The Apartments of the Priors are located in one of the oldest parts of the Palazzo Vecchio. They were built to house the members of government, which, at the time, consisted of eight elected officials, known as priors, two for each of the four quarters of Florence, the Gonfaloniere di Giustizia (the “Standard Bearer of Justice”), who acted as the figurehead of the state, two advisory bodies, the Twelve Wise Men and the Sedici Gonfalonieri, and two legislative bodies, the Consiglio del Popolo and the Consiglio del Commune. To ensure no one person dominated the government (which apparently failed to stop the Medici), each prior only served for a two month period. During their two month tenure, the law mandated that they live within the Palazzo; indeed, within these rooms. Their private quarters were renovated by Duke Cosimo I to become private chambers for his wife, Eleonora of Toledo, whereas the rooms now known as the Apartments of the Priors kept their more or less public character.
During the Republic, the Priors used this room to deliberate on public matters. It was renovated from 1470 to 1481 by Benedetto and Giuliano da Maiano, who are responsible for the coffered ceiling. The Maiano brothers’ wall frescoes, however, were replaced by Duke Cosimo I during the 16th century. Indeed, the Duke used this room to hold audiences while he was waiting for the princely Salone Cinquecento to be finished.
In 1543, Duke Cosimo commissioned Francesco Salviati to re-fresco the walls. Salviati was born Francesco de’Rossi, but, as was common among Renaissance artists, adopted the name of his patron, Cardinal Salviati. Typical of mannerist painters, Salviati’s work is informed by Michelangelo’s muscular body types packed together in awkward postures, giving the effect of frenzied and frantic movement.
Salviati created a fresco cycle depicting the story of Marcus Furius Camillus, a Roman General who purportedly freed Romans from the Gaulish invaders in 390 BC and defeated a rival Etruscan tribe centered in the town of Veii. Camillus became known as the “Second Founder of Rome.” The message to those lucky enough to be granted an audience with Cosimo was clear: Cosimo, like Camillus, defeated his people’s enemies. Also like Camillus, the Medici family had been exiled from their home city multiple times by inept governments and called back just as many times to save il popolo (the people). Significantly, Camillus was a republican hero, but the scenes depicted on the walls focus on his imperialist expansion of Rome, an expansion completed for the good of the Roman Republic.
On the east wall (the right wall on the picture below), Salviati painted The Triumph of Camillus, which depicts Camillus in a chariot driven by four white horses, triumphantly processing back to Rome after defeating the Veii and destroying their city.
On the north wall, Salviati painted different representations of time, including those used by the Egyptians, to link Cosimo’s rule to the “great” civilizations of the past and visually legitimize his reign by placing it in the context history.
On the last wall, which is opposite to the chapel and faces towards the north, in a corner on the right hand, is the Sun figured in the manner wherein the Egyptians represent him, and in the other corner the Moon in the same manner. In the middle is Favour, represented as a nude young man on the summit of the wheel, with Envy, Hatred, and Malice on one side, and on the other side Honours, Pleasure, and all the other things described by Lucian. Above the windows is a frieze all full of most beautiful nudes, as large as life, and in various forms and attitudes; with some scenes likewise from the life of Camillus.
Giorgio Vasari. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Studium Publishing, 2018.
In The Weighing of the Gold, Salviati depicts the moment that Brennus, King of the Gauls, is attacked by Camillus.
The Romans had agreed to pay the Gauls a thousand pounds of gold as ransom for Rome, but, according to legend, Brennus placed his sword on the scale, indicating that more was due. At that moment, Camillus, recently returned from exile, attacked and defeated the Gaulish army. According to the ancient Roman historians Livy and Plutarch, after the Gauls sacked Rome, the Roman Senate had no choice but to recall Camillus from exile and grant him absolute power so he could defeat the Gauls. So too, the message goes, did the Florentine Priors have no choice but to recall the Medici from exile and grant Cosimo I absolute power.
The figure with two heads (on the left) is time. She is two-faced to look both towards the past and towards the future. She holds Opportunity by her forelock, while Cosimo I’s zodiac sign, the Capricorn, is located above. The allusion is clear: Cosimo I, like Time, grabs opportunity and leads her where he will. Indeed, as mentioned above, the room is full of allusions to time and Cosimo’s place within it.
Sala dei Gigli
Interestingly, this room retained its decoration from the days of the Republic. Each wall was supposed to be dedicated to men of great civic virtue (at least in the eyes of the ruling Florentines), in other words, a cycle of “uomini famosi” (“famous men”). This genre of decoration was typical of humanist tradition. Each individual depicted was 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 the officials, the officials would be informed by the illustrious examples of leadership, patriotism, etc. In the end, only one of the wall was completed; the other walls were decorated with the Angevin Fleur de Lys, giving the room its name, Sala dei Gigli (Hall of the Lilies).
The wall that was finished depicts six Romans underneath typical Roman triumphal arches . They are arranged chronologically, from left to right: Lucius Junius Brutus, Gaius Mucius Scaevola, Marcus Furius Camillus, Publius Decius Mus, Scipio Africanus and Cicero. Although all republicans, these Roman heroes were chosen for their patriotism, not their republican values, as evidenced by their accompanying inscriptions. Indeed, Lucius Junius Brutus, the first consul of Rome (not the Brutus famous for his role in killing Julius Caesar), is celebrated for defending his country (“BRVTVS EGO ASSERTOR PATRIAE REGVMQ FVGATOR”). Lucius Junius Brutus purportedly drove out the Tarquin king, his uncle, and founded the Roman Republic after the king raped a noblewoman named Lucretia. Although the inscription beneath him does mention the flight of the Tarquin king (“REGVMQ FVGATOR”), it is only incidental (and comes after) to his defense of his country. No mention is made of his pivotal role in founding the Republic.
Additionally, Cicero, who was a martyr for the Roman Republic, is extolled for his quashing of the Catiline conspiracy (“SVM CICERO TREMVIT NOSTRAS CATILINA SECVRES”), a clear comparison to the recent Pazzi Conspiracy, which occurred in 1478, a mere four years prior to the decoration of this room. Perhaps the most telling that this Hall did not celebrate Republican virtues is Ghirlandaio’s inclusion of the heads of Roman Emperors in the tondi on the spandrels.
This itinerary can be explained by the fact that Lorenzo de’Medici was the de facto ruler of Florence and organized the redecoration of the Hall himself. In fact, during the redecoration of this room, Lorenzo was busy tightening his grip on the Florentine government via “reforms,” including the creation of an executive committee known as the Council of Seventy, which was authorized to bypass the elected priors. The Council was also responsible for selecting from its own ranks members to comprise two additional committees: the Eight, which oversaw foreign policy, and the Twelve, which oversaw domestic affairs (this committee is separate and apart from the Council of the Twelve Wise Men mentioned above). Unsurprisingly, Lorenzo sat on both committees. Moreover, the Council of Seventy chose those individuals eligible to run for election as any public officials. Thus, the frescoes are less concerned with republican ideals and more interested in promoting patriotism.
In addition to the cycle of uomini famosi, the fresco contains allusions to the city of Florence itself. On either side of the central arch are illusions to the Marzocco, the heraldic lion of Florence, each holding a banner, the one on the left holding aloft the red cross of the popolo while the one on the right (partially obscured by the doorway) is holding the banner of the Florentine lily.
San Zanobi (St. Zenobius), patron saint of Florence, is depicted underneath the central arch. Allegedly, St. Zenobius saved Florence from the Ostrogoths in AD 405 when he was bishop of Florence. St. Zenobius is most famous for his uncanny ability to bring people back from the dead. Here, he is flanked by his deacons, St. Eugene and St. Crescentius.
In the background, Ghirlandaio anachronistically included the Dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore (commonly known as il Duomo), which wasn’t constructed until the 15th century (well after St. Zenobius’ lifetime).
St. Zenobius also had connections to the Medici family. First, Cosimo il Vecchio played a major role in translating St. Zenobius’ remains to their final resting place in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore during the Council of Florence (a church meeting that was intended to reunite the Orthodox and Catholic churches). Secondly, the three saints’ likenesses were modeled on depictions of them located in the north sacrasity of the Cathedral, the sacrasity to which Lorenzo was forced to flee for his life during the ill fated Pazzi conspiracy. Such an association reinforced Lorenzo’s legitimacy as divinely supported.
Chapel of the Priors
Located between the Sala dell’Udienza and Eleonora’s apartments, the Chapel of the Priors was commissioned by Gonfaloniere Piero Soderini to Baccio d’Agnolo and Ridolfo Ghirlandaio. The Chapel served as a place for the Priors to convene and pray prior to attending public debates.
The Chapel contains thirty-two latin inscriptions taken from Biblical, Classical, and early Christian texts that extol the virtues of good government as a message to the city leaders to practice good government.
On the second floor of the Palazzo Vecchio is the Quartiere Degli Dei Celesti (the Quarter of the Celestial Gods), which, like the Quartiere Degli Dei Terrestri, was decorated by Giorgio Vasari and his team.
Room of the Elements
The Quartiere’s centerpiece is the Room of the Elements. Here, each fresco personifies one of the four elements: the ceiling is dedicated to the element of air (The Mutilation of Uranus), while the three windowless walls are dedicated to earth (Saturn Receiving the Gifts of the Earth), fire (Vulcan’s Forge), and water (The Birth of Venus).
The Mutilation of Uranus, the room’s starting point, is dedicated to air, which can be deduced based on its subject: the god Uranus, who was also known as Heaven, or alternatively, sky. Before we get into the painting, I’m inserting an abridged family tree of the Greek/Roman gods, as passed down to us from the 8th century BC Greek writer Hesiod.
To explain the graphic image: according to Hesiod’s rendition of the theogony, Saturn (counterpart to Kronos from the Greek pantheon; also known as Time) was more than a little peeved when his dad, Uranus, imprisoned him upon his birth, as Uranus did with all his children. So, Saturn plots with his mother (Earth, also known as Gaia) to castrate Uranus with a sickle made by Earth.
And he used to hide them all away in a secret place of Earth so soon as each was born, and would not suffer them to come up into the light: and Heaven rejoiced in his evil doing. But vast Earth  groaned within, being straitened, and she thought a crafty and an evil wile. Forthwith she made the element of grey flint and shaped a great sickle, and told her plan to her dear sons. And she spoke, cheering them, while she was vexed in her dear heart:  “My children, gotten of a sinful father, if you will obey me, we should punish the vile outrage of your father; for he first thought of doing shameful things.” So she said; but fear seized them all, and none of them uttered a word. But great Cronos the wily took courage and answered his dear mother:  “Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things.”
Hesiod. The Complete Hesiod Collection. Acheron Press.
Both sickle and the resultant severed body part fell into the sea where the sickle formed the landmass Sicily and the dismembered organ impregnated the sea with the goddess Venus, the birth of whom is the subject of the fresco representing water.
Back to the ceiling fresco, however, you can see several figures and objects surrounding Uranus and Saturn. These figures and items represent the ten powers of God that helped create the world, including the crown of abundance (represented by the crown encircling the scene), Clemency, Grace, the Firmament (represented by the flat stone holding up the figures), and the Kingdom (represented by the armillary sphere). Here, Vasari was likely alluding to the ten Sefirot derived from Kabbalistic texts, thereby combining paganism with Judaism to explain the creation of the universe. (Vasari was greatly influenced in this depiction by his correspondence with humanist Cosimo Bartoli, who described the ten attributes as Corona, Sapientia, Prudentia, Clementia over bontà, Gratia over severità, Hornamento, Triomphe, Confessione di lode, Fondamento, and Regno.) This duel allusion to ancient cosmology serves to link Cosimo with the distant past, thereby establishing a legitimacy to royalty that, as a “new man,” Cosimo lacked. Indeed, the entire subject of this room is actually a play on Cosimo’s name: by celebrating the birth of the cosmos,the room is celebrating Cosimo himself. It is interesting to note that this allusion was not lost on Cosimo’s contemporaries. For instance, in his treastie Trattato Dell’uso Et Della Fabbrica Dell’astrolabio, astrologer and cosmographer Ignazio Danti quipped, “cosmos cosmōi cosmos” (“The cosmos is Cosimo’s ornament”).
The next fresco, Saturn Receiving the Gifts of the Earth, depicts the God Saturn accepting fruit from the goddess of earth, his daughter Ceres (Demeter in the Greek pantheon).
The message of this fresco was: just as Saturn accepts fruits from the earth, Cosimo I accepts the fruits of his subjects’ labors. Cosimo’s presence is felt throughout this piece. Indeed, on the right, Fortune is holding a tortoise (not pictured) and a sail, the elements of Duke Cosimo I’s device and motto: “festina lente,” in English, “hasten slowly.”
Moreover, the Capricorn (the goat/fish looking thing) sitting next to Saturn alludes to Cosimo I’s astrological sign. Notice the red ball that the Capricorn is holding? The ball alludes both to the Medici and to Cosimo personally. The Medici symbol, which you see everywhere in Florence, is the palle, in English, the balls (a term which, funnily enough (but probably not very funny to the Medici), did in fact have the same connotations as it does today). The ball also was meant to represent the cosmos, i.e. Cosimo.
Significantly, both the Capricorn and the motto festina lente were devices of the ancient Roman Emperor Augustus, which also had been adopted by Cosimo’s patron (and technically, feudal overlord) the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
The next element, fire, is represented in the fresco known as Vulcan’s Forge, fittinglypainted on the wall of the fireplace.
Here, Vulcan (Hephaestus) is forging Cupid’s arrows with help from his wife, Venus. On the right are the Cyclopes (Steropes, Brontes, and Pyracmon) making Zeus’ thunderbolts. According to Vasari, Cosimo, like Vulcan, is a forger, but instead of arrows and thunderbolts, Cosimo forges virtues. Also as Vulcan made Achilles’ beautiful armor, Cosimo’s regin produced beautiful art and innovations. (During the Trojan War, Achilles’ mother, Thetis asked Vulcan to make her son impenetrable armor; Thetis raised Vulcan after his mother, Juno (Hera) discarded him because she thought him hideous, and so he could not refuse Thetis anything).
The next fresco, TheBirth of Venus, is a less famous articulation of Botticelli’s painting of the same name. In Vasari’s version, Venus floats to shore, surrounded by Thetis, Neptune, the Tritons, the Nereids, and the Fear of the Sea. Venus, according to Vasari, is meant to represent Cosimo and the birth of a “new age” under his rule.
“And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea,  they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass  grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus,  and Philommedes because she sprang from the members.”
Hesiod. The Complete Hesiod Collection. Acheron Press.
As I mentioned in a previous post, each room on the second floor corresponds to the room directly below it.
There is nothing painted here that fails to correspond to what is below.
Giorgio Vasari, Ragionamenti
The Room of the Elements lays directly above Pope Leo X’s room and thus is intended to reflect the same considerations. For instance, the Room of the Elements celebrates the origin of the cosmos whereas the Room of Leo X celebrates the origin of the family’s royal pretensions. He was the first “prince” (albeit a prince of the church) in the family, and it is due to his rise that the rest of the family were able to rise too.
Room of Ceres
The ceiling in this room depicts Ceres’ descent into the underworld. Ceres (Demeter in the Greek pantheon) was the goddess of agriculture. Ceres is on her way to the underworld to rescue her daughter Prosperpina (Persephone) who had been abducted by Pluto (Hades) to rule as his Queen. According to legend, Pluto agreed to give Ceres her daughter back so long as Prosperpina had not eaten any food during her stay in hell. Unfortunately, Prosperpina was unable to keep her fast and ate six pomegranate seeds. So, Jupiter decreed that Prosperpina would spend six months of the year in the Underworld, one month for each pomegranate seed that she consumed, and the other six months with her mother. Legend has it that during those six months without her daughter, Demeter refuses to allow anything on the earth to grow, causing fall and winter.
The Room of Ceres is located above the room dedicated to Cosimo il Vecchio. According to Vasari, as Ceres is responsible for the earth’s prosperity, being the goddess of agriculture, so too was Cosimo il Vecchio responsible for Florence’s prosperity.
Room of Opis
Opis, Saturn’s wife, is depicted on the ceiling surrounded by the seasons and personifications of the months of the year because she is the goddess of abundance. She is on a chariot of gold, symbolizing Florence, pulled by lions, symbolizing Florentines, who pull their city forward, following the Medici lead.
[C]ioè Opi, e viene a trionfare in su la carretta d’oro tirata da’ lioni, segno di Fiorenza, cioè da’ suoi cittadini, li quali così come il Lione e Re degli animali, così gli uomini Toscani, e gl’ingegni loro sono piu sottili e più belli che tutti l’ingegni dell’altre nazioni in ogni professione, così delle scienze come dell’arme, e poi di tutte l’arti manuali, avendo con quegli per tutto il mondo lasciato opere eccellenti de’ loro fatti.
The Room of Opis is above the room dedicated to Lorenzo the Magnificent. Vasari explains that because Opis was worshipped by men of all sorts, she represents Lorenzo, who was also revered by men of all sorts.
[S]on quassù di sopra le storie della Dea Opi adorata, e da tutte le sorti d’uomini grandi e piccoli con doni, e tributi riconosciuta per madre universale: così come Lorenzo in questa abbiamo veduto, che da tutte le sorti d’uomini è stato riverito, presentato e tenuto per padre de’ consigli, e li tutte le virtu.
Room of Jupiter
Jupiter (Zeus), Saturn’s son, was hidden away on the island of Crete by his mother Opis for fear that Saturn would eat him. According to a prophecy, as Saturn overthrew his father, he too would be overthrown by his own son. [I’m sensing a lot of father-son anxiety going on in ancient Greek culture] At each birth, Saturn would eat the new baby, but Opis soon was fed-up (no pun intended) with Saturn eating her children, so she handed over a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes instead of Jupiter.
But when she was about to bear Zeus, the father of gods and men,  then she besought her own dear parents, Earth and starry Heaven, to devise some plan with her that the birth of her dear child might be concealed, and that retribution might overtake great, crafty Cronos for his own father and also for the children whom he had swallowed down. And they readily heard and obeyed their dear daughter,  and told her all that was destined to happen touching Cronos the king and his stout-hearted son. So they sent her to Lyctus, to the rich land of Crete, when she was ready to bear great Zeus, the youngest of her children. Him did vast Earth receive from Rhea  in wide Crete to nourish and to bring up. To that place came Earth carrying him swiftly through the black night to Lyctus first, and took him in her arms and hid him in a remote cave beneath the secret places of the holy earth on thick-wooded Mount Aegeum; but to the mightily ruling son of Heaven, the earlier king of the gods,  she gave a great stone wrapped in swaddling clothes Then he took it in his hands and thrust it down into his belly: wretch! he knew not in his heart that in place of the stone his son was left behind, unconquered and untroubled,  and that he was soon to overcome him by force and might and drive him from his honors, himself to reign over the deathless gods.
Hesiod. The Complete Hesiod Collection. Acheron Press.
Jupiter grew up under the care of a goat (in some stories a nymph) named Amalthea. In honor of her foster care, Jupiter placed her image among the stars as the constellation capricorn (again, an allusion to Cosimo I). As foretold, Jupiter usurped his father and defeated the titans and giants, establishing a “peaceful” new world. (Judging by the later myths, however, I wouldn’t necessarily describe the new order as “peaceful”).
Not one for modesty it seems, Cosimo I had his room placed under the room dedicated to the King of the Gods; for, like Jupiter, Cosimo had created a “peaceful” new order. Moreover, like Jupiter, Cosimo I was nurtured under the watchful eye of Capricorn. The seven stars that make up Capricorn were said to represent the seven virtues, which by linking himself to Capricorn, Cosimo also links himself to those seven virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, courage (or fortitude) faith, hope, and charity).
Terrace of Juno
Although walled up in the 16th century, this room originally gave way to a loggia, built to allow Duke Cosimo’s wife, the Duchess Eleonora of Toledo, to view the city. The room was dedicated to Juno in honor of the Duchess, who, according to the iconography of the rooms, was the wife of the new “Jupiter” (i.e. Cosimo). Juno was the goddess of matrimony and wealth, two qualities the Medici wanted to associate with Eleonora. In fact, the Duchess was well known for her financial acumen, not least because she was able to buy the Palazzo Pitt (the house of the Medici’s rivals) with her own money.
This room also contains Andrea del Verrocchio’s Putto with Dolphin, a bronze commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent for a fountain in the Medici villa of Careggi. Cosimo I moved it to the Palazzo’s courtyard in 1557, but it was replaced with a copy and moved inside for preservation.
Room of Hercules
The ceiling of this room depicts baby Hercules’ triumph over snakes sent by Juno, Jupiter’s wife. Juno, in her anger against Jupiter’s infidelity, sent snakes to kill Jupiter’s illegitimate child, Hercules.
Surrounding the central fresco are several of Hercules’ well known labors, including: Battling the Lernaean Hydra, vanquishing the Nemean Lion, facing the three-headed dog Cerberus, stealing the golden apples, capturing Cacus, suffocating the giant Antaeus, killing the centaur Nessus, and taming the Cretan bull.
Vasari explains that Hercules’ virtues have been exemplified by men such as Caesar, Alexander the Great, Pompey, and none other than Cosimo I himself:
Questo si vide ne’ principi della grandezza di Cesare, e di molti altri in Roma e in Grecia … che più vivo esempio possiamo noi pigliare di quello del Duca vostro padre, partorito appena dalla bontà di Dio per essere capo di questo governo …
Beneath the Room of Hercules is the room dedicated to Giovanni delle Bande Nere, Cosimo I’s father, the only soldier in the family and thus the obvious choice for a hero known for his martial prowess. During the 16th century, it was common for royal families to commission art celebrating their own military conquests to solidify their authority over the common people. Because the Medici were bankers, they could boast no great military ancestors. Thus, Cosimo was forced to turn to the recent past to check this particular royal box.
The Palazzo Vecchio has had many names throughout its storied past, including the Palazzo dei Priori, the Palazzo della Signoria, the Palazzo Ducale, and the Palazzo di Piazza. Each of these names reflects the period of Florentine history with which it coincided, but it is its final and lasting name, the Palazzo Vecchio, that is the most revealing of all. It testifies to the winner of Florence’s internecine struggles: the Medici. Indeed, the palace’s surviving name, il Palazzo Vecchio (the “Old Palace”), is a nod towards the Medici’s use of the Palazzo as a familial residence and their ultimate move to the Palazzo Pitti, their “new palace.”
The Palazzo Vecchio began its life as the Palazzo dei Priori and served as the principal seat of government, and in fact remains to this day, Florence’s city hall. Construction began in 1298 on top of a 1st century AD Roman theatre, the ruins of which may be seen by visiting the bottom floor of the Museum. The building was built in celebration of the foundation of the Florentine Republic. To emphasize the Republic’s core values, distaste for nobility and a love of economy, the building was constructed with local stone without decoration.
Outside you can see Giambologna’s Rape of a Sabine Woman, the Medici Lions, and Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa. Perseus and Medusa was Cellini’s answer to Michelangelo’s David and Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes.
Salone dei Cinquecento
The Palazzo is home to the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred), which was built in 1494, during the short lived Republic of Fra Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola led a popular uprising against the Medici, ousting them from both power and the city. Upon installing his new republican government, Savonarola increased the number of Florentines eligible to participate in the government to (purportedly) over 1,000 people. Thus, a large hall was needed to accommodate at least five hundred Florentines at a time.
Fra Savonarola was eventually condemned to death, paving the way for the return of the Medici, but prior to their return, gonfaloniere Pier Soderini commissioned Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci to decorate the hall. Michelangelo painted the Battle of Cascina; Da Vinci, the Battle of Anghiari, but neither mural was ever completed. Michelangelo was recalled to Rome by the Pope, and Da Vinci, who rarely finished his work, abandoned the project. Although the Battle of Anghiari was never finished, Da Vinici’s cartoons for the project became a point of reference for future artists. Indeed, Benvenuto Cellini wrote of the cartoons, “As long as they remain intact, they were the school of the world.”
After Fra Savonarola was burned at the stake and the Medici regained power, Duke Cosimo de’ Medici made the Vecchio his residence in the 1540s, moving his court from the Palazzo de’ Medici (now Palazzo de’ Medici-Riccardi) and renovating the Hall to exude princely power, demonstrating his absolute rule. The palace was renamed the Palazzo Ducale, cementing the Medici as the ruling party in the once republican Florence.
Cosimo commissioned Baccio Bandinelli, Giuliano di Baccio d’Agnolo, and Giovanni Caccini to design a public audience chamber (known as the Udienza), where the Duke would receive foreign dignitaries, guests, and messengers. The result was a design reminiscent of imperial Roman triumphal arches; a connection that I am sure was not lost on those visiting the ducal receiving chambers.
The figure in the middle arch is Pope Leo X, the first Medici (but not the last) to sit on the papal throne. To the left of Pope Leo is Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, Duke Cosimo’s father (as well as a famous condottiere) while to the right is Duke Alessandro de’Medici, the first Duke of Florence. Above each Medici are the devices associated with that particular individual. For instance, above Giovanni dalle Bande Nere is a winged firebolt, symbolizing his physical prowess and speed while above Duke Alessandro is a rhinoceros, symbolizing power.
The entire itinerary was meant to impress upon the viewers the magnificence (real or imagined) of the Medici House and reaffirm its claim to be within the upper echelons of royalty.
Meanwhile, the ceiling was commissioned to Giorgio Vasari, Duke Medici’s court painter. Vasari raised the ceiling by around seven meters and decorated it in the Venetian style with frescoes that celebrated Cosimo I’s pivotal role in the creation of the Duchy of Tuscany.
Every day I draw for the Great Hall and façades so that it will reflect all your mastery, and this has redoubled my creativity.
Giorgio Vasari to Cosimo I
For a comparison to the “Venetian Style” that Vasari was mimicking, I’ve included images below of two different ceilings located in the Doge’s palace (Venice).
As you can see, the Venetian style is epitomized by golden borders offsetting each episode.
On the left of the Palazzo Vecchio ceiling are scenes from the Florentine-Pisan war, in the center are scenes from Florence’s domestic history, and on the right are scenes from the Florentine-Sienese war during which the Duke lead the Florentines to victory. Side by side the frescoes demonstrate the stark contrast between the disastrous war led by the republican government against Pisa and the successful one fought under absolute power. The Pisan war was won at great cost to the Republic, lasting over fourteen years while the Sienese war lasted a mere fourteen months.
The central tondi, however, is the Apotheosis of Cosimo I, which depicts Cosimo I in all his glory. Here, Cosimo is wearing a purple mantle (the color of royalty), accompanied by the ducal crown, the cross of the Order of St. Stephen (a chivalric order he himself founded in 1541 and dedicated to Pope Stephen I), and the Golden Fleece, which had been awarded to him by Emperor Charles V in 1545. Chivalric orders were princely trappings that helped promote the royal families across Europe. He is surrounded by the coasts of arms of the city and the insignias of the Florentine Guilds.
One of the several middle panels is known as The Foundation of Florentia. This panel reflects the traditional foundation story that haunted Florentines for centuries.
Here, Mark Antony, one of the members of the Second Roman Triumvirate presents the Florentines with a banner of a white lily embroidered on red. It is what is in the background, however, that alludes to Florentine foundation anxiety: the Roman temple to Mars, the god of war.
Indeed, Florentines blamed most of their strife on this single moment in their history. When Caesar’s army founded Florentina, so the story goes, they also built a temple to Mars. The early Florentines, however, betrayed Mars when they reconsecrated his temple to St. John the Baptist, a saint known for his pacifism. (According to archeological evidence, the oldest parts of San Giovanni are from the 4th century AD and were indeed built on Roman foundations). Though at odds with our modern sense of religion, even the most pious of Florentines believed that the God of War inflicted social upheaval on the city because of their abandonment of him.
This belief intensified when, at the foot of the displaced Mars statute, one of the most famous murders in Florentine history occurred, the murder of a Messer Buondelmonte. Allegedly, it was this murder that set off the start of the Guelf and Ghibelline conflicts.
Also interesting about this panel is Mark Antony’s posture. Notice the similarities to the Belvedere Torso? Click here to read more about the famous Torso and its influence on generations of art.
The frescoes on the walls of the hall also reflect the juxtaposition of the Sienese and Pisan wars. Recording the “disastrous” war with Pisa are the following frescoes:
Maximilian of Austria Attempts the Siege of Leghorn, Vasari and Naldini, depicts the moment that Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian comes to the aid of the Pisans, but, alas, to no avail. The Emperor’s attack on the Florentines failed, in part due to a terrible storm that shipwrecked the imperial fleet, forcing the imperial forces to withdraw. The Storming of the Fortress of Stampace, pictured below, depicts the Florentine capture of Stampace.
As explained above, the frescoes on the other wall are episodes from the Sienese War. In 1552, Siena rebelled against its overlord, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, prompting Charles to request Florentine intervention whereas the Sienese turned to the French for help claiming their independence. It wasn’t until January of 1554, however, that Florentine troops marched in support of the Emperor. The frescoes depict the most famous of the battles.
The first, Capture of the Fort near the Porta Camollia, depicts the January 1554 attack on Siena led by Giangiacomo Medici, Marquis of Marignano (Giangiacomo was not a relation of the Medici family, but a member of a Milanese family of the same name). On January 26th, the ducal army attacked the Sienese fort located near Porta Camollia and surprised the guards while they slept. The Florentines marked this event as the beginning of the war.
The second, The Battle of Marciano in Val di Chiana, depicts the August 2, 1554 battle in Val di Chiana, which was decisive for the Florentines’ victory the next spring. Here, Florentine exiles, who had fled the Medici rule and sided with Siena, Frenchmen, and Grisons attacked the Florentine army, but the Florentines routed the Sienese troops.
The last, The Capture of Porto Ercole, Vasari, depicts the capture of Porto Ercole, Siena’s last holdout. Those who had been loyal to Siena fled to Porto Ercole after Siena had fallen on April 21, 1555. After a twenty-four day siege, however, the final bastion of Sienese independence fell.
Also found in the Hall is Vincenzo de’ Rossi’s series of statues known as The Labors of Hercules. Significantly, Cosimo I identified with the ancient Greek hero, going so far as to include Hercules’ likeness on his official seal. It was no coincidence that Hercules was also the symbol of Florence and had been on Florence’s official seal (the seal was engraved with the words, “Herculea clava domat florencia prava,” roughly translated as Hercules’ club smashes Florentine crookedness).
Moreover, take another look at the Foundation of Florence panel, discussed infra. Hercules makes an appearance! He is a little blurry, but there he is, identifiable via the club slung over his shoulder.
Thus, Cosimo was appropriating republican propaganda, “becoming the state” (perhaps beating Louis XIV to the concept of l’état, c’est moi). Ironically, Florentines idealized Hercules as the hero that destroyed tyrants.
It was Cosimo’s objective to become the “new” Hercules. In fact, Cosimo’s dominions over the 12 Etruscan cities were likened to Hercules’ 12 labors. I should mention here that some mythologies have Hercules performing more than the famous 12. Twelve, however, seems an opportune number as the 12 labors may be illusions to the 12 months, linking Hercules with time itself.
The rest of the palazzo contains subtle and some not-so-subtle allusions to Hercules (indeed, here is an entire room named for him) in a further effort to link the Medici with greatness. Alas, I think I have probably spent way too long in this post talking about all the neat artwork to see in a single room that the next rooms will have to be saved for later. Thanks as always.
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 titaness Mnemosyne (i.e. memory) and the king of the gods, Zeus.
Them in Pieria did Mnemosyne (Memory), who reigns over the hills of Eleuther, bear of union with the father, the son of Cronos,  a forgetting of ills and a rest from sorrow. For nine nights did wise Zeus lie with her, entering her holy bed remote from the immortals. And when a year was passed and the seasons came round as the months waned, and many days were accomplished,  she bore nine daughters, all of one mind, whose hearts are set upon song, and whose spirit is free from care, a little way from the top-most peak of snowy Olympus. …
For although a man has sorrow and grief in his newly-troubled soul and lives in dread because his heart is distressed, yet, when a singer,  the servant of the Muses, chants the glorious deeds of men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympus, at once he forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all; but the gifts of the goddesses soon turn him away from these.
Hesiod. “The Complete Hesiod Collection.” Acheron Press.
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 to 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 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 paintings 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. Astonishingly, the painting was painted in only thirty days.
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. Girolamo Riario (in the blue) wears a gold chain, likely alluding to his recent appointment to burgher of the city of Rome and a member of the Roman nobility. The inclusion of his nephews in this group portrait is telling of Sixtus’ is a telling reminder of his unabashed use of the papal office to promote his family. Nepotism was absolutely not a new phenomenon, but contemporaries took more issue with Sixtus’ nepotism due to his relatively obscure birth (his father was a fisherman), as well as his indiscriminate use of the promotions. In fact, a major rift occurred between Sixtus and Lorenzo de’Medici (known as Lorenzo il Magnifico) because of Sixtus allowed his desire to promote his family to obscure any other important considerations.
Platina is depicted kneeling at the Pope’s feet in gratitude for his new position. And, indeed, Platina would have been very thankful for his change in fortune; just a few years earlier, he had been imprisoned and tortured by Paul II, who had suspected Platina and other humanists of plotting against him. Interestingly, Platina was a great admirer of Lorenzo de’Medici, one of Sixtus’ bitter enemies.
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 to finish his works 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 to 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.
Laocoön 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.
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).