Commissioned by Popes Clement XIV (1769-1774)and Pius VI (1775-1799) to collect the most important Greek and Roman masterpieces in the Vatican. After passing through a square vestibule and a small room with a magnificent marble cup, the visitor enters the Cabinet of Apoxyomenos, named after a Roman copy of an original Greek bronze work by Lysippos (c. 320 B.C.): it shows an atlete scrapping off his sweat with a strigil, a kind of razor used in antiquity; he gazes in the distance and his body is relaxing after the victory. Bramante’s Staircase can be seen from the next room: it was commissioned by Julius II in 1512 as a link between the Palace of Innocent VIII (1484-1492) and the city of Rome: the spiral staircase, built in a square tower, could also be climbed on horseback.
The visitor can then reach the Octagonal Courtyard, named after its shape by Clement XIV in 1772. Among the most famous statues: the Belvedere Apollo, a Roman 2nd century copy from a Greek bronze original possibly by Leochares (330-320 B.C.), placed in the Agora of Athens: the statue of the God of Beauty, who probably carried a bow in his upraised arm and an arrow in his lowered hand, was considered an ideal of formal perfection and technical virtuosity in the Neo-classical period and was brought to the Vatican by Julius II; the celebrated Laocoon group, found in Rome on the Esquiline Hill in 1506, is a 1st century Roman copy from the Greek original in bronze by Hagesandros, Athanadoros and Polydoros. Soon much admired by Michelangelo, it was purchased by Julius II who had it set in the Vatican. The sculpture represents the Trojan priest Laocoon who warned his fellow citizens about the ruse of the wooden horse, a gift of the Greeks, so he was condemned to die by the wrath of Athena with his two sons, victim of some serpents emerging from the sea; the Perseus with the head of Medusa between two boxers by Antonio Canova (1800-1801).
Next to the courtyard are the following:
- Room of the Animals, with a collection of Roman statues and animals, heavily restored at the end of the 18th century.
- Gallery of Statues, originally open loggia of the Palace of Innocent VIII, later walled in during the second half of the 18th century. It contains precious Roman statues, including some copies of Greek statues of the Classical period (5th-4th century B.C.), such as the Apollo “Sauroktonos”, the lizard-killer, copied from Praxiteles (c.350 B.C.) and the famous Sleeping Ariadne, a Roman copy of the 2nd century from an original by the School of Pergamon (2nd century B.C.).
- Room of Busts, mostly containing portraits of Roman emperors.
- Cabinet of Masks, with the remarkable Roman Venus of Cnidos;
the original (mid 4th century B.C.) also by Praxiteles, came from the Greek sanctuary of Cnidos and was much admired in antiquity.
- Room of Muses, with Roman statues of muses and poets copied from Greek originals. The famous “Belvedere Torso”, a 1st century B.C. original by the Athenian sculptor Apollonius, is in the middle of the room. The torso’s powerful and vigorous muscolature embodied Michelangelo’s ideal and was much admired during the Renaissance and the neo-classical period. Recent studies identify the statue with the figure of the Greek hero Ajax who is meditatine suicide.
- Round Room, built by Michelangelo Simonetti in the late 18th century in a pure Neo-classical style. The dome is actually modelled on the Pantheon and has a diameter of 21.60 metres. A huge round monolithic porphyry basin stands in the middle of the room: it measures almost five metres across, comes from the Domus Aurea and was brought here in the late 18th century. A 2nd century Hercules in gilded bronze found near the Theatre of Pompey and a 3rd century mosaic from the Baths of Otricoli (region Umbria) are also fascinating.
- Greek-cross Room, with a 3rd century mosaic from Tusculum in the middle and two colossal sarcophagi in red porphyry: the one on the left (4th century) belonged to Saint Helen, Constantine’s mother (306-337), and comes from her mausoleum in Via Labicana; the sarcophagus on the right belonged to Costantina, Emperor Constantine’s daughter and was in the Church of Saint Constance in Via Nomentana.