It was also at one point the home of the papal menagerie. It was on the lower portion of the courtyard that Pope Leo X would parade his prized elephant Hanno for adoring crowds to see. Because of the pachyderm glorious history he was buried in the Cortile del Belvedere.
When Pope Julius II came to the papacy in 1503, he moved his growing collection of Roman sculpture here, to an enclosed courtyard within the villa Belvedere itself. The Laocoon sculpture, soon after discovery, was purchased by Julius and brought here by 1506. Shortly after its discovery, the statue of Apollo was also brought here, henceforth to be known as the Apollo Belvedere, as was the heroic male torso known as the Belvedere Torso. Julius commissioned Bramante to formalize a plan to link the Vatican Palace and the Belvedere. Bramante's design as he left it is commemorated in a fresco at Castel Sant'Angelo: he regularized the slope as a set of terraces, linked by rigorously symmetrical stairs on the axis, to create a sequence of formal spaces that was unparalleled in Europe, both in its scale and in its architectural unity. A series of six narrow terraces at the base was traversed by a monumental central stair leading to the wide middle terrace. The divided stair to the uppermost terrace, with flights running on either side against the retaining wall to a landing and returning towards the center, was another innovation by Bramante. His long corridor-like wings that enclose the Cortile now house the Vatican Museums collections. One of the wings hosted the Vatican Library. They begin as three storeys and end in a single one enclosing the uppermost terrace. The whole scenography climaxed in the hemicircular exedra at the Belvedere, set into a screening wall devised by Bramante to disguise the fact the villa facade did not parallel its facing Vatican Palace facade. The unique ensemble was designed to be best seen from Raphael's Stanze in the papal apartments, a view exaggerated in the engraving (illustration, above right) made to commemorate the festive carrousel celebrating the marriage of one of Pius IV's nephews in 1565.. The illustration reverses the drawing it was made from: the court where the sculptures were displayed appears in the engraving at upper left instead of upper right.
The Courtyard was incomplete when Bramante died in 1514. It was finished by Pirro Ligorio for Pius IV in 1562–65. Pirro took the great open-headed exedra at the center of Bramante's Belvedere and added a third storey, enclosing the central space with a vast half-dome to form the largest niche that had been erected since Antiquity— the nicchione visible today from several elevated outlooks around Rome (illustration). He completed his structure with an uppermost loggia that repeated the hemicycle of the niche and took its cue from scholarly reconstructions of the Roman temple complex dedicated to Fortuna Primigenia at Praeneste, south of Rome.
The lowest, and largest level of the court was not planted. It was cobbled and paved with a saltire of stones laid corner to corner; it had semi-permanent bleachers set against the Vatican walls and was used for outdoor entertainments, pageants and carousels such as the festive early 17th-century joust depicted in a painting in Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi. The upper two levels were laid out in the simple form of patterned parterres that the Italians referred to as compartimenti, set in wide gravelled walkways. The four sections (now grassed) of the upper courtyard have the same pattern that appears in 16th century engravings.
Sixtus V spoiled the unity of the Cortile (1585-90) by erecting the wing for the Vatican Library, which occupies the former middle terrace and bisects the space. James Ackerman has suggested that the move was a conscious one, designed to screen the secular, even pagan nature of the Cortile and the collection of sculptures that Pope Adrian VI had referred to as "idols". Today the lowest terrace is still called the Cortile del Belvedere, but the separated upper terrace is called the Cortile della Pigna because of the colossal Roman bronze pinecone, once a fountain, that occupies the center of the niche.
In 1990, a sculpture of two concentric spheres by Arnaldo Pomodoro was placed in the middle of the courtyard.