The Vatican Museums owe their existence to the fact that Pope Julius II, mostly famous for being a very arrogant leader and a very bellicose ruler, nonetheless also had excellent artistic taste. As Cardinal della Rovere, Julius had begun developing a collection of sculptures; when he became Pope, he moved his collection to the courtyard of the Villa Belvedere, a small papal summer house that had been built by Antonio del Pollaiuolo for Innocent VIII. As Pope, Julius recognized the genius of a number of the major artists whose works practically define Renaissance art at its height -- Michelangelo, Raphael, Bramante.
We can see the dome of St. Peter's rising above it all. When Julius became pope, he brought with him the best architect he had discovered when he had been cardinal, Donato Bramante, and commissioned him to design a new St. Peter's, which had fallen into some decay.
Soon we came to the Cortile della Pigna. Here we are looking across the courtyard toward the dome of St. Peter's and can see a bit of modern sculpture, as well, one of the versions of Arnaldo Pomodoro's Sfera con sfera:
The Cortile della Pigna is, of course, most famous for the Fontana della Pigna:
The Pigna was originally a sculpture set near the Pantheon as part of a fountain (it was designed so that water would come out of the top). It was at some point moved in front of the old St. Peter's Basilica, and was moved to its current location in 1608. It stands in an immense niche, the nicchione, designed by Pirro Ligorio, which was the largest niche that had ever been built. The peacocks on each side of the pinecone were copied from examples found at Hadrian's tomb the Castel Sant'Angelo). The pinecone, famous in its own right, was granted immortality in Dante's Inferno, Canto XXXI, in which Dante, who had seen it while it was in front of the old St. Peter's, refers to it in order to explain how large the giant Nimrod is:
La faccia sua mi parea lunga e grossa
come la pina di San Pietro a Roma,
e a sua proporzione eran l'altre ossa....
The Courtyard of the Pinecone is a part of what once was a much larger courtyard. While the new St. Peter's was being built, Julius also asked Bramante to design a way of connecting the Villa Belvedere with the Vatican Palace, and the Cortile del Belvedere was born. It was not a minor project, since the sides of the Vatican Palace and the Villa Belvedere were out of parallel and were separated by a steep slope; and thus the relatively regular appearance was quite an achievement. Bramante himself did not live to see the completion of it; that was done by Pirro Ligorio. Pope Sixtus V, however, would break up the unity of the courtyard and the general integrity of the design by running a wing of the Vatican Library across the middle of the courtyard. (It is widely said that he did so deliberately in order to shield the pagan statues from view.) The upper terrace is the current Cortile della Pigna, and the lower terrace retains the name of the Cortile del Belvedere. The main Vatican Museums are along the wings of the original courtyard.
We only saw part of the Vatican Museums, but we did get a good look at parts of the Museo Pio-Clementino, which is focused on sculpture. Here, for instance, are a great many classical busts:
The primary attraction of the Pio-Clementine, however, is the Octagonal Court, formerly known as the Cortile delle Statue. In this one space we have some of the purest typical expressions of classical and neo-classical sculpture. Two of these are especially important. The first is the Apollo Belvedere:
The history of this statue is a bit murky. We know that it was already in Julius II's possession when he became pope, but we don't know how he got it. It is usually thought to be an AD second-century Roman copy of a fourth-century BC Greek statue by the great Greek sculptor Leochares (whose patron was Alexander the Great). The left hand and part of the right arm had been lost through the centuries, and the ones currently in place were added by a student of Michelangelo. Once Julius II put it on display in the courtyard, it became widely copied by Renaissance artists, and it would become the exemplar work for neo-classical sculpture. Napoleon stole it during his 1796 campaign, where it was housed in the Louvre; Rome got it back in 1815 after Napoleon's exile.
The second major work in the Octagonal Court is the Laocoön:
Laocoön was a priest of Poseidon; there are a large number of different stories about why Poseidon punished him by having him and his sons destroyed by great serpents. Sophocles says it was because Laocoön married; Virgil says it was because he tried to prove that the Trojan Horse was a trap. This group of figures is usually thought, on the authority of Pliny the Elder, to have been the work of three sculptors from Rhodes, assuming that we have the same statue (Natural History, XXXVII, 4):
Beyond these, there are not many sculptors of high repute; for, in the case of several works of very great excellence, the number of artists that have been engaged upon them has proved a considerable obstacle to the fame of each, no individual being able to engross the whole of the credit, and it being impossible to award it in due proportion to the names of the several artists combined. Such is the case with the Laocoön, for example, in the palace of the Emperor Titus, a work that may be looked upon as preferable to any other production of the art of painting or of statuary. It is sculptured from a single block, both the main figure as well as the children, and the serpents with their marvellous folds. This group was made in concert by three most eminent artists, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, natives of Rhodes.
The group we have is not, in fact, sculpted from a single block, but consists of seven interlocking pieces, but it could very well be that Pliny was simply mistaken. In any case, the association with the one described by Pliny has lingered with the statue since it was rediscovered in a vineyard near St. Mary Major in 1506; Julius II, hearing about it, sent Michelangelo and Giuliano da Sangallo to see if it was worth buying. Since it obviously was, Julius II bought it, and it was his putting it on display along with the Apollo that is the first step in the creation of the Vatican Museums. Like the Apollo, the Laocoön was taken to France by Napoleon and returned to Rome after Napoleon's defeat.
A third sculpture is also of note, the Peseus Triumphant, which was sculpted at the turn of the nineteenth century by Antonio Canova, and which shows what neoclassical sculpture was able to accomplish on the basis of its inspiration by these works:
From the Octagonal Court we moved to the Hall of Muses, where one can find the Belvedere Torso:
According to legend, Julius II asked Michelangelo to complete the fragment, but Michelangelo refused because it was too beautiful to modify. And it is arguably the only classical sculpture that has been even more influential and important than the Apollo and the Laocoön.
All of this was great indeed, but we were hardly begun.
to be continued