This beautiful marble head is modelled after the celebrated Apollo Belvedere, an over-life size marble statue of the Greek god Apollo, named after the famous Belvedere courtyard in the Vatican, where it has been displayed as an important part of the papal collections since the 16th century. Traditionally the famous statue has been interpreted as a Roman marble copy from the early Hadrianic period of a now lost bronze original by the Attic sculptor Leochares, presumably made about 330 BCE and usually identified with a statue by that artist mentioned by Pausanias and Pliny. The Roman statue was discovered towards the end of the 15th century at Anzio or Grottaferrata. However, the exact provenance and conditions of its discovery remain uncertain.
The statue shows the epiphany of the God Apollo. He appears in a wide effortless stride. The right leg seems to be carrying the weight of the body while the left leg seems to be resting in the background, the muscles show no sign of tension. He is nude except for a chlamys draped over his shoulders and left arm. A quiver is attached to his back and his left arm is raised in an almost threatening gesture. The left hand must have carried a bow. The head with the long hair knotted above the forehead, is vigorously turned towards the bow while his eyes are staring in the distance. The right hand and part of the right arm is now missing. Originally it was held slightly forward and close to the body. A marble tree trunk with a winding serpent supports the statue along the right leg. Over the centuries there have been different opinions as to the context of the statue. Throughout the nineteenth century copies of the Apollo and the Diane Chasseresse were usually paired. This tradition went back to the mid-seventeenth century when Chantelou suggested to Bernini that both sculptures were the work of the same artist. The idea that they were originally imagined 'converging to slaughter the children of Niobe' seems to have been adumbrated early in the nineteenth century.
However, most people among whom most notably the illustrious and enormously influential German art historian J.J. Winckelmann, believed the statue portrayed Apollo having just discharged his arrow at the vicious Python of Delphi. Alternatively the action of the statue was visualised in more general terms, as appropriate to the sun god whose arrows are his rays or to Apollo Venator, God of the Chase. The sculpture was famous almost from the moment of its discovery. It was considered by many as the quintessential embodiment of Greek art and has had an enormous influence on writers, poets and artists. The earliest drawings can be found in so-called the Codex Escurialensis, ascribed to the studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio, going back to about 1490-1495. They show the statue in its unrestored form, with the original right arm and the hand that was broken through the palm, in the garden of San Pietro in Vincoli that belonged to cardinal Giuliano della Rovere. After Giuliano became pope under the name of Julius II in 1503, the Apollo was put in the Vatican in 1509. This move led to the statue becoming even more widely admired especially after it had found its definite place in the Belvedere Courtyard in 1511. A print by Marcantonio Raimondi dating from around 1530 became an important vehicle through which knowledge of the statue was subsequently transmitted far beyond the Vatican.
The earliest and rather free copy is probably the bronze statuette (now in the Ca d'Oro) Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi, who is also known as Antico, produced in 1497-8 for Ludovico Gonzaga. In his statue he completed the mutilated extrimities. Under Pope Clement VII, Giovan Angelo Montorsoli, a pupil of Michelangelo, was commissioned to restore the statue. In 1532 Montorsoli restored the left hand with a fragmentary bow and replaced the right lower arm, perhaps to add a new attribute or because of recent damage thus creating slightly more dramatic pose.
The additions Montorsoli made were observed with hardly any comment and were invariably reproduced in prints, casts and copies for over three centuries. In the second half of the nineteenth century however the modifications became the subject of intense controversy and were eventually removed again. In 1540 moulds were made for François I and not long after a bronze replica was cast for the royal palace of Fontainebleau. This was the first reproduction to include the Montorsoli additions. The reproduction was to serve as the visual centerpiece of a propagated new Rome. A great number of drawings attest to the Apollo's influence on many famous cinquecento artists who either made their own reproductions of the statues or were profoundly inspired by it. From then onwards, until well into the nineteenth century no set of prints or casts or copies claiming to represent the most famous works of antiquity failed to include the statue.
In 1798 the Apollo figured prominently among the ancient sculptures transferred to the Louvre by Napoleon, where it remained until 1816. Modest scale, plaster and marble copies became trophies of the grand tour, fueled by the high esteem the statue enjoyed. An important role in boosting the statue's popularity was played by the influential German art historian and critic, J.J. Winckelmann, who in his monumental Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (History of Ancient Art) described the statue as "das höchste Ideal der Kunst unter allen Werken des Altertums" (tr. "the highest ideal of art among all the works of antiquity"). Only a few years later, in 1771, the illustrious Goethe wrote in a letter to Herder, after having seen the Apollo:
My whole being is shaken, as you could imagine, good man, and it still vibrates far too much for my pen to be able to mark firmly. Apollo Belvedere, why showest thou thyself in thy nakedness, that we must be ashamed of ours?
Goethe's close friend, the poet Schiller, was even more impressed by the statue. In his essay on aesthetics, the "Brief eines reisenden Dänen", in which he analyzes the classical collection at Mannheim, he rapturously wrote:
[…] Of all the statues housed in this room, the Vatican Apollo (i.e. Apollo Belvedere) is the most perfect - one look at the statue is enough, to make you realize with utmost certainty that you are standing in front of an immortal […] This celestial mixture of accessibility and severity, benevolence and gravity, majesty and mildness cannot just be a 'Son of the Earth' […]
Not only did Goethe, Schiller as well as many others experience feelings of ecstasy as they looked at the statue, the Apollo Belvedere also served as a source of inspiration for them as well as for many other artists eversince it was discovered. The following poem by the same Goethe illustrates this. One can sense that Goethe must have been thinking of the statue while writing the lines:
Wandeln wird er He will wander,
Wie mit Blumenfüssen As with flowery feet,
Über Deukalions Fluthschlamm, Over Deucalion's dark flood,
Another famous artist who was influenced by the Apollo was Albrecht Dürer. Under the influence of Italian theory, Dürer became increasingly drawn to the idea that the perfect human form corresponded to a system of proportion and measurements. Near the end of his life, he wrote several books codifying his theories. Dürer's fascination with ideal form is manifest in his Adam and Eve from 1504. The first man and woman are shown in nearly symmetrical idealized poses: each with the weight on one leg, the other leg bent, and each with one arm angled slightly upward from the elbow and somewhat away from the body. The figure of Adam was inspired by the statue of Apollo Belvedere. Dürer must have somehow seen a drawing of it.
The powerful artistic reception of the Apollo continued well into the 20th century. The head of the Apollo appears in a painting, called The Song of Love, dating from 1914 by the Greek-Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, one of the precursors of the surrealist movement. It depicts an outdoor architectural setting similar to other works by de Chirico at the time. The main focus is a small wall on which is mounted on the one hand a sculpted head which is unmistakably that of the Apollo Belvedere, and on the other hand a surgeon's glove. Below it is a green ball. On the horizon is the outline of a locomotive, an image that recurs several times during this period of de Chirico's career.