Where? The Octagonal Court of the Museo Pio Clementino in the Vatican Museums
When? Probably between 117 and 138 AD
What do you see? A marble statue of 88 inches (2.24 meters) of a beardless, athletic Apollo. The surface of the statue is very smooth. Apollo’s face shows a neutral expression. He steps forward a bit with his right leg and throws back his cloak over his left shoulder to show his fully naked body. He looks to his left and has his left arm stretched out to support his cloak. Apollo has beautiful curly hair. His hair is tied on the top with a band and his curls hang down his neck. Around his torso, he is wearing a quiver to hold his arrows. He is also wearing sandals. On the left side (for the viewer), the statue is supported by a tree trunk, and you can see a snake carved on the left side of the tree. It is not entirely clear what mythological story is depicted in this statue, though it is suggested that Apollo originally was carrying a bow and arrow. This pose may represent Apollo who has just released an arrow with the bow that he was holding in his left hand. Some people suggest that this statue represents the moment that Apollo has just killed the serpent (which is a dragon) Python. The snake on the left, which may be a python, may serve as additional evidence to support this story.
Backstory: This statue has been discovered in the 15th century and is also known as the Pythian Apollo. It was probably found around 1485 in Anzio, which is about 35 miles south of Rome. This statue is a Roman copy of an ancient Greek bronze statue. It is unknown who sculpted the current version of the statue. Leochares may have sculpted the original bronze statue in the 4th century BC. Originally, his right forearm and his left hand were missing, but they have been restored around 1532 by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli (a pupil of Michelangelo). Near the end of the 15th century, the statue has been acquired by Giuliano della Rovere, a great art collector, who became later Pope Julius II. The statue has been named after the Belvedere Court in the Vatican Museums where the statue was placed in 1511. It has stayed there since then, except for a period of almost 20 years when Napoleon took it and displayed in Paris. Thanks to the efforts of, among others, Antonio Canova, the statue returned to its original location.
The Octagonal Court: The Octagonal Court is currently part of the Vatican Museums. The court has been designated by Pope Julius II (1503-1513) to display antique classical statues. It is an open-air court containing several famous statues from antiquity. Its name is derived from the octagonal shape of the court and was given by Pope Clement XIV in 1772. Shortly after that, the court was incorporated in the Vatican Museums and opened to the public. The Apollo Belvedere and the statue of Laocoön and His Sons are the most famous statues in this court, and both have been there from the beginning.
Who is Apollo? Apollo is the god of, among others, archery, art, music, and poetry. He is the son of Zeus and Leto and the twin sister of Artemis. In Greek mythology, he is considered to be the most beautiful man that can be imagined. A bow and arrows are his most important attributes to represent his role as the god of archery. He received these attributes from Hephaestus, the blacksmith for the gods. However, in this statue, there are no bow and arrows, though he is wearing a quiver that usually contains arrows. He probably held the bow in his left hand. You can still see a small part of the bow in his hand, but the rest of the bow was lost before the statue was discovered.
Copies and inspiration: The Apollo Belvedere has for a long time been considered as the ideal depiction of male beauty. It has been copied many times and has served as an inspiration for many future artists. For example, artists such as Michelangelo and Dürer have used it as an inspiration for their sketches and sculptures. This statue also had a big influence on the neoclassical sculptors, such as Antonio Canova. For example, his statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa has been directly inspired by the Apollo Belvedere. The head of the Apollo Belvedere has also been used for the emblem of the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission in 1972, which has been the last moon landing mission to date.
Fun fact: Johann Winckelmann is a famous art historian, and in his book History of Ancient Art, he poetically describes ancient art. His book also contains a description of the Apollo Belvedere. He classified the Apollo Belvedere as “the highest ideal of art” among all classic works that have survived. He classifies this statue as a beauty that transcends the beauty that we can find in this world. He admits that his words can never describe the beauty of this sculpture and looking at the statue transfers his mind to an earthly paradise.
Where? Room of the Aldobrandini Wedding in the Vatican Museums
When? The first century B.C.
What do you see? The painting is divided into three scenes taking place in three separate areas divided by walls. The group in the middle shows two women sitting on a bed. The woman on the left is probably the Greek goddess Aphrodite. She comforts the woman sitting on the bed wearing an off-white dress and veil. She is the bride, and she is anxious about the upcoming intercourse with her husband – the god Hymen wearing a garland – sitting to their right (from the viewers’ perspective). To their left is another goddess pouring fragrances in a shell. On the right side of the fresco is a group of three women performing a sacrificing ritual. They are grouped around a thymiaterion (an incense burner). The woman on the left holds a bowl and the woman on the right holds a lyre. On the left is another group of three women (although the gender of the figure in the background is subject to debate) standing around a basin. The woman on the right tests the temperature of the water and holds a fan. At the bottom of the basin stands a tablet.
Alternative interpretations: The meaning of this fresco is subject to a lot of debate and there is serious doubt on whether this is indeed a wedding scene as its title suggests. One alternative interpretation put forward by Frank Müller in 1994 is that the fresco shows a scene from Hippolytus Stephanephoros, a tragedy written by Euripides around 428 B.C. According to this interpretation, the woman dressed in white is Phaedra, a princess from Crete. She was in love with Hippolytus, the man to the right of her. Phaedra is full of guilt as she is married to Theseus (who is the father of Hippolytus). Aphrodite comforts Phaedra. To the left of Aphrodite is her daughter Peitho. On the left is a tablet standing against a pillar containing a love declaration from Phaedra. The two people on the left perform magic spells to win over Hippolytus for Phaedra as Hippolytus is not interested in her yet. On the right is Artemis, who protects Hippolytus, surrounded by two of her nymphs. This interpretation is not without problems, but one argument in favor of it is that other frescos created around the same time often show mythological stories of tragic wives.
Backstory: This fresco is from the first century B.C. It is part of a larger fresco, probably a frieze near the ceiling in a retiring room in an Ancient Roman house. The fresco was discovered around 1601 in the remains of an ancient house on the Esquiline Hill (one of the seven hills on which Rome is built). Cardinal Cinzio Passeri Aldobrandini (1551-1610) came in possession of this fresco, explaining the name of the fresco, and it stayed within his family until 1818. In that year, Pope Pius VII bought the fresco from the Aldobrandini family and in 1838 it was placed on display on its current spot in the Vatican Museums.
Replicas: Before the 19th century, this was one of the few Ancient Roman frescos that were rediscovered. This fresco inspired many artists to copy it, including Poussin, Rubens, Van Dyck. In 1674, Pietro Santi Bartoli created a beautiful watercolor replica of the Aldobrandini Wedding. The fresco is also featured in Giovanni Paolo Panini’s painting Ancient Rome which is on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, and the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart.
Fun fact: The discussion about what this painting represents is still ongoing. The traditional interpretation that this fresco shows a wedding scene has been countered by various mythological interpretations. These interpretations look carefully at each attribute in the painting to understand who the different figures represent. However, one simple argument against interpreting this fresco as a wedding is that none of the people looks even remotely happy. Especially the supposed wedding couple looks far from happy. While one may argue that the preparations for a wedding are stressful, that would still leave the question why someone would like to have a wedding scene with such serious and concerned faces on his or her wall.
Where? The Octagonal Court of the Museo Pio Clementino in the Vatican Museums
When? Uncertain, but estimates range from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD.
By who? Unclear, but probably this is a Roman copy of an ancient Greek original in bronze. Some people suggest that it was made by the three Greek sculptors Hagesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus.
What do you see? This life-size statue is made of seven different blocks of marble and shows Laocoön and his two sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus, being attacked by two sea serpents. Laocoön sits on an altar and is sculpted as a very muscular man. He strains every muscle that he has to escape from the serpents. The oldest son on the right seems to break free from the serpents and looks at his brother and father. Laocoön and the youngest son on the left are in big trouble, and their faces express their struggle. The youngest son seems to cast a last glance at his father, but he looks to be (almost) dead already. Notice that the serpents are trying to kill Laocoön and his sons both by constricting and biting them. You can see the head of one of the serpents next to the left hand of Laocoön. You can also see that a few pieces are missing from this sculpture. First, substantial parts of the serpents are missing. Second, the right hand of Laocoön is missing. Third, part of the right arm of the younger son and the right hand of the older son are missing.
Backstory: This statue is also referred to as the Laocoön group. On January 14, 1506, the statue of Laocoön and His Sons was discovered on the Esquiline Hill (one of the Seven Hills of Rome). It was found in an underground room of a vineyard of Felice de Fredis. The underground room was later identified as part of the Baths of Trajan (53-117 AD). Michelangelo was one of the first people to see the statue and was very impressed with it. Two months after its discovery, the owner of the vineyard sold the statue to Pope Julius II, who displayed it in the Octagonal Court of the Vatican Museum, where it now has a place close to the famous Apollo Belvedere statue. The statue was already discussed by Pliny the Elder, a Roman author from the first century AD. He had seen a sculpture of Laocoön and his sons in the palace of Titus before he would become the Roman emperor from 79-81 AD. However, it is unclear if this was the same statue as Pliny the Elder mentioned that the version he saw was made from a single block of marble.
Who is Laocoön? According to Greek mythology, Laocoön was a Trojan priest. There are various accounts of his story. Virgil describes the most popular version in the second book of the Aeneid. According to him, when the Greeks left Troy, they left as a gift a very large wooden horse in front of the gates of Troy. Laocoön suspected that this horse was a trick of the Greeks and tried to convince the people of Troy not to accept the gift. To prove that the horse was a trick, he struck the horse with his spear to show that it was hollow. Poseidon and Athena then punished him for his interference and Laocoön and his two sons were attacked and killed by two sea serpents named Porces and Chariboea. The Trojans interpreted this event as a sign that the horse was not a trick and they took the horse into their city walls after which the Greek came out of the horse during the night and defeated the Trojans.
Copies: Many copies of this statue have been made and can be found across the world. A well-known copy is the marble version by Baccio Bandinelli in the Uffizi Museum in Florence. Another bronze version made by Francesco Primaticcio for King François I of France is in the Louvre. Jean Baptiste Tuby made a copy for the Park of the Château de Versailles in France. The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, has a terracotta version of this sculpture by Stefano Maderno. Some other places that have a copy of this statue are the Mannheim Palace in Germany, the Archeological Museum of Odessa in Ukraine, Houghton Hall in England, and the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes in Greece. This statue has also inspired many other artists to depict the story of Laocoön. For example, El Greco created a painting of Laocoön that is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Several parodies of this sculpture have also been made over time. For example, Niccolò Boldrini made a woodcut around 1540 for which he copied a drawing of Titian in which monkeys replace Laocoön and his sons.
Fun fact: The statue misses a few limbs and parts of the serpents. Over time, the missing parts were added to the sculpture and sculptors, including Antonio Canova did various restorations. The right arm of Laocoön was already added in the 16th century, but there was quite some discussion on whether the arm would be straight up or bent back over the shoulder (which Michelangelo suggested). The experts chose that the arm would be straight up and you can see in the picture how the statue looked before 1960. In 1906, an archeologist found a right arm of a sculpture which he thought could be the missing right arm of the Laocoön sculpture. He donated the arm to the Vatican Museums, but only 54 years later the museum verified that it was indeed the missing arm of Laocoön, and it was added to the sculpture. The missing right arm was bent over the shoulder as Michelangelo supposed (this also means that the replicas of this sculpture from before 1960 are incorrect). In the 1980s all non-original additions to the sculpture were removed, and the sculpture became like we can see it today.
Wai Laam Lo, CC BY-SA 3.0
Where? Room 18 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between the third and first century before Christ
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? A life-size marble statue (about five feet tall or 155cm) of the Greek goddess Venus. At her feet is Cupid (the god of Desire, erotic love, attraction, and affection) riding a dolphin. Venus is depicted in a fugitive pose after arising from the sea. The statue was considered one of the most erotic statues in the world due to her almost perfectly sculpted buttocks (which you cannot see, unfortunately). While her arms are partly covering her breasts and pubic area, it actually draws the attention to these parts of her body.
Backstory: The origins of this statue are unknown, and thus we don’t know who sculpted her. It is the oldest statue in the Uffizi and is referred to as Venus de’ Medici because the Medici family acquired it in 1677. The statue was initially displayed in Rome, but Pope Innocent XI decided that it should be moved to Florence. Pope Innocent XI was a deeply religious man and decided that such a notorious naked statue does not belong in Rome. The statue was originally colored. However, over time the statue lost its color and experts thought that the colors were not part of the original. So, in the 18th-century acids were used to remove the last traces of color from the statue. Recent microscopic research has shown that the statue was colored originally. The original color of her hair was gold, she had red lips and her ears were pierced for earrings. This marble statue is a copy of an original Greek statue of Venus in bronze. The Venus De’ Medici is one of the most copied statues of all time (for example, there is one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York). Interestingly, the Venus de’ Medici, with Cupid riding a dolphin is not tied to any known mythological story, which adds to the fascination and speculation about this statue.
Symbolism: The size of Venus is enormous compared to the small Cupid and the dolphin at her feet to give the impression that Venus is giant. The somewhat apologetic pose of Venus (covering her breasts and pubic area) and the dolphin at her feet make it likely that she got somewhat surprised when arising from the sea.
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. Venus is also known in the Greek mythology as Aphrodite. Together with the Mars, the god of war, she is the parent of Cupid. The ancient Romans also considered Venus as the goddess of the gardens, and this makes her a popular subject for statues placed in gardens. Over time many statues have been made of Venus, often as an excuse to depict nudity. A well-known example is the Venus Victrix of Antonio Canova which can be admired nowadays in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.
Why Venus? Venus was admired by the Romans and Greeks as she represented love and sexuality. This statue of Venus was heavily inspired by the life-size statue Aphrodite of Cnidus (or Knidos), a famous statue from the fourth century before Christ. These life-size statues of a naked Venus were considered to be very attractive to men in ancient times.
Fun fact: The statue has an inscription at its base reading ‘CLEOMENES SON OF APOLLODORUS OF ATHENS’. However, this inscription is not original as the base with the inscription was broken. The current inscription was added to it in the 17th century. It seems highly unlikely that Cleomenes created this sculpture as he was not a very good sculptor. In the 17th and 18th century it was common practice to add the name of Cleomenes to statues of mediocre quality to enhance the value of those statues. The Venus de’ Medici sculpture, however, is more in line with the work of Praxiteles who created very elegant and graceful statues around the time that this statue was made, but there is not much other evidence to confirm this.
Written by Eelco Kappe