Belvedere Court of Vatican Palace

Rome, begun 1505

Architect:  Bramante





Pope Julius II employed Bramante to design a link between the Vatican Palace and the Villa Belvedere.  In enlarging the Vatican Palace so greatly, Julius wanted to emulate the large scale and grandeur of Roman architecture.


The Vatican Palace Facing

The part of the Vatican palace that would enjoy the view along the central axis of the courtyard was the Nicholas V wing, which had been added by Pope Nicholas V (1447-55) and partially decorated by Pinturicchio for Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503).


The Villa Belvedere

The Villa Belvedere was built by Pope Innocent VIII to the north of the palace between 1485 and 1487.


The name "Belvedere" refers to the villa's splendid hillside perch overlooking the Vatican, which included Old St. Peter's, the Vatican Palace, Hadrian's Mausoleum, and the Tiber River.


Conditions of the Site


Size.  The distance between palace and villa was almost a thousand feet.  


Terrain.  The terrain inclined upward from the palace to the villa, and the palace's third floor was on the same level as the villa's ground floor. 


Alignment.  The buildings were not aligned with each other.  





General Scheme

As illustrated by the plan, the two sites were connected by a long courtyard formed by galleries on the east and west sides.  To accommodate the rising landscape, the courtyard was terraced into three levels that were connected by monumental staircases.


In order to maintain a level roofline, the galleries on each level had a different numbers of stories.  The lower stories are taller, and the design varied from floor to floor and from terrace to terrace.


Magnitude of the Project

The construction of the Belvedere was the most ambitious architectural undertaking since Roman times.  It encloses a space comparable in length to the great Roman hippodromes like Nero's Circus, which is also similar in shape.


Because of the scale of the project, construction took place over the whole century.  The project's scope is suggested by drawings depicting the construction in progress.

c. 1558: Vatican region

c. 1558: Villa Belvedere and east gallery

c. 1558: Belvedere Court facing north


Sequence of Views

Because of the addition of extra stories and, above all, new wings across the court, the best illustrations of this court's most glorious state are drawings made around 1565, which was after the main features were in place and before the modifications were made.

c. 1565: Belvedere Court facing west

c. 1565: Belvedere Court facing north

c. 1565: Belvedere Court facing south


Changes to Bramante's Design

Many changes were made to Bramante's design by successive popes and their architects.  Although the overall conception of a long, terraced court was retained until 1585, little was carried out according to Bramante's original designs.






As the largest of the terraces, the lower court was used for tournaments and pageants.  Such events could be seen from the palace on three sides and from the upper terraces and step-like seating on the fourth side.


Porta Julia

Located on the east wing, the Porta Julia is a gateway into the lower court through the Vatican's outer wall, which was extended northward when the Belvedere Court was built.  Its massive masonry recalls Roman city gates in expressing power and impregnability.


Original Wall Design

Bramante's design called for an open arcade on the ground floor, an arcade using smaller arches on the second floor, and a colonnaded loggia on the third story. Superimposed pilasters follow the Colosseum in using the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders.


East Gallery

Although much of the east gallery was constructed as Bramante designed it, the final design of this court was altered by modifications and additions.


In an effort to increase the structure's stability, Peruzzi closed in some of the open arcade.


The east gallery's first three stories plus three bays of a fourth were completed in the 1540s according to a modified design by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger.


The extension of the partial fourth floor and the addition of an attic story was ordered by Pope Julius III (1550-55).


West Gallery

After Sangallo's death in 1546, the next important architect to work on the Belvedere Court was Pirro Ligorio who came to the project in 1558.  Ligorio's modifications to the wall design of the west gallery added a decorative quality.


Semicircular Seating

In 1564 Ligorio added the semicircular seating at the palace end, which paralleled the seating in Roman theaters.  The seating was removed in 1569 by Pope Pius V, who sought to eradicate the Belvedere Court's resemblance to a villa, and the rest of the theater was removed in 1755.





Late-Renaissance Additions

A number of additions were made in the late Renaissance and after.


blue Fourth story and tower. Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85) added a fourth story, whose gallery contains the Hall of Maps.  Gregory also added a four-story tower called the Tower of the Winds, which celebrates his having instituted the Gregorian Calendar.


green Library wing across the courtyard.  The lower court was completely separated from the upper terraces in 1585 by the construction of a library that extends across the courtyard and covers the lower stairway.  The library was commissioned by Pope Sixtus V, (1585-90) who wished to end the Vatican's resemblance to a villa.  The wall treatment matched that of the west gallery.


Post-Renaissance Additions

Several post-Renaissance modifications substantially altered the appearance of the lower court.


brown Bay-wide buttresses.  Under Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605), bay-wide buttresses were added on alternate bays.


brown Attic story.  A short fifth story was added to the west gallery by Pope Urban III (1623-44).


brown Fountain.  The lower court is now called the Court of the Fountain in reference to its centerpiece, which shoots four jets of water from the pool into an elevated basin.





Garden Features

The middle terrace, which was the smallest of the terraces, was originally landscaped as a parterre


A grotto, a popular garden feature, was built under the upper landing of the ramped staircase.


Ramped Staircase

The ramped staircase, which formed a grand backdrop to this level, consisted of a pair of long ramps that doubled back on themselves at the outer landings.


Enclosure of the Middle Courtyard

In the nineteenth century, a second cross wing called the Braccio Nuovo (new arm) was built over the ramped stairs.  This second splitting of the original court enclosed the middle terrace.  Part of the Vatican collection of classical sculpture, which includes such famous works as the Scraper by the Greek sculptor Lysippos, is displayed in this wing.





Landscape Design

The upper terrace was originally landscaped with formal beds organized in four-part groupings.  By the nineteenth century, the upper terrace's formal landscaping had been replaced by a park-like arrangement of paths winding through trees and plants.  Today, the upper terrace is planted with grass.


Enclosure on Three Sides

As on the lower terraces, Bramante designed the east and west sides of the upper terrace as open loggias, and like the lower terraces, the arches were later filled in.


Bramante originally designed blind arches on the north facing, and after the arches of the sides were filled in, the ground stories of the three facings matched.


Because Bramante originally designed  for the north facing, the  on each side of the center are essentially as he designed them, unlike the court's other ground story facings, which were designed as loggias.


Bramante's original one-story high version of the upper court has been substantially changed by the addition of an extra story and a new center.


Wall Design--the Travata Ritmica

On the upper terrace Bramante invented a new system of wall design that was more rhythmic and allowed for much variation by followers.


To counteract the monotony that would result from a long expanse of such a simple pattern as the column-on-pier form that was used for the other galleries, Bramante widened the piers to create wall-like areas that were wide enough to accommodate the extra features necessary to establish a more complex rhythm..


Bramante articulated the expanded pier with a grouping of two columns with a niche between them.  The alternation of these complexly ornamented pier units with arches creates a rhythmic effect.  This motif has been called a travata ritmica


Use of the Corinthian Order

The Corinthian order is used because this court is on the same level as the third floor of the lower court, where the orders are graduated in complexity and lightness, as established by Roman tradition.





Exedra Containing Concentric Staircase

At the center of the one-story screen at the far end of the upper terrace, a section of wall curved inward, forms an exedra,  a semicircular recess.


Bramante's recess can be visualized from Serlio's illustration.  Some of the doors are represented as niches, an error that resulted from Serlio's departure from Rome before it was constructed.  His knowledge of its design was based on plans he had seen earlier.


A special feature of the exedra was an ingeniously designed circular staircase that had a circular landing at the center.  Semicircular flights of concentric steps extended upward and downward from a lateral midline.  The lower flight was convex, and the upper flight was concave and resembled a miniature version of the seating area of a Roman theater.  The resemblance to an ancient theater was increased by the circular landing, which corresponded to the circular stages of Greek and early Roman theaters.


Changing Staircase to Double Ramp

Although there is still an exedra at the north end, nothing of Bramante's version remains.


The alteration was a consequence of Pope Julius III's (1550-55) enlargement of the villa. He added a two-story block behind Bramante's one-story screen, but there was no way to connect the addition with the original villa because the exedra and the recently built sculpture court separated them.


To create an interior passage between Julius III's addition and the villa, a semicircular corridor was added along the inside of the exedra.  This passage covered the upper landing of Bramante's concentric staircase.  In 1551 Bramante's staircase was replaced by a staircase designed by Michelangelo.  Its balustrade is similar to those along the terrace edges and the ramped staircase leading down to the middle court.


Ancient Bronze Ornaments on Staircase

The upper landing of the staircase is decorated by a fountain in the form of a giant bronze pinecone.  The court is named the Court of the Pinecone (Cortile della Pigna) in reference to it.  In ancient times the pinecone fountain stood on the Campus Martius, which was a public square in Rome.  It was moved to the atrium of Old St. Peter's in the ninth century, but it was not reactivated as a fountain with water flowing from its prickles until it was mounted in the Belvedere Court in the sixteenth century.


The pair of peacocks flanking the pinecone are reproductions of originals, which are now in the Braccio Nuovo.  They had been displayed with the pinecone both in the atrium of St. Peter's in the Middle Ages and on the Belvedere Court staircase in the Renaissance.  These peacocks had been part of a series of peacocks that were originally mounted on a bronze railing that encircled the mound of Hadrian's mausoleum.


Forming the Nicchione

The architect Pirro Ligorio (appointed 1558) crowned the new two-story semicircular recess with a semidome in 1562, which gave it the contour of an apse.  The whole was surmounted by a semicircular loggia.  This part of the upper court is called the Nicchione, meaning big niche.


Large niches had also been accentuated in Roman architecture as Ligorio would have known.





Scala Bramante

Bramante designed a five-story spiral staircase, which is in the form of a continuous ramp instead of stairs.  The ramp is supported by 36 columns that progress in form from the Tuscan to the Doric, Ionic, and finally, Composite Orders as the ramp ascends.  Its balustrade is ornamented by a frieze-like pattern based on Classical motifs, and the floor of the ramp itself is textured by a herringbone pattern.


The staircase, which includes an outside entrance, is located in a tower on the east side of the villa.  Its purpose was to facilitate access to the sculpture court.



On the outer side the Villa Belvedere near the Scala Bramante, Julius III added a fountain.


Sculpture Garden and Gallery

To showcase the papal collection of antique statuary, Julius II commissioned a sculpture garden in the form of a square courtyard built between the original villa and the north wall of the courtyard.  Its most famous works were the Apollo Belvedere, and the Laocoön, which had been unearthed in the late-fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, respectively.


The present form of the sculpture garden was constructed in 1772-73 under Clement XIV.  It was rebuilt after many of the works formerly displayed there were placed in the Belvedere galleries.


A corridor-like gallery displays more works from the Vatican's extensive collection of antique works.


See visual summary by clicking the Views button below.













Bramante 7 of 8




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Serlio's elevation and plan of upper-terrace gallery