using it as a charm.

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Deianira took his advice. And when Hercules later fell in love with Iole, she soaked his cloak in this diabolical cocktail. It turned out, of course, to be poison. When Hercules donned the cloak, his skin burned, he raged and wailed, before ending his agony — and his life — by throwing himself onto a funeral pyre.

Painted on wood, Pollaiuolo’s picture might originally have been intended for a wedding chest, inviting appropriate interpretations concerning love, jealousy, and civility. Over the years, it has been over-painted and clumsily cleaned, and it is visibly damaged. (One cleaning, in 1915, uncovered the previously obscured figure of Deianira herself.)

But the brushwork is deft, and the figures’ anatomy — though gauche, perhaps, to modern eyes — is remarkably animated, full of passion and vigor.

The landscape, too, is serenely captivating. The myth may be Greek, but Pollaiuolo has co-opted it for the home team: We see the River Arno receding gracefully, with Florence itself and its astonishing dome visible in the middle distance.

In conjuring a Florentine Golden Age, where the forces of civilization (represented by Hercules) triumph over the barbarians (Nessus), Pollaiuolo will have flattered his Florentine patrons, and done great credit to himself.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

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