The octagonal courtyard, once known as Cortile delle Statue, is one of the most beautiful courtyards in Vatican City. The courtyard gets its name from its eight-sided shape and is arguably the oldest part of the Vatican Museums.
The courtyard was first used by Pope Julius II (1503-1513) to display the most impressive Ancient Roman statues that had been recently discovered by excavations during his papacy. In fact, two of the most important statues of this time, the Laocoon and the Belvedere Apollo, are still in the same position as they were when Pope Julius II had them on display in 1506 – the year the public was first allowed to view the ancient masterpieces.
The courtyard as we see it today was redesigned by Michelangelo Simonetti in 1773 with Pope Clement VIV and Pope Pius VI adding to the courtyard.
You can not miss visiting the Octagonal courtyard once you enter the Vatican Museums. You will pass through the space while you are en route to the Sistine Chapel. As you leave the Pinecone Courtyard, take the small staircase on the left. These steps will lead you directly to the Octagonal Courtyard. It is just before you enter the Room of the Animals and the Rome of the Muses.
3 must-see statues in the Octagonal Courtyard
The Apollo Belvedere
The Apollo Belvedere is still today argued to be the most beautiful statue in the world and one of the most important in the Vatican collection. The huge marble statue (7.3 meters high) dates from between 120-140 A.D by the sculptor Leochares. Although many Ancient Roman statues were actually copies of Ancient Greek statues we know this is originally Roman due to the Roman footwear of the time.
Apollo was the Greek and Roman god of the sun, archery, music and poetry. This statue of the god was discovered in central Italy in the 15th century and was put on display in 1511 by Pope Julius II. It is has not moved since then, making it one of the oldest parts of the Vatican’s collection.
Apollo is posed after shooting his arrow while slaying the serpent, Python and can be seen on the left as you enter into the courtyard.
This incredible group of statues shows the Trojan priest, Laocoon, and his two sons being attacked by serpents sent by the god Apollo after the Priest warned the Trojans “beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. The gift being the Trojan horse which was a ploy for the Greeks to attack the Trojans.
The Laocoon was created by the sculptors Agesander, Polydorus and Ahendourus from Rhodes in Greece. We believe the group was created between 42 to 20 B.C.
The Laocoon was discovered in 1506 on the Esquiline Hill in Rome in which Michelangelo Buonarroti (painter of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) was asked by Pope Julius II to be at the site to advise during the discovery of the statue. Once it was brought to the Vatican Pope Julius II allowed the Laocoon to be put on display for the public to see and set the path for the Vatican Museums to be opened up to the public. It remains in the same place to this day.
The Laocoon group can be seen on the back left as you enter into the Octagonal Courtyard.
Antonio Canova’s Two Boxers
Antonio Canova lived between 1757 to 1822 and was probably the greatest sculptor of his day. His two statues of The Boxers were purchased by Pope Pius VII in 1802 after they were completed in the late 1790s.
The Boxers were inspired by a story written by the Ancient Greek traveler Pausanias in which two fighters, Creugas and Damoxenos, were so evenly matched that they were each only allowed to hit each other with one blow. Damoxenos cheated by stabbing Creugas and tearing out his intestines. Damoxenos was disqualified leaving the dead Creugas the winner. Both statues can be seen in fighting poses with incredible attention to the anatomy of the figures.
The statues, which are almost double life-size, stand looking at each other just in front of another Antonio Canova statue of the Triumphant Perseus holding the head of Medusa sculpted between 1800 and 1801. This spectacular grouping can be seen on the right of the courtyard as you enter.