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BY EDWARD PENTINRegister Correspondent
VATICAN CITY — Long before The Da Vinci Code popularized supposed mysteries in the Louvre, the Vatican
had its own “Room of the Mysteries.”
The year 2006 marks the 500th
anniversary of the Vatican Museums, the vast network of rooms and hallways that
house the frescoes, paintings, carvings, statues and artifacts that popes have
collected over the centuries.
On April 27 as part of
celebrations, the most significant of the rooms, the “Room of the Mysteries,”
was unveiled after a four-year program of restoration.
Apartments are just one of several projects being showcased during the 500th
The rooms comprise six supremely
ornate chambers, decorated on the instructions of Alexander VI by the
Renaissance artist Bernardino di Betto,
otherwise known as Pinturicchio. A contemporary of Michelangelo and Raphael, Pinturicchio spent from 1492 to 1495 painting a series of
Renaissance murals and creating masterpieces of decorative design using
precious materials. The result, say some art experts, is more impressive than
the Sistine Chapel a few corridors away.
“The restoration was much slower
than we expected, partly because of the peculiar technique employed by Pinturicchio,” explained Arnold Nesselrath
of the Restoration and Scientific Laboratories of the Vatican Museums. Rather
than use tempera, the usual ingredient for frescoes, the Renaissance artist created
colors using egg, oil and glue spread onto a mixture of plaster — something
that took the restorers by surprise. “We had to change over our whole project,”
Yet the end result is dramatic.
The images are sharper, the
peeling has vanished and the gold glistens once again in what is the most
historic of all the rooms; the place where, during Alexander VI’s papacy,
treaties were signed and private audiences held. But some are concerned that
restoring these apartments might bring back the ghosts of the Borgia period, a dark time which some in the Church would
prefer to forget.
Filmmaker Orson Welles captured some of the intrigue and adventure that has
been associated — rightly or wrongly — with the room in his film The Third Man.
Pope Alexander VI, formerly known
as Rodrigo Borgia, was responsible for a colorful
papacy, to say the least, but the period also produced some great artistic
fruits, one of which was the Borgia Apartments in the
“In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed,
but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and
the Renaissance,” wrote Welles. “In Switzerland
they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what
did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
But according to professor Elizabeth Lev, who lectures in art history and
Christian symbolism at John Cabot University
Alexander VI is a victim of some underserved bad press.
“He did have some questionable
personal habits,” she admitted, but the papacy at that time had to “navigate a
very difficult line between the temporal and the spiritual.” In 1500, Lev
added, Alexander underwent an “extraordinary conversion,” and a member of his
family later produced a saint. “Alexander is a very good example of how God can
work good through an imperfect instrument,” she said.
Nesselrath also prefers to see the Borgia period in a less controversial light.
“He had problems with the Romans
who didn’t want a foreigner on the papal throne again, so he was having a hard
time,” he explained. “He’s an ambiguous personality, but one should be prepared
to look at that period critically.”
He also sees the Borgia papacy, influenced by a world superpower (Spain) and
facing the challenge of Islam (the Moors), as providing some useful lessons for
What better occasion could there
be, asked Francesco Buranelli, the director of the
Vatican Museums, to celebrate not only this anniversary of the museums as an
agency of conservation, “but also of the promotion and recovery of art?”
Restoration of the Room of the
Mysteries, which contains figures of King David and Solomon, the prophets
Isaiah and Jeremiah, and scenes of the Nativity and the Resurrection, was
carried out by a team of 10 experts led by Nesselrath.
Most of the funding came from the generosity of Vatican
Museum patrons in Florida,
California and Minnesota.
However, although restoring,
rearranging or reopening significant pieces of its permanent collection and
opening new collections is to be welcomed, Lev would also like to see the
Vatican Museums making greater efforts to turn the museums into a valuable
teaching moment, particularly in this era of The Da Vinci Code and other false stories
about the Church.
“There is this terrible
misconception today that the Renaissance was a time when everybody, from the
Church down, threw out what was Christian and began to embrace this pagan view
of the world,” said Lev, who is also a professional Vatican tour guide. The
museums, she hoped, could perhaps help people understand how the Renaissance
was really a time when antiquity was re-examined through a Christian
She also contends the museums
could make more of an effort to stimulate visitors into realizing that what
they have is far more than just an average collection.
“This is the history of the Church
— it shows the faith of the leaders of the Church and it has a far more
resonant message than a lot of people think,” she said, pointing out that the
first public museum in the world, Rome’s Capitoline
Museum, was opened by the
uncle of Pope Julius II in 1471. “There’s more here that the museum can do to
emphasize that, and so turn it into a truly evangelizing faith in every way.”
writes from Rome.