As you walk through the Vatican Museum during one of our Vatican Tours, right between the Octagonal Courtyard and the Round Room, you’ll pass through the Room of the Muses. A muse, you probably know, is a goddess who inspires the minds of artists. The room takes its name from the beautiful 2nd century statues that line its walls. But the piece that has given more inspiration than all of the others combined sits directly in the center of the room. This, the famous Belvedere Torso.
This armless, legless, headless body sits on his podium in the middle of the room, cushioned by the skin of a panther. We don’t know who he is. Over the centuries the best educated guesses have been Hercules and Dionysus. We don’t know who made him. The inscription on the base indicates a Greek sculptor named Apollonios, son of Nestor, who worked in Rome during the 1st century BC. Yet very little is known about Apollonios, and for all we know he could have been copying a much older statue. So we also don’t know when he was made. All we know is that he was found near Campo de Fiori sometime in the early 1400’s.
Michelangelo loved this piece. To him, this was a perfect rendition of the human form, from everything to the proportions, to the bones, muscles, and veins. He was also enthralled by the three-dimensionality of the statue. All the other muses in the room have their backs to the wall, because they’re only supposed to be viewed from one vantage point. The Torso, however, can be walked around, and appreciated from every possible angle. Michelangelo was approached several times by Pope Julius II, who asked if he could hook him up with some prosthetic limbs. Each time, Michelangelo refused. It was perfect as it was, he explained, and to add to it could only take away. Because sometimes less is more! He’s on record as having said, “This is the work of a man who knew how to do it better than nature!”
Take a good look at the Torso’s pose. If it looks familiar, you’ve probably seen it before. This was Michelangelo’s chief sitting model when he was painting the Sistine Chapel. On the ceiling and the wall, the Torso can be found with added limbs and a head, in Adam, in St. Bartholomew, even in the angels that line the panels on the ceiling. In fact, art historians have counted at least twenty different appearances in Michelangelo's impressive masterpiece frescoes of The Last Judgement.
If you’ve ever needed a reason to visit the Vatican Museums, here it is one: you’ll not only get to lay your eyes on one of the greatest works of art of all time, but you’ll also witness first-hand how it was conceived.