The story of the painting is as complex as that of its subject — and of its author.
In his life of Rosso, Vasari himself mentions a Quadro dei nudi (as it appears in an Uffizi inventory of 1635–38), stating that is was made during his last period in Florence for Giovanni Bandini: “un quadro di alcuni ignudi bellissimi in una storia di Mosè quando ammazza l’Egizio, nel quale erano cose lodatissime; e credo che in Francia fosse mandato” (“a painting of truly beautiful nudes in a story of Moses, when he kills the Egyptian, which contained superb things; and I believe it was sent to France”; Vasari, ed. Milanesi, 1906, V, p. 159). Vasari was absolutely right, and this has now been confirmed by a document (Elam 1993, pp. 63–69) which records the sale of the painting to Francis I of France in about 1530. It is presumed it returned to Florence between 1568 (the year in which the second edition of Vasari’s work was published) and 1588, when it is mentioned in an inventory of the Casino di San Marco (Barocchi 1983, p. 54, no. 21), before appearing once again in the will (1632) of Don Antonio de’ Medici, the son of Bianca Cappello. It is recorded in the Uffizi as Ercole che uccide il Minotauro e rovescia le mura di Troia.
Antonio Natali (1995, p. 92) has studied the journeys of the painting, examining the results of the recent restoration for evidence to clarify his doubts about the autography of the work. These perplexities have appeared before, and questions have been raised about whether or not Rosso alone worked on it, as well as about the fact that in some parts it is incomplete, with some areas only sketched in and lacking in vigour. Natali has thus considered that some uncertainties or sketchy descriptions should not be interpreted as liberties taken in the grand manner of Rosso, but rather that they betray the existence of a contemporary replica, made in circles very close to Rosso when the original (probably the one on wood) was sent to France, where it may have remained. Although there is no way to disperse doubts about this hypothesis, the work does offer clear evidence of Rosso’s grandiose approach, for it conveys all the vigour of his sophisticated expression, which ranges from the lessons learnt from Michelangelo to studies of classical statues.
Giovanna Giusti Galardi