The Vatican Museums are certainly famous for their Cinquecento glories, such as the Sistine Chapel or the Raphael rooms, but not too far from these there is a slightly older area that concentrates in it some of the most remarkable Renaissance art in Rome: the Borgia apartments. It is a series of six rooms located in the Apostolic Palace which is now part of the Vatican Museums. The rooms were created as the private apartments for pope Alexander VI and his family and were decorated by one of the most refined artists of the Italian Renaissance: Bernardino Pintoricchio, whom like Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Perugino and Rosselli came to Rome during the pontificate of Sixtus IV to decorate the Sistine Chapel but unlike the others remained in Rome and opened a bottega, a workshop. Pintoricchio worked on the rooms between 1492 and 1494, after the death of the pope the rooms were abandoned by his rival successors and were only opened to the public in the 19th century.
Two lunettes from the Sala dei Misteri
The rooms are located in the 15th century heart of the Vatican palaces built between the pontificates of Nicholas V and Alexander VI. The Pintoricchio frescoes were at the time of their completion the largest cycle of frescoes of the Renaissance outside of the Sistine Chapel. The rooms are an interesting combination between the central Italian Renaissance style with a certain Gothic flavour, especially in the golden details, and the Hispanic-Moorish style of the floor tiles inspired by the Valencians origins of the client. The iconographic programme mixed canonic Catholic doctrine with the art of the Classical world which used to be in vogue at the time. When pope Alexander VI, his rival, pope Julius II della Rovere commissioned the decorations of a new series of rooms to Raphael and his workshop, he would have never lived in the same rooms as the Spaniard pope, but his humanistic heart would have never wanted the destruction of such fine works of art.
The Spanish tiles
The decorations of the six rooms is mostly relegated to the vaults and lunettes created by the Renaissance ceiling.
Sala delle Sibille
The first room is the so-called Sala delle Sibille (room of the sibyls) whom are represented in the lunettes. The ceiling is decorated with golden stucco and with the heraldic emblems of the family, as well as the double crown of Aragon surrounded by flames, reminding the "solar" role of the pontiff. The ceiling is decorated with "Astronomy" and the seven planets on a blue monochrome background, based on Florentine woodcuts, Venus is particularly interesting because the sign of the bull is particularly stressed, being also the Borgia's coat of arms. There are also roundels with some Roman inspired scenes, these were attributed to Raffaellino del Garbo who also worked with Filippino Lippi in the Carafa Chapel. The twelve lunettes are decorated with sibyls and prophets on a blue background with flying banners with their prophecies. The iconography exalts the continuity between the Sacred Scripture and the Pagan art. The lunettes were probably executed by a pupil of Benozzo Gozzoli.
Astronomy themed frescoes in the Sala delle Sibille
Detail of the Sybils
The following room, the Sala del Credo (room of the creed), has a similar plan to the first one, the ceiling is decorated with complex geometrical motifs that mix both the papal and Borgia heraldry. The figurative decoration is limited to the twelve lunettes where apostles and prophets are coupled in the same manner of the sibyls on a blue background, quotes from the Scripture are displayed in the banners. This cycle is probably by a follower of Piermatteo d'Amelia.
The Borgia arms
The Sala delle Arti Liberali was probably the personal library of the pope and also the see of the ecclesiastic law court. The ceiling is a double barrel vault divided by an arch and decorated with golden motifs on a rose or blue background. The them is that of Justice, developed in both biblical or classical examples. The seven lunettes are decorated with the liberal art, divided in trivius or quadrivius according to the Medieval classification. Cicero and Bramante can be recognised in the thrones. This is the first room in which Pintoricchio himself worked, together with Antonio da Viterbo and a follower of Ghirlandaio. The arts represented are: astronomy, music, mathematics, geometry, rhetoric, dialectic and grammar.
The ceiling of the Saints' room
The fourth room is the Sala dei Santi, its theme is that of the divine justice as related to the personality of the pope and it is the longest in the apartments. The ceiling is divided into two groin vaults with an arch in the middle of the two. The vault is decorated with a representation of the Greek-Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, another testimony if that Renaissance passion for the ancient world. Also in this case bulls remind to the Borgia arms. The use of this myth has several meanings such as that of the pope who identifies himself as the sun, just like Osiris and also the theme of the death and resurrection of Osiris can resemble the passion and death of Jesus Christ, creating an interesting allegory. The style of the paintings, with golden details, is very similar to that of the Della Rovere chapels in Santa Maria del Popolo, also by Pintoricchio. Raffaellino del Garbo might have also worked on this work. The lunettes are decorated with stories from the life of the saints and were executed by the master himself, the theme is the divine rescue from danger or the imitatio Christi through the martyrdom and the testimony of God. The scenes are: the Visitation, Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul of Thebes as hermits, Saint Barbara's flight from the tower, Susanna and the elders, Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, dispute of Saint Catherine of Alexandria with the philosophers before the emperor.
Saint Sebastian Martyrdom
Saint Barbara flight from the tower
Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul of Thebes as hermits
The dispute, the only scene that Vasari reminds in his Lives of the Artists, marks a union between the stories in the ceiling and those of the saints, because of the Egyptian setting of the two. The triumphal arch, decorated with the Borgia bull has an inscription that reads PACIS CVLTORI which refers to the Pax Borgiana and the Spanish reconquista of 1492. There are several portraits of the Borgias in these frescoes: Lucrezia and Cesare can be recognized in Saint Catherine and the emperor, the man on the left who looks to the public is a portrait of Pintoricchio, while the richly dressed man is Andrea Paleologo.
The dispute of Saint Catherine
Susanna and the elders
The last room, the Sala dei Misteri, is very similar to the previous one. It takes its name from the cycle of the seven joyful mysteries of the life of Mary, as opposed to the seven woeful mysteries. Marian devotion was highly promoted by Pope Alexander VI and the room was perhaps used for his private audiences or private masses. The ceiling is decorated with roundels with portraits of the prophets and banners with quotes from the Bible that allude to the Marian cycle of the lunettes.
Assumption of Mary
The cycle begins with the Annunciation, set on a checkered floor, the scene is enclosed by a triumphal arch, the background is very Renaissance: a central Italian landscape with the apparition of God the Father in glory. The traditional house of Mary is very much changed, but the elements of the traditional iconography are present: the empty bedroom, the trees outside the building, the white lilies, the Holy Spirit dove. The perspective is very Florentine, but the rendering is very Umbrian and particularly a Pintoricchio feature.
The adoration of the shepherds is also very Florentine and it is remindful of the work of Ghirlandaio and Botticelli, it also seems to have the dynamism and frenzy of Filippino Lippi.
The resurrection is set on a Perugino scheme, yet more dynamic. Alexander VI is present on the left in the usual iconography of the donor at prayer. The scene is incredibly dynamic, the risen Christ rises up in the sky while the guards are still sleeping.
Resurrection of Christ
The cycle ends with fine representations of the Ascension, Pentecost and the Assumption of Mary.