The Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is likely the most well-known of the artworks housed by the Vatican Museums. The chapel itself was named after Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere (whose name should be familiar from the painting Sixtus IV appoints Bartolomeo Platina Prefect of the Vatican Library mentioned in “The Vatican’s Picture Gallery“). Sixtus restored the Sistine Chapel, but it was his nephew, Pope Julius II, il papa terribile, who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the now-famous ceiling. Michelangelo actually tried to get out of the commission because he identified as a sculptor, not a painter. Pope Julius II, however, was not known as il papa terribile for nothing; he forced Michelangelo to take up the commission despite all of Michelangelo’s protests.
Michelangelo decided to decorate the ceiling with images from the Old Testament to link with the images of the New Testament that decorated the walls of the chapel. The design includes nine stories from the Old Testament that run down the middle of the ceiling.
The central panel of Old Testament stories is bordered by alternating lunettes and human figures. The lunettes (which look like small triangles) contain pictures of Christ’s ancestral lineage as recounted in the New Testament.
The figures that are placed in between each lunette alternate between Sibyls and Prophets. (Sibyls were popularized in ancient Greece, and they were believed to be oracles that spoke prophecies imparted to them by the Gods.) Below each figure is a plaque identifying whom the figure represents.
Now that we have been oriented, let’s look at the work in more detail, starting with the central panel. The central panel is divided into nine episodes found in the Old Testament Book of Genesis. These nine are subdivided into three groups of three, each group telling an origin story. Starting from left to right: The Drunkenness of Noah, The Flood, and The Sacrifice of Noah relate to the origin of evil; The Fall of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion from Paradise, The Creation of Eve, and The Creation of Adam relate to the origin of man; and the Separation of Land from Sea, The Creation of the Heavenly Bodies, and The Separation of Light from Darkness relate to the origin of the universe.
The first section that Michelangelo painted was the Flood (the second panel from the left), which is evidenced by the overwhelming amount of action within that piece as compared to the more figure-focused scenes that were created later. To depict the Flood, Michelangelo shows figures in the bottom corner of the scene struggling to get to dry land, hampered by their worldly possessions. Meanwhile, Noah and his family are not the central figures, but are physically and emotionally in the background. As I said, the scenes telling the story of Noah relate to the origin of evil and therefore the focus is on evil.
Compare the movement and drama depicted in The Flood with the, arguably, most famous of the Sistine Chapel’s panels, The Creation of Adam.
Notice the muscular figures depicted in these works? Well as Michelangelo was working, the Romans discovered the Laocoön, an ancient sculpture of the Trojan priest fighting the snakes sent by Athena, as well as the Belvedere Torso. These sculptures informed Michelangelo’s portrayal of the human form while painting the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, especially those figures known as the Ignudi. The Ignudi sit in the four corners of each episode, symbolizing antiquity to link the Church with the illustrious Roman past.
As mentioned above, the central panel is surrounded by alternating Hebrew Prophets and Greek Prophetesses (known as Sibyls). If you are wondering why Michelangelo painted pagan oracles on the ceiling of the most famous Roman Catholic Chapel, you aren’t alone. Some historians argue that early Jews and Christians appropriated the tradition of sibylline prophecies because such had a storied and ancient reputation. Through the appropriation of this tradition, historians argue, early Jews and Christians were able to give their nascence religions legitimacy and authority within the pagan world in which they operated. It is also believed that the sibyls predicted the coming of Jesus. Again, connecting the Church to the ancient past.
So much more could be said about this room; in fact, many articles and books have been written on the topic. What is in this post is merely the tip of the iceberg, but I hope that I have at least piqued your interest in some of this art.
In addition to the sculptures located in the Octagonal Court, the Vatican Museums are home to hundreds of other fascinating statues. I’m just going to highlight my favorite ones here, organized by museum and room.
The Pio Clementino Museum
The original papal sculptures were housed in the then Cortile delle Statue (now known as the Octagonal Court), but by the 18th century, keeping the ever-growing collection in that courtyard was no longer tenable, as the collection had dramatically increased in size over the years due to both donations and archeological excavations. Thus, Pope Clement XIV Ganganelli, followed by Pope Pius VI Braschi, converted rooms of the Belvedere Palace into a museum to house the papal collection of ancient Roman sculpture. This museum is now known as the Pio Clementino Museum, in honor of the aforementioned popes.
Hall of the Muses
The Hall of the Muses was redesigned with the intention of housing statues found at the Villa of Cassius near Tivoli (it is now commonly believed that the so-called Villa of Cassius was not actually owned by Cassius). These sculptures date from the 2nd century AD and included several (but not all nine) muses. Unfortunately, some of the sculptures found at the villa were irreparably modified by 18th century restorers in an attempt to complete the set of the nine Muses, including a sculpture that was repurposed as the muse Euterpe.
Muses were minor deities that imparted their gifts of music, poetry, and dance to men and gods, allowing both to forget their troubles by losing themselves to art. Fittingly, the Muses were the daughters of the goddess Mnemosyne (i.e. memory) and the king of the gods, Zeus.
The vaulted ceiling of the hall accurately reflects the hall’s namesake. (I know this section is supposed to be about sculptures, but I couldn’t resist this ceiling, so bear with me.) Painted by Tommaso Conca, the ceiling depicts both Apollo and the Muses inspiring artistic endeavours. Apollo is included along with the Muses because he was commonly associated with music, especially with an instrument known as the lyre. According to myth, the god Hermes, the inventor of the lyre, offered it to Apollo after he had been caught stealing Apollo’s cattle.
The final, and some would argue most important, piece of the Hall of Muses is known as the Belvedere Torso. The Belvedere Torso (so called due its original placement in the Vatican’s Belvedere Courtyard) dates from the 1st century BC and owes much of its fame to Michelangelo’s admiration of it. In fact, during and after the sixteenth century, the Belvedere Torso became the model for nudes in multiple works, including Raphael’s figure of Christ in his Vision of Ezekiel and Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker.
The Round Hall
The Round Hall was based off the hemispherical vault of the Pantheon. Indeed, vaulted ceiling is seemingly structurally identical (albeit a touch more ornate) to that of the famous temple to the Gods.
The floor mosaics of the Round Hall are from the early 3rd century AD while the porphyry basin in the center of the room is likely to have stood in an imperial Roman piazza. The gold Heracles housed in one of the niches in this room was found lying horizontally and covered by a stone with the letters F.C.S., standing for Fulgur Conditum Summanium, translated as “hidden from lightning flow.” Thus, historians have deduced that it had been given a ritual burial, which was customary for Romans to do for statues that had been hit by lightning.
Hercules is shown in his traditional iconography: holding his club and the Nemean lion skin. (Indeed, Hercules is generally shown in this posture.)
Gallery of the Candelabra
The Gallery of the Candelabra houses The Persian Warrior, who is depicted wearing a Phrygian beret with his upper hand grasping his sword. This work is probably a Roman copy of a Greek Bronze that was made to celebrate the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Allegedly, an Athenian ran from Marathon to the city of Athens (about 25 miles) to deliver the news of the Persian defeat. It is this run that became the basis for the masochistic early morning, freezing races in which yours truly loves to participate. (Although, I do wish whoever came up with the idea had done his/her math better and kept the race at 25 miles rather than 26.2. For some reason, that seems much more manageable.)
The New Wing
The New Wing was built to house the works that Napoleon had taken from the Vatican, but which France has since returned. It links the Chiaramonti Museum to the Apostolic Library and was designed to recreate the space for which the works were originally created. One of the New Wing’s most famous pieces, Augustus from Prima Porta (1st century AD), is a statue of Augustus that was found in the Villa of Livia (Livia was Augustus’ wife; for the Julio-Claudian family tree, click here).
On Augustus’ cuirass (breastplate), there is a scene showing a Parthian king returning the Roman standards lost by Crassus during the Battle of Carrhae. Although the loss of a standard seems trivial to modern readers, to the superstitious ancient Romans, the loss of a standard was a monumental disaster. Therefore, Augustus’ recovery of such was a huge political victory for him, so much so that the event is commemorated on this larger than life statue. At the top of the breastplate is the personification of the Heavens and the chariots of Apollo and Aurora while at the bottom is the goddess Diana and the goddess Earth, symbolizing divine sanction of Augustus’ rule.
Notice the weird baby attached to Augustus’ leg? Well that weird baby was likely designed to promote Augustus’ supposed divine descent from the goddess Venus. Historians have identified the baby as Cupid, Venus’ son, in part, because he is riding a dolphin, an animal closely linked to Venus, who in one myth is born of the sea (see Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, to the left of this text, which will hopefully be featured in an upcoming post about the Uffizi).
The Julii clan (i.e. the family of Julius Caesar and his grand-nephew/adopted son, Augustus) claimed descent from the Trojan Aeneas, who himself was alleged to have descended from the goddess Venus. And therefore, Venus’ son Cupid was likely included in this piece to emphasize Augustus’ links to divinity.
The Nile is a 1st century AD Roman copy of a Greek original. The work personifies the River Nile as an old man while Egypt is represented by a sphinx, supporting the Nile. Sixteen children run along the top of the Nile; according to Roman historian Pliny the Elder, the children represent the sixteen cubits of water by which the Nile rises for its annual flood. Interestingly, this piece was at the center of an international debacle between Italy and France during the early nineteenth century. As it turns out, Emperor Napoleon was quite fond of Italian art, and during his invasion of Italy, he commandeered several pieces (including the Nile) and sent them to the Louvre. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the Pope demanded that the French return the artwork to the Vatican. The French, reluctant to give back this treasure, offered the Pope a nude statute of Napoleon as compensation. The Pope, obviously not keen to own a colossal nude statute of an overthrown foreign invader, declined the offer and demanded the Nile back. As evidenced, the French acquiesced.
Also here is a statue of Silenus and the baby Dionysus (yes, that Dionysus; even gods of wine and the bacchanal were babies at one point). In a tribute to the baby’s eventual celestial purview, the branch supporting the two is decorated with grape vines. Silenus is variously described as Dionysus’ foster father, companion, and/or tutor, depending on the source. This statue, as usual, is a Roman copy of a Greek original (the ancient Romans had some serious appropriation issues – stealing myths, artwork, etc), and it dates from around the 2nd century AD.
I hope you enjoyed some of my favorite pieces from the Vatican. Thanks as always for reading!
The papal apartments that are now known as “Raphael’s Rooms” were commissioned by Pope Julius II upon his election to the papal throne. Rather than live in the rooms of his predecessor, Pope Alexander VI Borgia, whom Julius detested, Pope Julius collected a team of artists, including Raphael, to redecorate previously unused chambers. Raphael was soon put in charge of the whole project.
The Room of Heliodorus was the second of the papal apartments to be decorated. Its walls are frescoed with events chosen to convey a dual message: of God’s protection of the Church and of Julius II’s desire to “free Italy” from its current French occupation. The fresco from which this room takes its name, Expulsion of Heliodorus from theTemple, depicts a Biblical episode wherein a Syrian named Heliodorus is sent to the Temple in Jerusalem to take its treasure. The high priest of the temple calls on God for protection, and God sends a horsemen and two youths to banish Heliodorus.
Pope Julius II is seen on the left, witnessing the event, while Heliodorus is knocked to the floor with the spilled gold in the right corner of the work. The implicit characterization of the French as the thieving Heliodorus would not have been lost on the fresco’s contemporary viewers.
Also in this room is the Encounter of Leo the Great with Attila, which was completed after Pope Julius II’s death. The portrait of his successor, Pope Leo X, appears twice in this fresco: once as Leo the Great and once as a cardinal. According to legend, St. Peter and St. Paul appeared during this momentous meeting, and it was this appearance that dissuaded Attila from invading Italy. (As typical of portraits of St. Peter, he is depicted holding keys; while St. Paul is identifiable via his pointed beard.) Once again, the underlying message to the French, that God protects Rome from foreign invaders, would have been very potent to contemporaries.
It is the Room of the Segnatura, however, that houses Raphael’s most famous frescoes, including his School of Athens. Julius II used this room as his study/library, and it is this use that the frescoes are meant to reflect.
The School of Athens celebrates philosophers, focusing on Plato and Aristotle, who represent the two schools of thought: idealism and realism. Plato, holding his Timaeus, is pointing to the heaven as the source of knowledge while Aristotle, holding his Ethics, points to the earth.
The Room of the Fire in the Borgo was decorated after Pope Julius II’s death in 1513. The new pontiff, Pope Leo X, took over the commission given to Raphael and made significant changes. One of those changes was to dedicate this room to the pope’s namesakes, Leo III and Leo IV. Thus, the paintings include the Crowning of Charlemagne, which depicts the crowning of Charlemagne by the Pope in the year AD 800, the Justification of Leo III, the oath taken by Leo III that reaffirmed the principle that the pope is answerable to God alone, and the Battle of Ostia when, in AD 849, the papal armies were pitted against Muslim forces.
The Fire in the Borgo depicts the fire that broke out in AD 847 in front of St. Peter’s, in an area known as the Borgo. Allegedly, the efforts of a mass of people to put the fire out had no effect until Pope Leo IV appeared at a window in the Vatican Palace and imparted a blessing. At that moment, the fire was miraculously extinguished.
Leo IV can be seen in the background, giving his blessing while in the left foreground is a group of figures inspired by Virgil’s homeric epic Aeneid. In the Aeneid, the hero Aeneas flees his home city of Troy as the Greeks burn it to the ground. Aeneas carries his father, Anchises, on his back while his young son, Ascanius, runs alongside him. After escaping Troy, Aeneas leads the surviving Trojans on a treacherous search for a new homeland, eventually settling in what would one day become Rome. Allegedly, the mythical founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, are Aeneas’ descendants. It is in this way that Virgil ties Rome and its founding to a prestigious and ancient culture. (During Rome’s early history, many, including Greeks, thought of Rome as an uncultured back-water. Apparently, even the Romans felt like they had something to prove.)
One of the most well known of the saints is St. Peter (for whom the Vatican’s Cathedral is named). According to the Bible, St. Peter led his fellow 12 Apostles after Jesus was crucified, and as the leader of the early Church, he is considered by the Church to be its first pope. He is typically depicted with a set of keys (which has been incorporated into Papal coat of arms, as a nod to its first pope) because Jesus is supposed to have told him that he would give St. Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Another saint that was a popular subject among Renaissance artists is St. John the Baptist. Generally, St. John is recognizable via his animal hair tunic.
Saint Jerome’s major identifier is his tamed lion.
St. Paul is identifiable via his long, pointed beard and (usually) bald head. He is also generally holding a sword, an allusion to his martyrdom (he was beheaded by Romans), and a book, a reference to his epistles.
One of the most fascinating museums housed in the Vatican is the New Pinacoteca. The “new” Vatican Pinacoteca actually dates to 1932 (although in comparison with the works held, this could be accurately dubbed “new”). Most of the painting held in this collection picture Christian themes, stories, images, and sometimes all of the above. Therefore, before we dive in, I linked this page to go over some of the saints’ typical iconography. (I will be regularly updating it as more saints appear in the art in later posts.)
The first major art work I want to talk about it known as the Stefaneschi triptych (Giotto di Bondone, c. 1330). It was commissioned by Cardinal Jacopo Caetani degli Stefaneschi for the high altar of St. Peter’s (St. Peter’s being the Vatican’s church). For such an important piece, Stefaneschi commissioned the famous Giotto. At this time, Giotto had already been praised as the greatest artist of the time by such names as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio due to his innovative technique of depicting figures with life and emotion. The figures in Giotto’s work are not static, but real and relatable; indeed, human.
Next on our swift tour of the gallery is The Redeemer conferring a blessing (Simone Martini, 1315-20), which is believed to be a panel of a polyptych (an altarpiece that was very popular during the 14th and 15th centuries). Martini manages to infuse the old tradition of Byzantine with the more modern elegance and refinement of color found in his home town of Siena. The Byzantine School was characterized by emotionless figures set in a gold background. Although those features are indeed present in this work, Martini’s positioning of the hands betrays the modern innovation that was swirling around the art world at this time: depth creation and perspective. The mere placement of one hand on a book while the other raised in a blessing catapults this work into straight into the nascent stirrings of the Renaissance.
Sixtus IV appoints Bartolomeo Platina Prefect of the Vatican Library (Melozzo da Forlì) illustrates the appointment of Bartolomeo Sacchi as the first Prefect of the Vatican Library. Sacchi (known as Platina) had been put in charge of building the new Vatican Library, but during his momentous building project, he stripped marble, ancient sculptures, and other building material from ancient Roman buildings to incorporate within the new library. So although he helped beautify “new” Rome, it was at the expense of the old.
The painting shows Pope Sixtus IV surrounded by his cardinal and lay nephews, including Raffaele Riario (standing behind the Pope’s throne) and Giuliano della Rovere (the Cardinal in red), the future Pope Julius II, ominously known as il papá terrible. Astonishingly, the painting was painted in only thirty days.
The Vatican owns several of Raphael’s works, including one known as the Crowning of the Virgin (also known as the Oddi Altarpiece) (Raffaello Sanzio, 1502-04), which was originally intended for the altar of the Oddi Chapel in the church of St. Francesco al Prato in Perugia. It is an early work, and as such, it is the closest of his paintings to the style of his maestro Perugino. Like his final piece, Transfiguration, this work depicts two scenes, one on top of the other, but unlike his Transfiguration, this work fails to unify the two scenes into a single composition, leaving it feeling disjointed.
Another Raphael is known as the Madonna of Foligno (1511), which was commissioned by Sigismondo dei Conti for the high altar of St. Maria in Aracoeli (Rome). Unfortunately, Sigismondo died before he could provide the intended inscription on the plaque held by the angel, and none of his heirs wanted to presume what the inscription was supposed to be; thus, the angel was left holding a blank plaque. Sigismondo is shown on the right, kneeling by St. Jerome, while on the left, St. John the Baptist is standing next to St. Francis. The background of the scene may provide the motive for this ex voto altarpiece. In the distance is a town that is narrowingly missed by an oncoming meteorite.
Raphael’s last major piece in this museum is The Transfiguration, which was commissioned by then-Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (later, Pope Clement VII) for the cathedral of St. Giusto of Narbonne. Raphael, however, was notoriously slow at the time of this commission due to his immense popularity and ever-growing number of commissions. To speed Raphael’s work along, Cardinal Medici commissioned a second altarpiece from Raphael’s great rival, Sebastiano del Piombo. In response, Raphael determined to create a complex composition, which proved it be his final work.
Like Raphael’s two other works mentioned above, the Transfiguration separates the action into two distinct scenes. But here, the distinct scenes flow together into a single cohesive composition. The first is the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, when the divinity of Christ is revealed in the presence of the prophets Moses and Elias. The second depicts a possessed boy, surrounded by the disciples, who await Jesus’ return from Mount Tabor. The piece illustrates the transition from High Renaissance to Mannerism, which is typified by agitated movement, intense emotion, and deep color schemes.
Next on our list is the Vision of St. Helen (Veronese, 1580). St. Helen was the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great (the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity). According to the Church, St. Helen recovered a piece of the True Cross (the cross on which Jesus was crucified) from Palestine and took it back to the West as a relic.
Veronese was well-known for depicting female saints in luxurious silks and velvets, paying special attention to the folds and weight of the cloths. Additionally, St. Helen is placed in a setting that is reminiscent of a late sixteenth century Venetian room despite the fact that she died during the fourth century. Veronese does, however, add the marble columns in the background, maybe as a nod to her ancient roots.
The Entombment is considered to be one of Caravaggio’s greatest works, it was commissioned by Girolamo Vittrice for his family chapel in Santa Maria in Vallicella. Caravaggio deviated from the traditional iconography (as he typically would when painting religious themes), showing Christ being laid by Nicodemus and John on the Anointing Stone (the stone that is used to close the sepulchre). In fact, Caravaggio was known for his revolutionary treatment not only of religious figures but of art and painting in general. By all accounts, Caravaggio was irascible, violent, and unpredictable. (For an entertaining and informative podcast on Caravaggio’s life, check out Daniele Bolelli’s History on Fire, episode 11). And his character is reflected in his work.
Although apprenticed in a studio during his youth, Caravaggio was largely self-taught, allowing him to develop a distinctive style that (1) focused on light and its effects; and (2) depicted his figures as realistically as possible. You can see in his Entombment that the saints are shown without their usual halos and are not adorned in gold and light. Instead, Caravaggio’s saints are human, with human cares and human worries shown in their furrowed brows and crestfallen faces.
Finally, we get to the Communion of St Jerome (Domenichino, 1611-14), which was commissioned by the Congregation of St. Jerome of Charity for the high altar of St. Jerome della Carità in Rome. The work depicts St. Jerome taking his last communion before his death.
The positioning of the Eucharist speaks to the turbulent times, especially in terms of religion. This work was produced during the Counter-Reformation, which was characterized by the Catholic Church’s reaffirmation of its central doctrines, including transubstantiation and the worship of the martyrs. The Counter-Reformation was the Church’s response to the Protestant movements arising across the Western world. One of the tenants championed by the Protestants was that the Eucharist did not actually transform into the body of Christ during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, a process known as transubstantiation. Placing the host smackdab in the center of the painting was likely meant to promote the doctrine.
Indeed, despite artists’ personal religious leanings, they tended to try and stay on the right side of the Catholic Church publically. Mainly because it was the Church from which most of their commissions came. Indeed, a major attempt to stem the Protestant movement was the increase of commissions of art. At the time, Protestants believed that art in church equated to worship of a saint, and thereby worship of an idol, which was prohibited by the Ten Commandments. Therefore, the Catholic Church poured money into art to make its churches more beautiful to entice people to attend mass.
The Gregorian Etruscan Museum was the first museum dedicated solely to artifacts found in ancient Etruria (modern-day Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria).
Etruscan cities were prosperous, independent city-states that were linked by culture, religion, and language. Because of their prosperity, trade flourished in this area, leaving many artifacts for archeologists to find and study. Etruria remained a dominant force in central Italy until the Etruscans supported the Roman Marius in Rome’s civil war and the region was fully incorporated into the burgeoning Roman Empire.
By far the most interesting room of this museum is Room IX, which houses imported Greek ceramics found in the ancient city of Vulci. Before we dive into the artwork, it is probably helpful to explain the different types and uses of each vessel.
The first ceramic depicted above, the Amphora, was used to hold both wine and oil. Its name was derived from the Greek word amphí, which means “on both sides” (a reference to the double handle), and the Greek word phérō, which means “carry.” Victors of the Panathenaic Games would receive so-called Panathenaic amphora filled with oil made from sacred olives.
The next ceramic, the Kantharos, was a deep vessel with a tall foot and two handles that rose above the lip of the cup. It was closely linked to the God Dionysus, who would typically be depicted with a Kantharos.
The Kyathos was a deep vessel with a low foot and a single handle that rose above the lip of the cup. It was used as a ladle, and in fact, the word “Kyathos” was a term of measurement, meaning 0.136 litres.
A Kylix was a wide vessel with two handles and was used during symposia (drinking parties). It was also used in a game known as kottabos, where a player would attempt to fling wine from a whirling kylix into a small container.
The Oinochoe was used in conjunction with the Kylix during symposia. It was the vessel which transported wine from a krater to the kylix. Its name was derived from the Greek word oînos, which means “wine,” and the Greek word chéō, which means “I pour” – pretty literal those Greeks, even if they did have awesome drinking parties.
Finally, the Hydria was used to hold and transport water. Its name was derived from the Greek word hydōr, which means “water.” This particular vessel had three handles, two on either side and a third protruding from the lip, which was used while carrying the vessel on one’s head.
Now that we have the types of ceramics straight, let’s dig into the actual works located in this room. The first major work is known as the Attic black figure Amphora by the Ptoion Painter, which juxtaposes a banquet scene, representing the world of man, with a scene depicting the Judgment of Paris, representing the world of the gods. The Ptoion Painter was well known for his depictions of this juxtaposition of the two universes. In fact, similar juxtapositions are also found painted in Etruscan tombs; these paintings are believed to have been done by Greek immigrant artists.
The Attic black figure Amphora of the E Group has been identified as being part of the “E Group,” a classification of amphorae that are thought to have been created by the Attic potter Exekias, who was active during the 6th century BC. This particular amphora depicts a victorious athlete lifting a large tripod on one side while on the other depicts a charioteer. Exekias was known to be fond of depicting horses, four of which appear on this amphora.
The Etruscan black figure Amphora by the Micali Painter is decorated with a battle between Iolaus, Athena, Heracles, Cycnus, Ares, and Phobos, among others. It has been attributed to the Painter of Micali, who was known for his disproportionate figures, reduced spaces, marked gestures, approximate anatomies, and ornamental details.
Rooms XVII and XVIII of the Gregorian Etruscan Museum house what were thought to be Etruscan, but were re-identified as Roman or Greek vases.
For instance, the Laconic Kylix with Prometheus and Atlas was made in Sparta during the early 6th century BC. It depicts Atlas, whose punishment for helping his brother Prometheus is to keep heaven and earth separated. Prometheus, on the other hand, was tied to a pole and presented as food for an eagle, who ate his liver every day, only for it to regrow every night. Comparatively, Atlas sounds like he got off lightly.
Room XIX of the Museum is dedicated to Attic ceramics ranging from 560 to 460 BC, which reached Etrusia via trade routes from Athens. In this room is the Panathenaic Attic Amphora of the Michigan Painter, which is typical of panathenaic amphorae. As mentioned above, panathenaic amphorae were given to the winners of the Panathenaic games. All such Amphorae were decorated with the goddess Athena, flanked by two small columns topped with a cockerel, a symbol of combative temperament, and the inscription “ton Athenethen athlon,” meaning “of the Athens contests.”
During the 6th century BC, ceramicists moved away from the traditional black-figure style in favor of the red-figure method, which allowed ceramicists to better define the figure’s details, since the details were now painted on instead of scratched into the ceramic. The “Bilingual” Attic Kylix shows the transition towards fully adopting the red-figure style, combining both methods into the single work. Indeed, the figure on the inside of the kylix was done in the black-figure style, while the figures on the outside surface are done in the red-figure style on a painted black background.
Attic black figure Amphora signed by Exekia is one of the most famous amphorae. The ceramicist Exekia, as mentioned above, was rather prolific, and this amphora is considered his masterpiece. It depicts Achilles and Ajax playing dice on one side and Castor and his horse Kyllaros and Pollux playing with his dog on the other.
For those unfamiliar with the Trojan War myth, Achilles is the Greek’s greatest fighter and is nearly invincible, save for his ankle (thus, our expression “Achilles’ heel”). Ajax is a fellow Greek warrior in the fight against Troy; in fact, it was said that he was second in bravery and strength only to Achilles. He is known for recovering Achilles’ body from the Trojans and for committing suicide after Achilles’ armor is awarded to Odysseus rather than to him. This scene obviously takes place before the tragic ending of these two mythical heroes. Castor and Pollux, depicted on the reverse, are mythical twins of Leda and Zeus, the father of the Gods, who had seduced Leda while he was in the guise of a swan. (Although according to some versions of the story, Pollux is the son of Zeus and Castor is the son of Leda’s husband, the King of Sparta.) The Greek gods had very messy love lifes.
Another famous ceramic is the Attic Kylix in the style of Douris, which depicts Heracles floating along inside a golden goblet (yes, a golden goblet) on his way to the island of Erytheia, where he will face the Geryon, the herdsman Eurytion, and the dog Orthros on his quest to capture a herd of cattle (his 10th labor). Heracles is shown in his usual iconography: the Nemean lion skin, the cub, and the bow.
The Attic Kantharos of the Vatican Class also uses Heracles’ life as its inspiration. This kantharos is a janiform with the face of Heracles on one side and the face of an African King on the other.
Historians believe that the King is a depiction of Busiris, the mythical Egyptian king who sacrificed any foreigner that came to Egypt in exchange for the total avoidance of famine. Heracles was such a foreigner who was captured and brought to the sacrificial altar, which turned out to be a disatorious mistake on the part of the Egyptians. Heracles escaped his bindings and massacred the entire Egyptian court.
The final vessel that I want to talk about is the Attic Kylix of the Painter of Oedipus. On the inside of the ceramic, Oedipus is depicted seated listening to a riddle put to him by the Sphinx of Thebes. To enter the city, Oedipus must answer the riddle correctly, which he is indeed able to do. Upon entering the city, however, Oedipus unwittingly married his mother, recently widowed Jocasta, Queen of Thebes. Giving Sigmund Freud the name for his famous “Oedipus Complex.”
The Octagonal Court was once known as the Cortile delle Statue because it was here that Pope Julius II displayed his collection of antique sculpture. Major works here include The River God (Arno), which dates from the age of Hadrian.
It is thought to be a personalization of the River Arno because the sculpture has a carving of a lion’s head, which possibly alludes to the Medici. (The lion’s head is hiding within the vase; see the picture below for a better view.) The Arno River is the river running through Florence, the city that the Medici unofficially ruled until they were formally invested as the Grand Dukes of Tuscany.
Another famous statue is the Lacoön, depicted below.
Lacoön depicts the moment when the priest Lacoön and his sons are killed by serpents after they tried to warn the Trojans about the wooden horse. According to Roman historian Pliny the Elder, this statute once graced the halls of Emperor Titus. The sculpture was rediscovered in 1506 and immediately acquired by Pope Julius II. It was during this time that Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel, and its influence can been identified in his depiction of the human body.
The Renaissance artists were also captivated by the Belvedere Apollo.
Apollo Belvedere (mid 2nd century A.D.) was considered to be bodily “perfection” by the Renaissance thinkers. It is believed to be a Roman copy of an earlier Greek bronze from 330 BC, but the decision to make the copy in marble presented structural problems, most significant of which was that statues made of bronze were hollow and therefore much lighter than statutes made of marble. To compensate for the weight, the sculptor placed a wedge of marble underneath Apollo’s left foot and added the support of a tree trunk behind the statue. Apollo came to the Vatican without hands, but – on the advice of Michelangelo – Pope Clement VII commissioned sculpture Giovanni Agnolo Montorsoli to restore the statue. Unfortunately, rather than simply sculpt hands for Apollo, Montorsoli cut off Apollo’s forearm and replaced it with his own design. This “restoration,” being made of marble, also needed support for its added weight, and Montorsoli inserted the block of marble that sits atop the tree trunk.
Another statue named for its location in the Papal Palace is the Belvedere Hermes. Hermes is depicted in his role of Psychopompos (if anyone watches Netflix’s Sabrina, the term should be familiar), the leader of souls to the underworld. He is identifiable via his travelling cloak, which has been thrown over his shoulder, then wrapped around his forearm, typical iconography for Psychopompos.
The last major masterpiece in the courtyard is Perseus Triumphant.
Perseus Triumphant is a relatively recent work, comparatively speaking. It was carved by renowned sculptor Antonio Canova in late 1800/early 1801. Perseus is shown holding Medusa’s severed head, dressed in Hermes’ winged cap, which he had borrowed for his adventure. Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti bought the statue, which he displayed on the pedestal that once held the Apollo Belvedere, but was currently unoccupied due to Napoleon’s forced art acquisition. Luckily, Perseus was of the same dimensions, weight, and proportions of the Apollo, as it was that piece of art that inspired Canova.
The Gregorian Egyptian Museum was founded in 1839 by Pope Gregory XVI and consists of nine rooms that once housed Pope Pius IV’s private apartments in the Belvedere Palace. During the Imperial Age, Romans were crazy for everything Egyptian, and it became fashionable to import Egyptian works to Rome to decorate residences, shrines, temples, etc. In fact, after the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. (when the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, defeated his one-time ally Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt), rich Romans imported various spoils of war to their city, spurring a fade. Later Emperors continued the importation of Egyptian artifacts during their respective reigns, thus creating the treasure trove that is now housed in the Vatican.
The First Room of the museum houses epigraphic artefacts (i.e. artefacts with inscriptions). Its centerpiece is the partial Statue of Ramesses IIEnthroned, which is engraved with the Pharaoh’s cartouches (a “cartouche” is an oval shape enclosing hieroglyphs that represent a name). Some scholars believe that Ramesses II may be the Pharaoh mentioned in Exodus, against whom Moses and Aaron revolted. Ramesses II was also known as Ozymandias in Greek, and it is this name that Percy Shelley invokes in his eponymous sonnet:
I met a traveller from an antique land, Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand, Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The other notable artifacts in this room include the False-door funerary stele of Iry (2230-2180 B.C.). According to the Egyptians, funerary stelae would “render living the name” of the deceased and give them life in the afterlife. “False-door” funerary steles were derived from the ancient practice of putting frame stelae into the façade of a building. The false-door stelae mimicked this practice, but instead of decorating the façade of a building, they were placed in the façade of the funeral chapel. It was in front of this “door” that the deceased’s relatives could place offerings of food and drink (apparently, one still needed such things in the afterlife). This particular stele was found in the tomb of Iry, or Iri-en-achti, a priest of the cult of the Pharaoh Khufu, as well as Khufu’s superintendent of the pyramid of Giza.
The Commemorative stele depicts Hatshepsut with her nephew, the future Thutmose III. Hatshepsut was one of the world’s first feminists. The daughter of one king and the wife of the other, she took hold of power while acting as regent for her nephew and named herself co-king. Unfortunately, in his old age, Thutmose III ordered that history forget her, and he attempted to erase her name from everything that alluded to her kingship. But, obviously, we know she ruled as King (from this stele as well as other sources), and so he failed in erasing her reign from history. For more detailed analysis of Hatshepsut’s story, look into The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney. It is a very interesting read that touches on a myriad of issues including gender roles, social status, and the influence of religion on both.
The challenges Hatshepsut faced and the sacrifices she made are familiar to powerful women of the twenty-first century: balancing the personal and the political, overcoming stereotypes of hysterical and unbalanced femininity, and making compromises never asked of powerful men.
Another interesting artifact housed in this room is known as The Vatican Naophorous (521-486 B.C.). A Naophorous is a statue holding the naos symbol, the symbol of a temple. This particular naophorous is in the likeness of Udjahorresnet, the “chief physician, treasurer of the king of Lower Egypt and commander of the king’s fleet.” Udjahorresnet lived during the Persian occupation of Egypt, which is described in the hieroglyphics as relatively peaceful, a description which is in stark contrast to the Greek’s description of the Persian occupation (think the movie 300, when the 300 Spartans defended the narrow pass of Thermopylae). Interesting to note the differences in which cultures respond to occupations.
Room II houses works related to the funerary customs of Ancient Egypt, including two mummies, the more famous of whom is named the “Lady of the Vatican.” The Shroud of the “Lady of the Vatican” is unique, as compared to traditional female burial shrouds, because it depicts the entire body of the deceased rather than simply the face. In fact, only six such shrouds are known to be in existence today. The lady depicted in the shroud is wearing robes and jewelry are typical of the Roman Era; in fact, her hairstyle mimics those of the Imperial women from the Severian family. Apparently, the Severian women were the “Princess Kates” of their day (except without the helpful websites that tell you where Kate gets her amazing clothes – for those who are interested whatkatewore is a great resource, providing Kate’s schedule, details about her look, and dupes of her clothes that are nicer to your pocketbook than clothes worn by royals). The other mummy, The Mummy of Amenirdis, dates from the 21st Dynasty, when mummification became the norm even among the lower classes. It was around this time that the belief that preserving the body ensured eternal life became popularized.
The Sarcophagus of Djedmut sarcophagus dates to the 22nd Dynasty, during which there was an economic crisis. Due to the limited resources during this time, the sarcophagus itself was decorated, rather than the usual practice of inscribing the tomb, and thud the text inscribed on the sarcophagus had to be condensed. Sarcophagi contained three parts: (1) an external sarcophagus (which is what is exhibited here); (2) an internal sarcophagus (Djedmut’s is in the Museum of Rochelle in France); and (3) a wooden cover.
The Ushabti of Pharaoh Seti I (Ushabti were funerary figurines that were buried with the deceased to help him or her in the afterlife. Ushabti actually means “he who answers.”) are from the tomb of Seti I (the father of Ramesses the Great), located in the Valley of the Kings. Seti I was buried with over 700 hundred Ushabti – obviously he thought he needed a ton of help in the afterlife – but they are now dispersed around the world, so I guess he might have to do more work in the afterlife than he had planned. The material with which ushabti were made varied, but Seti I’s ushabti are made out of wood and covered with a resin of some sort of vegetable, known as “black varnish,” which is supposed to signify survival after death.
The final masterpiece held in this room is the Fayum Portrait of a Young Man. Fayum Portraits, which were made out of wood and painted with tempera or encaustic, were placed over the face of the deceased, replacing the traditional funeral masks. Although called “Fayum Portraits” because the first were found in Fayum, others have since been discovered elsewhere in Egypt. Scholars believe the Fayum Portraits to be a wholly Hellenistic influence on Egyptian burial customs, in part, because the portraits became popular around the same time as the Roman occupation of Egypt.
Room III is a reconstruction of the Serapeum of the Canopus in Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli. Emperor Hadrian’s villa contained a multitude of Egyptian artifacts, which were moved to this room in the Vatican. The original curator of this museum believed that the Serapeum was a place of worship, but based on recent excavations in the villa, it is now believed that the space was actually a banqueting area, and that the name “Canopus” actually refers to a city on the Egyptian Delta, which Romans would retreat to for holidays. Located in this room are a Statue of Osiris-Apis, one side of which represents Osiris and the other the bull Apis, and a Statue of Osiris-Antonius. Emperor Hadrian’s favourite, Antinous, drowned in the Nile in AD 130, prompting Hadrian to found the city of Antinoopolis and deify him. The new cult was known as Osiris-Antinous; it took off with the citizens.
Room IV holds Roman works that were inspired by the influx of Egyptian culture after Augustus won the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Major works in this room include a Campana Plaque (mid 1st century BC through the mid 2nd century AD), The Cacco (the Roman term “Cacco” means “macaque,” a type of Asian monkey) (Phildias and Ammonios, AD 159), which once portrayed a dog, a sacred animal to the god Thoth, but it has since been damaged, and a Statue of the God Anubis (1st to 2nd century A.D.), the Egyptian god of death, who was typically represented as a jackal. Interestingly, in Roman culture, Anubis was merged with the Roman god Mercury, which is why he is seen here with Mercury’s staff.
The Statuary in Room V houses Egyptian statues, including The Head of Pharaoh Mentuhotep II, which likely came from his burial site in Thebes. Also here is The Statue of Queen Tuya, which originally depicted Queen Tiye, the wife of Amenhotep III, but it was repurposed by Ramesses II to honor his mother Tuya. Next to Tuya is the princess Henutmire, one of Ramesses’ sisters. Other works include a Statue of the God Bes, the god of infants and expecting mothers, and The Anthropomorphic Statue of the God Apis. The god Ptah and a virgin cow produced a bull that lived on earth and was the divine incarnation of Apis. When the bull died, the god’s essence united with the god Osiris, creating the god Osiris-Apis.
Located in Room VI is an Urn for the Mummy of a Cat, which is not as nice as it sounds. The Egyptians would strangle or fracture the spinal cord of baby kittens to offer as sacrifices to the gods, specifically the goddess Bastet. According to myth, Bastet was a lioness who had to be “tranquilised” through ritual (and apparently through offerings of dead cats, which I would think would piss her off more…..). Also located here is the Statuette of an ibis, which was probably the vessel for a mummified ibis (hopefully not killed or sacrificed like the kittens). During holidays, priests of the cult of Thoth (who manifested as an ibis) would take statuettes like the one here from the temple dedicated to Thoth in Hermopolis to the Tuna el-Gebel necropolis.
On a more happy note, The Stele of Horus on Crocodiles is housed in this room. It depicts Horus (son of Isis, goddess of magic) standing on two crocodiles, while simultaneously holding several dangerous animals. This image is meant to convey his triumph over evil. Steles, such as this one, were believed to be infused with magic that cured individuals who had been stung by a scorpion or bitten by a snake, forcing my husband (a toxicologist) out of the job.
Room VII houses artifacts from the 4th through 2nd century BC, generally from Alexandria and Palmyra, a Syrian city that connected Rome with Persia and therefore, was a commercial hub. Objects from all over the known world would pass through Palmyra, either going to or coming from Rome. The constant movement of goods through this city has produced many artifacts for historians to mull over, including the Alexandrian Terracottas that were produced in Alexandria during the Ptolemaic and Roman Age and the Palmyran Burial Reliefs (2nd and 3rd century AD). The necropolises in Palmyra contained three different types of tombs: (1) tombs shaped like a tower; (2) those underground; and (3) those in the form of a mound. Those in the form of a tower and those underground were sealed with limestone slabs that depicted the deceased and are now located in this room.
Room VIII houses “antiquities of the Ancient Near East,” or in other words, works from Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine (3rd to 2nd century BC). I’m not quite sure why they are housed in the Egyptian museum, but they are… One of the most significant pieces, although seemingly mundane to modern eyes, is a cuneiform tablet that records a sale of land in Sumerian. The Sumerians, who lived in Mesopotamia, produced the first known writing in the 4th millennium BC (i.e. 4000 BC to 3001 BC), and this tablet is a prime example of the cuneiform script. Also here are Cylindrical Seals, which were generally worn around an individual’s neck and were used for signatures in Mesopotamia starting in the 3rd millennium BC. The Cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II celebrates King Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Persia from 605-562 BC.
Room IX houses several reliefs and inscriptions that once decorated Assyrian Palaces. The inscriptions were written to celebrate Assyrian greatness as well as the Assyrian Kings’ accomplishments. By linking the magistry of the kings, the expansive palatial complexes, mythical heroes and military successes, the inscriptions elevated the status and prestige of the Imperial elite. If you’re wondering why Assyrian artifacts are housed in the Egyptian museum, it is because Assyria conquered Egypt in 671 B.C. under King Esarhaddon. Assyria, however, was only able to hold onto Egypt for a short period.
The Relief with winged Genius comes from Ashurnasirpal II’s palace, which was located on the Acropolis of Nimrud, ancient Khalku. Ashurnasirpal II reigned from 883 through 859 BC, and it was under his rule that neo-Assyrian figurative art bloomed. The relief is an example of such art, and it depicts the sacred tree (which symbolized royal fruitfulness) protected by Genius. In stark contrast to the flourishing art and culture occurring at his court, Ashurnasirpal II’s reign was characterized by violent empire expansion. He was known for his brutal treatment of conquered peoples; in fact, his “trademark” was to skin the conquered city officials alive and nail the result to the city’s walls. He did have a great party (allegedly inviting about 70,000 people) to celebrate the establishment of his new town Khalku though…
The Brick with Inscription of Sargon II is from Sargon II’s palace located in Khorsabad. The inscription is in Sumerian and states, “Sargon, king of the universe, built this city: Dûr-Sharrûkin [literally “fortress of Sargon”] is its name; within, he had this unrivalled palace built.” Sargon II, who reigned from 722 through 705 B.C., founded the Sargonid Dynasty, which would reign Assyria for the next century until Assyria’s eventual fall and Babylon’s rise. It was under Sargon that the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed, causing 10 of the 12 Hebrew tribes to disappear from history. They are known as the “Lost Ten Tribes.”
The Relief with Assyrian Soldiers is from Sennacherib’s palace and depicts Assyrian soldiers leaving a city’s gates, carrying loot, thus emphasizing the military prowess and wealth of the Assyrian state. Sennacherib, Sargon II’s son, ruled from 705 through 681 B.C. Sennacherib moved the capital to Nineveh; some historians believe he had issues with his father so he obviously did not want to live in his father’s city, if indeed that is the case. He apparently had issues with his own sons as well, since they assassinated him.
The Relief with Arab Tent Set Alight is from Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh. The relief (in conjunction with another which is at the British Museum) depicts Ashurbanipal’s victories over the nomads who lived in the Syro-Arabian desert. The Relief with the siege of Bit-Bunaki is also from the Ashurbanipal palace and, as its name implies, depicts the siege of Bit-Bunaki. Ashurbanipal was Sennacherib’s grandson, and he reigned from 680 through 636 BC.
While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls—the World.
Rome is a huge city, packed with tourists – even in the off months – and in light of that, today’s post is simply about “Ancient Rome.”
The most iconic attraction in the old part of the city is the Colosseum, which is actually not the building’s true name. The real name of the Colosseum is the “Flavian Amphitheatre,” but it became known as the Colosseum due to the giant statue of Roman Emperor Nero that stood next to it (Colossus is derived from the Greek word for “giant statue”).
The Colosseum was commissioned in AD 72 by Emperor Vespasian (the first of the Flavian Emperors), who had no blood right to the throne, and his son, Emperor Titus. As part of their campaign for legitimacy, they built the Colosseum on the former Emperor Nero’s private boating lake. Thus, the Flavians could boast that they were “reclaiming” the land for the people by giving the people bread and circuses. The Colosseum is 160 feet high, almost a third of a mile around, and could accommodate 50,000 people. This amphitheatre was unique in that it was round, rather than the traditional semi-circles used by Greek theatres. It was possible to build a round structure because of the use of Roman concrete, an innovation not known to the Greeks. Silly Greeks. The vestal virgins (see, infra) actually got their own special box so that they could come and watch the games. Although one would think watching half naked men fight to the death would not be considered virginal.
Gladiators occupied a blurred social space in the Roman hierarchy. Typically from the lower classes, gladiators were revered by the Romans for their “Roman-like” qualities and became celebrities. Some gladiators would eventually win or earn enough money to buy their freedom, thereby achieving the “rags to riches” archetype. Giving slaves and lower classes this hope helped to keep them in line. Basically, this process was the predecessor to the myth of the “American Dream.” But, in AD 404 gladiatorial games were banned, then in AD 523 wild animal fighting was banned. Thus, ending (without answering) the hard question of gladiatorial social status.
Located nearby the Colosseum is the Arch of Constantine (AD 312), which was built to commemorate Emperor Constantine’s victory over Maxentius (a “pretender” Emperor). Before the final battle against Maxentius, Constantine converted to Christianity allegedly due to a vision. The Arch was hastily built, and in fact incorporates multiple statues from other earlier buildings, including part of a battle frieze as well as figures of prisoners from the Forum of Trajan, several Hadrianic roundels, and eight Aurelian panels.
The next major site that people typically want to see is known as the Forum. The Forum was originally used as a necropolis (i.e. cemetery), and subsequently was the site of the Battle of Lake Curzio, a battle between the Romans and the Sabines, before it became the center of Roman life. It was eventually abandoned and buried, becoming a grazing area known as Campo Vaccino and then a quarry, although some temples were saved from dereliction because they were repurposed as Churches. It was during the beginning of the Republic that the Temple of Saturn and the Temple of the Dioscuri were built (509 BC), and during the 2nd century, the four basilicas were built, including the Basilica Aemilia, which was built by Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Marcus Fulvius Nobilior in 179 BC, but burned down during the sack of Rome in AD 410. It is possible to still see melted coins in the pavement from when it burned. Also here is the Basilica of Constantine, only one third of which remains today (it once spanned a space the size of a football stadium), and at the far west end stood a huge statue of Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Roman Emperor), the remains of which are now housed in the Capitoline Museum.
Several temples dedicated to past emperors remain in the Form. For instance, the Temple of Antoninus Pius & Faustina was built to honor Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife, Faustina.
The Temple of Romulus was probably dedicated to the son of Emperor Maxentius (and not the mythical founder of Rome). It was a circular brick building with bronze doors. In the 6th century, it was converted into a church of Santi Cosma e Damiano, which likely is why it survives to this day, and it now houses an 18th century Neapolitan presepio (the nativity scene). Also located here is the Temple of Julius Caesar, which was built on the spot where Caesar was cremated in 44 BC.
The temples not dedicated to former emperors include: the Temple of Vesta, Ancient Rome’s most sacred temple. This temple was circular to mimic a farmer’s hut (typical of where the “ideal” Roman and his family would live), and it housed a fire (Vesta was the goddess of fire), which was tended by the Vestal Virgins. It was said that if the flame ever went out, Rome would fall. The six Vestal Virgins lived in The House of the Vestal Virgins. The virgins were chosen from noble families before they reached the age of 10, and each served 30 year terms. The Vestals were so revered that they got their own box seats at the Colosseum, and those virgins who successfully fulfilled their terms were given a huge dowry and allowed to marry. Those who dared to break their vow of chastity were buried alive, which seems to me like an overreaction. But, you know, gotta make sure that those girls tend to that fire.
The Temple of Saturn now stands as the most prominent of the ruins in a fenced off area between the Forum and the Capitoline Hill. The ruins date from 42 BC, but historians think there was a temple on this sport as early as 497 BC. Saturn was the mythical King God of Italy, who ruled over an Italy in which there was no slavery, personal property or war. Every year between December 17th and 23rd, the Romans celebrated Saturnalia, where the social order was turned upside down to recreate this fantasy world. (Sounds eerily similar to England’s May day.)
Meanwhile, the three slender fluted columns are now what is left of the Temple Of Castor and Pollux. It is one of the city’s oldest, built in the 5th century BC to commemorate the Roman victory over the Tarquins. According to legend, after the final battle against the Tarquins, the twin brothers Castor and Pollux, Jupiter’s sons, watered the horses at this spot. As a symbol of Rome’s republic, The temple was often used as a meeting place of senators, and its front steps served as a podium for free speech.
The Temple of Venus and Rome was designed by Emperor Hadrian and was purportedly the largest and grandest in Rome. It was dedicated to Roma (the personification of the city) and to Venus Felix (who was thought to be the ancestor of Rome, through her son Aeneas). [There are excellent views of the Colosseum from this Temple]
Also located in the Forum is the Arch of Titus, which commemorated the AD 70 Roman victory over Judea. It was during this war that the Romans burned the Temple down and enslaved over 50,000 Jewish people, who were forced to build this arch as well as the Colosseum, a reminder of the dark underbelly of the Roman Empire. If you look closely, you can see the Jerusalem Menorah carved into the Arch.
This Menorah was stolen during the war and taken back to Rome as a “trophy.” Although usually tolerant of other cultures and religions, the Romans were unable to cope with the Jewish religion due, in part, to what the Romans saw as secretive rituals. The so-described secretive rituals bred suspicions of sedition and dissension, especially when the Jewish religion preached of a coming apocalypse that would overthrow the world powers. This, obviously, did not sit well with the current world powers. Even more troubling to the Romans, however, was the “new Judaism” that had recently begun springing up around the Roman Empire. This new religion was more threatening to the Romans because it allowed non-Jews to convert and join, which meant that distinguishing the converts from typical Romans would be impossible. This new phenomenon was later coined “Christianity.”
The Curia is a 1937 restoration of Diocletian’s Curia. Diocletian changed the way the role of emperor worked by ritualizing imperial power. It was he who divided the cities into units called “dioceses,” which the Church later adopted.
The Rostra is best known for being the site of Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech after the assassination of Caesar. It was a dais where speeches were given to the public. Its name comes from its decoration with ship’s prows, known as “Rostra” in Latin.
The Arch of Septimius Severus was built in AD 203 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of good ole Septimius Severus; the reliefs depict the emperor’s victories in Parthia and Arabia. Originally the inscription across the top was dedicated to Septimius and his sons, Caracalla and Geta, but Caracalla murdered Geta and removed his name (what is it with Romans killing their brothers??). You can still see the holes where the name was removed.
Trajan’s Market was a complex of shops on five levels (with the 5th level acting as a welfare office that delivered the corn dole). The street that ran through the market, Via Biberatica, was named after the drinking inns that had lined it. The market was built by Emperor Trajan and his architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, in the 2nd century AD.
The next major location to see is The Palatine Hill was the home of the wolf that saved Romulus and Remus. She lived in a cave that became known as the Lupercal. In 2007, archaeologists found a vaulted sanctuary that is thought to be the cave that the early Romans believed was the Lupercal, and traces of mud huts have been found that date back to the 8th century BC. The Palatine became the place to live during the Imperial Era; in fact, Augustus was both born on the Palatine (63 BC) and established his imperial residence there. We get the Italian word “palazzo” and the English word “palace” from this Hill. Interestingly, it was on the Palatine and during the 16th century, that the Farnese family built the first private botanical gardens in Europe. The Imperial Forums were built between 46 BC and AD 113. The Forum of Caesar, was built as part of Julius Caesar’s massive building campaign, which was eventually finished by Emperor Augustus. Part of the building included a temple to the goddess Venus Genetrix (from whom Caesar claimed descent). The temple contained statues of Caesar and Cleopatra as well as of Venus, but all that remains now is a platform and three Corinthian columns. The Forum of Augustus was built by Emperor Augustus, in conjunction with the temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger), which he had promised to build if he won the Battle of Philippi against Brutus and Cassius in 41 BC. As a clever propaganda move, the statue of Mars that was placed in the temple resembled Augustus. At least half of this Forum is hidden below Mussolini’s Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Other emperors imitated the Caesars and built their own shrines to themselves. A Temple of Peace was built in honor of Emperor Vespasian, but was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt during the 3rd century as the Forma Urbis Romae. Later, the Emperor Domitian built a piazza to connect the Forums with the Temple of Peace, but he died before he could complete the work, and his successor, Nerva, turned it into the Forum of Nerva. The Forum of Trajan was used for military encampments and to perform judicial procedures. Trajan’s Column stands behind his Forum. The column was inaugurated in AD 113 to celebrate two campaigns in Dacia, (modern day Romania) and is decorated with scenes from the campaigns. Trajan’s ashes were placed in an urn in the hollow base of the column. Allegedly, Pope Gregory the Great prayed to God to release Trajan’s soul from hell because he had been moved by a scene on the Column depicting Trajan helping a woman whose son had been killed. God appeared to the Pope, telling him that the Emperor had been rescued from hell, but that the Pope was not to pray for any more pagans. When Trajan’s ashes were exhumed, his skull and tongue had remained intact and proceeded to tell those who had exhumed him that he had been released from Hell. Due to this miracle, the land surrounding the column was declared scared and the column was spared from destruction. The statue of Trajan at the top, however, was replaced with one of St. Peter in 1587.
The last major site that I’m going to talk about is the Capitoline Hill. Allegedly, Saturn founded a settlement on this hill before the foundation of Rome, and interestingly, archeological evidence does indeed suggest that the hill was inhabited before the traditional date of the founding of Rome (753 BC – a date most historians also find fault with…). Because of its steep incline, it was chosen as the city’s main stronghold despite the fact it is the smallest hill. The Hill is now home to the Capitoline Museum, which is located in the Piazza del Campidoglio. In 1536, Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to design the Piazza del Campidoglio because of an upcoming visit from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but the piazza wasn’t actually finished until the 17th century.
Also located on this Hill is the Temple of Capitoline Jupiter, which was dedicated to Optimus Maximus Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva (the “Capitoline triad”). Construction began during Tarquinius Priscus’ rule, but was not completed until the reign of the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus. It was rebuilt in marble after the fires of 83 BC, 69 BC, and AD 80. The square in front of the Temple was known as the Area Capitolina, where a number of temples dedicated to minor deities, as well as other religious buildings, statues, and trophies were placed.
The Temple of Juno Moneta was built in 344 BC in fulfillment of a promise made by L. Furius Camillus during the war against the Auruncii. According to Legend, Juno’s sacred geese warned the Romans against a Gallic siege, inspiring the temple’s moniker “Moneta,” from the Latin word “to warn.” The name began to be associated with the nearby mint, and as a result, the term “money” was coined. HA! I really didn’t mean for that to be a pun, but bravo, Haley, bravo. My subconscious has bested me yet again.
The Temple of Veiovis was discovered in 1939 during an excavation under the Piazza del Campidoglio. Veiovis was the youthful God of the underworld derived from the ancient Italic version of Jupiter. The temple is located in the same area where Romulus allegedly extended hospitality to fugitives from the greater Latin area in an effort to boost Rome’s population. It was consecrated in 196 BC by Consul Lucius Furius Purpurio during the war against the Gauls, and it was dedicated four years later, in 192 BC, by Quintus Marcius Ralla.
The Capitoline Museum is housed in two palazzi, dei Conservatori and Nuovo (façades designed by Michelangelo). The Museum was founded in 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV donated several bronze statues to the Roman people. During the mid 16th century, other works of sculpture were placed in the Campidoglio, and in 1538, Pope Paul III requested that the Lateran (the first Roman Church) buy the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. During the second half of the 16th century, Pope Pius V decided to “free the Vatican from ‘pagan’ images” and donated works deemed pagan to the Museum. The Museum was not opened to the public until 1734, when Pope Clement XII inaugurated it following his acquisition of the collection of statues and portraits of Cardinal Albani, making the Capitoline Museum, the world’s first public museum. Be sure to check out the view from the Caffetteria dei Musei Capitolini (apparently they have really good coffee as well, which I think we will absolutely need to get through this day without drifting off; also when do we say no to coffee).
The Palazzo dei Conservatori’s first floor houses classical statues, the second floor houses the Renaissance paintings, and on the ground floor there is a room just off the courtyard that houses a collection of Egyptian statues found where there was once a temple to Isis. A tunnel links the Palazzo with the Palazzo Nuovo, where more classical sculptures are on the two main floors, and it takes you past the 2nd Century BC temple dedicated to Veiovis and the Tabularium, the Roman public record office, built in 78 BC by Consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus. [One of the best views of the Forum is from a window in the Tabularium]. The most notable statues in the dei Conservatori are:
The Bronze of Marcus Aurelius, which was probably commissioned in AD 176 as a tribute to the Emperor’s triumphs over the Germanic people. It was forced inside after the City noticed serious corroding issues and a copy was made to stand in the original’s place. Unlike other statues of Roman emperors, which typically were idealized, this statue is very lifelike.
The Lupa Capitolina: The twins Romulus and Remus were added later (probably in the 15th century) by Antonio Pollaiuolo. The wolf itself can be traced back to Etruscan or Mango-Greek workshops in the 5th century BC, and therefore, originally the wolf had nothing to do with the Roman Foundation Myth.
Spinario: a 1st century bronze of a young boy removing a thorn from his foot.
Bernini’s Bust of Medusa: based on Ovid’s descriptions of Medusa, Bernini captures Medusa during the transitory moment of her own metamorphosis into marble after she was tricked into looking into a mirror. Ugh. Gives me the heebeegeebees just thinking about having snakes as hair. I know I’m a Slytherin and should be super cool about snakes, but no. Just no. And we all know how Bryan feels about snakes…It’s like dealing with Indiana Jones over here.
The Pinacoteca is home to two Caravaggio’s:
St. John the Baptist (1602), which was commissioned by the Mattei, a noble Roman family and supposedly inspired by the Ignudi of the Sistine Chapel; and
Gypsy Girl, which legend has it that Caravaggio painted this girl as a statement that art could depict real life, not simply copy classical models.
Most of the works in the Palazzo Nuovo are Roman copies of Greeks. Romans did not have very active imaginations, as is evident from their appropriation of Greek gods, art, scholarship, and pretty much everything else. These works include:
Capitoline Venus: a sculpture of Venus emerging from a bath;
The Faun: found at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, the work is sculpted in marble and is a copy of a Greek original. (Emperor Hadrian had a thing for anything and everything Greek);
The Foot of Constantine I was once part of a 40 foot (no pun intended) tall statue of Emperor Constantine I, but only it, a hand, and a few other body parts have survived;
Wounded Warrior (Monnot, 18th century); and
The Gaul: this sculpture is of a wounded Gaul and was probably commissioned to celebrate the Roman victories over the Galatians. It was thought that it was a sculpture of a gladiator, and as such, it inspired Lord Byron’s “The Coliseum”:
AND here the buzz of eager nations ran, In murmur’d pity, or loud-roar’d applause, As man was slaughter’d by his fellow-man. And wherefore slaughter’d? wherefore, but because Such were the bloody Circus’ genial laws, And the imperial pleasure.—Wherefore not? What matters where we fall to fill the maws Of worms—on battle-plains or listed spot? Both are but theatres where the chief actors rot.
I see before me the Gladiator lie: He leans upon his hand—his manly brow Consents to death, but conquers agony, And his droop’d head sinks gradually low— And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one, Like the first of a thunder-shower; and now The arena swims around him—he is gone, Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hail’d the wretch who won.
He heard it, but he heeded not—his eyes Were with his heart, and that was far away: He reck’d not of the life he lost nor prize, But where his rude hut by the Danube lay, There were his young barbarians all at play, There was their Dacian mother—he, their sire, Butcher’d to make a Roman holiday— All this rush’d with his blood—Shall he expire And unavenged?—Arise! ye Goths, and glut your ire!
But here, where Murder breathed her bloody steam; And here, where buzzing nations choked the ways, And roar’d or murmur’d like a mountain stream Dashing or winding as its torrent strays; Here, where the Roman millions’ blame or praise Was death or life, the playthings of a crowd, My voice sounds much—and fall the stars’ faint rays On the arena void-seats crush’d—walls bow’d— And galleries, where my steps seem echoes strangely loud.
A ruin—yet what ruin! from its mass Walls, palaces, half-cities, have been rear’d; Yet oft the enormous skeleton ye pass, And marvel where the spoil could have appear’d. Hath it indeed been plunder’d, or but clear’d? Alas! developed, opens the decay, When the colossal fabric’s form is near’d: It will not bear the brightness of the day, Which streams too much on all years, man, have reft away.
But when the rising moon begins to climb Its topmost arch, and gently pauses there; When the stars twinkle through the loops of time, And the low night-breeze waves along the air The garland forest, which the gray walls wear, Like laurels on the bald first Cæsar’s head; When the light shines serene but doth not glare, Then in this magic circle raise the dead: Heroes have trod this spot—’tis on their dust ye tread.
“While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls—the World.” From our own land Thus spake the pilgrims o’er this mighty wall In Saxon times, which we are wont to call Ancient; and these three mortal things are still On their foundations, and unalter’d all; Rome and her Ruin past Redemption’s skill, The World, the same wide den—of thieves, or what ye will.
Also located on the Hill is the Tarpeian Rock, which is named after Tarpeia, the daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, a Roman soldier who defended the Capitol in the 8th century BC Sabine War. The Sabines bribed Tarpeia to let them up on the Capitol, claiming that they would give her “what they wore on their shield-arms.” Typically, Sabines wore gold bracelets and jewelled rings on their left hands. True to their word, the Sabines crushed Tarpeia with their shields, literally giving her what they wore on their shield-arms. They were unsuccessful in overrunning the Capitol though because the Sabine women interceded. From then on, the Tarpeian Rock was used as a place of execution – traitors and other criminals were thrown over the sheer face of the rock.
Santa Maria in Aracoeli (at least the 6th century) is the church of the Roman Senate. It occupies the space that was once the Temple to Juno, and its 22 columns were taken from various other ancient buildings. The Church’s ceiling commemorates the Battle of Lepanto (1571), and the frescos in the first chapel on the right were painted by Pinturicchio and depict St. Bernardino of Siena. The church is most famous for an icon, known as Santo Bambino, that is made from olive wood and said to have healing powers, but the original was actually stolen in 1994, and a replica is now in its place.
Finally, the Mamertine Prison is located beneath the San Giuseppe dei Falegnami church, this was (according to legend) where St. Peter was imprisoned. Also, the valiant and resilient King Vercingetorix was executed here, after he was defeated by Caesar, who had to encircle his first wall with a second wall to defeat Vercingetorix’s stronghold. (To hear a great podcast about this moment in history, check out Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History).
In light of election day, I want to talk about voting.
I’m going to preface this post with an encounter I had two years ago on election day. I was in the elevators at my office, when an older man asked if I had voted. I replied that, yes, I had indeed voted that day. He then went on to state that he bet that this was my first election that I had voted in.
I didn’t know what to say. I have voted almost every year since I turned 18. Not just during midterm elections or presidential elections. I vote every.single.year. And it struck me at this moment that not only was I an aberration among my own generation, but I was an oddity among older, “responsible” voters.
So I am a weirdo. So what, you might be thinking. Why does it matter? And why did this realization shock me? It is here that I think I will let my little brother take over and tell you why voting every year matters. Below is his personal statement (and personal experience) on voting:
I refreshed the Board of Election’s website for the third time in as many minutes to find, with a strange mix of excitement and anxiety, that the first returns were now published. Polls had closed twenty minutes prior, enough time to walk from the polling place at the Student Union to the planned victory party off campus. As I found the opening numbers, my bad feelings became justified, and the victory party started 100 votes down.
It was a tough campaign from the beginning. I was seeking a seat on the Party’s Central Committee, the governing body of the party. Usually uncontested, the March primary saw an “insurgency” attempt, a coup attempt for control of the Party in the city. Mirroring the national, Bernie v. Hillary storyline of fighting the establishment, the mayoral election saw the anointed City Council President face the County Sheriff for the seat vacated by the previous longtime Mayor. Although both were from the same party, the Party endorsed the City Council President. In response, the Sheriff’s team covertly enacted a plan to declare candidates right before the deadlines to get on the ballot for Central Committee seats across the county. Many times these seats have no candidates declare, forcing the Party to appoint office holders after the primary. Thus, if all worked according to plan, winning these seats would be an uncontested way to snatch power away from the establishment at City Hall. Per usual in politics, however, things did not go according to plan. City Hall caught wind, and almost every race for Central Committee, an office many voters had never heard of, became a battleground for County Politics.
The Sheriff convinced me to seek the seat representing the areas in and around the university’s campus. Shortly after I declared, another student declared his candidacy and was subsequently endorsed by the Party.
In down ticket races, especially in primaries, fighting the sample ballot is tough and turnout is expected to be low.
We had yard signs; we dropped campaign literature every weekend; we had huge fundraisers at the off campus bars. I knew every vote was going to count.
During a ‘souls to the polls’ bus event for early voters from the Student Union, student workers attempted to kick me off campus property, as they claimed I had no right to canvas on campus without being a registered student organization. My dad, ever my advocate, filed suit against the University on First Amendment grounds, arguing the University Regulations were unconstitutional. The University refused to budge on the policies, but granted me an informal guarantee to free conduct on campus, within reason, for the rest of my time as a student.
On Election Day, we were out at the polling place bright and early until polls closed, trying to talk to every voter on their way in to vote. My opponent was there as well, and we demonstrated the often-overlooked beauty of the American political system, where he said his positions and I mine, and we let the people make their own decisions. What was painfully obvious during those 13 hours was voter turnout. As the morning turned to night, I knew there just hadn’t been enough voters to overcome the sample ballot my opponent was handing out, the same that had been mailed to every democratic home and handed out to every early voter.
I started around 100 votes down and was never able to recover. With every refresh, a new precinct would be reported, and there were simply not enough votes. There were 705 ballots cast, 340 of which did not vote in my race. Out of a campus of over 60,000, with almost 10,000 registered voters, only 1,000 showed up to vote. When my victory party, now consisting of three friends and my father, called it for the night, I had lost by 23 votes, 193-170. Although I had heard it before, my dad’s recitation of the famous Theodore Roosevelt quote struck a particular chord that evening:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
As President Kennedy suggests in my tattered copy of Profiles in Courage, past acts of political courage did not originate “because they ‘loved the public better than themselves,” but rather “because they did love themselves—because each one’s need to maintain his own respect for himself was more important to him than his popularity with others—because his desire to win or maintain a reputation for integrity and courage was stronger than his desire to maintain his office—because his conscience, his personal standard of ethics, his integrity or morality…was stronger than the pressures of public disapproval.”
As we enter a new age in politics, marred with people taking the easy route instead of the right one, and with election victories seemingly more important than victories for the American people, political courage, and those willing to show it, must make a comeback. My hope is others will join me, and step into the arena.