Updated: May 9, 2021
Every lover of Renaissance art is familiar with the magnificent frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, such as The Last Judgment and The Creation of Adam, the iconic scene showing God extending his finger towards Adam to offer the gift of life. But not many have yet come across that one piece of art that was crucial in inspiring the 33-year-old Michelangelo when he imagined several of the Chapel’s frescoes. That unique artifact, The Belvedere Torso, a marble sculpture dating from the 1st century BC or AD, is hosted by Museo Pio-Clementino of The Vatican Museums and can be seen displayed, fittingly, in the Room of the Muses, right between the Octagonal Courtyard and the Round Room. A muse, you probably know, is a goddess who inspires the minds of artists. So 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 is the famous Belvedere Torso.
THE DISCOVERY OF THE BELVEDERE TORSO
A marble sculpture of a headless, armless and legless man seated on a panther skin whose identity is still unknown, the Belvedere Torso was discovered sometime in the 15th century. We don’t know who he is, but most importantly 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 all we really know is that he was found near Campo de Fiori sometime in the early 1400’s.
Once believed to be an original, the famed marble sculpture is in fact a copy of a Greek bronze original likely dating from the 2nd century BC. Attributed to the enigmatic “Apollonius, son of Nestor, Athenian” by virtue of the signature prominently placed on the front of the base—indeed a rare occurrence in ancient art—the sculpture caused much debate among historians due to the obvious difficulty of identifying a figure who is missing both head and limbs. The seated man with contorted torso was traditionally believed to be Heracles, the son of Zeus, but other possibilities include Hercules, Ajax, Polyphemus, the giant son of Poseidon or the satyr Marsyas.
THE PULSATING HEART OF THE VATICAN MUSEUMS
Immediately recognized as a remarkable work of art, the sculpture was brought to the Vatican in 1523 by Pope Clement VII, a great lover and patron of the arts who commissioned Michelangelo to paint The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Once Pope Julius II became a pontiff, he placed the yet unnamed sculpture of a male torso in the Belvedere Courtyard, an open-air museum of sorts that exhibited the famous Laocoön and His Sons and a statue of Apollo, which in time came to be known as the Belvedere Torso and Apollo Belvedere, respectively. By the 1700s, the Belvedere Torso was revered by scores of sculptors and painters who hailed it as a work of supreme genius.
Due to the remarkable influence it had on the creative vision of Renaissance master Michelangelo, nicknamed during his lifetime Il Divino, the sculpture gained prominence and became an example of artifact whose beauty and refinement surpasses those of nature. The origin of inspiration in art had been a recurring topic of debate among scholars and artists since before the Renaissance. But especially during High Renaissance, the time of Raphael and Michelangelo, when visual arts reached their apogee, the relationship of art became a topic of intense debate. Michelangelo’s view on it comes to us through a story attributed to Bernini, who recounts having once walked in on the great Renaissance master to find him on his knees in front of the Belvedere Torso and witness him enraptured by its mastery uttering the words
“Truly this was created by a man who was wiser than nature!”
Alongside the craftsmanship of the largely unknown author of the Torso, who is unmentioned in ancient literature, Michelangelo admired the expressivity of the pose that conveyed the sense of internal struggle so elegantly. 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.
A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION FOR THE SISTINE CHAPEL
Art historians have identified influences of the Belvedere Torso in several of the Sistine Chapel’s 33 scenes, such as in the depiction of Adam in The Creation of Adam, that of the angels and the Ignudi that line the panels on the ceiling, and and finally that of the Victory of Christ and Saint Bartholomew in The Last Judgment. 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.
In fact, art historians have counted at least twenty different appearances in Michelangelo’s impressive masterpiece frescoes of The Last Judgement. Such was the admiration it aroused in Michelangelo, that he declined Pope Julius’ request that he reconstruct the statue with limbs and a head and consequently, in an unusual move for an ancient sculpture, it was left unrestored. Following in Michelangelo’s lead in their admiration of the Torso, to which he often referred to as “his teacher,” many artists drew the Torso, among them Baroque engraver Hendrick Goltzius, Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens, who made a study of it as a young man on his first visit to Rome, and English Romanticist landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, who sketched it while a student at the Royal Academy Schools.
Despite it being one of the most important works of art in Western culture, the Belvedere Torso has enjoyed fame more in the academic circles than at the level of the general public. That doesn’t mean that the attraction exerted by the Torso is not immediate — for artists or artistic souls everywhere – something that made English poet Sir Joshua Reynolds exclaim:
“What artist ever looked at the Torso without feeling a warmth of enthusiasm, as from the highest efforts of poetry?”
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 and how this ancient masterpiece influenced the greatest masters and artists of all times. The Belvedere Torso became actually the pulsating heart of the Vatican Museums, although often overlooked. Most Vatican Tours often dedicate to it no more than a quick stop, while it is, in fact, a radiating source of inspiration that contributed to give life to the most admired works of art in the whole Vatican collection.