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.
Laocoön depicts the moment when the priest Laocoön 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.