Great history of Vatican Museums, Part 1- Belvedere Garden

Vatican Museums

The secret of the Entrance

Near the Entrance to the Museum’s offices there is a mosaic in the form of a medallion, a modern depicting the well-known episode of young Ganymede’s abduction in the sky to become the divine cup bearer by an eagle sent by Zeus, or by god himself in eagle form. Every time we cross the threshold of a Museum are we not swept up into the sky like Ganymede to contemplate fragments of eternal thruts?

Carlo Albacini, Ganymede abducted by the eagle, mosaic, 1812-Vatican Museums

The Belvedere Garden

The idea of creating the Vatican Museums came about at the beginning of the 16-th century when Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere became Pope, taking the name Julius II, and had important classical statues such as the Apollo and the Laocoon transferred to the Vatican and placed in the Belvedere Palace Garden, which had beeen transformed into a courtyard.

The courtyard was designed by Donato Bermante, who had drawn inspiration from literary descriptions and the remains of villas and ancient palaces to recreate a natural environment with the ancient marble statues placed amongst orange, lemon, myrtle and bay trees accompanied by a continous flow of water from the fountaines. The classical statues were harmoniously positioned along the walls of the courtyard in niches and in the centre as part of the fountain. This environment edified and delighted the men of letters and artists who came to Rome as guests of the Pope to study classical antiquities.

The Belvedere Palace was built in the 15-th century for Innocent VIII as a papal summer residence. The view over the Roman countryside must have been spectacular, through it has now been replaced by the sight of the city’s Prati and Trionfale areas. For the most part of the original architecture has been retained, although the Palace was altered in the 18 th century. They can still reconstruct its original appeareance thanks to a series of drawings, engravings, maps and elevations from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The main facade was dominated by a loggia with two avant- corps at the far ends and a crown of merlons running all the way arround building.

Mario Cartaro- Wonderful Belvedere Garden-Vatican

The Palace was actually part of a much larger complex, as this engraving by Mario Cartaro clearly shows. It can be seen on the right, to the north, with the Garden holding Julius II statues and its view over the roman countryside. On the opposite side to the south we can see the complex of the Papal Palace, first built by order of Pope Nicholas III who took into consideration the potential of the Vatican in becoming the fixed papal residence, fully aware of the importance of living in proximity to Peter’s Tomb.

The former papal residence was the Lateran and it was only after the Avignon Exile (1305-1377) that the Pope lived permanently at the Vatican. This illustration also shows the connecting courtyard designed by Donato Bramante. Bramante and Julius II were able to come to a unique understanding as their intentions converged to satisfy one in his search for a universal architectural language and the other in his plan to recover the splendour of ancient Rome, brought to life again in a Christian setting. In this case Bramante’s study and re-introduction of classical architecture in the expressions of a universal language was operative in Julius II’s plans to reorganise the Papal Palace. Among the various rennovations projects, the architect designed the Belvedere Courtyard to link the summer Palace with the Papal Palace through two very long, straight and parallel wings on three levels. He also designed a series of shelves at various heights in the large interior areas, which could be accesed by monumental leaders. These wings had flat roofs so they could be used as paths by people on foot, in sedan chairs or even on horseback.


Belvedere courtyard


In the large Belvedere Courtyard displays featuring knights took place based on life at the Papal court. Unavoidably, these displays were very similar to the presentations held at secular courts.

After the Apollo and the Laocoon has been positioned on the site, the so called Venus Felix came to the Belvedere Garden. The three statues originally stood in the niches of the main wall of the courtyard, the one visitors would see in front of them as they came into the Garden from the Lumaca, another name for Bramante’s spiral staircase commisioned by Julius II as one of the entrances to the Palace. Soon after, other antiquities arrived to occupy the nivhes and the courtyard/ While Julius was still in office two statues joined the others: Hercules with Baby Telephus, the latter famous for both his fight against the Greeks advancing on Troy and the wounds he suffered at the hands of Achilles, and the fragmented Hercules and Antaeus, the giant killed by Hercules during one of his famous labours.

Venus Felix


Besides the sculptures in the niches other statues were reused as ornaments for the fountains. Under the papacy of Leo X (Medici, 1513-1521), Julius II’s succesor, a new discovery was added to the pontifical collection: the colossal statues of the Nile and the Tiber.

These was placed in the centre of the courtyard among the orange trees on high plints with the Medici coat of arms, the Nile with its black to the Laocoon and the Tiber opposite. Durring Julius II ‘s reign two other statues were added and used as the fountains. The Ariadne was postioned in the corner of the courtyard above the sarcophagus held up by dolphins.

The walls of the courtyard held marble masks which were thought to have come from the Pantheon . This collection of sculptures transformed the Vatican into an ideal Parnassus- the hill of the Muses which inspired the creative process in all its forms.

Belvedere Romanum, Hendrick van Cleve III, 1575


READ MORE ABOUT “Great history of Vatican Museums, Part 2- Sixteenth and seventeenth centuries”



Bibliography: Edizioni Musei Vaticani

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