Friday, 23 March 2012

Borgia Apartments: Sala delle Sibille

VI. Sala delle Sibille (Hall of the Sibyls in the Torre Borgia) (JB 69)

Length: 8,52 m; width: 7,16 m (SV 28).
 1. Baruch and the Samian Sibyl.
2. Zechariah and the Persian Sibyl.
3. Abdias (Obadiah) and the Libyan Sibyl.
4. Isaiah and the Hellespontine Sibyl.
5. Micah and the Tiburtine Sibyl.

There is a window to the right of the entrance with two seats on a raised step. Only remnants of old decoration remain in the arch, and the current designs in black and white chiaroscuro (representing fancy and mythology) have been copied from a room in the loggie (SV 28-30).

To the left of the entrance door (casing and arch painted in simple colours) is a fireplace (the mantelpiece is in sculptured marble) and, still further to the left, a door (finished in 15th century-style walnut) that leads to stairs rising from the Borgia Court to the tower’s summit. (Originally, a door opposite to the entrance led to the library but was walled up during the 1897 restoration. The walls were then decorated with a brocade imitation canvas on dark-green ground copied from a piece in Bosnia.) (SV 28-29).

The vaulted ceiling, which resembles that of the Sala del Credo, has a large square in the middle bearing Alexander VI’s arms. This square is flanked by stucco medallions and octagons decorated with gilt relief on polychrome ground (SV 28-29)
Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican, 1882
Above: The designs of the central ceiling panel

Small pilasters mark off the walls into rectangles below the lunettes. Borgia devices are included in the designs on the pilasters. The corner ones have no designs except the Borgia devices in the centres, tops and bottoms (SV 28).

There are three lunettes on each side of the room, each depicting a sibyl and a prophet. Opposite the window (left of the entrance) are 1) Baruch and the Samian Sibyl; 2) Zechariah and the Persian Sibyl; 3) Abdias (Obadiah) and the Libyan Sibyl. Opposite the entrance: 4) Isaiah and the Hellespontine Sibyl; 5) Micah and the Tiburtine Sibyl; 6) Ezekiel and the Cimmerian Sibyl. Over the window: 7) Jeremiah and the Phrygian Sibyl; 8) Hosea with the Delphic Sibyl; 9) Daniel and the Erythraean Sibyl. Over the entrance: 10) Aggeus (Haggai) with the Cumaean Sibyl; 11) Amos and the Sibyl of Europe; 12) Jeremiah and the Sibyl of Aggripeum (SV 29).

The pairing of prophets with sibyls arose from "an old belief that links the sibyls (prophetesses of the Greco-Roman tradition) with the Old Testament prophets in a common expectation of the Messiah. In the octagonal panels are the astrological symbols of the seven major planets, much damaged and repainted" (DRC(b) 104).

1. Baruch and the Samian Sibyl.
2. Zechariah and the Persian Sibyl.
3. Abdias (Obadiah) and the Libyan Sibyl.
4. Isaiah and the Hellespontine Sibyl.
5. Micah and the Tiburtine Sibyl.
6. Ezekiel and the Cimmerian Sibyl.
7. Jeremiah and the Phrygian Sibyl.
8. Hosea with the Delphic Sibyl.
9. Daniel and the Erythraean Sibyl.
10. Aggeus (Haggai) with the Cumaean Sibyl.
11. Amos and the Sibyl of Europe.
12. Jeremiah and the Sibyl of Aggripeum.

Above the lunettes are roundels depicting (near the corners) Isis, Osiris and the Apis bull, or (in the middle) the Borgia devices. In the triangles of the pendants are scenes with Astronomy observing the seven greater planets: Opposite the window, left, is the Moon favouring fishers; right, Mercury encouraging commerce; “over against the entrance, Venus inspiring conjugal love” and Apollo dividing honours; over the window: Jove leading the chase, Saturn protecting the forlorn “and Astronomy studying nature in all the planets”. This was completed by Bonfiglio after Pinturicchio’s designs (SV 29-30).

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 Above: The northwest corner of the Hall of Sibyls

The floor tiles follow the pattern of the original remnants in white, green and black chequer work (SV 30).
In her biography of Lucrezia Borgia, Rachel Erlanger says that after the attack on Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Bisceglie, Lucrezia's husband, he was taken to the Borgia Tower where he was cared for by Lucrezia and his sister, Sancia of Aragon. It was therefore in this room that he was murdered on 18 August 1500 (RE 134-36).

So at the one end of the wing of the Old Papal Palace containing the Borgia Apartments you find the Sala dei Pontefici where Pope Alexander VI almost died when the ceiling collapsed on him, and at the other end you find the Sala delle Sibille where the prophets and sibyls tranquilly looked on while the young Duke Alfonso di Bisceglie was being strangled on Cesare Borgia's orders. It was also in the Hall of Sybils, ironically, that Pope Julius II held Cesare Borgia captive  in 1503 (DRC(b) 104) before he was allowed to leave for Ostia, Naples, Spain, and his doom.


DRC(b):    D Redig de Campos: “The Apostolic Palace”, in The Vatican: Spirit and Art of Christian Rome. Edited by John Daley. Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York; Harry N. Abrams Publishers, New York, 1982.

RE:  Rachel Erlanger: Lucrezia Borgia: A Biography. New York: Hawthorne Books Inc, 1978.

SV:  Salvatore Volpini: Description of the Borgia Apartments Restored in the Vatican Palace (1897). Vatican Press: Rome. 1897.

Borgia Apartments: Sala del Credo

V.  Sala del Credo (Hall of the Creed in the Torre Borgia) (JB 69)
Length: 12,92 m; width: 7,52 m (SV 25).
4. St James the Great and Zechariah.
5. St Matthew and Hosea.
6. St James the Less and Amos.
7. St Philip and Malachi.
8. St Bartholomew and Joel.
9. St Thomas and Daniel.
10. St Simon and Malachi.
Six steps in the thick wall from the Sala delle Arti Liberali lead up into this apartment, and the walls are painted in panels [1897]. It is called the Room of the Creed because the lunettes contain pictures of apostles and prophets each holding a scroll with a verse of the apostles’ creed (SV 25). Sladen notes that in “‘the tower room[s],’ says Ricci, ‘Bernardino (i.e., Pinturicchi) is only seen as a directing influence.’ In each lunette, with its yellow border and many coloured ornaments, is the half-length figure of a Prophet or an Apostle [actually "a prophet and an apostle]” (DBWS 448). Redig de Campos, too, states that Pinturicchio was probably the designer and Antonio da Viterbo the painter of the figures in this room (DRC(b) 104).
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Unlike in the first four apartments, in this one virtually no sign of the original decorations were found except only the barest of traces around the north window [as well as the south one; see below]. Restorers had to devise designs that would harmonise with those of the ceiling and the remains of the old floor tiling. Redecoration involved the use of “skilfully made canvas screens” that left the original walls unaffected in order to enable a fresh examination of possible remnants of decorations in the future (DBWS 432-33).

Transverse in length to the previous room, it has windows to the south (without a cross), north and east. The vaulted ceiling contains twelve lunettes and pendants that rest on pyramidal brackets. The walls [in SV’s time], draped in painted canvass, in light green and gilt network, are copied from the Sala dei Misteri. “Each two lunettes form a square, which is adorned with a border in different coloured figures, foliage and flourishes upon white ground. This decoration remained only over the south window, it is now imitated in the other squares of double lunettes. On two opposite walls are the arms of Alexander VI and Leo XIII . . .” (SV 25). [Volpini’s description about the lunettes forming a square is not clear, perhaps because of changes made since then.]

The cornice, on brackets, is “marbleised”. The window recesses show traces of high-quality decoration that may have been retouched. Each window has two seats of marble slabs with sculptured supports, one free and the other set into the parapet (SV 25-26.

The words “Alexander Borgia Valentin. PP. VI.” are engraved on the marble architrave of the opposite door. A shield in the centre of the vault carries the legend “Alexander Borgia PP. VI fundavit”, and two roundels display his arms radiant. The remainder of the ceiling is decorated with a meandering garland that originates from the lateral pendants of the vault. It runs up to entwine the Borgia devices in arabesque circlets and rhombuses. Trophies are represented in the triangles of the pendants (SV 26).

Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican, 1882
 Above: An example of the ceiling vault design

The lunettes depict apostles and prophets (SV 26). Sladen provides the following background: “According to a Mediaeval legend, the Creed was composed by the Apostles before they separated to preach the Gospel throughout all the world, each writing an article. So to each is attributed his own verse, which is inscribed on broad, fluttering streamers. Ricci says that they were painted by the same hand as the Grammar and the Sibyls” (DBWS 448).

1. St Peter and Jeremiah.
2. St John and David.
3. St Andrew and Isaiah.
4. St James the Great and Zechariah.
5. St Matthew and Hosea.
6. St James the Less and Amos.
7. St Philip and Malachi.
8. St Bartholomew and Joel.
9. St Thomas and Daniel.
10. St Simon and Malachi.
11. St Thaddeus and Zechariah.
12. St Matthias and Abdias (Obadiah).
(Malachi and Zechariah are repeated in this list. The Italian Wikipedia list in the article on the Borgia Apartments is the same. I was unable to trace any other lists for comparison.)

To the left of the entrance door are 1) St Peter and Jeremiah; and 2) St John and David. Opposite the entrance are 3) St Andrew and Isaiah; 4) St James the Great and Zechariah; 5) St Matthew and Hosea; 6) St James the Less and Amos. To the right of the entrance are 7) St Philip and Malachi; 8) St Bartholomew and Joel. Over the entrance are 9) St Thomas and Daniel; 10) St Simon and Malachi [repetition?]; 11) St Thaddeus and Zechariah [repetition?]; 12) St Matthias and Abdias (Obadiah). All the work in this room is believed to be by Benedetto Bonfilio [Bonfigli], done after Pinturicchio’s designs (SV 26-27). 
See also for two outstanding photos of the ceiling vault of this apartment.

DBWS:   Douglas Brooke Wheelton Sladen: The Secrets of the Vatican, London: Hurst and Blackett, 1907.

DRC(b):    D Redig de Campos: “The Apostolic Palace”, in The Vatican: Spirit and Art of Christian Rome. Edited by John Daley. Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York; Harry N. Abrams Publishers, New York, 1982.

SV:   Salvatore Volpini: Description of the Borgia Apartments Restored in the Vatican Palace (1897). Vatican Press: Rome. 1897.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Borgia Apartments: Sala delle Arti Liberali

IV.   Sala delle Arti Liberali (Hall of the Liberal Arts, third “private” apartment) (JB 69)

Length: 10,55 m; width: 8,34 m (SV 20).
Above: A mistake – Geometry and Rhetoric must be transposed
The floor is a span lower than the floors in the other rooms. The imposts and arch of the entrance doorway are painted in coloured marble panels (SV 20).

The window recess is decorated with two candelabra. The arch has three square panels with Alexander VI’s armorial devices. The flanking ones have octagonal rosettes. “To the right of the entrance is a door frame in rectangular form, in simply sculptured marble” (SV 20).

A very large 15th-century fireplace opposite the window has Bacchic themes on the front and images of Mars on the sides. It has a large canopy “painted in damask imitation upon the wall, draping the chimney [mantlepiece]” (SV 20).

Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican, 1882
 Above: The front of the mantelpiece with Bacchic themes

 However, Sladen cautions, “But the great old fifteenth-century mantelpiece which decorates them [with reference to the wall decorations] did not originally belong to this room; it came from the Castle of Sant Angelo, and was executed by Simon Mosca, although it was designed by the great Sansovino” (DBWS 445).

Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican, 1882
Above: The right side of the mantelpiece (the left side is decorated with a male sphinx)

As in the Sala dei Misteri, the walls in the Sala dei Arti Liberali bore enough traces of their initial decoration to allow restoration according to the original designs (DBWS 432-33). The walls are painted to resemble marble panels with borders of tracery and flowers in white chiaroscuro.  In the centres, the Borgia arms appear in rhombuses, and the flaming crown in ovals. There are candelabrum designs in the four corners. The arch has a pilaster below it on either side. The pilaster near the entrance has designs matching those on the walls, whereas the one opposite is decorated with a candelabrum design in white chiaroscuro on a yellow ground, which has images of putti, sphinxes, birds and boys playing lutes (SV 21).

To the right of the fireplace a door has been walled up: this used to lead to the private rooms behind (SV 21). Sladen comments that “the blocked-up door in the corner beside it [the mantelpiece] is said to lead to the room in which Alexander VI died and which is now [1907] occupied by the Noble Guard (DBWS 445).

Redig de Campos describes the Sala delle Arti Liberali as Pope Alexander's study, in which his body was laid out after his death and where his secret treasure was discovered (DRC(b) 102).

It seems that even cardinals are not averse to graffiti: somewhere on the walls, Sladen relates, there is an incision that, in translation, wishes “Viva Long Life” to Paul III, the Farnese pope. This incision was probably made during the conclave that elected him in October 1534 (DBWS 446). (Incidentally, Alessandro Farnese was 25 years old when he received the red hat from Pope Alexander VI. For a while he was ridiculed as the “petticoat cardinal” since his sister, Giulia the Beautiful, was the pope’s mistress.)

As in the other rooms, hooks for draperies have remained in the walls. Above the marble cornice “of peculiar design” [rich stucco, Sladen says] are six lunettes (SV 21) in which the foundation subjects of learning in the Middle Ages are symbolically illustrated: those of the Trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectics) and Quadrivium (Astronomy, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music) (DBWS 446). Redig de Campos considers the frescoes in the lunettes to have been preponderantly the work of Antonio da Viterbo (DRC(b) 103).

1.  Geometry.
2.  Rhetoric.
3.  Arithmetic.
4.  Music.
5.  Astronomy.
6.  Grammar.
7.  Dialectics.

The lunette opposite the window shows, to the right, Rhetoric with a drawn sword and globe. To her right stands a cupid, and near his left foot the name “Pentorichio” can be seen. Geometry is depicted to the left with Bramante drawing a geometrical figure at a small table (SV 21). (See the images available at:

The triangle between the pictures bears Pope Alexander’s arms, supported by three angels (SV 21).

After this follow Arithmetic, Music (the smith hammering on the anvil an allusion to the way in which Pythagoras learned about beating time), Astronomy [lunette over the window], Grammar and Dialectics (Logic) (SV 21-22).

The arch dividing the vault of this room is called the "Arch of Justice" in which the major cardinal virtues (DRC(b) 104) or feats of Justice are portrayed in scenes in five octagons: 1) in the apex, Justice enthroned; 2) towards the entrance, Lot told to flee from Sodom so that the just should not perish too; 3) on the same side, Jacob settling his accounts with Laban before leaving him; 4) on the other side, first the widow demanding justice from emperor Trajan on account of her slain son; 5) at the other end, Justice dispensing offices and honours. This work may have been retouched (SV 22). Redig de Campos considers this art not to be by Pinturicchio and his assistants, and detects a 16th-century style in it (DRC(b) 104).

The ceiling on both sides of the arch is blue, embellished with Alexander’s arms, rays, putti teasing the bull or blowing trumpets, cornucopias with fruit and flaming coronets in gilt stucco (SV 22).

Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican, 1882
 Above: One side of the ceiling vault

Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican, 1882
Above: Detail of the stucco work on the ceiling vault

The rhombic floor tiles, copied after original fragments, are arranged in squares and right angles (SV 22).

SV:           Salvatore Volpini: Description of the Borgia Apartments Restored in the Vatican Palace (1897). Vatican Press: Rome. 1897.
DBWS:    Douglas Brooke Wheelton Sladen: The Secrets of the Vatican, London: Hurst and Blackett, 1907.

DRC(b):    D Redig de Campos: “The Apostolic Palace”, in The Vatican: Spirit and Art of Christian Rome. Edited by John Daley. Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York; Harry N. Abrams Publishers, New York, 1982.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Borgia Apartments: Sala dei Santi

III.  Sala dei Santi (Hall of the Saints, second "private" apartment) (JB 69)

 Length: 10,56 m; width: 8,46 m (SV 16)

The apartment is decorated with depictions from the lives of the saints. The door posts are painted with colourful candelabrum designs and figures. The window recess has two marble seats on a step, and the sides are decorated with large candelabrum patterns with men, beasts, fauns, dolphins, etc. In the window arch, the Borgia arms are flanked by a warrior and a lady in stucco (SV 16-17).

Slight traces of initial decorations were left in this apartment, which made it possible to distinguish the main portions of designs and colours. Secondary parts were left to the discretion of the restorers (1897), who covered the lower parts of the walls with panels of intarsia work (wainscoting, as Volpini refers to it) almost contemporaneous with Pinturicchio in that they were said to have been used for the Library of Sixtus IV in the rooms below. The upper parts were covered over with canvas painted in imitation of traces of the original decorations (DBWS 433). The wainscoting also covers a fireplace that used to be opposite the window (SV 17).

The east and west walls have single pilasters in full relief in the middle, “egregiously painted” with great candelabra, animals,“babes” [cherubs or putti], armour and a shield on top bearing the words “Alexander PP. VI Pont. Max.”, and “Fama” blowing trumpets, with streamers carrying the Borgia emblems. This all is surmounted by a candelabrum design with “six curved branches, an axe on each” (SV 17-18). Over the entrance door (the one just entered by the viewer)  is a roundel with a Madonna and Child. The stucco decoration of the frame has been damaged (SV 18).

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Attribution: I, Sailko [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Above: Pinturicchio's Madonna and Child above the door. Also note the bulls in the cornice frieze.

About the Madonna in the roundel Sladen has the following to say:
Over the door by which you enter this room from the third room, is the Madonna with the Child, which is supposed to represent Giulia Farnese, the mother of Alexander VI’s youngest son. The attitudes of mother and child have rather a Byzantine stillness, but their faces, like those of the cherubs round them, are sweet and gracious. The frame is of the gilded papier-mâché, which so offended Vasari’s sense of fitness. Ricci calls it one of the most lovely Madonnas which Pinturicchio ever painted. With regard to the question of the identity, Ricci says: "Was Vasari alluding to this Virgin when he said that Pinturicchio painted Giulia Farnese over the door of a room, in the form of Our Lady? Some are of that opinion. But in this case, where is the head of Alexander adoring her? And if the Madonna really represents the fair friend of the Pope, how easy it must have been for the painter to portray a face which is one of the most usual types of Umbrian beauty, and particularly characteristic of his own art”(DBWS 444).
A related story can be found here:

The tops of the walls contain hooks for hangings or tapestries, and above them a carved marble moulding contains, to the left of the entrance,  a medallion with the bust and and name of Alexander VI (SV 18).

Above the cornice are six lunettes. Opposite the window:  St Catherine disputing before Emperor Maximian. To the right is St Anthony visiting St Paul the Hermit. Next, to the right of the arch, is the Virgin visiting Elizabeth. Over the window is the Martyrdom of St Sebastian. Above the entrance door cornice is Susanna and the Elders (referred to as “St Iuliana, conducted to her martyrdom” by SV), and to the right of the arch is St Barbara escaping from her tower (SV 18).

a.  A roundel with the Madonna and Child
1.   St Catherine Disputing before the Emperor Maximian
2.  St Anthony Visiting St Paul the Hermit
3.  The Visitation: The Virgin and St Elizabeth
4.  The Martyrdom of St Sebastian
5.  Susanna and the Elders
6.  St Barbara Escaping from the Tower

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Attribution: By Pinturiccio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
 Above:Over the window of the Sala dei Santi – The Martyrdom of St Sebastian

Sladen is not much impressed with St Sebastian's Martyrdom (as a work of art, of course, and which I rather like), but considers the Disputa to be the crowning glory of Pinturicchio’s work:
We now come to the great Disputa of St. Catherine, which is considered Pinturicchio’s masterpiece. I do not propose to enter into the controversy as to which figure is supposed to represent Prince Djem, the brother of the Sultan Bajazet II, whom the Pope obligingly, and in consideration of a large annual subscription, kept a sort of prisoner in the Vatican, though I should like to believe that he is the superb figure on the white horse, as striking as the figure of Aeneas Sylvius on the white horse in the first of Pinturicchio’s frescoes in the Library of Siena, and Benozzo Gozzoli’s figure of Lorenzo de Medici in the Riccardi Chapel. Few ordinary visitors will be interested in the argument whether the other Greeks and Turks are or are not derived from Gentile Bellini’s studies: they will be satisfied with the magnificent grouping of the picture; the gorgeous Renaissance arch, adapted from the Arch of Constantine, which fills the centre, and the very peaceful and soft outlines of the landscape. The colouring of the picture is immeasurably rich; it is a regular feast of beauty. In front of the Royal figure of the Emperor Maximian is the youthful figure of Catherine, modest, but fortified with innocence, making the points against the fifty philosophers on the fingers of her hands, which have much-faded golden fetters hanging between them. She is said to represent the Pope's daughter, the lovely Lucrezia Borgia, though Lucrezia was very young at the time for a figure on the borderland of girlhood and womanhood, which has hardly any superior in the whole of Italian painting (DBWS 443-44).
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Attribution:  Pinturicchio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
 Above: The Disputa

The vault contains the story of Isis and Osiris and “the apparition [apotheosis?] of the sacred bull Apis” (with reference to the bull in the Borgia arms). (The translation of the Volpini text can sometimes be quite puzzling.) (SV 19)

The main arch halves the vault and there are five octagons in each half, with: 1) in the middle, the “love-making” [courting?] of Isis and Osiris; 2) (with the viewer's back to window) the arrival of Isis in Egypt and her meeting with Osiris ; 3) a little lower, Mercury putting Argus to sleep with his reed pipe. To the left of the arch: 1) Isis upon a throne as queen; 2) below, Mercury beheading Argus (SV 19).

Along the arch, on the window side, achievements of Isis and Osiris are portrayed. Near the window, 1) the marriage of Isis and Osiris; 2) to the right, Osiris teaching humans the art of tilling; 3) over the window,the cultivation of the grape vine; 4) over the entrance door, the apple harvest. Opposite the window, up, to the right: 1) the death of Osiris; 2) the finding of his body; 3) the apparition of Apis after the death of Osiris; 4) Apis being carried in triumph (SV 19).

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Above: The section of the ceiling vault with the Apis bull myth

With a last interesting comment about the Disputa, Sladen turns to the decoration of the ceiling vault:
. . . the Disputa of St. Catherine, which Ricci, with Italian cynicism, suggests may have been selected by the Pope because she was the protectress of illegitimate children, and, as such, of great importance to him. It is more certain that the subject was chosen because St. Catherine came from Alexandria, and his name was Alexander. The Pope had the ceiling of this very room decorated with the superbly painted story of Isis and Osiris, because it pleased him to identify the Bull Apis with the ox of the Borgias. This wonderful ceiling is so rich and beautiful that it is almost impossible to look into it properly. Your eyes lose themselves in the richness of the general effect, as they do when you are inspecting a rich Byzantine paliotto. But the details are exquisite; the child figures especially are purely lovely. All sorts of scenes will be recognized, from the marriage of Isis and Osiris, in the orthodox Christian fashion, to David and Goliath, and Judith and Holofernes [see below]. Ricci draws attention to the beautiful figure of a putto riding a swan, and to the representation of little field industries, such as ploughing and the culture of apples, which Osiris taught, given at the sides of his temple. The most striking subject is the hewing of Osiris to pieces. The ox in a litter, shaped like a temple, and carried upon the shoulders of four men, is the triumph of Osiris changed into the god Apis. Very much of this glorification of the Borgia ox is from the hand of the great master [Pinturicchio] himself, and its splendour is almost inconceivable; in fact, some of the little pictures contained in it are among the most beautiful creations of Pinturicchio, who was one of the most prodigal creators of beauty (DBWS 439-40).
From Paul Letrouilly, Le Vatican, 1882
Above: David doing a contrapposto on the head of Goliath, and Judith displaying her Holofernic trophy

The floor tiles, designed after the originals, are laid in rectangular divisions. Some have rhombic patterns of crossed foliage, blue upon white, whereas others have “studs” in the centre with lines around them. Each quadrangle is bordered by small squares with green foliage (SV 19-20).

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Attribution: I, Sailko [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Above: The majolica (ceramic) tiles in the Sala dei Santi


DBWS:           Douglas Brooke Wheelton Sladen: The Secrets of the Vatican, London: Hurst and Blackett, 1907.

SV:      Salvatore Volpini: Description of the Borgia Apartments Restored in the Vatican Palace (1897). Vatican Press: Rome. 1897.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Borgia Apartments: Sala dei Misteri

II.  Sala dei Misteri (Hall of the Mysteries of the Faith, first "private" apartment) (JB 69)

Length: 10,47 m; width: 8,55 m (SV 12).
De Redig Campos notes that Pinturicchio probably began his work on the apartments in this room. He started his labours at the end of 1492 and would be occupied with them until 1495. He was assisted by pupils such as Benedetto Bonfigli of Perugia, Piero d'Andrea of Volterra and Antonio da Viterbo ("Il Pastura") (DRC(b) 102). 

This hall is also known as the “Life of the Madonna and Christ . . . because of the principal events being represented of Christ and the Virgin in our redemption”. It has a door opposite the entrance door and one window to the right. In the left corner opposite the window is a door frame to a type of closet and towards the right corner is a fireplace, with an awning curtain painted above and down the sides of the mantelpiece (which is of modern make). To the [far] left of the fireplace is an open "closet", as already mentioned, possibly used as a wardrobe, whose inside is without decoration. The inner arch, however, has Alexander VI’s emblem in gilt, while the architrave bears the shield of Nicholas V in white marble. (This wardrobe closet is visible in the map below.) (SV 12-14)

In the middle of the wall behind the viewer is a pilaster in design; opposite is a pilaster in relief. The Gothic ceiling has a heavy central arch with acute-angled cross-springers on either side, forming fans. The walls are painted in emerald green [rather more a shade of jade green] with golden network. Each square of the wall has a wall closet painted on it (“tabernacle-like”). They show a small escutcheon of Alexander VI with streamers in the background (SV 12-14).

There is a double moulding running on top of the wall: a purple narrow one in a Grecian pattern (in white chiaroscuro and gold) , and the other broader, dark blue, in similar style, entwined with beading and foliage. The broad marble cornice around the top of the shows a festoon of flowers and carved fruits; below are hooks for tapestries (SV 13- 14).

The window is similar to those in the other rooms, with tall candelabrum designs painted in the recesses. The arch bears three medallions: the centre one with Borgia arms and the other two with Borgia devices (coronet with rays, in champ vert, and vermilion tongues of fire upon dark sand). The window seats, positioned on a step, have marble tops. The door leading to the next room has a marble arch and posts. The ogee bears the Borgia arms with laurel wreaths supported by genii, formerly stucco covered with gilt (SV 14).

Above the cornice are six large lunettes. The one opposite the window is divided in two: the left has the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin; the right has the Birth of Christ. The ogive has Alexander’s arms, borne by three angels (SV 14-15).

To the right is the Epiphany, the Virgin with the Child standing on her lap while she is blessing the Magi. Further to the right is the Resurrection with Pope Alexander kneeling in pontifical robes (over the door leading into the next room). Over the window is the Ascension into Heaven (SV 15).

Over the entrance door (behind the viewer) is the Descent of the Holy Ghost (Pentecost). Next to it is the Assumption of the Virgin (SV 15).

1.  The Annunciation
2.  The Nativity
3.  The Epiphany
4.  The Resurrection
5.  The Ascension
6.  Pentecost
7.  The Assumption

The main arch, dividing the room longitudinally, is decorated with gilt stucco. Each part has cross-springers in acute angles. The devices of the Borgia arms are displayed in small discs. Four large medallions have busts of prophets “as legend holders”. They explain the events in the lunettes, pointing as follows:
  • Malachi > Annunciation;
  • David > Nativity;
  • Isaiah > Epiphany;
  • Solomon > Assumption.
The other half has Jeremiah, Sophonias (Zephaniah), Micah and Joel (SV 15).

A particularly good image of Isiah can be found at the following link, as well as an excellent photo showing the "closet" space  in the corner (note, too, the floor tiles):, images 4, 5 and 7.
Lovely images of the Pinturicchio frescoes can be found here:
At is a close-up of the painted awning/drapery and a good photo of the corner with the closet.

I am deeply grateful for permission granted by to use the high-resolution image below, which is the best image of a Borgia apartment that I have encountered on the Web.

The image is from the cover of the above book by Claudia la Malfa, Pintoricchio a Roma. La seduzione dell'antico, a book that I have hinted at before.

This image shows (aside from the frescoes and ceiling vault) marvellous detail of the window seats, the painted decoration in the recesses (note the candelabrum design on the side panel and the decoration in the arch) and the painted “wall closets”. Elsewhere on the Web someone has commented on these “closets” and guessed that they might possibly be tromp l’oeil windows. However, here it is obvious that they are wall closets, possibly illustrating a form of "credenza" shelf such as that on which gold-and-silver dinner services used to be displayed during the Renaissance. It should also be noted that the windows used to have marble crosses that were replaced when iron grilles were fitted (I'm afraid I've lost the reference).
The following link contains a close-up of the "closet" to the left of the window in the image above, and it also shows the gold patterning on the wall:

The majolica floor tiles have been copied after the original ones (SV 15-16).


DRC(b):   DRC(b):   D Redig de Campos: “The Apostolic Palace”, in The Vatican: Spirit and Art of Christian Rome. Edited by John Daley. Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York; Harry N. Abrams Publishers, New York, 1982.

SV:      Salvatore Volpini: Description of the Borgia Apartments Restored in the Vatican Palace (1897). Vatican Press: Rome. 1897.


Saturday, 17 March 2012

Borgia Apartments: Overview map, floor plan, and the Sala dei Pontefici

Map to the "Old" St Peter's Basilica, Vatican and Borgia Apartments in the time of Alexander VI (JB 68-69)

Geoffrey Parker, editor and translator of JB, points out: “The rooms marked in the Vatican comprise two groups, the newer Borgia apartments  (I-VII), and the older, public Halls and Apartments (1-8). The Borgia apartments were the lower of two stories of the Palazzo of Nicholas V, together with additions made by Alexander VI known as the Torre Borgia (V, VI). Alexander commissioned Pinturicchio to have these rooms decorated, apart from I, which was completed to Pius IV” (JB 69).

Acknowledgement: I am profoundly grateful to Ms Alice Dill,
Editorial & Rights Assistant of the Folio Society (see the particulars of the "JB" source) for granting permission to use this image (adapted slightly from the original) and the legend information relating to it.


Main areas
A. Innocent VIII’s palace.
B. Paul II’s palace.
C. Main entrance to the Vatican.
D. The Great Courtyard where cardinals dismounted.
E. Main entrance to St Peter’s.
F. The Atrium.
G. St Peter’s Basilica.
H. The south end of the Belvedere Court, which did not exist yet in the Borgia period.
J.  The piazza in front of St Peter’s.
Public halls and apartments
1.  Sala Reale, used for public consistories and similar functions.
2.  Sala Ducale (Second Hall or First Sala Ducale).
3.  Sala Ducale (Third Hall or Second Sala Ducale).
4.  Sala dei Paramenti, the Pope’s robing room for official occasions.
5.  Sala del Pappagallo, an audience chamber, especially for ambassadors and envoys.
6.  Salotinna di Audienza, a small, intimate chamber used for less formal interviews.
7.  The Sistine Chapel.
8. Labelled as the Capella Paolina, with stairs next to it leading from the Palace to the Basilica (JB 68-69).  However, this used to be the Chapel of S. Niccolò da Bari as specified in the footnote by Setton in the section on the Vatican Palace (KMS 390).

 “Private” apartments

The Borgia Apartments will be clearly indicated in maps in other posts. However, note in particular the rooms marked VII and VIII in the graphic. Parker identifies them as the “bedroom and antechamber of Alexander VI, in one of which he died”. He also mentions that the apartments in the storey above were similarly arranged. Here Prince Djem was first accommodated, but Cesare Borgia used them occasionally after Djem’s departure to Naples with Charles VIII. Cesare was living in these apartments when Alexander died (JB 69).

Remember also this paragraph from the posting on the Vatican Palace:
"Rooms in the Torre Borgia (Sala delle Sibille, Sala del Credo), in the Palace of Nicholas V (Sala delle Arti Liberali, Sala dei Santi, Sala dei Misteri) and in the Palace of Nicholas III (Sala dei Pontefici) became known as the Borgia apartments. They were in fact not living quarters, but rather receptions rooms known as 'secret cabinets'. Pope Alexander’s living area consisted of small chambers behind the Sala delle Arti Liberali" (MDB 69, 70).)

Salvatore Volpini's publication

Salvatore Volpini's Description of the Borgia Apartments Restored in the Vatican Palace (1897) is an extended essay of 30 pages in which he takes you on a fairly detailed tour of the apartments; for example, where doors have been walled up and window frames changed, he tells you about them. 

Finding reliable maps of the apartments with more detail, showing the windows, for example, is difficult. The best I could trace are those of Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican (1882). Most other maps, for example, simply grey out the private rooms marked as VII and VIII in the first graphic (after JB 69). And that is to say if other publications take the trouble to publish maps of the Borgia (first) floor – more often than not they will detail the Raphael Rooms and say that the Borgia Apartments on the floor below are similar. What is particularly useful about Letarouilly's maps is that they are more or less contemporaneous with Volpini's description.


Regarding the interiors and walls of the Borgia Apartments, the descriptions by Volpini and Sladen relate to their appearance at the turn of the 19th century. Only the Sala dei Misteri seems to have been kept in the same condition after the restoration of 1897; the other apartments have all been redone in a peachy flesh tint, it appears. Images of the interiors, whether old or current, are difficult to find. However, see the following site for recent photos:

I.  Sala dei Pontefici (Hall of the Popes, a ceremonial anteroom) (JB 69)

Length: 18,06 m; width: 11,72 m (SV 5)
Sladen notes that the Borgia Apartments had suffered damage and neglect as early as the year 1559 after the popes (from Julius II onward) had moved into the Raphael Stanze. The Borgia Apartments had been occupied by the Cardinal Nephews then. After his election in that year, Pius IV “rescued” the rooms because they had been “terribly knocked about” (DBWS 429). If you mistake Sladen’s meaning and blame rambunctious Cardinal Nephews for damage to Vatican property, you need to remember that the Sack of Rome had also occurred in 1529, when “the mercenaries of Charles de Bourbon having taken quarters in them [the apartments], the walls have been most barbarously disfigured, some marks of it remaining yet in names, scrawled upon them with nails” (SV 4). When the new apartments of Sixtus V (who died in 1590) had been completed on the eastern side of the Vatican, the Borgia rooms were used only for “emergencies” and for accommodating conclavists in the 17th and 18th centuries. They also served as dining rooms for officials. Pope Pius VII is accused of hammering nails into the walls to hang pictures in 1816, and it appears that the marble Guelph crosses in the windows were replaced in this period. Later the apartments served as a statuary gallery with damaging brackets (1821), and then as a library with damaging shelving (under Pius IX, pope from 1846-70). It was his successor, Leo XIII, who decided that the time was ripe for restoration (DBWS 429-32).

Throughout Volpini ‘s description, the viewer enters the Borgia Apartments from the east end (Sala dei Pontefici), facing west,  with the windows to the right (north, of course). 

This hall is called the Popes’ Room because, originally, the [ten] lunettes of the arched ceiling contained pictures of various popes. The most important events of their reign were recorded in inscriptions above them. These inscriptions have remained, but the pictures have been painted over in designs of scallop shells (not visible at present, but see the Letarouilly illustration below). The room is not strictly speaking considered part of the Borgia Apartments (SV 5).

The Sala dei Pontifici dates from the 13th century and at first had a wooden ceiling, which collapsed on 29 June 1500, nearly killing Pope Alexander VI. The present vaulted ceiling was installed during his reign, but the decoration with astrological motifs was undertaken under Leo X (1513-1521). The walls used to be decorated with architectural and landscape scenes. The original papal portraits were done by Giotto, according to Vasari, and may have been destroyed during the collapse of the ceiling. Other experts are of the opinion that the remaining inscriptions (referring to Stephen II, Hadrian I, Leo III, Sergius II, Leo IV, Urban II, Nicholas III, Gregory XI, Boniface IX and Martin VI) were actually intended for tapestries that were to be hung below them – a project that never came to be realised (MDB 70-71).

Scala Archives ( have a good photo of the interior of the room if you search for "Borgia Apartments". There also several other excellent Borgia Apartments images (and thanks to Mrs Elvira Allocati for responding to my enquiries so promptly and kindly).

An illustration of the ceiling of the Hall of the Popes, showing the "inscriptions" above the lunettes and the scallop patterns that replaced the paintings of the popes in the lunettes (Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican, 1882).


JB:            Johann Burchard: At the Court of the Borgia: Being an Account of the Reign of Pope Alexander VI written by his Master of Ceremonies Johann Burchard edited and translated by Geoffrey Parker. London: The Folio Society. 1963.
DBWS:     Douglas Brooke Wheelton Sladen: The Secrets of the Vatican, London: Hurst and Blackett, 1907.
KMS:        Kenneth M Setton: The Papacy and the Levant (1204—1571), Volume II, The Fifteenth Century. The American Philosophical Society: Independence Square, Philadelphia. 1978. (Reprinted 1997.)
MDB:       Maria Donati Barcellona: “The Borgia Apartments” in Art Treasures of the Vatican: Architecture, Painting, Sculpture. Edited by D Redig de Campos (Trsl. J Gerber). 1st American Edition. Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1975.
SV:           Salvatore Volpini: Description of the Borgia Apartments Restored in the Vatican Palace (1897). Vatican Press: Rome. 1897.
TCE:         The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vatican,