We were about to enter the first wing of the Vatican Museums, called the “Museo Chiaramonti.” I wasn’t prepared for the beautiful sites inside the museum that would greet me that day.
The Vatican Museums house some of the world’s most priceless treasures, 70,000 sculptures and paintings in all, spanning more than 3,000 years of antiquity. It’s the fourth most visited museum in the world and also one of the oldest. There are 54 galleries inside the museum, the most famous of which is the Sistine Chapel, the main attraction.
The museum can trace its roots back to 1506 a.d. when a farmer dug a magnificent Roman statue out of the ground on his property in Rome. The statue turned out to be a Roman recreation of a Greek classic called the “Laocoon & Sons.” It was purchased right after its discovery by Pope Julius II and put on immediate display in the Vatican, along with many other priceless works of art soon to follow. The Laocoon was the first in a long and illustrious history of curation by the popes of the Catholic church, who became obsessed with collecting artifacts from the Roman era.
Ancient Rome had fallen into decay and ruin in the middle of the first millennia a.d., its history forgotten and covered in dirt for over a thousand years. In the beginning of the 16th century, the Catholic church amassed great wealth, mostly through dubious means (i.e. taking alms from the poor), which gave the popes the means to acquire these great treasures. Whether intentionally or not, they thusly became the preservers of history. It wasn’t just artifacts from the Roman era that they were interested in, but relics from all of the deceased civilizations throughout Eurasia, including the Etruscan, Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian and Mesopotamian civilizations. As it turned out, it was very fortuitous that these artifacts came into the hands of the Catholic church, who had the means and desire to protect them for the last 500 years, thus giving us the opportunity to enjoy viewing them today.
We entered the first wing of the museum from the beautiful, sunlit Courtyard of the Pinecone, which led into the Museo Chiaramonti. The museum, constructed in 1820, was named after Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti, who commissioned the building of the museum and hired Baroque sculptor Antonio Canova to design it. As you enter the museum a long hallway comes into view, filled with beautiful Roman busts and other sculptures. Canova designed this hallway to display the Vatican’s great collection of Roman busts, over 3,000 in all. The aptly named “Braccio Nuovo,” the “New Wing,” is a sparkling collection of marble busts, funerary decorations, and sarcophagi, which includes the original bronze peacocks (copies of which are displayed in the Courtyard of the Pinecone) from Hadrian’s tomb.
At one point in history the busts and sculptures were forcibly taken from the Vatican by Napoleon during the Napoleonic wars at the end of the 18th century. The Vatican spent the first two decades of the 19th century meticulously retrieving them from France, securing their release by paying a huge ransom for their return. They were eventually all brought back to Italy and put on display in the newly built Museo Chiaramonti.
We passed through the long hallway toward the next museum, the Museo Clementino. The crush of people was so great, it was almost impossible to move unless you moved with the crowd. Despite the crowds, there was a palpable energy in the air. You could feel the excitement of everyone gathered there to gaze upon some of the most priceless and important works of art in recent human history.
The Museo Pio Clementino, which holds the Vatican’s original collection of statuary, was named after the two popes who curated it in the late 18th century, Popes Clement XIV in 1770 and later Pius VI Braschi. Much like the Chiaramonti, the Pio Clementino’s great works were also carried off to France by Napoleon at the end of the 18th century. Thanks to the efforts of Vatican architect Antonio Canova, who oversaw the building of the Museo Chiaramonti, all of the stolen art was eventually returned to Italy. Canova turned out to be more than just an architect, but also a great diplomat and a true protector of Rome’s artistic heritage.
The first room you enter into in the Pio Clementino is the Room of the Square Vestibule. After passing through a large archway, which at one point was the original entrance to the museum, a large sarcophagus comes into view. The sarcophagus, which dates to 300 B.C., belonged to Berbatus, one of Rome’s most famous politicians from the early Roman era. His grave was a very exciting archeological discovery in the early 20th century. Historians were able to learn a lot about the early days of the Roman Empire by studying the items in his crypt. After having read about it in many history books, it was very exciting for me to see this piece of history in person.
Just past the sarcophagus, in then center of the dark room stands a beautiful marble statue, lit with natural light streaming in from a nearby window. The room, known as the “Cabinet of the Athlete, houses the statue called the “Apoxyomenos.” The Apoxyomenos, meaning “The Scraper” in Greek, is one of the most famous statues in all of antiquity. This particular statue is a 1st century a.d. Roman recreation of the famous Greek classic. The original was sculpted in 320 B.C. by the well known Greek sculptor Lysippos, who was the official sculptor of Alexander the Great. The statue depicts an athlete scraping the sweat off of his body with a thin blade known as a “strigil.” The original statue had been on display in the Baths of Agrippa during the Roman era, put there by General Agrippa himself. It was eventually lost to antiquity, and like so many works of art, read about only in ancient manuscripts. The one that stands in the Vatican today was made in 50 A.D., most likely commissioned by a wealthy Roman. It too became lost for over a thousand years until the middle of the 19th century when it was uncovered in an alleyway in the nearby Trastevere neighborhood. I found this statue to be one of the most beautiful and inspiring sculptures in the entire museum. The way he was displayed in such a dark room, performing such a personal act really brought the sculpture to life. When you view the statue from different angles, it gives the illusion that it is moving. A truly remarkable piece of art, which has stood the test of time.
As we exited the Cabinet of the Athlete, we entered into a small outdoor courtyard called the Octagonal courtyard. This is where the most famous sculptures of the Vatican museums are located, displayed in eight covered nooks within the courtyard. The original pieces of artwork first acquired by the Popes in the 16th century are on display here, particularly, the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoon and Sons. These two sculptures became important inspirations to the painters of the Renaissance era, especially Michelangelo, who used them as anatomical guides while painting many of the figures in the Sistine Chapel.
The first statue, a depiction of the Greek sun god Apollo appropriately named the Apollo Belvedere, is a 2nd century a.d. Roman replica of a Greek Classic made in the 4th-century BC. The statue is considered to be one of the greatest sculptures from classic antiquity and a perfect depiction of physical masculinity. Pope Julius II had it in his personal collection before moving it to the Vatican shortly after he purchased the Laocoon. At one point Apollo held the characteristic bow and arrow in his left hand, which has since been lost to antiquity. In Greek mythology Apollo wasn’t just a good marksman and lover of the sun, but also a champion of music, truth, healing, prophecy, poetry and most importantly, art. Apollo and his artistic muses became great inspirations for the artists of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. You can see evidence of this in paintings and sculptures throughout the Vatican Museums.
Finally we were standing in front of the famous sculpture that had started it all, the Laocoon and Sons. What a history this statue has! In 1503 a.d., a farmer unearthed a magnificent statue from out of the ground on his vineyard in the outskirts of Rome. Recognizing a great opportunity to make some money, the farmer sent word to the Vatican to see if the Pope would be interested in purchasing the statue, as it seemed to be very grand and of great importance. Pope Julius II quickly sent two of his full time artists to go look at the statue and verify its importance. One of those artists was Michelangelo, who upon seeing the statue immediately knew that it was the “Laocoon and Sons.” The statue, a Roman recreation of a 2nd century B.C. Greek classic, depicts the Trojan priest Laocoon and his two sons in their last moments on earth. The Trojan priest had been condemned to die along with his two sons after he warned the Trojans about the deception of the wooden horse, a gift from the Greeks. Athena, the goddess of war, who favored the Greeks, sent the giant serpents from the depths of the sea to strangle Laocoon and his sons. The Romans held Laocoon in great esteem, believing him to be a real person who had been able to successfully warn at least one Trojan to leave Troy, which had a great impact on the future of Rome. Aeneas, who heeded Laocoon’s warning and fled Troy with his family. His descendants, Romulus and Remus would eventually go on to found Rome. This sculpture left a lasting impression on me. I even had a dream about it sometime later, in which I was running away from two giant snakes. It’s amazing how a statue that’s almost 2,000 years old can still have such an emotional impact on you, even a terrifying one!
Next, we entered into a small room called the “Sala degli Animali,” the “Room of the Animals.” The room, which was filled with hundreds of statues of animals, was like a zoo made out of marble. In the back of the room stood the lone statue of a person, known as the Meleager, the mythical hero of Ancient Greece. Meleager was the mighty hunter responsible for taking down the Calydonian Boar, a mythological monster who went around destroying property, particularly vineyards. The statue depicts the hero standing with his hunting dog, seated at his right side while holding the head of the boar triumphantly in his left hand. The Greeks definitely had wild imaginations.
We then entered the “Sala delle Muse” the “Hall of Muses,” a long hall filled with Roman busts and statues, many of which depict Apollo and his Muses. In the center of the large hall is the magnificent Belvedere Torso. The twisted torso, leaning just to the right, is all that remains of a massive sculpture that was made by Apollonios, a Greek sculptor who worked in Rome during the 1st century B.C. The sculpture was dug out of the ground near the Campo dei Fiori at the beginning of the 14th century. The sculpture was added to the Vatican collection in 1523 by Pope Clement VII. Michelangelo famously became transfixed by the statue and was often found kneeling in front of it. He and his students formed a “cult of the Torso,” studying its anatomy in great detail. The impact of this sculpture can clearly be seen in the frescoes painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, especially in its most famous painting, “The Creation of Adam,” where a newly created Adam stretching out his hand towards God bears a near identical resemblance to the torso.
Further down the hallway are the statues of Apollo and his Muses, discovered during the Baroque era in the ruins of Cassius’ villa in Tivoli in 1774. Just above the group of statues is the magnificent painted ceiling of the Hall of Muses. Though it’s easy to overlook amongst all the other artwork, this ceiling is something you don’t want to miss. Painted by the Baroque artist Tommaso Conca during the late 18th century, the paintings on the ceiling depict the god Apollo, surrounded by his nine Muses, who were said to inspire artists and musicians. Needless to say, Conca was so inspired by the statues that he devoted an entire ceiling to them.
Next we entered into the “Sala Rotunda,” the “Round Room,” a truly spectacular room with three colossal statues on display: the Bronze Hercules, the Braschi Antinous and the Claudius as Jupiter. The Round Hall was built in the 18th century by Pope Pius the VI, designed by Michelangelo Simonetti, who used the rotunda of the Pantheon as inspiration. The giant statues are meant to make onlookers feel awestruck by their massive size. That’s exactly how I felt standing in awe in front of them.
The first colossal statue in the room is known as the “Ercole del Teatro di Pompeo” the “Bronze Statue of Hercules.” The statue was found in 1864, buried under tiles bearing the inscription “FCS” (“fulgor conditum summanium”), which indicated that the statue had met the unfortunate fate of being struck by lightning. Roman superstition required it to be buried on the spot, where it stayed hidden for over a thousand years. The statue was made during the 2nd century a.d. It depicts the famous hero of Greek mythology, Hercules, leaning on his club, his most treasured weapon which he used during his quests of the 12 labors. The labors were acts of penance he was forced to carry out as a result of murdering his wife and son while under duress. In his left hand Hercules clutches the magical apple from the garden of Hesperides, a symbol of knowledge and immortality, similar to the garden of eden in Christianity. Draped over his right arm is the skin of the of the Nemean Lion, which granted him protection on his quest. Hercules was known for his great strength, something the Romans revered. Thus, statues of Hercules were very common amongst Greek and Roman statuary, where they came to represent the pinnacle of strength and manhood.
The second statue in the Round Room is the Braschi Antinous, a Colossal statue of Antinous, the young lover of the Emperor Hadrian. The beautifully boyish Antinous met a fateful end when he drowned in the Nile River while accompanying Hadrian on a trip to Egypt. Hadrian, who later had Antinous defied, was rumored to have offered his beloved Antinous up as a sacrifice to ensure his own long life and good health. Whether it was an accident or intentional, it’s still a juicy bit of gossip from the ancient world. Hadrian commissioned this colossal statue in Antinous’ honor, which he put on display in his Villa outside Rome. It stood there until it was lost to antiquity after the fall of the Roman Empire. It was rediscovered in 1793 and purchased by Pope Pius VI, who gave it to his nephew, Luigi Braschi, from which it takes its name, the “Braschi Antinous.” It later became a part of the Vatican collection. The young Antinous is depicted as both the Egyptian god Osiris, the god of the underworld, fitting as he met his fate in Egypt, and the Greek God Dionysos, the god of wine and ecstasy. A crown made of ivy rests upon his head and in his left hand he holds a thrysus, a scepter made from the stalk of a fennel plant with a pinecone lanced to the top with ivy. The thrysus was an important symbol in the ancient world, and one of the earliest phallic symbols. The pinecone, which represented eternal life, together with the fennel stalk were used by Dionysius to bequeath both fertility and pleasure to his followers. It was also used as a weapon against his enemies, a tiny spear hidden within the pinecone. Hadrian likened his deceased lover to a god who was powerful enough to afflict both pleasure and pain.
The third statue in the room is the colossal statue of “Claudius as Jupiter,” made in the 1st century A.D. This colossal statue was intended to portray the emperor as the god Jupiter, a powerful image to the ancient Romans, who looked at the emperors as though they were gods. Here Claudius holds Jupiter’s scepter (also a pinecone topped thrysus) in his left hand, a sign that his rule was absolute. In his right hand, instead of the thunderbolt Jupiter typically held, Claudius holds a dish filled with an alcoholic beverage, meant to be a “generous” offering to his countrymen. An eagle sits at his right side. Both the thunderbolt and the eagle were traditional symbols of Jupiter, who at one point transformed himself into an eagle to escape death. Pliny the Elder, the famous Roman historian who at one time was the personal tutor of the Emperor Claudius during his youth, referred to the eagle as the “most honorable and strongest of all birds.” The eagle became a symbol of the Roman legion, the bird representing immortality. Just as Jupiter had transformed into an eagle to escape death, so too did Claudius hope to make himself immortal.
In the center of the round room is the famous Roman Emperor Nero’s porphyry tub, a giant tub made from the purple hued porphyry stone found in the Aswan region of Egypt. Nero imported the porphyry from Egypt in order to make this giant tub, big enough to fit ten people in. Nero put it in the new palace he built after the old palace burnt down in the famous fire that took out half the city. It was a proud display of wealth by the despot emperor, its size and grandeur demonstrating just how indulgent the Roman emperors’ lives were.
The tub sat on top of an ornately decorated floor, known as the “Mosaico delle Terre di Otricoli,” the “Otricoli Mosaic Floor.” The mosaic dates back to the 3rd century A.D. where it was installed in the Baths of Otricoli, north of Rome. The floor was discovered during an 18th century excavation of the baths. The ornate mosaics depict mythological sea creatures including tritons and nereids, which together evoke a water theme, perfect for a bath house, which everyday Romans frequented, since indoor plumbing in a private residence was reserved for the very wealthy. The tiles were meticulously moved one by one to the Vatican museums during the 18th century while the curation of the Pio Clementino Museum was underway.
As we excited the Round Room, I turned back to see two large Egyptian telemons flanking the sides of the entrance to the Round Room. The Romans were fascinated by ancient Egypt. They viewed ancient Egypt in the same way we view Ancient Rome. The Telemons, also known as “Antinous Telamoni,” were named after Antinous, Hadrian’s young lover. The Telemons were made from the same porphyry as the tub, imported from the same mine in Aswan, Egypt. They were discovered at Hadrian’s Villa in Rome in 1450 a.d., buried in the ground not far from the Braschi Antinous statue. They were taken from the villa and placed at the entrance of the Palazzo Vescovile in Tivoli until they were acquired by the Vatican in 1780. They were restored by Gaspare Sibilla, the Vatican artist responsible for restoring many of the statues in the Hall of the Muses. Just above the Telemons written in Latin is “Museum Pium,” the original entrance of the Pio Clementino museum.
We then walked into another long hall called the “Sala a Croce Greca,” the “Greek Cross Hall, just outside the Round Room. This grand hall is where the sarcophagi of Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena and his daughter Constantina are on display. You can see from the sheer size and grandeur of the sarcophagi just how much these women were loved and revered by the emperor and the people. This hall was created by Pope Pius VI Braschi, who had also purchased the Braschi Antinous statue. The pope spent a great deal of money to have the two coffins moved to the museum in the beginning of the 18th century and built this great hall in which to display them.
In the center of the floor is a huge tiled mosaic of the Greek goddess Athena, the goddess of war, made in Tusculum in the 3rd century a.d. The bust of Athena is surrounded by the lunar phases, an addition given to the mosaic when it was installed in the museum during the construction of the Greek Cross Hall in the 18th century. In her hair Athena wears an “aegis,” the severed head of a “gorgon,” a venomous creature with snakes skins for hair that turned anyone who looked at it to stone. The goddess wore the aegis for protection during battle.
After passing through the Greek Cross Hall, we were led down a long corridor where there were three galleries: the Gallery of the Candelabra, the Gallery of Tapestries and the Gallery of Maps. It was hard to believe that we could see anything more beautiful or grand than what we had just seen, but the best was truly yet to come.
You can read more about these three halls as well as the famous Raphael Rooms in part 3 of the Tour of the Vatican Museums…