Art restorers toiling on the sumptuous 500-year old apartments of Pope Alexander VI, are rediscovering a Renaissance artist who left his mark on the pontificate of a controversial pope.
The 15th-century master painted frescoes in numerous Italian
churches, but his works on the apartments of the controversial Spanish
pope, formerly known as Rodrigo Borgia, are now being restored to their
Alexander, who was elected in 1492, gave Bernardino di Betto, better
known as “Pinturicchio,” two years to decorate his private apartments,
where he greeted heads of state and partied with his mistresses at a time when popes were not always celibate.
Alexander is less known for his interest in arts and science than for
his lusty affairs and blatant nepotism. But he was an intelligent man,
trained as a lawyer, with an appreciation for the arts and sciences. He
asked the artist to paint the walls of his luxurious apartments to
reflect his intellectual interests.
King Charles VIII of France, a contemporary of Alexander’s, was reportedly disarmed by the rooms’ splendor when he made a visit.
Alexander’s daughter, Lucrezia, was apparently married in one of the
rooms, and his ruthless son, Cesare, is rumored to have killed a man in
When Alexander died in 1503, the rooms were sealed off by his
successor Pope Pius III, effectively closing the door on one of the more
controversial pontificates. The apartments remained closed for more
than 400 years.
But Maria Ludmila Pustka, the Vatican’s chief restorer, said the
pope, who fathered several children, is often misrepresented by modern
media and film.
“Alexander was a very important, unique character for the political
history of that time,” Pustka said. “He was an outsider, a Spaniard from
Valencia and he brought a great openness to the Holy See. This pope
really deserves more detailed analysis as he brought great innovation at
a cultural and philosophical level.”
Pinturicchio and his apprentices set to work on the apartments just
as an Italian named Christopher Columbus was exploring a continent on
the other side of the Atlantic.
The restoration revealed Pinturicchio’s ‘The Resurrection,” one of
the first European depictions of Native Americans in the New World.
Alexander asked Pinturicchio for paintings representing the origins
of religion and his apartments are adorned with scenes from Egypt and
Pope Leo XIII reopened the apartments in 1889, but experts believe
earlier restoration attempts may have caused more damage to the precious
frescoes lining the walls and ceilings.
In 2001, after years of neglect, Pustka was charged with putting
together a team of experts to restore four of the apartments’ richly
“There are many rooms, around a dozen, altogether. But in reality there are four important rooms,” Pustka said.
With funds provided by the Vatican Museums’ American and Canadian
patrons, the restorers began with the so-called Hall of the Mysteries of
the Faith and are now putting the finishing touches on the Hall of the
“At first we had to evaluate the condition of the work and analyze
the problems before we went anywhere near the art,” said Federica
Cecchetti, a restorer who has been working on the apartments since 2005.
Wearing white coats and armed with delicate paintbrushes and
palettes, experts recreated the finest details of scenes known as
“lunettes” that line the walls portraying themes like astrology, music
and geometry - all designed to represent man’s pursuit of knowledge and
appreciation of culture.
Elaborate stucco featuring gilded bulls, the emblem of
the Borgia family, adorns the ceilings while the walls are being brought
back to life in vibrant shades of red, green and blue.
In the allegorical lunette devoted to music, musicians can be seen
plucking the strings of instruments that were more common in the pope’s
“Pinturicchio wanted to transport us inside this world,” said
Cecchetti, who has spent the past year restoring the “lunette” devoted
to geometry. “Every day we are here in front of these works we discover
something new, a particular detail.”
The rooms’ themes celebrate the House of Borgia, the pope’s family,
and some of the paintings feature famous identities of the era,
including family members and the famous Renaissance architect Donato
Restorers found Pinturicchio left behind more than his masterpieces.
His fingerprints, and those of his assistants, were embedded in the
candle wax they used for the buttons and medallions worn by the
characters they painted on the frieze of the apartments.
Unlike other frescoes that were painted on wet plaster, Pintoricchio
used a dry fresco technique that made his work less durable.
worked to match the right color and texture of paint with the original
while ensuring they caused no further damage to the masterpieces.
“It takes a great deal of patience and the fear of making a mistake
is always with you,” said Federica Runco, a restorer from Rome. “As
soon as you are 100 percent sure of yourself you can make an error that
can be fatal.”
The restorers are expected to complete the restoration of the Hall of
the Liberal Arts at the end of January, at which point it will open to