Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular have been known for both promoting art and for censoring and destroying art. Two of the earliest museums in the western world were, however, created by Catholic Popes.
The Capitoline Museums:
On top of the Capitoline Hill in Rome are a group of art and archaeological museums known as the Capitoline Museums (Musei Capitolini). While the plan for the layout of the museums was the work of Michelangelo Buanarroti in 1536, the museums actually began in 1471 when Pope Sixtus IV donated a collection of ancient bronzes to the people of Rome. The bronzes all had great symbolic value to Rome and its history. The collection was located on Capitoline Hill and is often credited as the oldest public collection of art in the world.
Michelangelo’s design for Capitoline Hill is shown above. The Capitoline Hill had been the nerve center of the Roman Empire and it was here that Lucius Taruinius Superbus constructed the great Temple to Jupiter and the Capitoline Triad. This was considered to be the largest and most beautiful temple in the city.
Pope Sixtus IV served as Pope from 1471 to 1484 and is perhaps best-known for the establishment of the Sistine Chapel. With regard to art, he brought together the group of artists who introduced the Early Renaissance to Rome. On a darker note, he also furthered the agenda of the Spanish Inquisition. He also affirmed the right of the Portuguese to acquire African slaves by force. On a more personal note, he appears to have been a homosexual with a number of male lovers and he awarded benefices and bishoprics in exchange for sexual favors.
According to oral tradition, Rome was founded by the twins Romulus and Remus who had been suckled by a she-wolf. The bronze shown above was probably manufactured in the thirteenth century.
During the Middle Ages, many Roman statues were destroyed by Catholic Church authorities. The statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, shown above, was preserved because it was thought to depict the Christian Emperor Constantine.
Over the years, the museums’ collections have come to include ancient Roman statues and other artifacts, medieval and Renaissance art, and jewels, coins, and other items.
Capitoline Museums are currently housed in three main buildings. The Palazzo Senatorio was built in the twelfth century and was modified according to Michelangelo’s designs.
The Palazzo dei Conservatori shown above was built in the mid-sixteenth century and redesigned by Michelangelo.
The Palazzo Nuovo shown above was built in the seventh century and has an exterior design which is identical to the Palazzo dei Conservatori. The two buildings face each other across the palazzo.
In the twentieth century, the Palazzo Caffarelli-Clementino, a sixteenth century structure, was added to the museum complex.
Today the Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani) inside the Vatican City are usually classified among the greatest museums in the world. They contain some of the most important masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world. The museums were originally started by Pope Julius II in 1506.
The museums started with a single marble sculpture. The sculpture was uncovered in a vineyard near the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Pope Julius II sent two of the artists who were working for the Vatican, Giuliano de Sangallo and Michelangelo Buonarroti, to examine the piece. As a result of their recommendation, the Pope purchased the sculpture from the vineyard owner and put it on public display.
Pope Julius II (known as the Fearsome Pope and the Warrior Pope) was Pope from 1503 to 1513. He was known for his patronage of the arts. He also founded the Swiss Guard to provide a corps of soldiers to protect the Pope.
The marble statue uncovered in the vineyard was Laocoon and His Sons (also known as the Laocoon Group; Gruppo dei Laocoonte). The Roman writer and historian Pliny the Elder attributed the statue to three sculptors from the island of Rhodes: Ageesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus. The life size statue, carved about 25 BCE (some sources indicate 160 BCE), shows a Trojan priest and his sons being strangled by sea serpents. A wealthy Roman probably commissioned the work and the artists at Rhodes produced it as a copy of an earlier work. After being discovered and put on public display, the marble sculpture significantly influenced the course of the Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo was particularly impressed and the sculpture influenced a number of his later works.
In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Italy and he took the sculpture back to Paris where it was displayed in the Musée Napoléon at the Louvre. Here it was one of the inspirations for neoclassicism in French Art. In 1816 the British, who had defeated Napoleon, returned it to the Vatican.
According to the museums’ website:
The popes were among the first sovereigns who opened the art collections of their palaces to the public thus promoting knowledge of art history and culture. As seen today, the Vatican Museums are a complex of different pontifical museums and galleries that began under the patronage of the popes Clement XIV (1769-1774) and Pius VI (1775-1799).