Ch. 5 – “Hercules and the Athletic Renaissance”

Kunitz opens the fifth chapter with an illustration of the Farnese Hercules, a Roman replica of an originally Greek statue with an athletic body manifesting the “unimagined possibilities of human potential.” This statue, which became one of the most reproduced during the Renaissance, influenced a number of works regarding exercise, most importantly Mercurialis’ De Arte Gymnastica aput Ancientes which claimed exercise as both therapeutic and preventative and paid little attention to physical development. However, by the latter half of the 19th century circuses and strongmen appeared and redefined views of the body and what it could become. That, combined with the new middle class and development of the first mass-produced silvered-glass mirror created the space for Hippolyte-Antoine Triat to appeal to egos and available leisure time and open the world’s first commercial gym in Paris. His gym was open to all ages and sexes and inspired a wave of similarly democratic gyms to open throughout Paris and Europe. Kunitz cites the aforementioned reasons, as well as the philosophy of perfectibility by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the birth of photography, and the lessening of religious bars as important catalysts in igniting an Athletic Renaissance in the Western world during the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was during this time that sports and games systematized and heavy-lifting first gained traction. However, due to the likely stroke-related death of George Barker Windship, the first major proponent of strength training, and the pervasiveness of extreme strength in circus troops, lifting soon found ill fame. Kunitz thus characterizes the history of fitness as “a cycle of forgetfulness and rediscovery” as we find lifting back in good graces in contemporary times.