This is a famous sculpture known as the Belvedere Torso. It’s a marble copy made in the 1st century BC of a bronze Greek original, probably of the 2nd century BC. It takes its name from the courtyard of the Vatican Palace where it was displayed with other great works of antiquity known in the Renaissance. Michelangelo was widely known to have admired it during his lifetime, and this assured its fame. By the 1700s, this broken fragment was regarded as a work of superlative genius. The German Romantic tradition in the 1800s elevated it to a melancholy ruin emblematic of the fall of Greece itself. The torso has traditionally been identified as Heracles. Another possibility is that it represents Ajax, bent in contemplation of his suicide. The figure is seated on an animal hide, possibly a panther.
In the age of the great artists Michelangelo and Raphael, there was much debate around the relationship of art to nature. Michelangelo saw in the Belvedere Torso an object that represented the power of sculptors to transcend nature and to become independent and creative forces in their own right. In this drawing – a preparatory work for the Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel – Michelangelo seems to assert the same principle. The artist has dismantled the male body in order to reconstruct it as an ideal and utopian form.
Phidias’ fame in antiquity is equal to that of Michelangelo today. He created the now-lost colossal gold and ivory statue of Athena that stood within the Parthenon in Athens, while the marble sculptures that decorated the outside were carved to his design. They included this majestic figure reclining on a rock, which was an ambitious, and for its day unusual, composition. While such a pose was seen in relief sculpture, in three dimensions it required the cutting away of an enormous amount of marble to free the limbs from the block. To those who saw it when first displayed in London in the early 19th century, it seemed alarmingly naturalistic.
You can see these objects in our exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art (26 March – 5 July 2015).
You can also find out more about the exhibition in the catalogue by Ian Jenkins.