In 1969 the BBC broadcast a six part series called Civilisation which celebrated the development of western art and culture. Though originally envisaged purely as a means to demonstrate the capabilities of newly introduced colour TV, the series had a major impact for many. I was only 10 years old at the time, but still possess the book that accompanied the series and though Sir Kenneth Clark’s erudite views may have gone over my head, I now find myself 50 years later visiting and enjoying many of the great works that he selected to be featured, despite taking no interest in art whatsoever whilst at school.
The series has attracted criticism in the intervening decades for its fixation on the art of Western Europe after the middle ages, something that the BBC is trying to address in the new series Civilisations which both delves back to the earliest evidence of human creativity and has expanded into Asia, Africa and the Americas in its scope. Nevertheless I was fascinated by Mary Beard’s episode about the way we depict ourselves in art and her reference to the Apollo Belvedere, a Roman statue based on a Greek bronze that is displayed in the Vatican, and was once help up to be the epitome of the classical aesthetic, an ideal that continues to influence us to this day.
Watching the programme I was sure that I had recognised the Apollo’s quality and captured it on my recent visit, but a quick scan through my Vatican imagery proved otherwise. It was not in the Sala Rotonda as I had thought but now languishes in a corner of the Octagonal Court. I may well have missed it altogether.
And that is the problem with the Vatican Museums.
In their 50+ rooms and literally miles of corridors there are some 20,000 works on display, and of course as the collections of the successive heads of the Catholic church they are of great quality. But how many of the millions who pass along those corridors each year miss a masterpiece (like me) in their haste to reach the Sistine Chapel (unlike me).
The Sala Rotonda features a number of colossal classical statues dominated by an enormous bronze Hercules around which most of the visitors crowd for pictures, drawn by the size and colour of the work, but have they noticed the room itself (designed to replicate Rome’s Pantheon), or the quality of the other works which are nearly 2000 years old? What about the enormous porphyry basin at the centre? It has become little more than a roundabout to guide the human traffic but is also from Ancient Rome, as are the mosaics on the floor which were moved from their original site to this room in the 18th century. Even in such a magnificent setting so much becomes invisible, so heaven help Apollo in his plainer open courtyard.
Back in 1969, Sir Kenneth Clark described its fate:
…For four hundred years after it was discovered the Apollo was the most admired piece of sculpture in the world. It was Napoleon’s greatest boast to have looted it from the Vatican. Now it is completely forgotten except by the guides of coach parties, who have become the only surviving transmitters of traditional culture.