To most of the tourist crowd who come to see him, the Apollo Belvedere often lacks a name or a history - but, as a long-time fixture of the tourist trail which snakes its way around the Vatican Museums of Rome, he is invariably worth at least a photograph.Photograph of the Apollo Belvedere, 2015.
The statue, which depicts Apollo as an archer whose figure is still tense and superbly composed, as though still in the moment immediately after having shot an arrow, gazes out well above the heads of the throngs of Rome’s tourist crowd. It has been part of the collection of the Vatican Museums since the 1500s; in that time, this Apollo has acted almost as a mirror to the aesthetics, convictions and prejudices of the successive generations to have inherited it.
The statue currently on display in the Vatican is likely to be modeled on a bronze original by the Greek sculptor Leochares of the fourth century B.C. At the time of its discovery in the late 1400s, it received little fanfare; through the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it became increasingly celebrated, and was sketched by the likes of the German printmaker Dürer, the Dutch draftsman Goltzius, and even Michelangelo. However, there can be little doubt that the heyday of the Apollo Belvedere came in the eighteenth century, ushered in by the lavish praise of art historian J. J. Winckelmann. For Napoleon, who captured it and relocated it to Paris in 1798 (were it remained for some seventeen years), it was a work he was immensely proud to have come by - perhaps more so than of any other piece to have been taken from Rome.
Indeed, its fame came about alongside the Enlightenment, which ascribed great artistic value to it - in short, it became known as the greatest example of its aesthetic. The easy contrapposto portrayed, where the weight appears to be shifted onto the left foot, along with its subtle musculature, must have struck a chord amongst neoclassicists who sought to capture and reanimate the Greco-Roman ideals so brilliantly captured in Apollo’s godly - flawlessly beautiful, even - demeanour. However, it was exactly this impersonal quality that epitomised the reaction against the work by the Romantics through the nineteenth century, as though it were the ultimate representation Enlightenment values they sought to reject. Dispassionate and restrained classical ideals were out of favour; there was now a demand for the passionate and the expressive. Though romanticism gave way to modern art, the downward trend continued through the twentieth century as the Apollo Belvedere’s influence dwindled to the point of near-total abandonment within the art world.
In spite of the established pattern of decline, the statue still has its fair share devotees. Today’s aesthetes, many of whom may be found easily on Tumblr, proudly claim the statue’s long-documented homoerotic appeal for themselves (‘They say he makes the men turn gay’, gawks one user in half-joking response to a photograph of the statue’s bust). In other respects, a modern audience has found it necessary to confront yesteryear’s responses to the statue. Increasingly, we are challenged to see the statues of the Classical world in the colour they have lacked for centuries, whilst the likes of Winckelmann are criticised for celebrating the ‘whiteness’ of Grecian statues - the Apollo Belvedere very much included. Meanwhile, it is possible to find white nationalist organisations in the United States who embrace it as a symbol of white supremacy (one widely shared propaganda image features the head of the statue accompanied by the text, ‘Our Future Belongs to Us’).
The beauty of the statue is as striking as ever. Though it is one thing to admire its perfect, calm serenity: it’s quite another, however, to view it as a racist, pseudoscientific model of white supremacy. Could the statue’s decline in popularity of late be attributed, in part at least, to it being caught up in these sinister implications? In truth it appears unlikely, but nevertheless it would seem a monumental shame to lose such a magnificent treasure of the ancient world to those who want to abuse it to further their modern racist agenda.
At the very least, I think the Apollo Belvedere deserves better than that.