Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 5, 2004
Sara Magister Arte e politica: La collezione di antichità del Cardinale Giuliano della Rovere nei palazzi ai Santi Apostoli Classe di scienze morali, storiche e filologiche. Rome: Atti della Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 2002. 247 pp.; 61 b/w ills. $15.00 (8821808718)

The Belvedere statue court is still widely regarded as one of the “first” antiquities collections in Renaissance Rome, but Sara Magister, in articles published in Xenia Antiqua (1999 and 2001), has identified more than 160 families in Rome who collected ancient works of art before Giuliano della Rovere, as Pope Julius II, broke ground on the Belvedere in 1504. Even if some these “collections” consisted of only a few inscriptions, Magister has shown us the extraordinary extent of the craze for antiquities in fifteenth-century Rome. She has now turned her attention to one of the most important of these collections, that formed by Della Rovere as titular cardinal of San Pietro in Vincoli, before he was elected pope. Della Rovere kept away from Rome in self-imposed exile during most of Alexander VI’s papacy (1492–1503), but before his flight he had arranged a group of sculptures and inscriptions in the open loggia of his new cardinal’s palace at Santi Apostoli. This loggia, looking onto the garden, still survives in the palace to the right of Santi Apostoli’s façade (a palace now owned by the Colonna family). When Della Rovere built this residence and another to the left of the church, the only precedent would have been Cardinal Pietro Barbo’s Palazzo Venezia, which had surrounded the church of San Marco in a similarly proprietary way. Barbo and Della Rovere were both leading antiquities collectors, but while Barbo favored the tactile experience of turning over gems and statuettes in his study, Della Rovere innovatively modeled his collecting on Cicero’s by arranging life-size marble statuary in his garden.

Magister’s book on Della Rovere’s first collection navigates a mass of previous literature, beginning with Deborah Brown’s revelation in 1986 that the famous Apollo Belvedere had once formed part of the cardinal’s collection at Santi Apostoli.1 A number of studies by Lorenzo Finocchi-Ghersi have since clarified the architectural history of the church and surrounding buildings, but these did not adequately contextualize the sculpture collection. Magister rectifies the situation by cataloguing the collection at Santi Apostoli and by weighing the importance of a document recently published by Christoph Frommel.2 Frommel’s discovery has revealed that the Apollo Belvedere remained at Santi Apostoli until October 1508, that is, several years after the Belvedere’s construction. Della Rovere’s collection was, then, neither merely the predecessor of the Belvedere, nor was it immediately emptied out for Bramante’s grandiose Vatican courtyard.

At its best, Magister’s study shows that Della Rovere’s collection indeed had an important, independent role before the Belvedere. Her book brings new life to the sculpture garden, depicting it as a place of banquets and theatrical performances where ancient statues were given speaking roles in poems recited for these occasions. The Apollo, ancient inscriptions, sarcophagi, and almost certainly—as Magister argues—the Hercules and Antaeus and the Venus Felix later displayed at the Belvedere all flanked a garden that was planted with bitter orange trees and was centered on an enormous porphyry vasca. Magister characterizes Della Rovere’s sculpture garden not as a “public” museum, but as an enclave of artists, poets, and courtiers where elite audiences could flaunt their expertise in ancient epigraphy, poetry, and mythology. This view is more plausible than another sometimes posited, namely, that the existence of “welcoming inscriptions” or leges hortorum set up outside sculpture gardens meant that the public could enter such spaces.

In general, however, the book lacks broad ambitions and gives prominence to an inventory that offers few discoveries about the contents of Della Rovere’s sculpture garden. Too much of the text fills rather small holes left behind by past researchers, and, unfortunately, the author does not capitalize on her vast knowledge of fifteenth-century Roman sculpture collections to discuss the wider context in depth. The place of Della Rovere’s collection in this context is critical, since formal antiquities gardens seem to have been introduced to Rome especially through the patronage of cardinals at the court of Giuliano’s uncle, Sixtus IV (1471–84). If a typical Roman family compound in the mid-fifteenth century was a fortified block of unified palaces clustered around a tower, cardinals like Della Rovere arrived in Rome with a novel conception of the palace attuned to the reception of a select public inside, and ancient sculptures in gardens and courtyards became an essential part of this new approach. An important comparandum to the Santi Apostoli collection would be the antiquities garden at the palace of Cardinal Domenico della Rovere in the Borgo, begun around 1475. There, the upper garden still retained the shape of the medieval walled hortus conclusus, but novelties included terracing and the installation of an ancient statue of a sleeping nymph reclining near a fountain. In the collections of both Giuliano and Domenico della Rovere, the display of ancient figural statuary in a garden setting transformed the urban palace into a suburban villa, similar to the country villas described by classical authors.

Magister only briefly mentions these issues and instead, as in past studies of Giuliano della Rovere as collector, focuses on the topic of iconographic programs. Hans Hendrik Brummer’s and Georg Daltrop’s suggestion that Della Rovere devised a “Julian program” for the Belvedere statue court has been widely accepted, and Della Rovere’s ancient sculptures are thought to dovetail with his aspirations for a new Golden Age founded under a new Caesar or Augustus and placed under the protection of Apollo.3 At the Belvedere courtyard, the Apollo Belvedere is thought to have linked the ancient site of the Vatican (where a temple of Apollo once stood) with the Vatican of Julius II, a new “Realm of Apollo”; Raphael’s Parnassus, as it has been noted, was positioned above a window that looked toward the Belvedere court. Magister’s main argument is that this program was conceived before the Belvedere, for Della Rovere’s palace at Santi Apostoli. But Magister also seems to be aware that the idea of a “program” as a systematic idea carried through the formation and completion of a sculpture collection goes against the realities of collecting in fifteenth-century Rome, when ancient works of art were often obtained by chance on one’s own property. The unstated but important implication of her research is that whatever “program” can be found was generated after discovery, as court artists and poets invented a new mythology around Della Rovere in its most flattering form. Magister gives tantalizing notices of this process of invention, as contemporary poets and artists employed ancient sculpture to affirm the birth of the new Golden Age with appropriate metaphors. But in the end, the reader is left hoping for more analysis of the culture of banquets in cardinals’ sculpture gardens and the integration of Della Rovere’s sculpture collection into the art, poetry, and politics of the day.

Magister’s study of the Apollo’s move from Santi Apostoli to the Vatican also opens important questions about the Belvedere courtyard. For example, was Bramante’s Belvedere intended to include a statue court from the first stages of planning? Did Della Rovere hit upon the idea only after the discovery of the Laocoön in 1506, a question Arnold Nesselrath and Christoph Frommel have posed?4 Such a hypothesis might account for the Apollo’s delayed transfer, but so too could Julius II’s preoccupation with political events. To complicate the issue, Frommel has argued that the Apollo Belvedere was displayed first (from October 1508) in the pope’s private apartments and only later installed in the Belvedere courtyard. One of the main thrusts of Magister’s text supports this idea and takes it further, arguing that the Apollo reached the Belvedere only in 1511. The problem is that Francesco Albertini saw the Apollo and other sculptures from Santi Apostoli in the Vatican in 1508 or 1509 and described them in his guidebook to Rome. Magister tries to get around this by asserting that Albertini’s description distinguishes between two groups of sculpture and two sites of display: the pope had “transferred to the Vatican” (in Vaticanum transtulit) the Apollo and Venus Felix, while he had the Laocoön and the Hercules and Telephus placed “in loco Belvedere” (see 551–52). When Albertini visited, the first group, Magister writes, was somewhere in the papal apartments, while the second group was in the Belvedere. But the argument fails to show how Albertini could have seen all of these statues, even those in the pope’s private quarters, or why he described them all in the same breath without, in fact, actually differentiating between two separate sites for their display. It seems more likely that the Apollo was transferred to join the Laocoön in the Belvedere; it was, after all, just after the Laocoön’s discovery that Julius II declared his wish to gather together “tucte l’antichaglie mirabili et belle” in the Belvedere, even if ordinary delays and warfare may have kept his plans on hold. In all of this, we should not lose sight of Frommel’s important point that the Apollo was not the center of a “program” devised for the Belvedere from the beginning, a claim that significantly revises previous interpretations of the statue court. Indeed, a lessening of emphasis on the Apollo’s role in the Belvedere statue court only adds to the monumental importance of the Laocoön’s discovery, the event that seems to have inspired a new conception of the Belvedere as well as a much more ambitious phase of collecting in Rome.

As Magister notes, the new documentation for the Apollo’s transfer also has significant implications for representations of the statue in the Codex Escurialensis. The new date of the transfer means that the anonymous author of drawings copied into the Codex represented the Apollo twice at Santi Apostoli (on fols. 53 and 64), even if the second drawing (fol. 64) had been thought to represent the statue in the Belvedere. Remarkably then, the massive, all’antica, altarlike base shown underneath the Apollo on fol. 64, which still supports the Apollo Belvedere today, was created for Della Rovere’s viridario at Santi Apostoli. This base and others matching it placed under the Laocoön and the Venus Felix (also still in place today), were in fact revolutionary. They so resembled pagan altars that they greatly disturbed Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola, who wrote a poem in 1513 condemning the Belvedere as a heathen realm where “ancient images all around [are] propped up on their own little altars.”5 In this light, the classicizing base of the Apollo emerges as yet another reason to admire the innovation of Della Rovere’s display at Santi Apostoli.

It is this sense of experimentation and innovation that is not well communicated by the catalogue format of the volume under review, a system inspired by the Census of Antique Works of Art and Architecture Known to the Renaissance and by Phyllis Bober and Ruth Rubinstein’s handbook of Renaissance antiquities, Renaissance Artists and Antique Sculpture: A Handbook of Sources.6 But one of the greatest achievements of Bober and Rubinstein’s monumental work was to enable the next steps beyond documentation, and it was always meant as a call for further investigation into the history of display and the role of antiquities in the cultural life of Renaissance Rome.

Kathleen Wren Christian
Garden and Landscape Studies, Dumbarton Oaks

1 Deborah Brown, “The Apollo Belvedere and the Garden of Giuliano della Rovere at SS. Apostoli,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 49 (1986): 235–38.

2 Christoph Frommel, “I tre progetti bramanteschi per il Cortile del Belvedere,” in Il Cortile delle Statue: der Statuenhof des Belvedere im Vatikan. Akten des internationalen Kongresses zu Ehren von Richard Krautheimer, Rom, 21.23. Oktober 1992, ed. Matthias Winner, Bernard Andreae, and Carlo Pietrangeli (Mainz-am-Rhein: Phillip von Zabern, 1998), 17–66.

3 H. H. Brummer, The Statue Court in the Vatican Belvedere, Stockholm Studies in History of Art 20 (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1970); Georg Daltrop, “Nascita e significato della raccolta delle statue antiche in Vaticano,” in Roma e l’antico nell’arte e nella cultura del Cinquecento, ed. Marcello Fagiolo (Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, 1985), 111–29.

4 Arnold Nesselrath, “Il Cortile delle Statue: luogo e storia,” in Il Cortile delle Statue, 1–16; Frommel as cited in note 2.

5 See Brummer, as in note 3, 273: “Omni autem ex parte antiquae Imagines / suis quaeque arulis super impositae.”

6 Phyllis Bober and Ruth Rubinstein, Renaissance Artists and Antique Sculpture: A Handbook of Sources (London: Harvey Miller; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

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