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Belvedere Torso

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A marble fragment showing the torso and upper legs of a powerful male figure seated on a rock, now in the Vatican Museums and named after the Belvedere Court in the Vatican in which it was once displayed. It is signed by a Greek sculptor, ‘Apollonius, son of Nestor, Athenian’, about whom nothing is known, and there is scholarly debate as to whether it is an original Hellenistic work or a Roman copy. (It is sometimes alleged that the signature of Apollonius occurs also on the famous and stylistically similar bronze figure of a seated boxer in the Terme Museum in Rome, but most authorities now consider that this is a mirage.) The date of the discovery of the torso is uncertain, but it is first mentioned in the 1430s. It had become well known by 1500 and its majestic portrayal of heroic muscularity had a profound influence on Michelangelo among other Renaissance artists. From then until the 19th century it was widely regarded as one of the greatest works of art in the world, rivalled in status probably only by the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön among ancient sculptures, although its fame was generally more academic than popular. It was often referred to simply as ‘the Torso’. Unusually, the figure has always been left unrestored, but various artists have attempted to reconstruct the statue, notably Flaxman, who made of it a group as Hercules and Hebe (1792, University College London, on loan to V&A). Although Hercules has been the most popular suggestion for the identity of the figure, there have been several others, including Ajax and Polyphemus. Between 1798 and 1815 the Belvedere Torso was in Paris, one of the many antique statues taken there by Napoleon.

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