The Popes’ ‘Room of the Mysteries’

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.

The Borgia Apartments are just one of several projects being showcased during the 500th anniversary celebrations.

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,” said Nesselrath.

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 Vatican.

“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 in Rome, 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 today.

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 perspective.

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.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.