A 500-year-old mystery at the Vatican has just been solved. Two paintings by Renaissance master Raphael were discovered during the cleaning and restoration of a room inside the Vatican Museums.
Experts believe they are his last works before an early death, around the age of 37, in 1520: “It’s an amazing feeling,” said the Vatican’s chief restorer for the project, Fabio Piacentini.
“Knowing these were probably the last things he painted, you almost feel the real presence of the maestro.”
The two female figures, one depicting Justice and the other Friendship, were painted by Raphael around the year 1519, but he died before he could finish the rest of the room. After his death, other artists finished the wall and Raphael’s two paintings were forgotten.
In 1508, Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the his private apartments. The artist completed three rooms, known today as the “Raphael rooms,” with famous frescoes like the School of Athens.
He then began plans for the fourth room, the largest in the apartment, a banquet hall called the Hall of Constantine. His plan was to paint the room using oil, rather than the traditional fresco technique.
An ancient book from 1550 by Giorgio Vasari, “Lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects,” attests that Raphael began work on two figures in a new experiment with oil. That clue was the key to the discovery. When restorers began to clean the walls of the Hall of Constantine in 2017, they realized two female figures were painted in oil, while the rest of the room was painted using the fresco technique.
Ultra-violet and infrared photos confirmed scholars suspicions: these two paintings were not like the rest, the oil painting clearly showing through in the advanced technology. To the expert eye, it was clearly Raphael for other reasons as well.
Vatican restorer Fabio Piacentini says there is a confidence in the brushwork that is typical of Raphael: “The way the paintbrush moves,” Piacentini explains, “even the subtlety of the point of the brushes used to create the small wisps of hair.”
Raphael also created unusual shades of color, which began to show through during the cleaning, according to Piacentini. The fact that there is no sign on these two figures of a preparatory drawing underneath, such as a lesser painter might have used, is another sign of the maestro’s hand, he says.
A detail of the discovered paintings. Credit: CNN
The head of the Vatican Museums, Barbara Jatta, says restoring the Raphaels and the whole room will take them until at least the year 2022: “It’s one of the most important projects of the last decades – apart from the Sistine Chapel — done in the Vatican Museums,” she says.
Although it is unlikely that there are other hidden masterpieces on the walls of the Vatican, the Museum’s restorers and scholars always keep their eyes open: “That’s the beautiful thing of different projects,” Jatta says. “We are still searching…it never ends.”
The restoration of the two re-discovered Raphaels and the rest of the Hall of Constantine at the Vatican will take until 2022 to complete and cost 2.7 million euros — around $3.1 million.
The restoration team, the head restorer Fabio Piacentini, Romina Cometti, Fr. Daniel Hennessy and Fr. Kevin Lixey from the Office of The Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums
Much of that expense, so far, has been covered by the New York chapter of the Vatican’s Patrons of the Art, says Vatican Museum Director, Barbara Jatta. The Patrons are a special group of donors, mainly from the United States, but also Europe and increasingly from Asia, who support art restoration at the Vatican.
“We produce a wish book every year,” says Barbara Jatta, “that means important projects that are going on; we share ideas with them.”
Individuals can become patrons of Vatican art for a $600 annual membership fee. They can then adopt special restoration projects from the Vatican Museums Wishbook and contribute to the restoration and safekeeping of the Vatican’s — and the world’s — art patrimony.
Barbara Jatta, the first female director of the Vatican Museums, in the Hall of Animals of the Pio Clementino Museum this month. Credit Mattia Balsamini for The New York Times
VATICAN CITY — Vatican City has been governed by men since it was established as an independent state in 1929. A year ago, however, a woman joined the upper ranks: Barbara Jatta, the first female director of the Vatican Museums.
In the 12 months since her appointment, Ms. Jatta has put her stamp on the role, resisting some of her predecessor’s initiatives and forging her own path.
Ms. Jatta was the only woman on an initial list of six candidates, and she was chosen by Pope Francis. In the post since January, she oversees some 200,000 objects and an array of museums, papal apartments, sculpture courtyards and other sites, including the Sistine Chapel.
Visitors in front of the Belvedere Torso in the Vatican’s Hall of the Muses. Credit Mattia Balsamini for The New York Times
The chapel is one of the Roman Catholic Church’s holiest places, where popes are elected. It is also packed almost daily with ever-larger crowds scrambling to gaze at Michelangelo’s famous frescoed ceiling. The Vatican Museums say visitor numbers in 2017 are expected to reach a record, significantly exceeding the six million that Ms. Jatta’s predecessor, Antonio Paolucci, defined as an annual upper limit. The escalating totals pose the toughest challenge to Ms. Jatta’s directorship.
Ms. Jatta is friendly yet firm, and she expresses high ambitions for herself and for the institution. In an interview, she said that she had worked for 20 years in the Vatican Library, leading its prints department from 2010. When she heard of her nomination for the Vatican Museums role, she said, “it came as a shock at first, to face such a big change.”
Regarding her gender, Ms. Jatta said she “didn’t realize what it meant until I started the job. Whenever I attended conferences or public events, so many women would come up to me, saying: ‘We are proud, and you are also, in some way, representing us.’ ”
Her office, which overlooks the Michelangelo-designed dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, was filled with family pictures, a framed photograph of Pope Francis, and the portrait bust of another predecessor: the neo-Classical sculptor Antonio Canova, the first director of the papal museums.
A staircase designed by Giuseppe Momo at the Vatican Museums. Credit Mattia Balsamini for The New York Times
Ms. Jatta said that art had played a big role in her family: Her mother and sister are art restorers; her grandmother, who was originally from Russia, was a painter; and her paternal ancestors founded an archaeological museum named after the family in Ruvo di Puglia, in southern Italy.
Eike Schmidt, the German director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, said Ms. Jatta’s appointment was a positive sign. “Within the male-dominated Vatican, to give such a prominent role to a woman was very good news,” he said, adding that he hoped the world of culture would soon “move beyond” gender considerations and “look at people for what they did and what they do.”
One curator now working for Ms. Jatta, Maurizio Sannibale of the Gregorian Etruscan Museum, said he had known her since they were students at Sapienza University in Rome. He described her as “affable, decisive and empathetic” and said that she “knows how to set challenges for herself.”
Running the Vatican Museums is a colossal job. Ms. Jatta is responsible for preserving, displaying and sharing knowledge of all of the treasures accumulated by the popes over the centuries, including the vast Egyptian and Etruscan collections, the “Laocoön” sculpture from the first century B.C., and Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th-century painting “St. Jerome.” In their breadth, history and caliber, the Vatican Museums make the Palace of Versailles in France look like a flashy upstart.
A terrace overlooking the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Credit Mattia Balsamini for The New York Times
Whole sections of the museums are undergoing renovations ordered by Mr. Paolucci, a former culture minister who was director for nine years and who had previously led Florence’s museums. The renovations include work on a 16th-century public courtyard known as the Cortile della Pigna (one of many projects supported by the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums).
Tourism is a lifeline not only of the museums, but of the Vatican as a whole. Of the 100 million euros, or about $119 million, in annual revenue generated by the museums, roughly half goes to the state, according to Mr. Paolucci.
That complicates any director’s job. So does the fact that many of the museums’ sites have both artistic and religious significance — starting with the Sistine Chapel.
Six days a week, and on the last Sunday of each month, throngs of visitors scurry past masterpieces by Titian and Caravaggio and through a suite of rooms painted by Raphael to reach Michelangelo’s chapel. On a recent afternoon, the sacred enclosure was full of adults gaping at the ceiling, babies in strollers and tour guides with flags on sticks. Guards periodically hushed the crowds, and stepped in to stop people taking photographs.
Inside the Pinacoteca, one of the Vatican Museums, with a preparatory model of an angel by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Credit Mattia Balsamini for The New York Times
The sweat and breath of millions of visitors, and the dust they bring in, endanger the chapel’s frescoes, Vatican conservation teams have found. Mr. Paolucci once envisaged a virtual Sistine Chapel on the museum’s premises: a full-size replica or a digital simulation that crowds could experience to limit congestion. He also announced that walk-in visits would end once numbers reached six million a year. From that point, he said, tickets would need to be purchased online in advance.
But Mr. Paolucci left without introducing his plans.
Ms. Jatta, who worked under Mr. Paolucci as deputy director and heir apparent starting in mid-2016, said she was against preventing walk-in access to the museums, even though 2017 totals look set to show another significant increase in the crowds, by about 10 percent. “If you were a visitor wishing to see the Sistine Chapel and you got to Rome and were told that it couldn’t be seen, what would you do?” she asked. “We are also a museum with moral and spiritual value. The Sistine Chapel is also a chapel, and that’s something that cannot be forgotten.”
As for a virtual Sistine Chapel, it would take up too much space and cost visitors more, she said. Instead, the Vatican Museums have advised on an immersive multimedia show (with a soundtrack by Sting) is to open in March in an auditorium near the Vatican, illustrating the story of the Sistine Chapel.
Ms. Jatta said she also planned a second entrance to the Vatican Museums that would offer alternative routes through “parts of the museums that are less visited,” such as the Ethnological Museum. An institution close to Pope Francis’s heart, the Ethnological Museum will soon reopen with expanded displays of the 80,000 objects it holds, many of which were sent from around the world for an exhibition organized by Pope Pius XI in 1925.
The Gallery of Maps at the Vatican. Credit Mattia Balsamini for The New York Times
Ms. Jatta added that she was extending opening hours at other institutions such as the Etruscan Museum to bolster visits.
Getting tourists to take more notice of other museums is difficult, by its curator Mr. Sannibale’s own admission. And whatever route they take, visitors will still want to see the Sistine Chapel, as Ms. Jatta acknowledged. So how would a new entrance solve the problem?
Ms. Jatta said the central objective was to alleviate congestion, as the Louvre Museum in Paris had done, through “a better distribution of tourists inside the museums.”
Visitor traffic aside, Mr. Schmidt said that the Vatican collections, started around two millenniums ago, were “one of the longest-standing collections of art that mankind has.” They had “an almost unique importance across the planet,” he added.
Ms. Jatta’s mission, as she described it, was to “find a way for visitors to see them in the right conditions.”
Click on the image below to read the article on the NYT online.
A version of this article appears in print on December 25, 2017, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Job Known For Its Ceilings.
The Vatican Museums, in collaboration with the Istituto Statale Sordi di Roma and “Italia Creativa” Association, designed an innovative and inclusive educational activity, which can be simultaneously experienced by both deaf and hearing children. The visits will be organized in different Vatican Museum areas using special installations, B-Sense platforms, capable of converting music and sound into vibrations, offering all participants both the hearing and deaf, the opportunity to listen and feel melodies through the body.
The interactive and multisensory laboratories are designed specifically for integrated lessons and are able to produce “an augmented reality,” dedicated to the comprehension of art. The laboratories use the Socratic method through multi-sensory activities that involve the inquisitive creativity of children. Through the stimulation of critical thinking, children will experience, understand, and appreciate art. The visits will be engage each child’s intellect and imagination, building their knowledge.
This special activity will commence in January 2018 in the Vatican Museums. For further information please refer to the Vatican Museums website.