The Gallery of Statues
( Originally Published 1907 )
We know by our reference to the map that we are now near the extreme northeast corner of the Vatican palace. At one time this building stood apart by itself, and had served as a summerhouse for the Popes. Pius VI, the same who died in exile, captive of the French Republic in 1799, converted it into a museum. By degrees it became part of the palace, and the palace was gradually converted into a storehouse of art, not only through its accumulations of gifts, but also through the work done in it by artisans of all kinds. This gallery into which we now look is filled with ancient sculptures dug from the ruins of the past by enthusiastic excavators. The Popes did their utmost to make the room worthy of its beautiful contents. This floor of marble mosaic is so perfectly finished that it reflects the pillar and statue on the left of that distant doorway. What skill and patience were put into that work alone! Thousands of fragments of different colored marbles had to be cemented together with tremendous pains to make one continuous surface ; and then the marble patchwork was rubbed and polished until it presented the marvelous surface which it has held for four centuries. Observe how the architect made the curves of the ceiling repeat the same curve which you find in the arch of the doorway. The statues are for the most part ancient derelicts, although a few are modern. Notice the beautiful alabaster urn almost in the center of the gallery; once it contained the ashes of a member of the royal Julian family.
The urn at the farthest distance has engraved upon it the names of three children of Germanicus. This ancient Roman was at one time the delight and hope of the Roman nation, but he died at an early age, poisoned it is believed by the plot of a rival for the imperial throne.
To some visitors it is a surprise to find gallery after gallery in the Papal palace filled with these works of art. Yet if we recall that everything is peculiar here, it will be easy to catch the meaning of it. In the old times the Popes were the source of honor for the kings of every department, science, art and government. The ruler, the artist, the inventor, who won their favor, became great by the fact. The Popes devoted time and thought, each according to his taste and opportunity, to the advancement of the arts and sciences. They gathered about them the learning, wit and artistic power of Italy and the world. It was this spirit which dictated this accumulation of treasures, increased the growth and fixed the character of the Vatican, and laid civilization under eternal obligations to the ecclesiastical rulers for their preservation of the old arts and their development of the new. In pagan times, as far as we know, the Greeks attained the highest culture. In these statues you see the results and the evidence of that culture. These snowy forms, strong and symmetrical figures, with pose of the utmost grace and lightness, with faces full of the joy of life, show not merely the artistic skill of their artists but the Greek ideals of life. They abhorred pain and death. This life was the only life of which they had any certainty. The after-life, called by them The Shades, had no place in their imagination for they persistently put it aside. Their children were educated with perfect bodies and tasteful temperaments, that they might enjoy life to its utmost. You see this feeling in the statues, all calm, dignity, grace, pleasure, natural joy, as if life were enough to satisfy us, with all its briefness and shadow. It is the habit of some critics to praise these statues as if nothing more perfect had ever been attained by man. The Pieta which we saw in the side chapel of St. Peter's is just as beautiful as anything done by the Greek artists. The Greek art with all its technical perfection was deficient in the true spirit of humanity. It left out the highest expression of the soul. Hawthorne expressed the thing perfectly when he held out a half-blown rose and said: "This is perfect ! On earth only a flower can be perfect."
We might come again and again and feast our eyes at leisure on the marvelous things always on view in these galleries, but the time is now come for an audience with Pope Pius X. Our next position is indicated on the map by the figure 17, near the opposite, i. e., the southern end of the palace, a little farther east than the Sistine Chapel. We shall again be near St. Peter's, for we shall stand in the room called the Sala Ducale, (Ducal Chamber).