The marble statue is a Roman copy (1st century BC) of a Greek bronze statue from 320 BC. You can tell by the fig leaf that we are in the Vatican, it’s an addition from later times. The athlete you are looking at is scraping sweat and dirt from his body with his strigil. Lysippos was the last classical sculptor before the advent of Hellenism. He was a contemporary of Alexander the Great, and just like the painter Apelles, Alexander’s court artist. Cicero writes that Alexander wanted to be painted only by Apelles and sculpted by Lysippos. Alexander even forbade other artists to create his likeness. Pliny attributes 1500 works to Lysippos. The Apoxyomenos, the Scraper was definitely created by Lysippos. It is more of a type than an individual. Lysippos carved his heads smaller than his predecessors did and his bodies more slender. According to the Polyclitus’ Canon the head must be one seventh the size of the whole body. The Scraper’s head is only one eighth of the total length of the body. Pliny wrote that Lysippos followed the painter Eupompos’ lead when he did not use the statues of his predecessors as an example, but nature itself.
We continue to the Cortile Ottagono
This court is home to a number of world famous statues. When we are there, I will make a few explanatory remarks at the edge of the small fountain about Raphael’s Stanze and more in particular Michelangelo’s frescos. There will be no opportunity for that when we are in the Stanze and the Sistine Chapel because it is extremely crowded there. We will limit ourselves to just two statues: the Belvedere Apollo and the sculpture group called the Laocoön.
The Apollo is a copy (ca. 130 BC) as well of a bronze statue by Leochares from around 330 BC. (Wikipeda). This type of statue is typical of many Greek statues and dates back to 5th century BC Greek sculpture. Polyclitus wrote a famous treatise: The Canon. It was a theory on the beauty of the human body, in which Polyclitus described man’s ideal proportions. The head, for instance, had to be one seventh the length of the body and the waist one fifth of its height. What the Greek sculptors- and painters – from the fifth century BC did, was to perfect nature, and in this case man. A good example of this is the following anecdote about the Greek painter Zeuxis (but it could just as easily have been a Greek sculptor): Zeuxis was commissioned to make a painting of Helen of Troy – daughter to Zeus and Leda – who was the most beautiful woman in the world. Zeuxis summoned the most beautiful women of the city and looked them over with a critical eye. He selected the five most beautiful ones, and for his Helen on the canvas he chose that part of each of the five naked women that he found to be the most beautiful. This is how he created the perfect woman, albeit on canvas, but still. You will never find a face that is out of the ordinary or a statue of a man or woman with a sagging belly. Individual traits or emotions were completely taboo. Polyclitus carved his statues based on mathematical proportions. After all, these notions on perfection are also found in Plato’s philosophy.
Lysippos (Wikipedia) is even regarded as a ‘naturalist’. He preferred nature with its imperfections. Lysippos thought it best to depict nature realistically and not idealize it. And yet, the difference between the Scraper that we just looked at and the Apollo is not all that big. All sculptors gave their statues a Greek, i.e. idealized profile, while genitals were always depicted much too small. Even the naturalist Lysippos did this, even though he adjusted the proportions as prescribed by the Canon. Looking at the statue of Apollo, you can see that even at the end of the 4th century Polyclitos’ Canon still played a major role in Leochares’ work.
After the Belvedere Apollo we will look at a statue that even in classical times was described as the best work of art ever: the Laocoön.
“It is said that Julius II. desired Angelo [Michelangelo] to restore the missing arm behind the Laocoön. He commenced it, but left it unfinished, “because,” said he, “I found I could do nothing worthy of being joined to so admirable a work.” What a testimony of the superiority of the best ancient sculptors over the moderns, for of all modern sculptors, Michael Angelo is universally allowed to be the best!” Source
FELICI DE FREDIS QVI OB PROPRIAS VIRTVTES ET REPERTVM LACOOHONTIS DIVINVM QVOD IN VATICANO CERNIS FERE RESPIRAN(s) SIMVLACR(um) IM(mo)RTALITATEM MERVIT
To Felice Fredi, who earned immortality both for his own merits and for the discovery of the divine, well-nigh breathing effigy of Laocoön that you behold in the Vatican.
One of the tombstones in the Santa Maria in Aracoeli is the one of Felice de Fredis. He was a gardener who, on January 14 1506, encountered a stone vault that was above the famous sculpture the Laocoon. Giuliano da Sangallo and Michelangelo were present during this sculpture’s excavation which is now in the Vatican museum. They immediately saw that this was the sculpture that Pliny the Elder was so excited about.
“The first time I was in Rome when I was very young, the pope was told about the discovery of some very beautiful statues in a vineyard near Santa Maria Maggiore. The pope ordered one of his officers to run and tell Giuliano da Sangallo to go and see them. So he set off immediately. Since Michelangelo Buonarroti was always to be found at our house, my father having summoned him and having assigned him the commission of the pope’s tomb, my father wanted him to come along, too. I joined up with my father and off we went. I climbed down to where the statues were when immediately my father said, “That is the Laocoön, which Pliny mentions.” Then they dug the hole wider so that they could pull the statue out. As soon as it was visible everyone started to draw (or “started to have lunch”), all the while discoursing on ancient things, chatting as well about the ones in Florence. As soon as it was visible everyone started to draw (or “started to have lunch”), all the while discoursing on ancient things, chatting as well about the ones in Florence.”
Francesco da Sangallo sixty years after the discovery Quoted from Wikipedia
“[…] in the case of several works of very great excellence, the number of artists that have been engaged upon them has proved a considerable obstacle to the fame of each, no individual being able to engross the whole of the credit, and it being impossible to award it in due proportion to the names of the several artists combined. Such is the case with the Laocoön, for example, in the palace of the Emperor Titus, a work that may be looked upon as preferable to any other production of the art of painting or of statuary. It is sculptured from a single block, both the main figure as well as the children, and the serpents with their marvellous folds. This group was made in concert by three most eminent artists, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, natives of Rhodes.” Pliny ‘Encyclopedic Natural History’ (XXXVI, 37; 320 – 321)
Michelangelo and Sangallo were profoundly moved by this discovery. Even though it turned out that Pliny had not been telling the truth. The sculpture did not consist of one, but five blocks of marble, something that Michelangelo abhorred. A real sculptor uses but a single block of marble. If you look at the face of the priest Laocoön, contorted in agony, you are looking at a fundamental change in Greek sculpture. The story about Polyclitus, Lysippos and Leochares that we told above, no longer holds true for this sculpture group. We are now in the Hellenistic period, a period in which emotion was no longer taboo, rather the opposite, as we will see in the next rooms.
The story of the priest Laocoön is about his warning to the Trojans not to bring the big wooden horse inside the city walls. The crowd, however, became angry and killed this nagging fellow and his two sons.
The sea serpent that connects the three figures clearly impressed Michelangelo. In his painting, the Entombment, (Wikipedia) which today hangs in the National Gallery in London, he changed the snake that coils around the three bodies into a cloth. In 1534, the painter Titian drew a caricature of the Laocoön (Art Institute of Chicago).
Instead of continuing straight we will now turn right, and enter a hall shaped like a long corridor to take a look at two sarcophagi. The first belongs to Constantina; we visited the mausoleum (Santa Costanza) where she lies buried just Saturday afternoon. The second sarcophagus belongs to Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. She is the one who discovered the cross that Christ died on.
We turn back but this time we go straight toward the Sala delle Muse. This hall houses the famous Belvedere Torso by Apollonios. This Greek sculptor carved his name on the plinth.
We will take a good look at this statue from all sides. This, by the way, also applies to the Laocoön. If you really imprint it on your memory, you will see this image again quite a few times in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was deeply impressed by this classical statue and used it for his Ignudi (nudes) on the ceiling.
“All of the ignudi [of Michelangelo Sistine chapel ceiling [Web Gallery of Art] are in a sense ideal restorations of the famous Belvedere Torso, which of the surviving antique statues was perhaps the most evocative for Michelangelo’s muscular art. Michelangelo was enamored of this great fragment, and was quoted as saying ‘this is the work of a man who knew more than nature.” Quoted from: Howard Hibbard ‘Michelangelo’ Penguin Books (Second Edition) 1985 London pp. 122-123
The position of the hips and the upper legs is used in many figures, albeit painted from many different viewpoints. The statue was carved around 50 BC by Apollionius, son Nestor, Athenian as you can read on the plinth. It is covered in an animal skin, probably a lion skin, because near the left thigh you can see parts of a head that probably belongs to a lion. This is why some people believe this is the torso of Heracles. Ascanio Condivi wrote a biography of Buonarroti that was approved by Michelangelo himself after he had made quite a few comments. In his book Condivi writes that Buonarroti said of the torso: this the work of a man who knows more about nature’. The bundles of muscles, bones and veins are so lifelike that the sculptor, Apollonius, must have had a detailed knowledge of the human anatomy. This greatly impressed Michelangelo, who as a 17-year-old, to restate this fact, dissected corpses to find out what the human body looked like directly below the skin. That was the only way he could carve statues that were true to nature.
We will walk down the long halls toward the south and arrive at Raphael’s Stanze.