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Page revised in May 2010.
Giardino e Casino Pontificio del Belvedere (Book 10) (Map D2) (Day 8) (View C2) (Rione Borgo)
In this page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Casino di Belvedere (Museo Pio-Clementino)
Cortile della Pigna
Fontana del Cortile del Belvedere and Fontana del Vascello
Torre dei Venti
The Plate (No. 181)
In 1761, when Giuseppe Vasi engraved this etching, Villa del Belvedere was about to undergo a major change: from that of a summer retreat to that of a modern museum; it is not without significance that in this plate the vast courtyard is shown empty whereas in the view of the gardens of Palazzo del Quirinale the pope and his assistants are shown having a leisurely walk. The popes of the XVIIIth century, with the exception of Pope Benedict XIII, preferred to live in Palazzo del Quirinale, rather than in Palazzo Vaticano; when they wanted to escape from the heat of Rome they went to their villa at Castelgandolfo, rather than to the Renaissance casino built by Pope Innocent VIII and named Belvedere because of its fair view.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map here below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Porticoes leading to Palazzo Vaticano; 2) Pigna (fir cone) and bronze peacocks; 3) Door leading to Fontana del Vascello. The small map shows also: 4) Torre dei Venti; 5) Fontana del Cortile di Belvedere; 6) Rear side of Palazzo Vaticano.
Today the large courtyard shown in the plate is the site where guides brief their groups about what they are going to see in the Sistine Chapel with the help of placards showing Michelangelo's frescoes.
The fountain at the centre of the courtyard was replaced in the XIXth century by a huge statue of St. Peter (today in the Vatican Gardens) and subsequently by a bronze sphere inside a sphere by Arnaldo Pomodoro.
Casino di Belvedere
The building with the niche at the end of the courtyard was designed by Pirro Ligorio for Pope Pius IV in order to correct the alignment between Casino del Belvedere and the rear side of Palazzo Vaticano (the former was askew when seen from the latter); at that time there was only one very long courtyard/garden (Cortile del Belvedere) between the two buildings and therefore Pirro Ligorio designed a very large niche (Casino di Belvedere is shown by Vasi also in a plate covering Porta Angelica).
The conversion from villa to museum (Vatican Museums) was mainly due to three successive popes: Clement XIV, Pius VI and Pius VII; the first two popes completed Museo Pio-Clementino which is housed in the former casino while the last one built a new gallery (Braccio Nuovo) to house Museo Chiaramonti (the pope's surname).
During the pontificate of Pope Clement XIV the casino designed for Pope Innocent VIII was modified in order to house the collection of ancient statues owned by the popes; in some rooms one can see the coats of arms of the two popes; a small square garden with orange trees was turned into an octagonal courtyard where four masterpieces were given special relevance; among them Apollo del Belvedere which you can see in the image used as background for this page.
All the changes were designed by Michelangelo Simonetti.
J. W. Goethe criticized the new set up in the following excerpt from Italian Journey:
The custom of visiting the great Roman museums by torchlight seems to have still been fairly recent in the eighties of the last century, but I do not know when it first started.
There are several things to be said in favour of this kind of illumination: first, each work of art is seen by itself, isolated from all the others, so that the spectator's attention is exclusively focussed on it; second, in the bright light of a torch, the finer nuances of the work become more distinct, the confusing reflections (particularly annoying on highly polished statues) disappear, the shadows become more marked and the illuminated parts stand out clearer. But the greatest advantage of all is that only such illumination can do justice to statues which are unfavourably placed. Laocoon in his niche, for example, can only be seen properly by torchlight, for no direct light falls on him, only a reflected light from the small circular Cortile del Belvedere, which is surrounded by a colonnade.
(translation by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer).
At Goethe's time, also the monuments of ancient Rome were visited by torchlight or in the moonlight.
Simonetti continued his activity during the pontificate of Pope Pius VI; this pope however, more than his predecessor, was very keen on placing his name on each statue or work of art which was included in the new museum; he also wanted his heraldic symbol placed everywhere in the decoration of the new halls (see a page with some examples).
Simonetti made also some additions to the casino and in particular a large circular hall based on the design of the Pantheon; the criteria followed in assembling and displaying statues, mosaics and other ancient findings were aimed at obtaining the most spectacular effect and did not bother about grouping them according to period and location.
The museum was enlarged by Pope Pius VII who built Braccio Nuovo at the other end of Cortile della Pigna, the courtyard shown in the plate; grand staircases, passages, vestibules were built to connect the various parts of the museum, but the final result is that visitors find themselves in a maze, also because other collections were added in the next two centuries.
Pope Julius II charged Donato Bramante with the task of building two long porticoes to link Palazzo Vaticano with Casino del Belvedere. In the following three centuries the porticoes were gradually closed and turned into long corridors which were finely decorated.
In 1587 Pope Sixtus V commissioned Domenico Fontana the construction of a new building which cut into two sections the long courtyard; the new space was used to relocate there the Vatican Library.
The dramatic scenes depicting martyrdoms which were recommended for the decoration of churches, were not felt appropriate for the corridors of a sovereign's palace; their decoration was very elaborate, it made use of brilliant colours and it had references to the heraldic symbols of popes who commissioned it.
The celebration of major events in the history of the Roman Church, such as the Vision of Constantine before the Battle of Ponte Milvio was a recurring theme in the decoration of the corridors, together with views of churches, fountains, palaces built during the pontificate of a certain pope; many of them show major accomplishments, but in some cases minor buildings which have been subsequently modified are shown and these views have a great interest from a historical point of view. You may wish to see some more images of the ceilings.
Cortile della Pigna
After the long courtyard was divided into two sections by Biblioteca Vaticana its northen part became known as Cortile della Pigna because Pope Paul V relocated there a gigantic bronze fir cone which previously stood in the portico of Old S. Pietro and was mentioned by Dante in describing Nimrod, a giant: La faccia sua mi parea lunga e grossa/Come la pina di San Pietro a Roma (His face appeared to me as long and large/As is at Rome the pine-cone of Saint Peter's - Divina Commedia - Inferno XXXI - translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow).
The southern section of the courtyard is still called Cortile del Belvedere.
Pigna (Fir cone) is the name of the quarter of Rome where this bronze sculpture was found; it was part of a fountain and it spouted water from holes on its top. It was probably placed in front of a Temple to Isis in Iseo Campense; the gilded peacocks decorated one of the entrances to Hadrian's Mausoleum. The Egyptian lions were added by Pope Gregory XVI; they came from Mostra dell'Acqua Felice and were replaced by copies.
Fontana del Cortile del Belvedere
In 1612 the restoration of an ancient Roman aqueduct by Pope Paul V (Acqua Paola) provided the Vatican with an ample supply of water at a rather high pressure. Several decorative fountains spouting water at remarkable heights were built in the following years, such as that (lost) shown in the plate, the two in the photos above and others in the Vatican Gardens and in Piazza S. Pietro.
Torre dei Venti
In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced a change in the calendar by reducing the number of leap years. He followed the recommendations of a team of astronomers; in order to allow them careful observations of the sky, in 1578 the pope had asked Ottaviano Mascherino, one of his preferred architects, to build a terraced tower upon one of the corridors linking the Belvedere with the Vatican Palace. This terrace, called Torre dei Venti (tower of the winds) served as astronomical observatory until a new one was built in Collegio Romano.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Next plate in Book 10: Giardino e Casino Pontificio nel Vaticano
Next step in Day 8 itinerary: Porta Angelica