The Green Rooms were opened in 2014 on the 450th anniversary of Michelangelo’s death. Perhaps surprisingly to some, given that these rooms were opened to celebrate Michelangelo, the Green Rooms actually house works from Ancient Greece and Rome. Yet, it was the ancients that inspired Michelangelo, giving him the insight into the human form that had been lacking prior to this time. In fact, while Michelangelo was busy painting the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the famous Laocoön, an ancient sculpture of the Trojan priest fighting snakes sent by Athena, as well as the Belvedere Torso, were unearthed. The impact of these sculptures on Michelangelo is evident in his work in the Sistine Chapel.
It is therefore fitting that Rooms 33 and 34 were opened on the anniversary of Michelangelo’s death to celebrate his life and work.
Room 33 is dedicated to Greek Portraits, most of which came from the Medici collection. The room is set up to mimic the genre of decoration known as uomini famosi (“famous men”) that was so popular during the Renaissance. In these types of cycles, each individual depicted was intended to inspire the viewers (usually the ruling elite) to a higher standard of behavior and governance. The idea was that with the uomini famosi looking upon individuals, those individuals’ actions would be informed by the illustrious examples of leadership, patriotism, etc.
Room 34 is dedicated to the many sculptures that are of the type that would have been in Garden of San Marco. The Garden of San Marco was created by Lorenzo de’Medici to allow young artists to practice drawing and painting ancient sculptures. Sadly, it no longer exists, but it was where Michelangelo would have studied and worked as an up and coming young artist. (Allegedly Lorenzo de’Medici gave the young Michelangelo the key to the Garden so he could study the ancient sculptures whenever he so wished). Although those sculptures have since been dispersed, the pieces in this room evoke the same atmosphere that surely must have been felt in the Garden itself. These works are Roman copies of Greek marbles dating from the fifth to the third centuries B.C., some of which were intended to decorate ancient Roman residences. Also located in this room are memorials stones and altars of Greek origin, which have been unearthed in Rome.
One relief, the Processional Scene from the Ara Pacis, is a copy of the Processional Scene on the south side of the Ara Pacis, purchased, along with several other friezes, by Ferdinando de Medici at the end of the 16th Century.
The Ara Pacis Augustae (the Altar of Augustan Peace) was commissioned by the first emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus, and completed in 9 B.C. The altar celebrated the “peace” that Augustus had supposedly brought to the Roman Empire. I think the Gauls and the Germanic tribes would dispute the term “peace,” but with Augustus, the major civil wars where Romans fought Romans did come to a respite. The Altar was presumably used for blood sacrifices to the Roman gods (not human sacrifices though – the Romans very rarely practiced human sacrifice; in fact, only a few known occurrences of Roman human sacrifice are recorded, and those occurred only during times of great upheaval, including during the Second Punic War when Hannibal invaded Italy).
The frieze in Room 34 shows Romans in traditional religious garb processing towards the physical Altar itself, as if they were about to participate in a religious rite themselves. The figures in this relief are members of Augustus’ immediate family, including his son-in-law, Marcus Agrippa (the hooded figure in the center of the piece). Agrippa is performing the role of high priest. Some scholars believe that the veiled woman to Agrippa’s left is Liva, Augustus’ wife. By placing his family on the monument, Augustus was proclaiming his dynasty and the death of the Republic. Unfortunately for Augustus, siring a dynasty proved a little problematic. It was his step-son Tiberius who inherited the role of Emperor, not a blood relative as Augustus had initially wished.
The animation and individualism of each figure demonstrates the high point of Roman sculpture that had been achieved and that was only to be achieved (at least in western Europe) once again during the Renaissance.
Another relief located in this room is a depiction made during Hadrian’s reign, i.e., 2nd Century AD, of an animal sacrifice.
On the right side of the relief are corinthian columns while on the left side of the relief are ionic columns topped with tympana. The victimarii, who are identifiable via their naked torsos and limi (plural of limus, which was a type of loincloth worn by the slaves who handled the animals during a sacrifice) have led the sacrificial bull to the victimarius known as the popa, who stuns the animal with an axe while another, known as the cultrarius, holds the sacrificial knife, known as the culter.
Also located in this room is the Sarcophagus with the Rape of Persephone (AD 160-180), the front of which depicts a scene from the Greek myth explaining the origins of the seasons.
According to this myth, the god of the underworld, Hades (whose counterpart in Roman mythology was called Pluto) came across a young girl playing in the fields, with whom he immediately fell in love (although as the name of the sarcophagus implies, it was more likely that he fell in lust). This young girl was Persephone, the daughter of the goddess of the harvest, Demeter (i.e., Ceres). Upon deciding that he wants to marry Persephone, Hades travels to Mount Olympus (where the gods lived) to ask his brother Zeus, king of the gods (and Persephone’s father), for her hand in marriage. This request puts Zeus in a pickle: he felt that he could not deny his brother, but he knew that Persephone’s mother (and Zeus’ sister) Demeter would absolutely be against the marriage so he answered equivocably, neither saying yes nor no. Hades took this non-answer as permission and laid a trap to capture Persephone so as to elude her mother.
Of fair-tressed Demeter, Demeter holy Goddess, I begin to sing: of her and her slim-ankled daughter whom Hades snatched away, the gift of wide-beholding Zeus, but Demeter knew it not, she that bears the Seasons, the giver of goodly crops. For her daughter was playing with the deep-bosomed maidens of Oceanus, and was gathering flowers—roses, and crocuses, and fair violets in the soft meadow, and lilies, and hyacinths, and the narcissus which the earth brought forth as a snare to the fair-faced maiden, by the counsel of Zeus and to pleasure the Lord with many guests. Wondrously bloomed the flower, a marvel for all to see, whether deathless gods or deathly men. From its root grew forth a hundred blossoms, and with its fragrant odour the wide heaven above and the whole earth laughed, and the salt wave of the sea. Then the maiden marvelled, and stretched forth both her hands to seize the fair plaything, but the wide-wayed earth gaped in the Nysian plain, and up rushed the Prince, the host of many guests, the many-named son of Cronos, with his immortal horses.“The Homeric Hymns.” Trans. Andrew Lang. Apple Books.
Demeter eventually discovers that Hades has kidnapped her daughter and demands Zeus order Hades to return her. But, once again, Zeus equivocates and decides that if Persephone has eaten anything while in the underworld then she has to remain there. When Persephone is questioned about her eating habits while in Hell, she claims that she has been so distraught that she hasn’t eaten a thing. It turns out, however, that she had eaten six pomegranate seeds. Therefore, Zeus decided that Persephone must stay in Hell with Hades for six months of the year, and she may return to her mother for the other six. During Persephone’s stay, her mother falls into a depression and refuses to allow anything to grow (hence fall and winter), but when Persephone is back with her mother, everything grows in abundance.
The sarcophagus itself demonstrates the moment Hades grabs Persephone from among the flowers. Here, the goddess Athena, identifiable by her helmet and shield, is shown trying to save Persephone while the goddess of passion, Aphrodite tries to stop Athena by grabbing her shield. Athena and Aphrodite represent the two warring sides of the story: the passion of Hades and the virginity of Persephone (Athena was renowned for her virginity). The scene takes on a cosmic importance as the chariot tramples the goddess of the earth, Gaia, demonstrating death’s ultimate triumph over everything in the world.