Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Week 1: Curating the Curia; an Overview of the Vatican Collections

The Origins of the Vatican Collections in the Renaissance. 

Arguably the earliest date of the Vatican museum is 1471 when Pope Sixtus IV donated the Lateran bronzes to the people of Rome.[1] These were of high symbolic value as they included a statue of the She Wolf suckling the future rulers of Rome- Romulus and Remus. A few years later in 1485, Pope Innocent VIII ordered the building and furnishing of a villa on raised ground at the back of the Vatican palace. Due to its location the villa earned the name “Belvedere”, which was extended to the whole area. After becoming pope in 1503, Julius II used his architect Bramante to incorporate the villa into the main complex of the Vatican, mainly through the construction of two long corridors between the two homes. A number of courts on different levels were made for the presentation of sculpture, for a designed garden and a theatre. The sculpture court was next to Innocent’s villa and was probably the main motivator for the papal scheme.[2] It is Julius who is most associated with the rise of the Vatican museum because of his energetic acquisition of great art like the Apollo Belvedere in 1503, which he had placed in the Palazzetto of Innocent. Next week will show a number of these canonical art treasures which helped to give the Vatican its artistic identity, and which inspired painters and sculptors for centuries.  

The Counter-Reformation and the High Baroque.

Unsurprisingly during the late sixteenth-century, the time of the Counter-reformation, the climate was more austere and less tolerant of the pagan origins of the sculptures. Pius IV was even ready to take the drastic step of dismantling the collection, though he was dissuaded by his cardinals to leave it intact. Pius did impose one condition: the pagan statues should be kept hidden; the Apollo would stay hidden until 1770. Although the reforms introduced by the Council of Trent were designed to keep artists in line, they had the effect of opening up Rome to more commissions. In the baroque era there was a call for more churches housing great altarpieces and relics. The latter was part of a new interest in the lives of the early Christian martyrs such as Sts Bibiana, Cecilia, Martina and Susanna which led to some fine creations by leading baroque sculptors like Bernini. St Peters had been undergoing refurbishment for over a century, as it was considered in need of repair. It also wasn’t large enough to accommodate the large number of pilgrims flocking to the Eternal City, so it was modernised by the architect Maderno.[3] If Pius IV had called for austerity, all thoughts of this were banished with the ascendancy of Maffeo Barberini (Pope Urban VIII) to the papacy in 1623. With tireless energy, not to mention plentiful papal funds, Urban instigated many building projects as well as patronising artists. He especially favoured the French, so we see the careers of masters like Poussin, Vouet and Valentin boosted by Urban’s patronage, as well as Italians like Sacchi (above). This is one of the reasons why the Vatican Pinacoteca, or picture gallery, has such a wealth of baroque art- it reflects the bountiful patronage of artists in the seventeenth-century by Urban VIII. 

The Vatican in the Eighteenth Century 

The eighteenth-century sees the founding of a number of important museums in the Vatican. First, there is the Museo Sacro, or Museo Christiano in the Vatican library. This was overseen by Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58), and the papal librarian Giovanni Bottari.  Clement also created the Museo Pio-Clementino whose vision was allegorically portrayed in a ceiling fresco by Raphael Anton Mengs in the Vatican library, shown above. Significant changes were made to the Vatican’s sculpture galleries and gardens too. Though the 16th century Belvedere sculpture court was out in in the open air the new museum of sculpture was given the interior room of the Palazzetto del Belvedere, though important statues like the Apollo and Laocoön were kept in the Belvedere courtyard which gained a portico. Under the direction of Pius VI, the formation of the Cortile Ottagono from the old statue court of the Belvedere laid the foundations of the modern museum of art in the Vatican. What distinguishes collecting in the Vatican in this specific century is the growth of interest in archaeology and excavations. Such was the enthusiasm for collecting ancient objects- by private individuals, as well as the Papacy- that controls were placed on the movement of antiquities from Rome. The Vatican archaeological museums therefore acted as a check on the dispersal of such objects and their documentation.[4] According to Bottari, the Museo Sacro this would be “ of the most sumptuous museums of Christian erudition” containing instruments of martyrdoms, lanterns, glassware, seals, vases and tools. The Museo Profano organized under Clement XIII (1758-69) was made up of statues, bas-relief sculptures and mosaics of the Roman era. It was expanded in 1854 under Pius IX (1846–1878) with the addition of the Museo Pio Cristiano.

The Vatican in the Napoleonic Era. 

Despite their wish to bring “Rome to France” Francois I and Louis XIV had had to be content with copies after famous statues in Italy, but that wasn’t good enough for Napoleon. As part of his “acquisition policy” the Pio-Clemetino, the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Capitoline Museums were to be deprived of all their most famous masterpieces: the Apollo, the Laocoön, the Torso, and all the rest. The choice of these statues is not surprising, but Napoleon inexplicably refrained from seizing the Lateran bronzes given to the city of Rome by Sixtus IV; the Wolf with Romulus and Rebus, as previously mentioned, of great symbolic significance.[5]  The French authorities decided that the arrival of the famous sculptures in Paris should be marked by a triumphal procession timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the fall of Robespierre. To cut a long story short, with the fall of Napoleon in 1815, and with the help of Canova, now head of Antiquities at the Vatican, the confiscated art returned to Rome on 4th January 1816. This is also the era during which the exhibiting of pictures for over two hundred years culminates in the creation of the large picture galleries of the Vatican. After the return of the statues in 1816, a new picture gallery (the Pinacoteca) was opened a year later, in the six rooms of the Borgia apartments. This included 26 works which had been shown in Paris, of which the most famous was Raphael’s Transfiguration. To this nucleus was added works from the Palazzo Quirinale, Capitoline Collections and pontifical apartments, e.g. Titian’s Madonna in Glory, two Veroneses and various others. The formation of the picture collection was due to four popes, the most significant being Pius VI and Pius VII. Pius VII’s Pinacoteca included only forty four pictures- but all of high quality, a collection of masterpieces from the renaissance and after. Though the Pinacoteca moved several times, Pius VII’s collection remained essentially unchanged throughout the nineteenth century. The history of the Vatican collections is also inextricably linked with the Egyptomania which was encouraged by Pius VII and Leo XIII (1823-9) who collectively acquired a collection of Egyptian papyri. But the pope most associated with Egyptian art was Gregory XVI who conceived of a museum for Egyptian antiquities which eventually became the Museo Egizio; Gregory also created a museum of Etruscan art- Museo Gregoriano Etrusco.   

The Vatican in the 20th Century. 

With the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), attitudes towards mission work changed greatly; open dialogue rather than conflict was encouraged towards world religions and a museum of art from different faiths was created. However, the roots of the Ethnological Museum extend back into the seventeenth-century when wooden carvings from an Indian shrine in Columbia were brought back to Rome. Since then the ethnological museum has undergone many upheavals, and been curated to take account of the missionary work conducted by the Church. The museum’s main galleries were opened to the public in 1973, and eventually its holdings grew. Currently there are about 61,000 objects: approx. 10,000 from Africa, 10,000 from the Americas, 20,000 from Asia, 6,000 from Oceania, and 15,000 pre-historic objects. The collection of modern painting, sculpture and graphic arts was installed in the Collezione D’Arte Religiosa Moderna in 1973 by Pope Paul VI. Thus was inaugurated the newest collection in the Vatican comprising more than 500 works signed by over 250 artists including artist who produced religious art like Matisse- above- and Sutherland.  This event marked the end of an undertaking that began in the Sistine Chapel on May 7th, 1964, at a meeting with artists requested by Paul VI. This was a call to revive the days when artist worked with the Church. 

Slides.(with my notes).

1)      Lateran Bronzes, Romulus, Remus and the She-Wolf,  bronze.13th and late 15th century AD or c. 500-480 BC The Capitoline Wolf (Latin: Lupa Capitolina) is a bronze sculpture of a she-wolf suckling twin infants, inspired by the legend of the founding of Rome. According to the legend, when Numitor, grandfather of the twins Romulus and Remus, was overthrown by his brother Amulius, the usurper ordered the twins to be cast into the Tiber River. They were rescued by a she-wolf who cared for them until a herdsman, Faustulus, found and raised them. The Capitoline Wolf has been housed since 1471 in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Campidoglio (the ancient Capitoline Hill), Rome, Italy.

2)      Giovanni Antonio Dossio, Belvedere Courtyard in the Vatican Palace, 1558-61, drawing, Biblioteca Vaticana, Rome. Pope Julius II chose Donato Bramante to express architecturally his vision of power.  The earliest collaboration between Julius and Bramante resulted in the transformation of the existing papal palace by the addition of a huge enclosed courtyard uniting the medieval living quarters with a summer house, called the Belvedere because of its view, which Innocent VIII had built at the top of the Vatican Hill. The drawing by Dosio, also an architect who worked in Rome between 1548 and 1575, shows the courtyard under construction.

3)      Current Map of the Vatican.

4)      Apollo Belvedere, Roman copy c. AD 130-40, after a Greek bronze original c. 330 B.C., attributed to Leochares, Parian marble with possible traces of original pigment in the hair, total height, 88 3/16 inches (224 cm), height of the base 3/15 inches (10 cm), height of head and neck 15 ¾ (40 cm), width (46 ½ inches (118 cm). Completely preserved except for both forearms and the two hands. Provenance is unknown, but good condition of the statue suggests it was never buried. At the end of the 15th century it stood in the garden of San Pietro in Vincoli, after the beginning of Julius’s II pontificate (1503), but by 1509 it was in the sculpture court of the Belvedere. In the 1530s it was restored during Clement VII’s reign, and later until 1770 it was hidden away. It went to Paris in 1798 and returned to Rome in 1816. It has been universally admired, and for many epitomises the Apollonian ideals of the Greeks. It even found its way on the Apollo space programme!      

5)      Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574), The Belvedere Torso, 1532-37, Pen and ink on paper, Staatliche Museen, Berlin. The Belvedere Torso is a marble fragment showing the torso and upper legs of a powerful male figure seated on a rock. It is now in the Vatican Museums and named after the Belvedere Court in the Vatican in which it was once displayed. It is signed by a Greek sculptor 'Apollonius, son of Nestor, Athenian', about whom nothing is known, and there is scholarly debate as to whether it is an original Hellenistic work from the 1st century B.C. or a Roman copy.Heemskerck's drawings of Roman ruins and Renaissance works provide us with important information about the appearance of Rome in the 1530s. When he saw the Belvedere Torso it was still lying on its back.

6)      Maerten van Heemskerck, Self-Portrait in Rome with the Colosseum, 1553, oil on wood, 42 x 54 cm, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Netherlandish painter, worked with Scorel in Haarlem 1527-29 and learned most of the Italianate manner from him before going to Italy in 1532 himself. Before he left he gave his St Luke Painting the Virgin to the Haarlem Guild (now in Haarlem, Hals Museum); this is almost a parody of the Italian manner, as conceived by a Northerner at second hand.In Rome he made a large number of drawings (1532-35) of the antiquities and works of art, and two of his sketchbooks (Berlin) are invaluable evidence for the monuments of antiquity as they existed in the 16th century, as well as for such things as the building of New St Peter's.He settled in Haarlem in 1537 and worked there for the rest of his life except for a flight to Amsterdam (1572-73) while the Spaniards were besieging Haarlem. He painted a number of fine portraits, as well as Italianate religious pictures. There are works by him in Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum), Barnard Castle (Bowes Museum), Berlin, Brussels, Cambridge (Fitzwilliams, Self Portrait with the Colosseum in the Background), Kassel, Ghent, The Hague, Lille, Linköping Cathedral, Sweden, New York (Metropolitan Museum), as well as in Haarlem and elsewhere.

7)      Caravaggio, Portrait of Maffeo Barberini, 1599, Oil on canvas, 124 x 90 cm, Private collection, Florence. The still undeveloped features of this young cleric, who later became Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) were portrayed as a much more distinguished figure by the skills of Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Here, the face appears in chiaroscuro against a neutral background in such a way that a wall appears to be screening off the figure from the left. In order to give the figure more 'rilievo', or more three-dimensionality, the lit sections are painted against a dark, and the sections in shadow against a light, background.

8)      Bernini, Bust of Pope Urban VIII, 1632, Biblioteca Apostolico Vaticana, bronze, 100 (with base) x 73 x 41 cm. Cast in one piece with its base, an excellent example of Bernini’s craftsmanship. There are also two marble versions. In 1902 the contents of the Barberini library was acquired by the Vatican’s own library. Payments to Bernini occurred between 1640-2.

9)      Andrea Sacchi, St Gregory and the Miracle of the Corporal, oil on canvas, 285 x 207 cm, Vatican. Subject shows one of the miracles associated with Pope Gregory. The corporal is a white linen cloth brandeum, or brandea, supposedly associated with the cloth in which Christ’s body was buried. This also found its way into Napoleon’s museum.

10)   Unknown, Pope Urban VIII Consecrates the Basilica of St Peter, 1671-73, Barberini Tapestry, in silk and wool, Vatican Museums, 400 x 519 cm. Urban made Bernini Head of the Vatican foundry with the task of designing the enormous bronze columns of the Baldacchino. Bernini’s Baldacchino in background. Pope blesses 12 mosaic crosses which are then affixed to the walls, then in accordance with early Church tradition he traces the letters of the Greek and Roman alphabet.  Urban held by his 2 nephews, Francesco and Antonio. Female personifications of Faith and Religion hover overhead.

11)   Photograph of Entry to Museo Sacro, Vatican.

12)   Raphael Anton Mengs, Allegory of the Pio Clementino Museum, 1772, fresco, Vatican Library, 1772. History leans on a defeated Time while Fame trumpets overhead and indicates the door to the Museo Clementinum. Today scrolls are stored in the library proper and the gallery contains the collection of gold glass from the Catacombs.

13)   Raphael Anton Mengs, Entry to the Museo Clementinum.

14)   Bottom of a Drinking Vessel with Husband and Wife, Alexandria, first half of the 3rd. Century A.D. Glass and Gold foil, diameter 4 ¼ inches (10.8 cm), Vatican, Museo Sacro. Husband and wife portrayed before a parapet. She wears a tunic and palla knotted at the breast, while he dressed in a tunic and pallium. It celebrated the anniversary or marriage of the couple- it was found attached to a tile in the catacomb of Pamphilus on May 31st, 1926.. Gold glass was made by attaching a gold leaf silhouette to a background of clear or blue glass by means of a transparent glue- sometimes honey- and then scratching the design into the gold leaf with a needle. A second piece of glass was then fused over the top to protect the work.

15)   Casket for the Reliquary of the True Cross, Rome, 817-24, silver, with partial gilding, and niello, length 11 ¾ (29.5 cm), width 97/8 (25 cm), height 37/8, (9.8 cm), Vatican, Museo Sacro,inv no. 985. Cross shaped casket once held a richly gemmed gold cross that supposedly held particles of the True Cross. Made for Pope Pascal I (817-24) according to the niche inscription surrounding the Communion of the Apostles on the lid. The casket and reliquaries were discovered in the early 20th century in a cypress wood chest. Its provenance can be traced back to the 12th century. Casket is made of think sheets of silver cut and soldered together. Niello is a black mixture of copper, silver, and lead sulphides, used as an inlay on engraved or etched metal.

16)   Seated Muse, Thalia, Roman, 2nd Cent. A.D. (Hadrianic period), after a Greek original. Pentelic marble, ht, 64 inches (159.5 cm), Museo Pio-Clementino, Salon of Muses. Discovered in 1775 in the so-called Villa of Cassius with seven other Muses and an Apollo Musagetes- it was taken to Paris by Napoleon.  The mask, pedum (crook) and tympanum characterise her as Thalia, the muse of Comedy and light verse. She and the other muses may have decorated a private library.

17)   Hall of Statues in the Museo Profano.

18)   Benjamin Zix, Masterpieces, Masterpieces from the Vatican in the Grand Gallery of the Louvre, watercolour commissioned to celebrate the wedding of Napoleon and Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810.

19)   Raphael, The Transfiguration, 1518-20, Vatican, Pinacoteca, oil on wood, 405 x 278 cm, Pinacoteca, Vatican

20)   Tommaso Conca, Installation of the New Picture Gallery in 1817 in the Borgia Apartment. 

21)   Fra Angelico, The Story of St Nicholas, The Story of St Nicholas: St Nicholas saves the ship 1447-8, Tempera and gold on panel, 34 x 60 cm, Pinacoteca, Vatican. The Perugia Altarpiece was pained by FA in 1437 for the Chapel of St Nicholas in the church of St Domenico in Perugia; it was probably commissioned under the terms of a will of a former patron, Benedetto Guidalotti (d. 1429) In 1797 under the terms of the treaty of Tolentino, the entire altarpiece was removed to the Louvre. At the time of the restitution in 1817 this and another panel were placed on display in the new Pinacoteca. After the predella was taken apart, the main panels of the triptych were moved to St Ursula, also in San Domenico. The triptych was temporarily reassembled in 1955, five hundredth anniversary of FA’s death.  This panel was restored in 1955, and there are a few paint losses which have been integrated. The band across the bottom with varying colours is down to restoration. The pebbles on the beach are not painted with the brush, but by sprinkling the paint. This panel was at the centre of the predella. A wonderful seascape with strange rocks, one looking like a circus tent!

22)   Frederico Fiori Barocci, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1570, Oil on canvas, Pinacoteca, Vatican. This work was restored between 1980-1 when small losses of paint were revealed. A wonderful example of Barocci’s use of colour. According to Bellori, B made many sketches and then “applied the paint very rapidly, often blending it with his thumb, so as to shade without using a brush.” No one has ever disputed the attribution, although it does not correspond with a picture painted for Duke Guidobaldo; it is more consistent with a painting that Bellori called a “Nativity” painted for Simonetto Anastagi. It was among the pictures that Napoleon appropriated. It was a very popular picture much copied, and a postcard reproduction of it is very popular with the Vatican public.

23)   Egyptian Lion, Dynasty XXX, (380-342 BC), grey granite with red veining, height, 73 cm, Museo Egizio. For the Egyptians the lion symbolised the power of the country, as well as a symbol for warding off evil. The Vatican lions were probably erected before gateway to a temple  at El-Baqliya in honour of Nectanebo I , a pharaoh of the 30th dynasty of Egypt. It’s assumed that both lions were transported to Rome under the orders of Augustus. They were later placed in front of the Pantheon, where they were discovered in the 12th century. Combine naturalistic design with abstraction- each lion’s pose have a “C” shaped curve. They are matching pair and mirror images of each other. The inscriptions celebrate Horus and other Egyptian deities. 

24)   Antinous, the favourite of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, Hadrianic period, 117-38 A.D., from Hadrian’s Villa near Tivoli, Parian marble, height 94 7/8 (241 cm), Museo Egizio. Antinous was the handsome favourite of the emperor Hadrian. On a trip to Egypt an oracle predicted that Hadrian would suffer a heavy loss. To avert that, Antinous fulfilled the prophecy by drowning himself in the Nile. The suicide probably occurred 170 miles south of Cairo. The statue’s pose is based on that of 5th century Greek athletes who placed the weight on the right foot. This doesn’t quite work because of the forward thrust of the chest. The statue shows Antinous in an Egyptian kilt and pharaonic headdress without the royal cobra. He carries rolled pieces of linen, also seen in Egyptian statuary. Parian marble is a fine grained semi-translucent marble quarried from the Greek island of Paros.

25)   Unknown Artist, Pius VII Gives Etruscan Vases to the Papal Library, 1818.

26)   “Painter of the Vatican Mourner,” Black Figured Amphora, Attic, 530 B.C., obverse, Eos Mourning her Dead Son Memnon, reverse, the Recovery of Helen, height about 18 inches (44 cm), Museo Gregoriano Etrusco.   The scene show s a dead naked warrior in a forest, laid out on a bed of pine branches. His helmet, greaves, shield and chiton lean against two trees on the left- a raven sits on a branch of a tree above. The woman is probably Eos, goddess of the dawn and the mother of Memnon.

27)   Statuette of the God Tu, Polynesian, Gambier Islands, collected 1834-6, wood, height, 44 ½ inches (113 cm).  Sculpture fr a single block of wood. Acc to Polynesian mythology Tu was the supreme god of the country; a warrior- navigator who appeared in the guise of a thunderbolt or a comet. This statue is unique, only one to show him with four legs, which might be related to his name Tu- “That which stands.” In 1836, father Caret a Catholic missionary sent this to Europe, and a year later the statue was presented to Pope Gregory XVI.

28)   Georges Rouault (1871-1958), The Holy Face, c. 1946, oil on cardboard, height 20 1/8 (51 cm) x 14 9/16, signed lower left,  Collezione D’Arte Religiosa Moderna. Born in 1871, pupil of Gustave Moreau who predicted that R’s strange technique would isolate him. R was described as “the only Christian who has realized in his painting the drama of our times.” Started this series in 1912, and this is one of his last versions. Note the impasto which lends a plasticity to the work. From 1937 on, R virtually stopped dating his art, although he collected newspaper clippings about himself. In 1917 the art dealer Amroise VOllard bought up all of R’s art, although after the dealer’s death R would successfully sue and recover them, of which 315 he burnt.

29)   Carlo Carra (1881-1966), The Daughters of Lot, 1940, oil on canvas, Collezione D’Arte Religiosa Moderna, 31 ½ inches (80 cm) x 23 3/8 (60 cm). s/d lower left. Born in 1881, one of the Futurists. Along with Giorgio di Chirico, he created “metaphysical painting. ”This is C’s third version of the theme when his art was shifting towards a greater clarity; it shows a return to neoclassical principles. .

30)   Henri Matisse (1869-1954), The Tree of Life, 1949, cut and painted paper on cardboard, c. 17 ft (512 cm) x 8 ft ( 252 cm), unsigned,  Collezione D’Arte Religiosa Moderna. Maquette for chapel of rosary (Vence); large sheet of paper covered with 3 layers of gouache (lemon yellow, light green, ultramarine); cut  free-form floral motifs, then assembled and placed on separate piece of paper. Matisse declared it his masterpiece when the chapel was consecrated in 1951.

Week 1 images available here

[1] Various, The Vatican Collections: the Papacy and Art (New York, 1983), 14
[2] Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900 (Yale University Press, 1981, 7.
[3] Various, Vatican Splendour: Masterpieces of Baroque Art (National Gallery of Canada), Ottawa, 1986),
[4] The Vatican Collections, 94.
[5] Haskell and Penny, Taste and the Antique, 109.


  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.